Starting her career in marketing for the family business, Sharon quickly experienced itchy feet and the desire to branch out. After working in a number of large and small PR firms, she was faced with a life ultimatum: Keep climbing the ladder in a stable environment or drop everything and start her own business. She chose the latter.
A decade on, and Sharon’s business ‘Agent99’ is one of the most well established boutique PR firms in Australia. Specialising in the consumer/lifestyle space and corporate B2B, Sharon and her team have won a host of awards and have navigated the complex and congested PR arena seamlessly.
For Sharon, the recipe for success is patent: ‘you need to be relentless, and understand why you are fighting the fight for change’ she tells us. She also trusts and supports her small team and makes time to guide each of them individually.
Sharon is the latest to be featured in our #GameChangingWomen Q&A series. We speak with her about motivation, leadership and keeping cool in a disrupted industry.
Did you plan to get where you are today?
Not planned at all. Believe it or not, my original plan was to become an architect, but after I realised physics was not something I was particularly good at, I decided that this was not what I was meant to do with my life.
I was involved in the family business from a young age, and eventually I realised that starting my own organisation was my calling, but I was not quite sure what I would start.
I graduated from Commerce at Deakin University, and worked at the family business as a marketing manager for over three years. I had itchy feet and wanted to explore the world. I fell into the PR industry working for a number of agencies large and small. Towards the end of my last role, I realised I wanted my boss’s job. She owned the company, so that was not going to happen any time soon.
This is where I had my turning point. I had a choice to move to a large firm and take a job as an Account Director, or start a business where I could really create and shape the company to my personal values. I decided to start Agent99 PR. It has now been 10 years, and I have never looked back!
What ‘game’ are you changing and why does it need a shift?
With the digital revolution, boutique PR agencies are in real danger of becoming extinct. I heard a stat recently that blew me away. In Sydney alone, there are over 400 agencies. The stat was that in 5 to 10 years 50% will be gone, 40% will be eking out a living, and 10% will be thriving. I want to lead the charge to ensure that boutique agencies, so important to our industry, certain clients’ survival, and to the marketing eco-system, survive this shift by demonstrating that you don’t have to work with a large agency to embrace the change.
Who or what inspired you to do this?
I think just hearing that stat and being conscious of this shift has inspired me to do this. The amazing work we have done for clients past and present (which punches way above its weight) makes me want to fight the fight and believe in what we do each and every day!
What skills have do you have that have helped get you to where you are now?
I am a Libran, so inequality doesn’t sit well with me! I don’t like sitting back and watching Goliath win. I think again you need to be strong, have a plan and execute on it. You need to be relentless, and understand why you are fighting the fight for change. I think most of these skills are inherent, but I think you also learn and grow by surrounding yourself with the right advisors and ‘crew’.
What does an average day look like for you?
My agenda varies from day to day. I have young children, so I am typically up pretty early with them. Three days a week I get a workout in before work, then I head into work and start my day feeling pumped.
I meet with my team and discuss the work in progress and usually take the first hour or so for smaller tasks, and then I move onto the larger working on proposals and strategy plans for clients.
Usually lunch is at my desk so I can continue to work, unless I have a lunch meeting of course. I leave work around 5:30-6:00 most days. I think managing your time and having a balance is super important, so I really try not to work at night or on the weekends, because that is generally set aside as family time.
What key thing (or things) would you say have helped drive your career to date?
There are many things that have helped me drive my career. Having a team to support me and grow our clients, great business advisors, a thick skin and sheer determination have helped me advance. You need to believe in yourself and your path always. And although I love it, owning a business is not easy, not is it for the faint hearted. You must be relentless no matter what, and realise that each day brings its delights and challenges.
What are some of the best things you’ve learnt about leadership?
I have learnt a lot about leadership and managing a team while running Agent99 PR. I would encourage any leader to not underestimate the ability and power of a cohesive team with shared values. I find that if I give them tasks and allow them to work and take control, they do amazing things. But they need to understand and be on board with your vision too, so that they live your brand values and deliver this through their work and connection with clients. I am very adamant about having one-on-one time with each of my team members to answer any questions they may have, what motivates them and provide them with a platform to air any concerns. Having a close team that can work together is crucial.
How do you look after your wellbeing outside of work?
My health is something that is very important to me. I ran my first marathon several years ago. Currently, I continue to keep up with my running and do the City2Surf each year. I have also signed up to do the Sydney to Wollongong ride for the first time, which I’m excited about!
As far as a routine with work, I find working out three mornings a week keeps me healthy… and sane! I block out that time in my diary as I would any other meeting. I have a young family, so I have to really be strategic about getting my workouts in.
Have you had mentors, and what have they taught you?
Yes, I have had several mentors!
My dad was my first mentor. He opened and ran a business as I was growing up. I also worked with him in the beginning of my career. I was doing PR work without knowing it by writing opinion pieces and submitting copy/contributions to trade magazines in our space for his paint manufacturing and distribution company in Melbourne. He taught me a lot about owning a business, and I have always looked up to him.
I have two mentors on a more personal level too. My husband is one of my mentors. He is amazing at helping me strategize and sort through any issues I come across. One of my best friends owns an agency too, so we compare business notes and are like mentors to each other.
I also have a business mentor who assists me quarterly, with any staffing, financial matters or business ideas I want to float.
I have just signed up to a year-long international mentoring program which I am so excited about.
So I clearly believe in mentoring and think it’s crucial to success. However, you also need to listen to your self and make any ultimate decision. You’re the one that has to sleep at night!!
What are you doing to inspire more women and girls into leadership?
Agent99 has worked on a pro-bono basis from day one with Life Changing Experiences Foundation, a mentoring program for at risk teens. Our work has helped to raise their awareness and has resulted in the organisation raising over $700K in donations and grants over that time. Something I am really proud of as the program has helped hundreds of girls to break the cycle they are in and be inspired to lead a better life.
What makes you angry?
Dishonesty. I am very straight up and I get so incensed when people (particularly in business) play games with you. So counter-productive!
How did you come up with the idea for your business?
At the point in my life when I decided to start Agent99 PR, I was working at another agency and felt quite tired of my job at the time, but not for any specific reason. I was on a boat with some friends of mine. The friend that owned the boat had just sold his business for a few million dollars and it was then that I realised I needed to, and could, do so much more. I resigned the following month and decided to start the business that is now Agent99 PR!
What’s the first thing you do in the morning?
Read emails, catch up on social media and read the headlines in bed. Terrible habit! But I feel like I’m on top of things already if I know what’s going on before the day has even started.
If you could have an extra hour to yourself every day, what would you do?
Probably a combination of yoga and quiet time to regroup and plan/strategise my life in general! Being so busy means you don’t get a lot of time to stop and just be.
What advice would you like to tell your 18-year-old self?
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Everything is a phase and things come and go. You will survive even if it feels like the world is ending!