Interview: Wavemaker’s Emma Slater on her Yorkshire roots and the agency’s next phase outside of London

Rachael Hesno's picture
by Rachael Hesno
Emma Slater - Wavemaker

Wavemaker’s newly appointed Regional Managing Director Emma Slater on how the new Manchester base will act as a “springboard” for the region and why she is excited for Wavemaker’s next phase outside of London.

As Wavemaker North’s CEO Mick Style announced he is departing the agency in May, Emma Slater has taken over the reins as Regional Managing Director and has big plans for the agency outside of London.

“He's been by my side all that time. I wouldn't be where I am today without having worked with him,” she told Prolific North. 

Despite being at the agency for 25 years, Emma is just one of a number of long-term staffers at the agency - but she hasn’t been tempted to seek pastures new for one key reason.

“The agency has never stood still. It's always been something different so I don't feel like I've worked for the same agency for all that time,” she said.

She has held various high-ranking roles through the agency’s changes, including through the merger of MEC and Maxus which led to the formation of WPP-owned Wavemaker in 2017. 

As she plans to celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary in two weeks, she jokingly remarked: “Not only have I been at Wavemaker for 25 years, I've been married for 25 years and been in the same house and district for 25 years - so maybe I'm just not open to change. Maybe that's it!”

Born and raised in Yorkshire, she proudly explained how she is a “Yorkshire girl” but has spent more time in Manchester having been at university in the city as well as marrying a Mancunian, much to her father's “distress”. 

“He's a proper Yorkshire bloke!” she said.

Prior to joining Wavemaker, which was formerly known as CIA Media Solutions back in 1996, she said her journey has been “an interesting one”.

Wavemaker North's Mick Style, who is leaving the agency in May.
Wavemaker North's Mick Style, who is leaving the agency in May.

“Having a female leader in a business wasn’t as common as it is now”

Starting out as a graduate trainee at Barsby Rowe in Birmingham, she later did a stint at media planning and buying agency BBJ Media working on RHM Foods in London. 

When she first started out in the business, her first job at Barsby Rowe was what led to the inspiration for her early career and later, her leadership style. 

Pat Barsby, who led the organisation at the time, became a “massive inspiration” to her as she was a “really strong woman” who was not on a “pedestal in any way”.

“In those days, having a female leader in a business wasn’t as common as it is now,” she said. 

Advice she has held onto is to “never ask people to do anything that you're not prepared to do yourself', which, she believes, is key to becoming a great leader. 

From emptying the dishwasher, getting her hands “dirty” to her focus on inclusion - striving to “'be nice and work hard” is what resonates with her most.

“I think sometimes leaders in business forget that you are just a person, you're a human being. Yeah you've been successful and you're in a really privileged senior position in a business… but doesn't that make you a person?”

Now, she is inspired by the work ethic of the younger generation coming through Wavemaker’s doors today who are keen, passionate and want to know everything. 

Rewinding back to her own career when she first started out at the agency, then known as CIA Media Solutions, she initially started out as a TV buyer for PR media. 

“I wasn't a very good TV buyer which I am quite happy to admit!,” she said, adding that she later moved into a communications, planning and strategy role, “which has kind of been my background ever since”. 

After moving up the ranks over the years, she has worked alongside Mick Style throughout her career and said she has always been looking for “new and different challenges within the agency”.

Keen to embrace her new role, she is now looking towards the future of the agency. 

“I am able to look at the next phase of Wavemaker outside of London which for me is really, really exciting,” she said, adding, “because I am a Northern girl at heart”.

The existing Wavemaker North office.
The existing Wavemaker North office, in Manchester.

Manchester WPP campus to become a “springboard” for the region

“I love Manchester. It's just such a vibrant brilliant city and it's so wonderful to see it coming back to life again after the last two years, so it's a hugely exciting time.

“For me, it’s being able to connect with all of those new start-ups whether it’s tech, creative or web dev, to really connect and look at how we can work together and do great things and deliver inspiring work to clients,” she said.

The agency’s Manchester office, Wavemaker North, is currently based at Bass Warehouse on Castle Street in Manchester. 

While other agencies and businesses may have shut their office doors for good or downsized due to the pandemic, for Wavemaker North it’s quite the opposite.

Although the agency has embraced hybrid working, she said the office is now “really buzzing”.

The Wavemaker North team, which currently has a headcount of 80, plans to move into a new 82,000sq ft campus at Enterprise City on Quay Street in the next year as WPP merges its Manchester operations. 

The team will be working alongside fellow WPP companies Mediacom, Kinetic, Code Computerlove and Cheetham Bell, which Emma believes is a “great opportunity” for collaboration.

“We are better together, I think, is a key thing.”

“It allows us, as a group of WPP companies, to really make sure that the impact that we can have on Manchester and on the surrounding area is a real force for good. I think that's really important.”

She said the companies will work closely and more as a “collective” to help address key talent concerns, social mobility and helping the business to be opened up to those “who maybe didn’t have that opportunity before”.

“It's not just a building. It's a change in approach and allows us to have an amazing springboard to have a massive impact on a city which we are all positive and are proud of. I think it's really really exciting.”

The Wavemaker North office is the agency’s UK hub for SEO, and works with its client Merlin Entertainments in collaboration with the agency’s London office.

Her vision, and what she is keen to highlight, is that the agency is “additive not duplicative in terms of how we are as a business”.

“We're not just replicating teams, we're making things work smarter, across different clients,” she said.

WPP Manchester campus.
WPP new Manchester campus.

Expanding footprint, untapped corners of the UK and pedalling towards the future

“There are areas that are a little bit untapped, a little bit undiscovered and that, for me, is really exciting,” she said.

“My remit at the moment is to look at how Wavemaker can become an agency that best represents the UK as it is - all four corners of the UK,” she explained.

In the UK, the agency is “looking at the opportunities that are there for us to expand our footprint outside of just the two locations that we've got at the moment”.

While she said it is not “necessarily about opening up Wavemaker offices in every city in the UK,” she is keen to explore “how we connect with different businesses that represent different parts of the UK to grow what we can offer to our clients”.

“It might mean opening new offices,” she said, but emphasised that it is “not the starting point”.

“I'm really passionate. One of the things I talk about a lot is the fact that in our business [in agencies] we are not real people and our clients want to connect with real people.

"We have to be able to understand the real people, right the way across the UK, and I think that if agencies are going to talk that game - they have to deliver that game.”

For Wavemaker as an agency, her “biggest ambition” is for clients and talent to think of them first and foremost.

“I want people to want Wavemaker, whether that's for a career or agency” as she is “hugely passionate” to be more “open and more inclusive”.

For the North, she said the office secured 11 pieces of business last year and is “building on a really strong platform of talent and expertise”.

“It’s really going at pace now which is hugely exciting.

“I feel that the new building will add a further level of energy and inspiration to people.”

As she works on embracing transformation and steering the agency towards representing the whole of the UK, there is something that has remained almost the same - starting her morning routine off with her exercise bike. 

Maybe an abundance of changes aren't for Emma after all?

“I sat cycling this morning watching the Olympics on the TV, so I found that quite an inspirational start to the day watching the skiers.

“It's still the same bike - believe it or not.”

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