By Anthony O’Brien for Leadership Matters,  February 2020

In digital marketing much has been said about the importance of data to drive decision-making. Much less is said about gut feel.

Yet it was instinct – not analytics – that led advertising guru Wendy Thompson to strike out on her own and establish a social media agency a decade ago.

She was proven correct in the most dramatic way possible. Today, 3.2 billion people are using social media worldwide. And Thompson’s Auckland-based social media business, named Socialites, has gone from strength to strength. The agency works with clients across the globe including New Zealand, Australia, North America, Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, and Singapore. Thompson explains, “There are 13 official employees and a network of approximately 30 contractors whom we work with day to day.”

Last year, the Auckland-based firm was named Australasian Social Media Agency of the Year. Thompson was also a finalist in Next Woman of The Year.

NAVIGATING A PATH TO GROWTH

While recruiting social media specialists in the early days was challenging, as a newly minted leader, Thompson discovered that retaining staff was just as arduous. “The first time people leave; you take it personally. But you learn over the years that it’s not about you. It’s about the job or their position in their lives. My attitude to staff leaving now is much healthier.”

Thompson started her business with some start-up experience. “I ran a physiotherapy practice with my husband, which enabled me to learn a lot about running a business,” recalled Thompson. That said, the former advertising pundit found being the sole owner of a business presented several unique challenges. “In the first few years, you did everything. And then, as we picked up a reputation and improved our systems and processes, things have grown, which has been lovely. We go through ups and downs. But in general, it’s awesome. I even brought on a business partner a few months ago.”

Socialites new co-owner Melanie Spencer has started as a managing partner and will be responsible for overseeing the team and the day-to-day operations of the agency. Spencer’s appointment will enable Thompson to work on the business and its plans for more Asia-Pacific expansion. “Bringing in a partner is a big decision. However, when you meet the right person, it’s a lot like a marriage.”

NOT A NATURAL LEADER

As a leader, the self-effacing Thompson describes herself as “sucky.” “I’m not a natural leader. I don’t know if anyone is, but I have completed a lot of leadership development, training, and reading.” Thompson nominates Drive by Daniel H. Pink as the best book on motivating teams she’s read. The social media whiz has also undertaken the Gazelle strategic training program to assist her management style. “Being a leader is not easy, but it’s enriching. There’s something about a team coming together, and it feels like family.”

Thompson describes the working culture at Socialites NZ as high performance. “We say we’re all A-players and one of the best things that I’ve learned over the years, is to hire slow, fire fast.”

Thompson continues, “Also, probably another significant learning is that someone might be fantastic and brilliant when they first come on board. But then, as your company grows, they’re not the right person anymore.”

Thanks to her evolution as a leader, Thompson is adamant she’s not a micromanager, which the appointment of Spencer corroborates. “I do have a pretty strong vision of how things should be. I also go on gut a lot, and encourage my team to listen to their gut, which makes for an interesting and dynamic way of working.”

CONSISTENCY BREEDS TRUST

Since 2010, Thompson has pursued a marketing strategy based on thought leadership to grow the profile of Socialites NZ worldwide and to attract more business-to-business clients. “We still get work from blog posts we wrote two years ago,” she explains.

Consistency is another crucial ingredient in Socialites’ business-to-business marketing success. “The work I’ve done over the past 20 years, and the work the company has done over the previous nine, gives us work now.

“We have competition from huge companies and small start-ups. But our consistency makes us strong. We do consistently good work and are very trustworthy. With us on board, our clients know we will propel them to success every single time.”

First published in Leadership Matters by the Institute of Managers and Leaders Australia and New Zealand