Elspeth Rothwell, UK CEO at integrated communications agency Vested, shares with us her experience of becoming a female leader and discusses the barriers women face to reach senior roles. Inspired by an impressive host of former colleagues and mentors, Elspeth reveals that becoming a CEO has changed her view of what makes a successful leader.
1. Can you give a brief overview of your background and experience?
I’ve spent the last two decades working agency side, primarily with financial services brands.
After my degree in English and Philosophy, I did a postgraduate diploma in PR and Journalism at Cardiff’s School of Journalism as my way into the industry.
I always thought I’d work in charity PR, but in my first agency realised really quickly that I loved working with organisations with really complex subject matter and finding the stories.
I worked first at Lawson Dodd, in its B2B and FS team, before joining Consolidated PR as Account Manager and working my way up to Deputy MD. I stayed with the organisation through our sale into Four Communications and then worked at FTI for a couple of years before being approached for my current role, to set up Vested in the UK. I’ve spent the last four years setting up and growing Vested in the UK - realising a dream from a great opportunity into a 15 strong £2m+ agency working with an amazing team and incredible clients.
2. It’s quite unusual to see a female corporate comms agency CEO – how did you make it to the top?
I certainly don't think of myself as having made it to the top, which is probably the starting point! I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where I was encouraged to do what I loved. I’ve chosen well with those I’ve worked with and for, who have championed and supported me along the way. And I have a very supportive husband. Plus there has been a fair amount of hard work along the way!
Yet if you’d asked me when I started this career whether I’d end up running an agency, I literally wouldn’t, couldn’t, have dreamt of it. I come from a family of teachers and social workers, so even moving to London and working in this kind of career felt like a very big change from what everyone around me did and knew.
There have certainly been some big stumbling blocks along the way - often my own as well as the industry - and much of my progression has come from an innate drive to see what I’m capable of and a desire to push forward.
3. Which leaders have inspired you?
There are so many people who have inspired me. My first agency was run by two amazing female entrepreneurs, Joanna Dodd and Belinda Lawson, and so from the outset I understood what was possible as a female leader.
At Consolidated PR, I was lucky enough to work with Nick Clark, who supported me not just in stretching my thinking - always - to make me the consultant I am today, but also as a working mother. His belief in me helped me realise I didn’t need to compromise my career while also being a working parent, and I will always be thankful for that.
When we sold Consolidated to Four Communications, I had the great pleasure of working for Nan Williams - one of the best! And then in my time at FTI, the inimitable Andrew Walton, again an incredible consultant from whom I learnt so much.
Today, I am blessed to work alongside incredible leaders on both sides of the pond - the Vested co-founders Binna Kim, Dan Simon, Ishviene Arora, my US counterpart, Amber Roberts and of course, my UK sparring partner / support system Katie Spreadbury. Without this now feeling like the Oscars or a eulogy, I’d also say a massive shout out to Paul Davies at FirstLight who has supported me at points when I’ve really needed the rescue.
And then don’t get me started on the wonderful clients I’ve worked with along the way… the two leaders in their fields who have particularly supported and championed my career are Amanda Rendle and David White. It is fair to say, it takes a village!
4. In your opinion what barriers do women face to reach senior roles?
I spent much of my early career not realising the barriers that were there, in part because I worked for agencies with great female leaders. But as age, and children, have crept up on me, so too has my understanding of the barriers:
5. You left FTI Consulting, a large and well-established brand, to join Vested, an agency established in the US but unknown in London. What motivated you to make this move?
Throughout my career, I’d always been asked - ‘why don’t you set up something yourself?’ and the truth was, I’d have loved to. But I didn’t have the self-confidence to strike it out alone.
So when I was approached by a headhunter with the opportunity to set something up and run it, but with the support and financial backing of a hugely successful New York agency, it was something I couldn’t ignore. As I found out about Vested, I realised it aligned with my values and beliefs about what was needed in the industry, a business focused on financial services brands that was creative, audience led, and results driven, while really caring for our people.
Then I met the Vested co-founders and it went very quickly from an amazing opportunity to having found my people. And in that alignment, the risk didn’t feel like a risk, it felt like the start of what the rest of my career had been building towards! Literally my dream job.
6. What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced as a CEO? Has it changed the way you lead?
This role has been an absolute rollercoaster. I’m learning every day.
The pandemic, has of course, been the greatest challenge in the last four years. Learning how to support the team and clients through something so unprecedented, while also trying to manage myself and my family. In many ways while the early days were so tough, and I made as many mistakes as I did successes, it has been the sustained nature of it that has been so grueling.
Keeping the eye of the storm calm, while feeling anything but, and then finding the strength to set up each day and do it again. Being a CEO has changed my view of what a successful leader is; I would hope I’ve always been open and honest - but I’m now far more comfortable with being vulnerable, admitting that the journey is one we are on together and I hope that it will help us all be stronger through the other side.
7. What keeps you awake at night?
You do not want to know! Often it is my brain catching up on the day - the amount of times my poor team receive an ‘overnight thought’ is too much. But more often it is the big stuff, about my children, my parents, my partner. Life.
8. Please share the best piece of professional advice you’ve been given along the way and by whom?
Full credit here to an ex-client, and great friend, David White, who said to me as I took on this role - the most important thing is to realise you don’t have to know all the answers yourself.
9. What is the most important lesson you have learned in life so far?
Everything will pass. And that being kind matters almost more than anything else.
10. Do you have any hidden talents?
It isn’t very well hidden, but I’m a serial house renovator and designer. We’ve just finished converting an old stable, and so now I’m wondering what next as I’ve promised my children we will stay put for a while!
Thank you, Elspeth.
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