Maintaining perspective: Sara Woods
14 DEC 2020

Published by Kandice Menzie


Maintaining perspective: Sara Woods

Sara is Co-Director of Philosophy – a brand and marketing consultancy based in Old Street, London. Like many agency owners the amount of hours Sara works has soared since being home. Read her thoughts on keeping burnout at bay, redundant studio space and managing creative minds through the pandemic.

  • What has lockdown been like for you as a team leader?

Challenging, foremostly. No one could have predicted the impact this virus would have on business, and in particular within this industry. Philosophy has been established for 20 years so we are thankfully quite secure, with loyal clients and an amazing team. Without them, me and my business partner would have gone crazy.

  • Have you noticed any changes in behaviour within your team – good or adverse, but some people thrive working from home, others definitely do not?

We wanted to really understand the impact all this has had on our team but also what they want from us going forward. We embarked on a brave 360 process with a HR consultancy. We are now implementing the findings and are adapting to how we work.

You can’t look too far forward but you need to stay nimble and proactive and be open to new technology and ways of working.

  • How have you and your team stayed connected over the past months?

We’re agnostic in terms of digital platforms as we tend to follow our clients lead. However, our preference is Zoom. We have daily company-wide sprint calls and then have individual calls during the day with our different teams. We try to keep calls to a 15-minute maximum. Since July, we’ve opened the office and encouraged our team to use it when they need to. Mondays we’re all in together – this helps with planning for the week ahead

  • Has it been manageable overseeing creative work whilst at home?

I haven’t had to do much as we came back to work earlier than most. I’m also not the creative director.

Personally I think creativity without face-to-face contact is hugely diminished

We made the office COVID-safe and enabled our staff -if they felt comfortable- to return from July onwards, partly for this reason. We now try to do brainstorming when we’re all here. 

I love the spark when you’re in a room together, brainstorming, taking visual cues from one another, speaking over each other and generally sharing knowledge.

When we are remote, we work with RACI – where everyone can be assigned a role in a project – and Miro for creative brainstorming.

and how have pitches been? It’s currently a client’s marketplace. Both in terms of creative and price.

It's a client marketplace. We are pitching against seven or eight agencies in the first round with full creative. Each delivering two routes. 

I’m always interested in what the winning agency’s creative is like. And I’ve been in the industry long enough to suck up the rejection emails! But when clients give you a guide price on the cost and then choose agencies that are less than 50% of that price. How is this sustainable for these agencies?

Having said that we have been appointed on new projects which I think is down to the team here working their arses off.

  • Have you worked longer hours as a result of working from home?

I would like to lie at this point and say no, but I’ve really struggled with my work/life balance.

The laptop goes on at 8am. I have client or staff catch up calls until 5pm and then I do my day job. Until recently I was working until 11pm most nights. Then really finding it hard to sleep. Obviously, this was totally bonkers and I’m now not sending emails out after 6.30pm,

I am now having a lunch hour where I ignore the phone and my emails. And I manage to have a conversation with my son when he comes in from school.

Meditation and long walks with my dog, Maisey have also helped but I won’t mention the number of hours I now work a day because it’s insane and it’s nothing to be proud of.

  • If you knew you had to work from home for another year, would you be happy?

If that’s what’s got to happen to protect people from dying then so be it.

Happiness is about appreciating what we have and not sweating the small stuff. It’s having a perspective on life. We work in design – no-one dies.

My daughter is a doctor who has worked long hours on the COVID-19 wards in Liverpool. I think of her when I am feeling sorry for my long hours.

By the way, I’m glad you’ve asked me that question and not my business partner, Tash. She has a lot to say about COVID-19!

What do you miss about not being in the studio?

There’s a vibe that occurs when you have highly experienced and creative minds all in a room together – that’s lost online.

I like the physicality of going to the office and then back home. There’s no longer a line of demarcation between working life and home life and I would very much like my house to go back to being my home.

- I also do miss people making me cups of tea!

What is one positive that has arisen from the past few months?

I have two - getting to really know my clients better (we now have personal as well as business relationships) and being home when my son walks in from school.

Also, it’s not my positive but my dog’s: she loves the fact I’m home all the time. She’s with me morning, noon and night and thoroughly enjoy's getting walked three times a day!

This period has enabled us to re-energise the business. 20 years is a long time to be in the business and maybe we needed this period to review who we are.

The virus has helped us take stock; find new tools and ways of working, put staff centre stage and whilst it's exhausting we are just as excited about winning new business, cultivating new relationships as we were 20 years ago. 

Will you be changing the manner in which you work in the future? I.e. split between home and existing studio, finding smaller space for part time working, or short term lets even?

Not one of my peers wants to go back to working 5 days in the office. I don’t think it’s needed anymore. I think it will become balanced which is a good thing for everyone’s wellbeing but the difficulty in our industry is our studio leases.

There are many design agencies who are stuck in 5-10 year leases but have now realised that they don’t need the space.

The government hasn’t done anything about business rates holiday for this industry or companies my size. Our rent and rates are the second-largest outcomings each month and I have resented having to pay both during the course of this year when for four months we weren’t in the office at all.

We will keep our office because our staff want somewhere to go, as do some of our clients. It’s also hard to get office space back once you’ve given it up, so we will wait for another 6 months and see. It should become a occupiers’ led market. I’d like to see a website dedicated to sharing space in this industry. We should be helping each other, shouldn’t we? Isn’t that what we’ve all learnt during the past few months.

Learn more about Sara, Philosophy and their brilliant work here.

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