Getting to know you: Sue Sowerby

Sue Sowerby

What do you currently do?

I am the Founder of The Sowerby Group – a full service ’boutique’ agency primarily specialising in recruitment, marketing, creative communications, social media, events and digital solutions. My job title is Managing Director but I prefer the title of Client Relationship Director.

What was the inspiration behind your business?

I kind of fell into this role. In 1992, the year of a recession, I was working for a London advertising agency that was South African owned. After 7 years in business the owners based in Johannesburg put the agency into receivership so everyone was made redundant. I had 29 of my own clients. Many were leading names in the construction and engineering sectors, some well-known retail chains and I also worked with a number of security companies. As their Key Account Manager I was determined not to lose this client base as I had worked hand-in-hand with them on their branding, recruitment advertising, media buying, copywriting, design and overall project management. I was 6 weeks pregnant!  Other agencies approached me and would have been very happy to take on my illustrious client base but after winning the confidence of all of my clients that they wanted to stay with me, I decided to set up my own advertising agency.

Nine months later my son was born and I continued to work from a two up, two down cottage in Epping, Essex until my home got taken over bit by bit by Apple Mac computers, filing cabinets and a fax machine. We didn’t have internet or email in those days so running up and down the stairs transferring calls from my home phone to my fax line was pretty exhausting! I was never off duty when working from home and often received telephone calls from oversea clients working in different time zones, so sometimes I would be sitting up in bed in the early hours taking a brief from a client who was about to get on a plane. Remarkably, 24 years on, many of those clients are still with us; even though they may have moved to other companies; so we are proud to have such loyal clients who very often refer and recommend our range of services to others.

Who do you admire?

I admire lots of people for their professionalism, their integrity, their honesty, entrepreneurial spirit and their overall work ethic. I have met some pretty amazing people over the past 24 years since I started the company and perhaps in my early days I was very much working in what was classified as a man’s work of engineering, construction and manufacturing, so I consider Karren Brady to be a woman I truly admire and respect as a formidable businesswoman. I have also met her.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

Certainly there is. This whole setting up of a business is a constant learning curve. In the early days I was quite naive. I had never managed people as such, only clients, so when I started to build a team I found it difficult to separate managing people whilst building friendships. Not that I would do it any different now, but I have certainly become a lot tougher commercially – especially having survived four recessions!  I have been a pushover; particularly in the early days. I always wanted to please people and do the ‘right thing’ but then you realise that your expertise comes at a price and people need to pay for your knowledge. This is why I do a lot of consultancy work within the agency now. I used to give away prime information and now I run Social Media Training courses for a whole range of businesses. With my recruitment background I offer a Search & Find Service to reach out to prime candidates on behalf of clients, particularly charities and that part of my job is always very rewarding.

What defines your way of doing business?

I really like to get up close and personal with my clients. When I am working in my Search & Find capacity, it’s important to visit the client (particularly the Hiring Manager and not just the HR Team) and find out more about the role, the organisation and team culture, and anything that isn’t listed on a Job Description or a Person Specification. This way I have a broader brief in terms of procuring the ideal person for the role. The same applies to any marketing brief we are given. It’s important to get under the client’s skin to fully understand as much as possible about target audience, stakeholders and their own ‘vision’ for their business.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

If you can afford it, don’t compromise on your brand including your logo and your website. An engaging, responsive website with great functionality and strong Search Engine Optimisation are key things to consider when setting up a business. These two important areas of marketing will help take you forward and be recognised. Complement these with a strong and regular social media strategy and this will help get you noticed in the digital world. Getting these basic things right from the beginning cannot be underestimated. Also network as much as possible. In the early stages, business coming in to you may be a slow burn process so get out there and network with other businesses and take the opportunity to tell as many people about what you do. I have met prospective clients in airports, in lifts, in office kitchens and other interesting places – even in a sauna in a hotel! That particular person went on to be a prime candidate for an Oil & Gas client. Always keep plenty of business cards with you and follow up quickly. It’s a big wide world out there and you never know where you might meet your next client.