We talked to Sara Woods of Philosophy, the thought-led creative agency based in Shoreditch and the following is what she said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Sara Woods: Thank you for asking. My eldest is a doctor at The Royal Hospital in Liverpool and is exhausted. Death is usually associated with those at the end of their natural lives. My daughter is making decisions that only the brave (and informed) are having to make. I’m deeply proud of her and her colleagues across the world. My son has set up his own gym. He needed a release for his testosterone and finds pumping weights helps his mental health. He has had a frustrating 17th year, missing physical connections with friends, not revising for GCSEs, and not attending Reading Festival! There is only so much of Call of Duty someone can play. My partner has been lucky and has worked solidly during the past year, but we rarely see each other as we are both working long hours. There seems to be a little demarcation between when the typical workday finishes and the personal time starts. And finally, the dog and cat are blissfully unaware of COVID-19 but are loving the humans being around all day. My dog will be seriously depressed when I go back to work, and she hasn’t got anyone to throw her toy, tickle her tummy or give her treats.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Philosophy.
Sara Woods: I had a serious horse accident before my A levels, and after spending time in and out of hospital undergoing various operations to help me walk again, I moved to London just after my 19th birthday. The idea was to live ‘in the smoke’ for five years, make my fortune and retire. I’ve been here ever since. And I love it! My first job offer was for a plastic surgeon in Harley Street. Without any enhancement, I declined the job offer and randomly started working at a corporate communication agency in Hatton Garden. It was fabulous. The designers were passionate about their craft; the days were intense, often finishing at 4 am, but we would walk up to Smithfields and go for breakfast. I spent seven years working my way up to account director. I spent a couple of years as a production manager and fell in love with the smell of ink on paper. I picked up a husband at this agency and moved on when it started getting too big and impersonal.
My next move was with a global communication agency. Great for the CV but totally soulless. However, I did get a lot of contacts for my black book, friends to this day, and it was these people that enabled me to set up a branding agency, knowing that we had clients from day one. I remember the day it all happened. A supplier that I had given a lot of business to took me out for a long boozy lunch. The next day he rang to ask me what my answer was. I didn’t have a bloody clue what he was talking about, and he had to replay the conversation with me again. He told me the terms, told me how much he would lend me to set up in the first instance, what the percentage of the business I held, and then I realized I didn’t want to do this alone. I went to a couple of colleagues in the agency, asked them to join, and under the agreement that we would always be equal partners, we agreed to set up Philosophy. The investor had his original investment returned by month three, received a 300% return on his investment in year one, and we bought him out in year four. We bought out one of the business founders in year 7, and for the past 13 years, it’s been myself and Tash running the business. I couldn’t ask for a better business partner or friend.
How does Philosophy innovate?
Sara Woods: It’s the responsibility of the whole team to innovate; it shouldn’t just come from the top. We keep abreast of market trends, speak amongst our peers and clients to understand the challenges and surround ourselves with bright and enthusiastic people. No idea is a bad idea, right?
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Sara Woods: It’s a bloody challenge. Long hours, clients wanting to get a reduction in fees, and using COVID as the reason, creative pitches have doubled in size from the traditional three agencies to six or more. However, it has made us really get to grips with technology. We use effective online project management systems, online whiteboards for creative brainstorming, and during all of this, we hired an HR company to do a leadership 360 so that we could improve our ways of working. We are surviving and feel that 2021 will be a much better year professionally and emotionally to 2020.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Sara Woods: Yes, of course, I can’t believe that there are companies that haven’t. First of all, we looked at our outgoings, and we have to pay rates (which still pisses me off) and full rent, but we did speak to the taxman about deferring some payments by six months. We furloughed three people – one got a new job for a bank, one was made redundant (tough, but we paid him for an extra three months), and our new business manager, who as it turned out, became a father for the second time on his furlough. As business owners, we had reduced our salaries by half to ensure that the rest of the team didn’t have to.
We will be delighted to return to Shoreditch when it’s safe to do so. However, we have learnt valuable lessons about ourselves, how we work and how our colleagues want to work. One thing is guaranteed, we will never have a 5-day working week in an office again.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Sara Woods: Patience, thick skin, and a sense of humor. A willingness to listen and to change. Software – we use Runn, a project management software tool, Miro, for whiteboarding, brainstorming, and collaboration. We start at 9, where the project managers talk about what’s planned for that day, designers and developers join at 9.15, and we do a 15-minute sprint. Briefings take place between 9.30-10 am. Everyone has a lunch hour away from meetings and their screens. No emails are sent to staff between 6.30 pm to 8 am. We’ve instigated 360 peer reviews and have business mentors to provide us with additional ways of working.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Sara Woods: Varied and too many to count. I also don’t want to give them air time. We are one of 15,000 design agencies in the UK. We’ve survived 20 years, and while we have some staff that have been with us for nearly all of this time, we are glad that designers stay for a few years and move on, as it means our designs stay relevant. We need fresh and enthusiastic designers and project managers who love communication and creativity. I think you stay in the game through hard work, luck, and determination. If it all goes tits up tomorrow, we will start another business and hope to be as successful as we are today. This pandemic has taught us all to be thankful for being in the present.
Your final thoughts?
Sara Woods: Stay true to yourself, don’t forget to say thank you, and give yourself a break both physically and mentally. It’s alright to have a bad day in the office. Your family, friends, and colleagues have your back.