What I've Learnt: Hannah Abbasi, Head of Insight, Outform
Global retail specialist Outform is an innovation agency with offices worldwide and partnerships with a wide range of multinational clients.
Head of Insight Hannah Abbasi is based in Leeds, having started at The Shopper Agency, which Outform added to its group of companies in 2018. In her role she works across both companies, in collaboration with Outform's leadership team.
Outform serves clients which include Amazon, Tag Heuer and Philips, and has offices in China, Israel, the USA and The Netherlands.
Prior to The Shopper Agency, Hannah was interim Head of Marketing at Moda In Pelle, and is an experienced marketing figure who has worked with a range of well-known retail names.
We found out what lessons she learnt...
Which single daily habit or practice could you not do without?
I have to get outside. Doesn’t matter if I’m walking, running, sledging or pushing the pram - I just need to get out. We took fresh air for granted before the pandemic, and multiple lockdowns have reminded me how much I need that time and space to switch off and recalibrate my thoughts.
What's been your luckiest break?
Getting onto the management training scheme for Arcadia when I was 18. It wasn’t entirely luck - I worked bloody hard to get there - but it was the biggest step up from all the other jobs I’d had, on the shop floor. The Arcadia scheme was nicknamed ‘retail bootcamp’ because it was a totally gruelling, high-pressure experience, but it set me up for the rest of my career in terms of the skills and outlook I needed.
I spent five years on brands like Topshop and Evans, and it taught me how to manage teams. That’s hands-down the best, and most difficult, part of any senior job; managing people well by earning their respect. It’s also where my fascination with customer behaviour and the wider retail landscape began, which led me through Republic, Warehouse, AllSaints and Moda in Pelle before moving to agency-side.
It’s the end of an era losing Arcadia from our high streets, but how lucky is retail to gain such a talented bunch of people?
What's your best failure?
Not going to university. There’s still a real stigma attached to not going, and while uni’s naturally the right choice for many people, it never appealed to me. I was always quite hands-on, so it made more sense to get that shop floor and managerial experience early on.
For me, the support I’ve received from leaders, mentors and colleagues over the past two decades has been just as valuable as time at university. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that, and it’s something I try to remember when working with junior people now - invest time in them, because one day they’ll be running the company!
What is the best investment you've ever made, either financial or time?
My little boy, Frank. Being a parent is the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced, but it’s also been the most rewarding. The thing is, I’m a control freak, and I love sleeping. Both of those are out of the window now, but having Frank - now two years old - has made me accept that things don’t have to be perfect.
He’s supercharged my ambitious streak. My job is important and I want to succeed for him - I want to give him the future he deserves. Frank is my number one priority, and I’m lucky to have the support I need at work that allows me to be there for mealtimes, bathtime and bedtime. Everyone at Outform respects the boundaries I’ve set out, which is invaluable.
Which book would you recommend others to read and why?
'Kind' by Alison Green. Having a two-year old limits the time you have to read deep and meaningful tomes, so 'Kind' is a kids’ book, loved by Frank and me in equal measure.
There’s no plot as such, it’s just a book about being nice to people - sharing, helping and making others feel less alone. As adults, especially now, we could all do with a bit more of that in our lives. There’s a line I try to take with me to work every day: "Let’s be curious about the world and everyone in it - it’s fun to see what we do the same and what we do different."
What one piece of advice would you give your 21-year-old self?
Savour memories. The good, the bad and the ugly. Messy nights out in your teens, tender moments with your family, milestones at work, and even just walks in the park - it’s all part of your story and it makes you who you are.
Who or what has had the single biggest influence on your working life?
My amazing Dad. He passed away suddenly in 2017. He was a doctor who absolutely loved his job, and was a complete workaholic. Being brought up in that environment showed me that hard work pays off and finding a job you love is possible, but it can also come at a price.
He struggled to balance family and work, and looking back, he missed out on a lot when we were growing up. As a result, I’m always mindful of getting the balance right. It’s not always easy, but it’s possible.
Tell us something about you that would surprise people.
Nothing too scandalous - I used to have loads of piercings and pink hair. Actually, when I was 13, I was given an art scholarship. For anyone who’s seen my ‘artwork’, that will definitely come as a surprise - I can’t draw a stickman to save my life nowadays - but all I wanted to be back then was a fashion designer, and I like to think I still have an eye for good design.
How will the COVID crisis change work for the better?
It’ll improve how we look at three key topics: People, time and money.
People: You can now hire without the encumbrance of the 9-to-5, or geographical restrictions. I’m a case in point - I hold down an EMEA role from a house in Leeds, which would’ve been unthinkable a decade ago.
Time: In that we’re wasting less of it. We’re reclaiming it from commuting and pointless meetings. It used to take me an hour to travel six miles on public transport, but now I have the time to breathe, sort Frank out without rushing, and still get a head-start at work.
Money: We’re more aware of how we’re spending and investing, both on a personal and business level. We’re making smarter decisions and weighing up what’s really essential.
What does success look like to you?