Why women need to ditch the taboo and start self-promoting

FrancesDickensBy Frances Dickens, chief executive and co-founder Astus Group and finalist in 2014 NatWest everywoman awards

You could say my company, media barter specialists Astus Group, was founded on self-promotion. Just to give you some background, media barter is a business process that allows advertisers to buy the media they want by paying partly in cash and partly in product. In the UK alone, it is worth around £350m (gross media billings) and it’s growing. As the UK’s biggest media barter specialist, my company Astus facilitates the deals between brand advertisers, media agencies and media owners to ensure everyone’s needs are met.

However things haven’t always been so positive. When my business partner Paul Jackson and I left the US-owned media barter company we worked for to start our own media barter business, our biggest hurdle was the terrible reputation media barter had because it was based on a business model that left advertisers out of pocket. Many rightly refused to give it a second chance. Paul and I knew media barter in the UK could succeed if the business model focused on delivering the media advertisers wanted before asking them to pay for it. It sounds so simple and yet we had to network like mad to convince people to put their trust in our brand new business model and try us out. This included talking up our own skills and abilities. While this didn’t come naturally, it was essential for the business to stand a chance. After all, if Paul and I didn’t believe in our ability to deliver deals that worked for our clients, who else was going to?

The early self-promotion paid off and these days, instead of blowing our own trumpet, we can rely on a combination of word of mouth and our track record. Our clients range from SMEs to large multinational corporates, including StudioCanal, Jaguar and BskyB, and our level of repeat business is around 90%. As a result, my company has a turnover of £132.2 million, a market share of around 45% and offices in the UK, Australia and Singapore. My experience of leading Astus, and simultaneously transforming media barter in the UK, led me to be picked as a finalist in this year’s prestigious NatWest everywoman Awards, celebrating the achievements of women in business, which was a huge honour.

Meeting the other finalists, 16 exceptional women with their own successful and often extraordinary stories, at this month’s awards ceremony at The Dorchester Hotel, was a wonderful experience. However the whole process has meant I have had to spend a lot of time talking about me, making me realise that when it comes to my own story, I’m still nervous about self-promotion.

When you go into business, there’s so much to think about in terms of delivering for clients, profitability, staffing, business strategy, that you don’t get much of a chance to evaluate what you’ve done personally. It was strange having the focus on me, when the success of the business is down to the effort of all of the management team, to the hard work of our staff and to the clients who were prepared to give us a chance. I swung between feeling rather presumptuous to panicking that people would think I was trying to grab all the glory!

It seems culturally I am not alone in this respect. A study from Women of Influence of 326 senior women leaders in North America found that being reluctant to self-promote and shout about their talents was a main stumbling block when it comes to career advancement. More broadly, Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In tells women they have to be more proactive and assertive if they are going to smash the glass ceiling.

Here in the UK, the momentum behind the empowerment and advancement of women in business means there has never been a better time for professional women to push themselves forward and shout about their achievements. There are now no male-only boards in the FTSE 100 and the UK looks to be on course to meet the target set out by Lord Davies’ of 25% female representation on FTSE 100 boards by the end of 2015. Though of course, there is more work to be done here, not least in setting targets for the number of women in executive as opposed to non-executive board roles.

Within media, Karen Blackett, CEO of MediaCom, recently named the most influential black person in the UK, has been dominating the headlines and is a fantastic example of how a woman’s stunning achievements can reflect positively on her company rather than detract from it. A key element in helping me overcome my own dislike of self-promotion is to view talking about my success simply as shorthand for the company’s success.

I am a firm believer that awards and initiatives like the NatWest everywoman Awards are an important way for women to sing their own and each other’s praises, build self-confidence and practice self-promotion. Far from thinking I am hogging the limelight, my team is incredibly supportive. That said, I’ll make sure the next round of drinks is on me.

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