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In the second part of my series heroing talented peers from my Social Gals networking group, I chat to my social media manager friend in an interview with Jess Sims!
As we wander around Covent Garden (and ogle the new Bluebird store), Jess spills all the gossip from her former role, tells me all about her struggles going freelance and what she’s learnt along the way. Jess speaks her mind so grab a comfy seat for an insightful read into her predictions for the future of social media and her career so far.
Jess Sims, a freelancer under the alias Jess Does helps small brands and big brands shape their PR and marketing. She’s also one half of industry-shaking duo Be More Hive with Kate Baxter (for whom I contributed a little Q&A for on being a Social Media girl – have a read!). Before going freelance, Jess worked as PR & Social Media Manager for a pretty well known homeware brand…
Let’s start at the beginning. Jess studied Fashion Promotion at the London College of Fashion. Unlike my course of the same name, she was lucky enough to work on sponsored projects with real budgets set by people in industry. She also was able to network and create invaluable contacts whilst on the course. As well as those perks, her tutors were also digitally savvy at a time when social media wasn’t a thing yet. One such tutor ensured that every student created a Twitter account.
Jess – “On my first day I was tasked with starting a blog, which back then wasn’t a thing.”
When Jess came out of university with a specialism in broadcasting, she was armed with all the social media accounts already set up.
Jess – “That [education] has definitely fuelled my career but I think it went back further than that. At Secondary school, I was always told that I didn’t write academically enough but my English teacher, Mr Daniels, recognised that my writing style was naturally more journalistic so he encouraged me to write in a more light-hearted way. I don’t think I would have gone on to do my course had it not been for him.”
I asked her what she would have done instead.
Jess – “I wanted to do creative advertising but the day before I had to submit all of my university applications I was like ‘ I don’t want to do art, I want to write.’ I stumbled upon my course just before midnight and applied for it right away. It was the most nail-biting thing in the world because I had nothing to help me, I just had Google and my dial-up connection.”
“I stumbled upon my [university] course just before midnight [when applications closed] and applied for it right away. It was the most nail-biting thing in the world.”
Lucy – “So with a broadcasting degree in your hand, what was your first job?”
Jess – “I freelanced in production straight away and I hated it. I worked on a British food TV show out in the Hamptons for 3 months and only had one day off, which I spent hungover. I was just too young for freelance life then. I loved digital but I hadn’t even thought about it [as a career option], I thought that TV sounded cool.”
From ‘fluffy’ to freelance
I told Jess that I’d had a very similar experience when I came out of uni and ended up freelancing but not knowing what on Earth I was doing, particularly in terms of money and understanding my worth. Jess attributes confidence with her downfall because she thought she’s find a job more easily than she did when she came out of uni.
Jess – “My biggest mistake at the time was not preparing myself for how difficult post-uni life was going to be. Everyone who was getting anywhere had a little black book or a family contact but I didn’t have any of that.”
“My biggest mistake at the time was not preparing myself for how difficult post-uni life was going to be.”
Luckily, a friend came to her aide with a PR 3 month paid internship at an agency who worked for interiors brands.
Jess – “I was adamant that I didn’t want to be a PR girl because I thought it was the fluffiest career in the world.”
What surprised Jess wasn’t that the agency didn’t work at all in social media because they felt they ‘weren’t there yet’. Once she was settled in, she started suggesting blogs that their clients could work with. It started adding revenue for the PR company and they started seeing the benefits. What was key was that Jess both recognised the value in digital – which wasn’t yet the norm – and was confident enough to put the innovative ideas into practice.
Jess – “I found my calling networking with Bloggers before they were even really a thing. Bloggers like Will from Bright Bazaar were still working full time but just had such a passion for their hobbies so were blogging on the side.”
She also saw the importance in networking within PR.
Jess – “It was all down to relationship building. I was using social media as a research tool as a way to find new people to build relationships with. I was following my clients on social and seeing what they were doing on weekends and then talking to them about it. Had I not been so confident, I would still be working as a generic PR girl. Social media totally changed the landscape of the brand-to-PR relationship.”
Jess is clearly a pioneer. Her key skill is seeing the bigger picture both in terms of how PR and marketing fit into a business as a whole and also where a brand or a project might be in 3 months, 6 months or a year’s time. This is a skill I’m pretty jealous of.
I ask her all about her famous life at American homeware brand West Elm and what it was like when she first started.
Jess – “The job had a clear goal – to introduce the brand to the UK. The US were very established in terms of digital when I started so I just copied what they were doing. After a while I realised that the UK wasn’t ready for how the US used social media even though the social team in the States were phenomenal. We were 4-5 years behind back then so I adapted the approach to fit the UK market but was in a great position to know what was to come by learning from the US.”
Winning at Influencer marketing
Her favourite part of the role, and arguably the one which has made the most impact for the brand, was Influencer marketing. Had she had unlimited resource, Jess would have started an ambassador programme for West Elm. Sadly they didn’t have the budget to pay Influencers so it never went ahead.
Luckily her new role at Teapigs as a freelancer has allowed her the opportunity to roll out her master plan. She finds that once you’ve got the senior bosses aligned and understanding what PR and marketing can do, you get more impact. She explains that a lot of the time her freelance role is about putting a case forward to key stakeholders as to why PR and marketing are so important. In most businesses, these departments are usually the lowest priority when it comes to assigning budgets because they’re impact is usually quite difficult to measure. Jess explains that the key is in translating the results into KPIs that they understand. Luckily, as a freelancer paid to do just that, she feels that she has more influence than she would should she be working in-house for that brand.
Lucy – “It’s definitely something that I myself have seen in the flesh this year when my department started to PR itself and share its successes with the purse-string-holders. Now we’ve been granted more budget. Essentially, it’s all about making a name for yourself.”
Jess makes the great point that up until very recently, convincing the big dogs was a pretty tricky thing to do but now that the GDPR has kicked in, many small brands are realising that they can’t rely solely on their CRM databases. Now that their mailing lists have shrunk, they are now having to find alternative means of rebuilding a customer base that they can market to. She’s already seeing small brands allocate more spend into paid social as a result.
In Jess’s new role, she not only advises brands but also Influencers. As someone who has mentored an Influencer myself for a year and a half, I’m keen to know what commonalities she’s found amongst her clients in this new role. Defining their brand seems to be the running thread, which Jess sees as the biggest opportunity for Influencers and is why she’ll be running a session with her business partner Kate on it at Blogging conference Blogtacular this year. (Get your tickets if you haven’t already!)
Jess – “Blogs are peoples’ businesses now, and yet so many aren’t seeing their business as a brand. Many micro-influencers haven’t had experience of working in the industry before becoming an Influencer so they’re clueless as to how to build a brand. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is when Influencers engineer their content for other influencers in order to help them grow, rather than for customers. I think there’s a huge opportunity in terms of setting guidelines and structures for them. The tools that I use for my Influencer clients are the same as for my brand clients.”
Blogs are peoples’ businesses now, and yet so many aren’t seeing their business as a brand.
Lucy – “I totally agree! I sometimes can’t believe how much I’ve learnt from working for brands that I’ve then been able to communicate and teach Kristabel (who I mentor).
I want to ask Jess a million questions about working with Influencers but what I’m really keen pick her brain on are her views on Influencer agents. It’s a topic that has come up before in our Social Gals group thread when I asked the network how to deal with difficult agent situations.
Jess – “When I was at West Elm I had a policy of not working with agents because when you’re working with people’s houses, you really need to get to know them. When you’re going into their homes yourself, you just can’t do that with an agent in the mix. I fully understand that when Influencers reach a certain level, it becomes really difficult for them to juggle the business side of Influencer marketing and I understand why they take on help for that but most agents are taking the piss in terms of what they’re charging.”
“Most agents are taking the piss in terms of what they’re charging.”
My head practically falls off from nodding and I’m delighted when Jess is happy to give me an example.
Jess – “I approached an Influencer that I have a long term relationship with for the ambassador programme that I’m doing for Teapigs. We discussed the project in and out including quoting a fee. She then passed me on to her agent because contractually she had to. I received an email from the agent stating ‘I want to make you aware that there will be a 20% additional fee on top of this for my time.’ The fee was already set, the agent would literally just be a sound-board, so I asked them how on Earth they felt that they could charge such an amount. I was really taken aback by it.”
Lucy – “Did having a no-agents policy at West Elm ever set you back?”
Jess – “When I told [the Influencer about my policy], they would still be on board because they wanted the product. [As a brand,] you were always in a strong position. But I’m learning that with other brands, it’s a little harder for that to happen because the demand for the product isn’t there.”
Lucy – “I don’t feel that I could say that in my job as in fashion, the relationship is much more transactional and we do work with some good agents frequently already.”
We both agree though that often brands are too passive in agreeing to agents’ fees without question. Jess gives me another example.
Jess – “I worked with an athlete’s agent and they quoted £15k. That, for what we were asking them to do, was ridiculous. We pushed back and but they said ‘well that’s their fee.’ The agent clearly then went back to their client to say no and then all of a sudden the fee went down to £1k! For me there’s no system there, there’s no logic [to the fee]. If they had broken down that original fee then I’d be fine about it but if you’re just going to throw a number out there, it just makes me really angry.”
“For me there’s there’s no logic [to Influencer’s agents fees]… It just makes me really angry.”
Jess’s new business with Kate, Be More Hive is looking to deconstruct this madness in order to set some standards. I’m excited to see what they can do to add formality to the fee-setting process.
The feedback loop is another topic that Jess is passionate about.
Jess – “Feedback is something that no one ever asked for and that drove me nuts. [The Influencer and I] both put a lot of time and energy to have this conversation and get this project off the ground, do you not want to know how it performed?!”
“Feedback is something that no one ever asked for and that drove me nuts… Do you not want to know how it performed?!”
She explains that sometimes projects don’t perform but if the Influencer never knows that, then how can the industry survive and grow? On the flipside, those who do make an impact for brands should know that so that they can use the case study to help them get further work. Clearly very few brands are offering feedback as Influencers are still quite surprised to receive it.
Lucy – “The times that I have asked brands for feedback after a project, I’ve received the best quotes for my media kit.”
Feedback all comes down to building good relationships, which Jess explains is incredibly important in order to save our Industry from over-ad-saturation.
Jess – “Losing that relationship is what is killing the industry. [When Influencers regularly use things like self-serve apps], customers see #ad and #sponsored and they become very cynical about Influencer marketing and that is what’s going to loose campaigns their effectiveness if this carries on. Great relationships mean that there’s a passion that translates to the customer that you just don’t have if it’s a cold-hearted project. I myself have unfollowed people who I can see use these apps. I swear if I see another ad for Maharbis slippers ad…”
“Great relationships [between brands and Influencers] mean that there’s a passion that translates to the customer that you just don’t have if it’s a cold-hearted project.”
Authenticity is pretty clearly a theme there. I’m interested to know what Jess has learnt from her job that she applies to her own social channels.
Jess – “To be more personal. For many years I was creating that Instagram life where everything was great, but I had a turning point 2 years ago when I had depression and wanted to break [the false facade]. I wrote a very detailed post about it on my blog and the reaction I got from my online friends was so empowering and supportive especially friends who’s lives I thought were perfect when they said that they had the same experience. I don’t know if I could have gotten over that period without that.”
Lucy – “Do you think that brands would see this sort of truth-baring so favourably?”
Jess – “From a brand perspective, it’s about finding the balance. A good example is a small family run business that I work with. They nearly lost their entire database due to the GDPR. I curated a post for them on Instagram which talked about the struggle. Their audience responded so positively saying that they ‘didn’t realise that a small business could be impacted so negatively by them not clicking to re-subscribe to emails’. The Instagram post saw 100 people sign back up to their mailing list as a result.”
I turn the conversation to work ethic. I’ve seen Jess work so hard in everything she does from doing the role of 3 people at work, grafting out of hours or making a new business for herself within a week. I want to know whether this attitude is her nature or the way in which she’s been nurtured by her upbringing or schooling.
Jess – “I think it’s nature. I don’t think I’ve ever stepped back and stopped at any point. I had two or three days off after leaving West Elm and I didn’t know how to handle that. It threw me because I didn’t know who I was. I’m constantly looking at what’s next as well as what I’m working on now, so that’s effectively doubled my workload. I don’t think that will ever stop [being this busy] in my life.”
“I had two or three days off after leaving West Elm… It threw me because I didn’t know who I was.”
Lucy – “What did those days off teach you?”
Jess – “I realised that work had become me. I realised that I never wanted work to define who I was. A lot of people thought my surname was ‘West Elm’!”
Lucy – “Hahaha! I do agree with that, everyone knew you as Jess from West Elm, like ASOS Nat!
Jess – “I went to a book launch last week and realising that someone introduced me as Jess formally from West Elm 5 times. I don’t really know the way out from that but it’s only been 6 months so it’s still new I suppose.”
I ask her whether she ever felt that her need to work all the time is ever an issue for her.
Jess – “Yes, I remember there would be so many times when I’d be out for dinner with friends and they’d rip me apart for being on my phone all the time because I’d need to reply to social posts or take a conference call. I’m a lot better now at switching off, which I think has come with age and not needing to prove myself anymore.”
Jess and I get deep talking about her struggles with money and confidence that that came after leaving her 9-5 desk job. I remind her of the messages that I sent her telling how much I believed that going freelance would be the best thing in her life. I knew that she would prosper from it and luckily she took on board and believed in.
Lucy – “I’m curious to know, after these first 6 months of freelance life, what has been your biggest lesson? What advice would you give me if I did the same?”
Jess – “To structure your day. It’s so easy to fall out of a working schedule if you end up mooching around the house or go and have coffee with friends. I don’t like routine anymore but I do try to get to a gym class at 7:30 in the morning which then spurs on everything else.”
Our bill arrives and both Jess and I need to dash off to our respective gym classes so I finish on a question that looks forward. What does she think about the future of social media?
“The most important thing to do when going freelance is to structure your day.”
“I think this is the cloudiest it’s been in terms of knowing what’s next in social media. I predict a backlash, as customers want more privacy. I think it’s going to be really interesting in the next couple of years in terms of how we use social media, particularly for brands.”
And what’s the future of Jess Does?
Jess – “I would love Be More Hive to become my bigger focus because I want to shape the UK industry and I think that the ideas that Kate and I have has that potential. My gut is that brands are going to start shaping their own social channels via communities and that is hugely exciting to me. Eventually, as we run workshops and courses and start to make a profit, the business can start to grow.”
Lucy – “Well when you’re hiring, give me a shout!”
Jess – “I will, you’re top of the list!”
Lucy – “Haha amazing, thanks!”
To hear more about Jess’s career and Be More Hive, take a listen to Jess’s and Kate’s interview on the Blogtacular podcast.
For tickets to Blogtacular, head here.
Want to know more about working in social media and Influencer marketing?