“You are not going to get better by accident”

5 minutes with… Rachel Cook, managing director at digital design agency Thompson, who rose through the ranks from office manager to MD after a less-than-ideal MBO

by Éilis Cronin
Last Updated: 22 Jun 2022

Navigating a successful MBO can be a trying time, especially if there is no clear leader to take charge. For digital design agency Thompson, its MBO left a leadership vacuum. Someone had to take a leap of faith and step up to the plate.

Enter Rachel Cook, a music graduate from Leeds Conservatoire who joined the company as a stop-gap until she found work in her chosen field. Despite her humble beginnings as an office manager and then account director, she caught the eye of Ian Thompson, the company’s founder, who planted the seeds of potential leadership.

Two and a half years and a “traumatic” MBO later, Cook, along with two other directors - Chris Skelton and Paul McGuigan, who Cook affectionately refers to as “the boys” - banded together to form the leadership team. But it was Cook herself that made the decision to become the MD.

How did you reach the top?

I came to Thompson because I needed a stop gap job and an ex-client told me about an office manager role. It seemed like a place where I could figure out what I wanted to do while earning some money. It ended up feeling much more like home than anywhere else.

As an office manager I was really just doing front-of-house stuff. I look back now and am really glad I did it because it gave me some insights into how a business runs. I got to see loads of stuff that other people might not have seen, such as how HR policies worked. It sounds boring but it gave me quite a rounded view of the business.

I will happily say I faked it until I made it! When I became MD I thought to myself “I can either give up or I can do it and it will start to make more sense.” So I just decided to go for it. There was a gap that no one was filling out of the three of us (her and “the boys”). So I decided to go for it.

How have you cultivated your leadership style?

I pride myself on going with the flow and leading with energy. I’m very decisive and positive, but this comes from turning up my own personality 10%. I also position knowledgeable people around me, so I can do my job without having to know everything.

A major flaw of mine is that I’ve not worked at any other creative agency, but a benefit of this is that I don’t have any entrenched practices. What it does mean, though, is that I have a limited view of the agency industry, which is why I really love being surrounded by people who have worked at loads of other places who can tell me what’s good or not. I’m constantly asking them what things were like at their previous jobs and trying out new things here. 

What are some of your proudest achievements so far?

Our decision to move from a generalist agency to a specialist agency. Brands who specialise are perceived as experts in the eyes of their clients and are therefore able to position themselves as an expert, charge more for services and be more in-demand.

We specialised in health and wellbeing, but not at the expense of those other clients - we just don’t talk as much about them in our outward comms. While it has been beneficial from a sales perspective, it also matters to me and the boys massively from an ethical and moral standpoint. And it has also been amazing for recruitment. It is the single biggest thing that everyone says to us as potential recruits - that they love that we focus on health and wellbeing.

Biggest challenges since taking on the role?

Knowing how to shift into the role of an MD and being able to change perspectives of yourself and others. I’m now a decision maker and the one who can kick people’s arses if needed.

It was harder in the beginning when there were more people who had known me as a peer, because they would want to tell me to bugger off when I picked them up on things. It was also hard for me to pick them up on things too.

When you’re in this role you don’t want to act like you’re finding it difficult, but this is something I’m trying to get better at. It’s why I’m so vocal about my mental health. My business partners have seen me cry whereas during Covid, people only saw a perfect version of me.

Leadership teams need to be present and demonstratively in charge, but they also need to show some cracks or people will never realise that it’s normal to have them.

What’s the best advice?

I started an event series about five years ago at Thompson and now we have about 150 people come to it about three or four times a year. The very first speaker was a guy called Charles Quick and when I thanked him for coming I said this might be a bit of a tramp smash!

But he said that even if it is, just tell people you were just trying it out. He said if it fails, tell people you were just practising. Now we have the most amazing speakers and it’s turned into a really good thing for recruitment and sales. All because this guy said just give it a go.

Who is your biggest inspiration?

Sue Millington is like a terrifying mother to me! She has previously run two big agencies (Jaywing in Sheffield and Brass in Leeds) and she ran them just by being completely herself. Instead of becoming this corporate bullshit sort of person, she is still spending her free time baking and messing around with her dogs.

Podcasts/books that inspire you as a leader?

There’s a book called How to Have a Good Day and it’s written by a behavioural psychologist called Caroline Webb. It talks about how to harness your psychology to perform better, particularly at work. It tells you how to set up a good routine, how you can manage procrastination, how you can manage people, send good emails and turn things down. I bring it out all the time and try out those techniques. The boys often compliment me after a particularly good meeting, but it’s because I’ve stolen techniques from the book.

The second is a podcast called 2Bobs with David C. Baker and Blair Enns, which is all about creative entrepreneurs. It’s very leadership focused and has a point of view that I subscribe to. I find it very inspiring and instructive - and short, which is my favourite thing about it.

Any advice for women about to take on a senior role?

Find someone else who is already in that position, connect with them on LinkedIn and ask them for a coffee on Zoom. Getting some advice or getting a mentor can be really helpful. There’s a scheme that I’m a mentor in called Kerning the Gap, which is about helping women in design to get into more leadership roles. I really do think that’s a really useful thing.

I would also say you need to start working on your plans, which might sound a bit wanky, but start journaling and planning. You’re not going to get better by accident. You need to start working towards your goal of being brilliant in leadership.

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