Alex MacLaverty, COO, Clarity
Clarity is a digital marketing and communications agency driven by a belief in the power of technology to be a force for positive change in the world, with offices in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Amsterdam, Cornwall, and partners in most major global markets.
They offer a fully integrated suite of digital and communication services including digital and social media strategy, public relations, public affairs, performance marketing, and a variety of design and insight management tools.
Q: Can you give us a brief introduction to your career background?
A: A few years after graduating university and working in a job running corporate events, I randomly answered a job advert for a role in the ‘media’. I had no idea what it was for, but at the interview, the first question was ‘Why do you want to work in PR?’. At this point my only reference point to PR was what I had seen on the television sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, but I managed to provide a reasonable answer, and my career properly began from there.
I worked for that tech PR agency for a few years, then took a pay cut and a demotion to land a role at a 40-strong agency called Hotwire, which at that point billed itself as ‘Europe’s fastest growing tech agency’ - they weren’t wrong! 15 years later, I had held pretty much every job in the agency, ran the UK, EMEA and ANZ businesses, and become the global COO.
My best career move, however, came when Clarity’s CEO and founder gave me a call and said he needed someone to help him run the business. At that point it was only 30 people, and when I asked what the role was, he said, ‘Just come in and do whatever you need to do’. Since then, it has been a complete whirlwind but honestly, it’s the most exciting and rewarding job I have ever done.
The big questions
Q: What’s been your biggest success in your career?
A: Building the Clarity business to what it is today. Since I joined nearly four years ago, the business has successfully completed seven acquisitions, grown to $25m, won countless awards, and now has 175 incredible people across the UK, US, ANZ and Amsterdam. It’s been a lot of hard work, but the team and clients are amazing – we have built out a genuinely unique offering in the market, and I couldn’t be prouder of everyone that’s been involved.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
A: It’s a cliché for a woman to say this, but it’s true, balancing the demands of an incredibly fast-paced working environment – and my ambitions – against the demands of having two young children and wanting to be present for them.
I have become better at it, as workplaces have improved in general, but when I think now about the lengths I used to go to in order to make it work, it’s pretty horrifying. One thing I make absolutely sure of at Clarity is that we pay proper attention to people’s ‘real life’ needs and make sure we are doing everything we can to support our team, at every stage of their career.
Q: What has been the biggest regret of your career?
A: There were times in previous roles where I knew in hindsight I should have stood up for myself more regarding my beliefs about the right way to do things. Sometimes it can feel hard to take a stand, but I’ve learnt that you need to make your opinion heard – and find ways to help others get theirs heard, too.
Q: How do you develop your skills and knowledge?
A: I’m learning every day – from the team around me, our board, the advisors we work with and the new companies we acquire.
There is always someone sharing something useful, be it an article, advice, a process or opinion, that makes it really interesting. Because we’re growing so fast, we’re pretty much always working slightly out of our comfort zones and trying new things.
Q: What has been the biggest learning opportunity of your career?
A: Very early on in my career, I became part of an international team and that has been, and continues to be, a huge learning process that I have thoroughly enjoyed. It comes as second nature now, but being able to take a variety of different factors into account – cultures, languages, time zones and market conditions – and treat them equitably, respectfully and sympathetically, is tough. When you get it right though, it feels magic.
Q: Who have you learnt most from?
A: I have learnt a lot from Clarity’s CEO, Sami McCabe. He’ll be mortified, but his incredible entrepreneurial spirit and slightly alarming level of risk tolerance has been a breath of fresh air for me!
Coming from a far more corporate background into a much faster growth environment, I have been able to shake off a lot of my more conservative habits and really embrace a sense of adventure at work, which I’ve never had before. This has been a huge asset for the business in terms of our ability to seize opportunities and behave in a more agile way. Best of all, this way of working seems to have affected my overall mindset and I’m a far happier, more laid-back person since working with him.
Q: What's the biggest challenge in your marketplace at the moment?
A: There’s a lot of consolidation in marketing and communications both in terms of the agencies and the services that clients need. We’ve made great progress in building our business from a pure ‘PR shop’ to a fully integrated agency that can provide clients with everything they need to solve their business challenges - from media relations and thought leadership to reputation management, public affairs, crisis communications, SEO and paid support, and website design.
There’s still a long way to go though, and we’re bringing in talent organically and through acquisitions to ensure we can match our clients’ needs.
Tips from the top
Q: What advice would you give to your younger self?
A: Don’t work such long hours, stand up for yourself and take more risks. Also, if you’re not enjoying a job, it’s okay to move on.
Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring COO?
A: COO is such a broad role and I have never met two with the same responsibilities. I liken it to being the manager of a restaurant - there’s no way you can do a good job if you don’t understand every role in the business, from chef, kitchen porter, waiter, customer, cleaner, supplier – you need to have eyes everywhere, be prepared to roll your sleeves up, and accept that if something goes wrong it will almost certainly be your job to fix it.
So if you want to be a COO, make sure you take every opportunity you can to get under the skin of every side of the business, and leave your ego at the door because your only job is to help everybody else do theirs.
Q: What do you think is key to managing a successful team?
A: Respect, honesty and trust.
You need to be upfront with each other about what’s working, what’s not, and what you need to do to make things work. There should be no sneaky side conversations or criticisms, no ego, no judgement, just open and pragmatic conversations about how to make things better. You’re all working towards the same goal.
Q: What's your top tip for managing work-life balance?
A: Firstly, set firm boundaries on what you can and can’t do both with your team, and at home. Secondly, instil a good culture of healthy work-life balance among your team – if everybody is mindful of the need to work proportionately then it tends to look after itself.
Q: How do you see the COO role changing in the next five years?
A: Sadly, for me, I think COOs are going to have to get far better at understanding the role of technology in the workplace to drive efficiencies and innovation. We’re very lucky as we have a wonderful head of technology supporting us at Clarity, but in terms of helping the team do better work and enjoy their roles more – which is half the challenge – tech is almost invariably a large part of the answer and this will only increase over time.
Q: What technological advances do you foresee within your role?
A: I’m loving the ability to gather meaningful data now across every different team and function, to keep an objective eye on performance and facilitate troubleshooting.
The data-led COO with a dashboard of real-time metrics will also always need subjective and people-led experience and knowledge to guide them, but being able to make better-informed decisions based on solid data is something I’m very much enjoying.
Q: What do you see as the future of work in the UK?
A: I’m hoping it’s one where different types of work are treated more equitably based on their value to society and not just how much money they create.
We have to find a way to pay public and service sector workers more, and provide them with the benefits and opportunities you see in our industry for example – rather than have these treated with so little respect. We all know the NHS is far more important than marketing, but the system is seemingly irretrievably rigged against recognising that.
Love Mondays: at Reed we are on a mission to help everyone love their job
Q: What do you love most about your role and why?
A: The freedom I have to help create a business we can all be genuinely proud of. We’re building something new and that is extremely exciting for all involved.
Q: What does your average Monday look like?
A: I usually wake up, hang out with my kids, and then as soon as they’re out of the house I clear the messages from the weekend and reassess my to-do list for the week.
I’ll do some exercise while I think through the priorities, and then Mondays are usually a lot of calls trying to get everyone aligned and moving in the right direction. It’s a day at home, working at the kitchen island, surrounded by scribbled and scrunched up to-do lists and lots and lots of coffee.
If you are looking for a talented senior executive to help your business grow, or looking to find your next role, contact one of our specialist consultants today.