Why Sainsbury’s Sarah Ellis made the rare move from brand to agency

Gravity Road’s international client base and flexible working opportunities attracted Sainsbury’s former head of marketing strategy to the role.

The path from agency to brand owner is well worn but it is still a rarity to see senior marketers moving into leadership positions in agencies.

Sarah Ellis, however, is doing exactly that, switching from a career in marketing at Boots, Barclays and most recently as head of marketing strategy at Sainsbury’s, to join creative agency Gravity Road as managing director.

Ellis will join the agency’s leadership team, working across key clients including Sainsbury’s, B&Q and Mondelēz International. She is also tasked with developing its portfolio of international brands.

READ MORE: Marketers can add value to agencies, so why aren’t more being hired?

Ellis tells Marketing Week it was this promise of working with brands in different vertical sectors with a variety of challenges coupled with the opportunity to work for a smaller, younger company – Gravity Road formed in 2011 – that prompted her switch from client to agency.

She says: “When you work for a big brand you’re often spending 100% of your time on one brand and on one section of that brand, it’s fairly difficult to get oversight of everything that is happening. The advantage of working in a senior position within a smaller organisation that is growing is getting the opportunity to see all of the ins and outs of [what goes on].

“If you like variety you get the opportunity to work on a range of different brands that all have different challenges and problems to solve.”

I don’t buy into the idea that you have to work ridiculous hours to produce great work.

Sarah Ellis, Gravity Road

A press release from Gravity Road announcing her appointment cited her work “inspiring the next generation of communication professionals” through her work with Amazing If, a career development consultancy she co-founded with Marketing Week columnist and commercial marketing director at Microsoft Helen Tupper. She also manages the ‘Inspire’ events for The Marketing Academy.

Her “front-line experience of working from within big brands” was also mentioned. It is widely acknowledged that hiring marketers will help agencies better understand the challenges facing brands so why, but for a few notable exceptions, do so few make the switch?

Ellis believes it is borne from traditional recruitment strategies. “It relies on people having a bit more scope and perspective in terms of the diversity of the talent they want on their team. I think people are beginning to understand that now. It’s not just about diversity of race and gender it’s about diversity of experience and ideas and what you can bring,” she says.

“If you have that enlightened view to begin with then I think you will attract people from lots of different backgrounds and experience to roles but it’s hard because tradition means if you want a senior account director then you would look at someone who has lots of experience in a role like that. You don’t think ‘I am going to look at a client who has done a brand strategy job’. So it’s about how much you believe it’s possible learn and how quickly people can learn those things.”

Ellis says there is plenty she can learn from working agency side and she is looking forward to working with Gravity Road’s founders – Mark Eaves and Mark Boyd – who she says “go about things in the right way.”

The importance of flexible working

The agency’s embrace of flexible working was one of the things that attracted her to the role; Ellis will work four days a week after becoming a mother last year.

She and Tupper are advocates of flexible working for the wellbeing of employees, regardless of circumstance.

READ MORE: Wellbeing and the future of work

“I don’t buy into the idea that you have to work ridiculous hours to produce great work. I don’t think it’s sustainable and I don’t think you’ll get the best people if that’s your attitude,” she warns.

“It’s not just about having a family; I worked flexibly before I had a baby. People think flexibility is all about family and getting older, but it has to be universal. It’s as important to be flexible with a 21-year-old intern as it is with someone like me. It’s not about a particular situation or level of seniority. If you’re training for a marathon and you need to go on a massive run it’s as important as picking up your child from nursery.”

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