How did you get there? Phil Burgess

Great to hear from Phil, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of WITHIN, a new venture on a mission to radically improve employee well-being by building connections at work. Prior to this, Phil spent 10+ years at global customer agency C Space, where he started as a client-facing Director, became Joint Managing Director of their London office and then moved to Boston to take on the role of Chief People Officer, overseeing HR, Learning and Development, DEI and Talent Acquisition. Outside work, Phil is married to Sarah, has two young children, and is Co-Founder of a not-for-profit, Just1bag, Phil also campaigns to encourage people to pick up litter one bag at a time. #just1bag2020 has led to 4,200 people having collected more than 60,000 bags of litter around the world. When he’s not running the kids around, he can be found getting outdoors as much as possible. 

So, how did you get into the industry, and take us through how you got to this point?

When I was nineteen, I signed up for a sales internship program in the States selling door-to-door educational books. I was looking for experiences to help me stand out when I graduated and didn’t want to do a typical internship. So each summer through university I’d relocate to a different state (California, Virginia, Illinois, Texas, Florida) and spend 11 weeks working 80+ hours a week on a 100% commission basis knocking on doors and selling books to families. It was the toughest, most character-building experience of my life, but I ended up doing it for 7 years, selling books in the summer and recruiting and training teams to take part during the academic year. I got to travel the world and paid my way through university and it’s also how I met my wife, Sarah.

After my book-selling days, I almost joined Procter & Gamble’s grad scheme but ended up falling into market research when I joined FreshMinds, a boutique insight consultancy. I started in a sales role, cold-calling Heads of Insight to try to book meetings to introduce them to what we did. I loved getting under the skin of their briefs and putting together solutions to solve their challenges so I ended up moving into the research consulting side of the business working for clients like the DCMS, Royal Mail and National Lottery Commission. But I found the public sector side of things a little slow, so I petitioned to move into the Consumer Research team and worked my way up to Head of Consumer Research where I worked with clients like Jaguar Land Rover, LEGO, Starbucks, General Mills and Warburtons. 

One day, I was presenting at an MRS Conference on our approach to social media analysis (in the days when monitoring social media was just becoming fashionable). A few old-school types asked some particularly challenging questions and I managed to come up with answers to their sceptical heckles. Afterwards, I was approached by the Managing Director of co-creation consultancy, Promise, an agency that was shaking things up in the co-creation and online communities space. He liked how I’d handled myself under pressure and asked me to interview for a Director role at Promise. I got the job and jumped ship. Two years later, the business was acquired by Omnicom and merged with Communispace. It was a great experience to be part of the journey from a scrappy 35-person agency, through a merger, growth to 400 people and its subsequent rebrand to C Space.

I spent 10 years with C Space in a variety of roles, growing a consultancy team, running our London office as Joint Managing Director, and then moving to Boston for 4 years to take on the role of Chief People Officer. I learned a tremendous amount about leadership by getting a lot of stuff wrong and a few things right, and this period cemented my belief that if you focus on people and build the right values into the culture of an agency, people will do great things for their clients and the agency will grow. That’s what happened.

After 11 years, I left C Space last summer and returned to the UK. I took a sabbatical and decided I wanted a break from corporate life and to do something that matters. In February, I launched a new business with Felix Koch (joint MD with me at C Space) and Nicky Forsythe, who runs a social enterprise called Talk For Health. We’d partnered with them at C Space on a mental health and connection program which made a meaningful difference to people’s well-being and sense of connection. Experiencing the impact of that program, on a personal level and on the people who participated, gave me the confidence to focus on it full-time. We’re called WITHIN and we’re on a mission to radically improve employee well-being by building connections at work. It’s exciting but nerve-racking to be starting a new venture, but we think we can make a difference in this space.

Career paths are rarely without challenges. Can you share an honest moment from your career when things didn’t go quite according to plan, but the lessons remain with you to this day?

Shortly after taking on the role of Joint Managing Director of our London office things weren’t going well. I remember looking at the results of the employee engagement survey just after we took on the role. Only 40% of people intended to spend 12 months with us. Only 57% were proud to work at our agency. Felix (who was Joint Managing Director with me) and I jumped in a room and moaned about all of the ‘entitled Millennials’ we were working with who seemed to expect us to solve their problems. And then we realised as leaders of the office, that we were part of the problem. We were trying to fix everything ourselves and weren’t doing a great job of that as there was so much to do. We weren’t asking for help. We weren’t involving people in the change we were trying to drive. So we developed a plan to work with the team to co-create a new set of company values, which played a huge role in transforming our agency culture. Over three years, pride increased to 87% and we won ‘Best Agency’ and ‘Best Place to Work’. That experience taught me that it’s OK to ask for help and even if you’re the MD, you don’t have to have all the answers. What you do have to do is give people hope things will get better, and get people involved in driving the change you (and they) want to see.

What two things should junior researchers focus on as they progress in their careers?

Consciously reflect on how you’re developing right now. Don’t worry about having it all worked out: I talk to a lot of junior people who worry that they don’t have everything mapped out or know exactly where they want to end up… and others who are so focused on getting to the next rung of the ladder that they’re not taking a moment to enjoy where they are at the moment. Progression is important, but make sure you’re taking a moment to consciously reflect on what you’re learning RIGHT NOW. Every role offers an opportunity to learn and grow and will play an important part in the journey you’re on. I used to update my CV every December, not because I wanted to leave my job, but to remind myself of what I’d learned each year, how I’d contributed and the clients I’d impacted.

Proactively ask for feedback at the moment. Don’t wait until your performance review: No matter how well you’re doing at work, there’s always something you can learn or do better. I think many of us wait for others to provide us with feedback and then get frustrated if we don’t get any. As I think about people I’ve worked with who have accelerated their careers, they’ve always been proactive about asking for feedback at the moment – What are a couple of things I did well in that meeting? What’s one thing I could have done differently? If I could change one thing about how I facilitated that group what would it be? I’m always impressed with junior people asking me what they could improve. It shows me they’re committed to self-development and want to progress, and that they’re humble enough to know they haven’t got it all worked out just yet. None of us does, really.

Do you have any advice for our sector?

I think that we do incredible, meaningful work in this sector, but we don’t always get the credit for what we’re doing. Our work can play a supporting role where other agencies then get the credit or the big splash when a product or campaign launches. As researchers, integrity and humility matter, but I think we can work harder not only to ensure that our work leads to impact for our clients but that we’re able to tell better stories about the role we’ve played in getting to impact so we get more credit when the results are shared. If we developed the insight statement to underpin a successful advertising campaign we should be braver in telling that story. If our focus groups inspired a new packaging concept, we should stake claim to that, even if another agency ultimately goes on to do the final design work.

And do you have anyone who has helped your career so far that you’d like to acknowledge and say thanks or give a shout-out to?

Catherine Crump was an incredible manager for me at FreshMinds as I was setting out on my career. She always struck the right balance between showing she believed in me, and also challenging me to do better when I needed the push or more challenging feedback. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of other great leaders who led by example and provided me with models of leadership I could aspire to. I’ve particularly valued people who’ve shown me that you don’t have to subscribe to an outdated model of alpha-male leadership to get to the top or make a difference. I’ve also learned from leaders who I don’t admire. They’ve helped me to work out how I do and don’t want to be experienced when I’m leading others.

When I reflect on the people who have most helped me progress, it’s really the teams I’ve been lucky enough to work with that I’d give the credit to. There are way too many to mention, but all the people who have been on teams I’ve led who have encouraged me when I’ve been down, called me on my BS when they’ve needed to, reminded me of my privilege and the power and influence I have as a result, or given me feedback on how I can improve even though it may have been tough to share and I may not have wanted to hear it. I’m a big believer in the notion that many of us get ahead by ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ and that’s absolutely been the case for me.