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Digital Mavericks 2017: Alternative portraits of success

Meet this year's list of Digital Mavericks. These women are succeeding in tech and digital on their own terms, in the face of adversity and the status quo.

Digital Mavericks 2017: Alternative portraits of success

Women are still battling gender prejudices that date back a century in the most advanced industries. A global survey of more than 50,000 developers by developer online community, StackOverflow, found that only 5.8% of the world’s developers are women.

Within the startup world, it’s also harder to be a woman founder. Data from Beauhurst cited in a study by Barclays and the Entrepreneur Network found that only 9% of all investment funding last year went to companies with a female founder. 

"We can put any of these amazing woman up against any man, and they would compete hard"Lisa Gilbert, chief marketing officer at IBM UK and Ireland and Digital Mavericks judge

This trend is reflected globally and doesn’t just affect the number of deals awarded to women, but the size of the deal. Venture capital database PitchBook estimated that the average VC deal for women-led companies in the US last year was $4.5m (£3.49m) compared with an average of $10.9m for male-led companies.

Women in agencies are doing better but they too need support. A census by the IPA earlier this year found that women in 2016 held only 30.5% of executive management positions, down from 33.1% in 2015. So here are 10 women our judges have chosen who are forging their own paths to success within these challenging sectors.

While this is a list for women, it was important to our judges that these women would be recognised as "kicking ass" on any list.

"We can put any of these amazing women up against any man, and they would compete hard," Lisa Gilbert, chief marketing officer at IBM UK and Ireland and Digital Mavericks judge, said. "They are capable of success, and not just ‘as women’."

This view matters because the imbalance between the sexes will never be redressed if the causes championing equality ignore 50% of the population follow judge Charlie Hunt, who heads new business at DigitasLBi UK, said. "This proves what they achieve as a person, not just as a woman."

But the obstacles these women have overcome can’t be ignored, Sarah Salter, innovation director at MEC Tonic, commented. "These women all have pure hustle. Female founders face so many obstacles compared with men. But they are succeeding while fighting that fight."

From all backgrounds

The women on this list haven’t walked a direct path to where they are today. One was destined to be a ballerina, another a vet. Several come from countries with fewer opportunities than the UK including Mexico, Romania and Greece. Digital Mavericks matters because role-models are so important, Nadya Powell, co-founder of business consultancy Utopia and social organisation Innovation Social, said. 

"Young women need to see women they can relate to succeeding"
Anjali Ramachandran

"My daughter attended a coding class and she was the only girl out of 15children, now she thinks coding is for boys," Powell said ruefully. "And thinking back, I would have benefitted so much when I was 20 if I’d known about women like Cindy Gallop or Stephanie Alys (founder of MysteryVibe)."

Young women need to see women they can relate to succeeding, Anjali Ramachandran, co-founder of online forum for women in tech and digital Ada’s List, said. "These relatable role-models who represent different career paths give them reasons to stay and keep trying."

The women selected for Digital Mavericks are also chosen in part for how much they invest in helping other women succeed.

"Women aren’t always good to other women," Gilbert noted. "We looked for women who were mentoring others, paying it forward and giving it back."

  • Amalia Agathou

    Innovations manager, Havas Media Group
  • Bogdana Butnar

    Head of strategy, Poke London
  • Eli Pinto

    Co-founder and chief executive, Sharp Co-Lab UK
  • Imogen Wethered

    chief executive and co-founder, Qudini
  • Laura Scanlon

    director, TEGA Girl Effect
  • Liza Hicks

    digital marketing leader, IBM UK and Ireland
  • Ruth Zöhrer

    head of connections planning and marketing technology, Mindshare
  • Sara Gordon

    brand and creative director, Bloom & Wild
  • Tammie O’Leary

    director, Vet Vouchers
  • Sophie Newton

    chief operating officer, Brainlabs

Amalia Agathou, innovations manager, Havas Media Group

An entrepreneurial spirit is what shines throughout Amalia Agathou’s background. She once founded an online boat classifieds service in Greece and co-founded Global Fashion Battle in 2013, a business that provided a platform for the incubation of fashion-tech start-ups.

More recently, fuelled by her experience in the start-up world, Agathou joined forces with colleague Tammy Smulders to launch XVIII Havas, a business within Havas that looks 18 months ahead of the emerging trends of media, content, technology and data science.

The programme introduces Havas client brands, most recently O2 and EDF Energy, to a global network of entrepreneurs, academic institutions and organisations that support innovation to create industry-leading work and initiatives.

Agathou’s passion for entrepreneurialism includes her starting the WINLeague, a support network for the start-up community as well as mentoring accelerator programmes such as Wearable World, Decoded Fashion, Tech Stars and Start-up Platform, Poland.

She has been a community leader for London’s Start-up Weekend since 2013 and, in the past year, she developed the Start-up London Tour, which introduces Havas staff, clients and partners to relevant partners from the London start-up eco-system.

Stepping up to do her bit to raise the prominence of women in tech, Agathou is a frequent speaker and event producer for events aimed at up-and-coming marketing innovators, including the Barclays Accelerator Women In Fintech event, Havas TechWeek and the AMEX graduate programme at Holition, for which she ran classes on innovation.

Bogdana Butnar, head of strategy, Poke London

The characteristic the judges loved best about Bogdana Butnar is that she is unashamedly intimidating.

"I’m actually a little scared of Bogdana. She swept in to Poke several years ago and transformed our strategic capability with a mind and thinking that is formidable," Nick Farnhill, chief executive of Publicis London and Poke, admits.

She is credited with revolutionising Poke’s strategy department by combining traditional planning methodologies with agile user experience methods

Butnar arrived at Poke from Bucharest, Romania where she was the first woman planning director and then the first female head of strategy at McCann Bucharest. She then went on to be one of the youngest ever chief executives of a company there when, at 27, she was given the reins to MRM and turned it into one of Romania’s top digital agencies.

She was then one of Google’s first hires in Bucharest, where she drove the launch of a monetised YouTube.

Leaving Google for an agency life in London, Butnar found herself at the centre of some of Poke’s strongest projects, including EE Wembley Cup, Nestlé Moms LikeMe and several Ted Baker campaigns.

She is credited with revolutionising Poke’s strategy department by combining traditional planning methodologies with agile user experience methods and has, with the management team, directed the repositioning of the agency to a service focus under the tagline "Made to Matter".

Butnar is known as a supporter of women in the industry and is part of an informal mentorship of other female strategists and account managers. She also involves herself in International Women’s Day initiatives.

Eli Pinto, co-founder and chief executive, Sharp Co-Lab UK

Fearless and gutsy, Eli Pinto made a leap from a career in ballet to one in London’s advertising scene – before she had even learnt to speak English.

"I started working at Harvey Nichols, at the shoe department with the only sentence I could pronounce to get by: ‘These shoes look great on you, ma’am.’ You can only imagine," Pinto says.

But in a few months she had gained fluency and started to look for a job in her chosen industry. Her first job was at a small agency in Fulham named Spirit Advertising, where she worked her way up from account executive. This started her path through some of London’s leading agencies including MRM, AKQA, DigitasLBi, DDB and finally a digital technology consultancy, Amaze, where she was commercial director.

Throughout, she has done her best to help women succeed in the industry

Her agency experience, however, convinced her there was a better way to meet client needs. She left to start experience and design agency Sharp Co-Lab, the London sister office to Sharp Lab in Manchester. Setting up the new agency has been a journey. Pinto received funding from a group of partners following a pitch that included a three-year profit and loss forecast.

The new agency, she says, is an on-demand solution that brings users and clients together to ideate. It then connects the project to a network of freelancers and experts who will be compensated for their efforts and rewarded with incentives.

Throughout, she has done her best to help women succeed in the industry. While at Amaze she started a mentorship programme and is in the process of setting up a collaboration with 30/30 [The 30% Club] to mentor young women within the male-driven technology sector.

Imogen Wethered, chief executive and co-founder, Qudini

The idea for Qudini originated in a hackathon, just five years ago. It was there that Imogen Wethered teamed up with her co-founder, Fraser Hardy, and won the challenge with their initial idea for Qudini.

The company is a customer management experience platform for retailers and started life in a hackathon five years ago. The platform works by helping retailers better manage their queues by taking bookings for events and appointments online. Brands can then manage the customer’s experience by communicating with them via SMS and other means while they wait. 

The company’s presence in 800 stores is largely thanks to her efforts

Since the hackathon, the company has been through two corporate acceleration programmes with Telefonica (Wayra) and John Lewis Partnership (JLAB). Over the past few years, Wethered has raised £2.4 million in equity investment, while also growing the company’s sales revenues organically.

Wethered is credited with much of Qudini’s success. In the first three years, she single-handedly struck deals with FTSE 100 Enterprise retailers including: O2, House of Fraser, Telefonica Global.

She has sold the Qudini system to retailers, NHS, hospitality and museum brands, in the UK, Europe and USA. The company’s presence in 800 stores is largely thanks to her efforts.

Before the company hired a head of marketing, the duties fell to Wethered and one of her successes was getting the company featured as a Gartner "Cool Vendor" and a Disrupt 100 business.

Wethered believes in mentoring other young entrepreneurs, particularly other female founders – helping them shape the basics of their vision and understand some of the essential elements within building a business. She is frequently involved in speaking events and workshops at schools to help students learn digital and creative skills at an earlier age.

Laura Scanlon, director, TEGA Girl Effect

Four years ago, while working for Mindshare, Laura Scanlon created the industry’s first commercially successful use of adaptive planning data for Kleenex. The initiative used Google search data to predict regional flu outbreaks – faster than the NHS. This innovation won the Cannes Gold Lion for best digital idea. 

On the day Scanlon won the award, she resigned and joined the Nike Foundation as a creative strategist. She was tasked with pioneering new ways to help adolescent girls living in poverty in places such as Nigeria, Ethiopia and Rwanda. As a result, Girl Effect was born. Today, Scanlon is founder and director of TEGA – Technology Enabled Girl Ambassadors – one of Girl Effect’s key award-winning products.

Scanlon fought hard to change perceptions

TEGA uses mobile technology to teach girls aged 18-24 in the Global South how to collect honest data about their world in real time. The goal is to provide accurate data and deep insights to better understand how to help the 200 million girls who still live in poverty.

But when the concept for TEGA was first launched, the idea was almost universally rejected by the research community. Putting smartphones into the hands of the girls themselves had never been done before, and there was a belief that girls living in poverty could not collect credible data.

Scanlon fought hard to change perceptions and one year later, TEGA is transforming the approach to research on adolescent girls, working on commissions for organisations that include Oxfam, the UK’s Department of International Development (DFID) and Facebook.

In 12 months, TEGA has moved from a single-state prototype to a 200-person research body, operational in more than six countries including some of the hardest-to-reach communities in Nigeria, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. Training and recruiting girls in war zones, refugee camps and gang lands and ensuring the reality of their lives is authentically captured.

The UK’s DFID is on record as saying: "The TEGA research was an integral part of the DFID Nigeria youth consultations and enabled us to access hard-to-reach young people in an effective way.

The results of the research are reflected in our five-year business plan and have helped ensure the plan is responsive to the needs of the large youth population in Nigeria. The business plan will determine the nature and direction of DFID Nigeria’s £1 billion programme for the next five years."

Liza Hicks, digital marketing leader, IBM UK and Ireland

While recognised as a feisty and fearless marketing leader, it is perhaps Liza Hicks’ strong management ability that truly makes her stand out. She is credited with "taking a team of raw millennials, cynical old salts, a remote team in Bucharest, and plain techno-geeks in the UK" and forging them into a united and purposeful team.

Hicks was able to nurture the careers of the team and manage their well being even during times of restructure. She also embraced and led an agile working style, leading start-ups, running scrum sessions and delivering high-quality work in two-week sprints.

Hicks’ efforts contributed to more than 35,000 visitors to IBM’s Wimbledon site 

As a marketer, Hicks took the digital lead for IBM’s biggest campaign of the year –The Championships, Wimbledon. She pioneered the daily use of IBM supercomputer Watson, which deploys sophisticated analytical software, to understand the sentiment of the campaign hashtag #WhatMakesGreat and used that to influence content across paid and organic activity during the tennis tournament. This led to the hashtag trending on Twitter on 5 July with a 55 per cent increase in the number of tweets for that day.

She used geo-targeting of Wimbledon visitors to prompt them to download the app and visit IBM’s kiosk, introduced Facebook Live and created a dedicated #WhatMakesGreat Hub on the Telegraph’s website’s sport pages. Hicks’ efforts contributed to more than 35,000 visitors to IBM’s Wimbledon site who were interested in trying and buying the tech behind The Championships.

She also pioneered, on behalf of IBM Europe, the adoption of programmatic marketing techniques for IBM. Her strategy incorporates AI/Watson into the programmatic media programme to optimise budgets and amplify messaging. A respected role model, Hicks mentors many women who come from all career stages, helping them navigate the complexities of working at a major multinational while maintaining a personal life.

Ruth Zöhrer, head of connections planning and marketing technology, Mindshare

With degrees under her belt in political science, music composition and medieval French literature, as well as being fluent in four languages, there is nothing average about Ruth Zöhrer.

Born in Mexico, Zöhrer prides herself on a thirst for adventure.

She was the first of her family to study abroad (at Bryn Mawr College) and went on to pursue a career in communications and marketing while also working on two documentary films as associate producer.

Today, she leads a team of more than 50 planners at Mindshare, which she joined from Appnexus, where she built and led a technical consulting team. Her strength lies in her ability to see connections between the seemingly disparate. 

She created and defined 20th Century Fox’s ongoing data strategy, as well helping the business use addressable channels to promote the launch of Alien Covenant

She is passionate about redefining how the industry thinks about the possibilities that data and technology offer when humans are brought into the equation. It is through this lens that Zöhrer developed a mixed customer insight approach for Volvo.

The award-winning technique used qualitative (desk and field) research with app-powered self-ethnography, social listening and real-time audience insights from programmatic buys with the goal of creating a holistic understanding of the consumer decision journey.

Zöhrer is also credited with helping Mindshare revamp its connections planning team and introduce new and innovative ways of working across the business.

She has done this by building new revenue streams, using marketing technology and data strategy, for Mindshare’s clients. She also launched (with two other partners) a new proposition to market, Grow@Mindshare, which works with new digital enterprises, start-ups and businesses on a client-by-client basis. Clients so far include Gousto, the home delivery recipe service and Picasso Labs.

Outside of Grow@Mindshare, Zöhrer has also consulted on projects in the industry and has helped several clients outside of her normal remit. For example, she created and defined 20th Century Fox’s ongoing data strategy, as well helping the business use addressable channels to promote the launch of Alien Covenant.

The latter helped the movie gross more than $178.7 million worldwide. Outside of work, Zöhrer devotes whatever spare time and money she has to informally coach and mentor entrepreneurs and self-starters. She has also recently begun work on setting up new scholarship for Bryn Mawr College. As part of the scholarship, one female student will be picked from a future intake and have all their tuition fees paid for.

Zöhrer was awarded a similar scholarship when studying at Bryn Mawr and she sees this as an important way for her to give back to the community and ensure other women have the same opportunities she did.

Sara Gordon, brand and creative director, Bloom & Wild

Throughout her time with agencies, including Digitas LBI and Profero, Sara Gordon spent her evenings and weekends working with start-ups and participating in hackathons. Most notably, Gordon led a team to victory in Seedcamp’s Seedhack event, where she and her team of four designed and built a B2B fashion-trading platform using Net-a-Porter’s live sales app to add trending data. 

Gordon is credited with contributing to the businesses’ 400 per cent growth in the 18 months she has been there

Latterly, her passion for digital and the start-up ecosystem brought her to Bloom & Wild, where she is now leading a team of designers, marketers and content creators alongside developers to make sending and receiving flowers a joy again.

At Bloom & Wild, key components to the company’s success include the design and user experience of the website, customer acquisition through brand and digital marketing, the physical product itself (bouquet designs) and everything else that goes into the look and feel that customers experience, from packaging design to photography.

Gordon leads all these aspects and is credited with contributing to the businesses’ 400 per cent growth in the 18 months she has been there. Also key to the Bloom & Wild’s growth has been a focus on social customer acquisition through paid ads on Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram with creative and planning led by Gordon and her team.

The brand also has a net promoter score (an index ranging from -100 to 100 of a brand's customers’ willingness to recommend the brand) of more than 80. This is due in large part to the design, product and unboxing experience created by Gordon and her team.

For example, in the past year, Gordon has led changes to Bloom & Wild’s digital estate and through design updates, copy changes and photography, she has driven a conversion uplift of 15 per cent.

One of her biggest recent achievements is spearheading a campaign with British brand, Boden. The Johnnie bouquet, as designed by Johnnie Boden himself, was designed and sold on bloomandwild.com complete with a spring look book, vouchers and a message from Johnnie. Digital content was created around spring flowers and fashion looks supported and amplified by top tier bloggers, Facebook ads and Instagram ads.

The campaign resulted in more than 3.9 million impressions on social media, 4,000co-branded boxes shipped over three weeks nationwide, and 19,000 opt-ins from a co-branded competition.

When not up to her elbows in flowers, Gordon spends her time mentoring and working alongside other women in the technology sector. She has been asked to participate in Google’s mentoring sessions for women and knowledge-sharing activity among other start-ups at events such as a TV media roundtable at Google, hosted by MMC Ventures.

Gordon regularly shares her knowledge with other female marketers and design leads at Gousto, Trouva, Tech Will Save Us and Friction Free Shaving to support women in technology.

Sophie Newton, chief operating officer, Brainlabs

Sophie Newton has three key missions: to change the face of paid media; redress the gender imbalance in the industry, and to fix the gender pay gap. She has dedicated herself to all three objectives with passion and determination.

A maths graduate from Oxford (where she earned the highest marks in her year), Newton started out in management consulting but grew intrigued with paid media.

In terms of gender equality, Newton is leading the charge by increasing the overall pay for women employees at Brainlabs by 8.6%

She joined Brainlabs and in less than a year was made director, helping to steer the company’s rapid growth. Within five years, the agency went from a team in an attic to a company of 104 employees with a turnover in excess of £12 million in a huge new office in Old Street. Now, as chief operating officer, she is responsible for all client services and heads a team of 81.

Internally, Newton has substantially improved productivity at Brainlabs. She created an automated system that tracks interaction with clients that alerts teams when they’ve failed to engage in awhile. This increased productivity and contributed to raising the agency’s customer satisfaction scores (CSAT) from 91% to 95%.

In terms of gender equality, Newton is leading the charge by increasing the overall pay for women employees at Brainlabs by 8.6%. Under her management, the gender balance has also shifted from 25% to 42% female. To ensure a culture of equality, she has introduced a committee which gathers to discuss any issues and a revamped performance review system which addresses the male prejudice in self-assessment and peer reviews. She also pioneered an anonymous forum for anyone to speak up about equality or any other issues that arise in the workplace

Outside the workplace, Newton regularly speaks at major industry events including SMX and HeroConf and has won awards including, BIMA 100 and NatWest Everywoman, for her commitment to gender equality in the workplace and her progress within paid media.

Tammie O’Leary, director, Vet Vouchers

Although the UK is a nation of pet lovers, until recently there was no formalised way gifting veterinary care services, despite the steep cost of owning a pet.

Fifteen years of experience, including 12 years as veterinary business manager for MSD AnimalHealth, drove Tammie O’Leary to try to solve this with the launch of Vet Vouchers in 2015, the UK’s first digital gift voucher service for veterinary practices.

"Many owners want to do the right thing by their pets, but many cannot afford to do so.

Not a digital native, O’Leary has had to adapt to launching and running an online venture

Vet Vouchers is an option to help towards that," O’Leary explains. "This venture brings an option to the marketplace that allows financial contributions towards something that, in hard times, gets dropped to the bottom of the priority list."It is important to O’Leary that her company has a strong charitable ethic. The website has a donation page for people who wish to contribute towards the vet care of horses rehabilitated by the World Horse Welfare.

What is more, 30 per cent of the company’s net profits is donated to small animal charities. Not a digital native, O’Leary has had to adapt to launching and running an online venture. She has succeeded in building her company on her own, with advice from business professionals, while working part-time and mothering two children.

It is still early days for the company and O’Leary’s focus has been to get the idea to market, generate awareness and knowledge of its existence and signing up veterinary practices. Veterinary practices registered with the voucher scheme have found it has increased customer footfall, offered a differentiating factor from competitors and improved customer experience.

MAVERICKS