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“I have an exceptional cheerleading squad”

It’s International Women’s Day and it’s also Agenda’s first birthday. Here we talk to our co-founders about being business leaders, their lessons learned and the importance of lifting up those around you.

A year ago today, we rebranded from Slack Communications to Agenda — it's been quite the ride. What better way to celebrate International Women’s Day and our birthday than a chat with Agenda co-directors Becky Slack and Vic Barlow? 

What have been some of the highlights since rebranding? 

B: Ahhh there have been so many. We are having such a good time. Our client portfolio is really interesting with some excellent projects for us to get our teeth stuck into. I’ve particularly enjoyed the discourse analysis I’ve been doing for clients, looking at the way in which public conversations on issues such as antisemitism, Gaza and racism within the aid sector are being framed. There have been some really useful insights to emerge from this that are relevant for a wide variety of contexts.  

V:  I’ve really enjoyed our growth from a fairly small group of associates to a larger pool of talent across a wider range of sectors and services. This means our client base has been able to expand too. A major highlight for me is creating a methodology which captures why and how we go about our work. I think this demonstrates our commitment to sharing and learning as we go, and making sure we give our associates and clients a thoughtful, tried and tested offer. 

What do you enjoy most about working together? 

B: After 10 years of running Slack Communications on my own, it’s really good having a partner-in-comms to work with. Vic brings a wealth of complementary experience to mine and I learn so much from her all the time. She’s also good for giving me a kick up the ass when I need it, and for helping me stay grounded when I have a mad idea that needs… let’s say… a little more thought. And we laugh. A lot. Good times.  

V: I love being back in a team where I have a reliable, knowledgeable and provocative partner. Coming from many years leading charity and union in-house comms and membership teams, I was missing the camaraderie and inspiration of colleagues. Working with Becky, running our own show, is fantastic because she’s always looking for the next big idea, she often nudges me out of my comfort zone and her insightful take on my work helps me over many moments of ‘what next’? 

What do you enjoy most about being in business? 

V: I’ve worked on more projects across more sectors in the past few years than I ever did over 20 years when I was in-house. One day I can be leading large CRM or brand strategies for big names and the next day, working on social media or crisis comms projects for smaller organisations that really welcome our additional expertise and help. I like that Becky and I learn from every client, and I like that we have a very good time in the process. 

B: The variety. The flexibility. The autonomy. Since being in business, I’ve edited magazines, run international media campaigns, chaired political events, written countless comms strategies, worked with charities, social tech companies, global media brands, international organisations… Every client, every project, every day brings something different. I also like the fact I can choose to work from Belgium or Barbados or wherever I can find a wifi connection.  


What are the major lessons you have learned as business leaders? 

B: Valuing our work properly can be a challenge, particularly because we work in the social sector which has minimal resources to invest in comms. For years, I gave my everything and didn’t always get much in return, so I ended up burning out, which doesn’t help anyone. I’ve got much better at saying no, working smarter, not harder, and taking holidays (although there is definitely still room for improvement here, checks flights to the Caribbean

V: I’ve learned to think big, be brave and stay real! We have to constantly challenge ourselves and our clients to deliver the best work we can, often working at pace to keep momentum and to spend clients’ money responsibly. I’ve learned to surround myself with the best talent to help us be successful and I’ve learned to say no to projects which don’t match our values or won’t cover our costs. 

The theme for this year’s IWD is Invest in Women, Accelerate Progress – what has influenced your progress over the years? 

V: My progress has been down to some key individuals who have either managed me or been absolute pillars of support in the workplace and at home. For every step in my career, there has been a manager or teammate who has spotted what I’m good at, then encouraged and mentored me to be more confident and do better – most recently, that’s been Becky. Among my friends and loved ones, I have an exceptional cheerleading squad. I hope I have paid back the privilege by finding those people, particularly women, who I can support and encourage in similar ways. 

B: There are three main investments that I think have accelerated my progress over recent years: moving to Brussels in 2020 and taking a Masters in Political Strategy and Communications – the knowledge and confidence I gained have been instrumental in the creation of some new offers that are taking Agenda’s impact to a new level; inviting the awesome Vic to join me at the helm of the business – it’s true when they say ‘better together’; working with an ace team of strategists and designers to rebrand from Slack Communications to Agenda, which has breathed new life into the business – and me! 

This time of year is full of stories of everyday sexism. Have you experienced sexism and how have you handled it?  

B: I have too many examples for one blog! Many, many ‘handsy’ men; being asked at a job interview if I was planning on having babies (none of your bloody business, love); a senior male colleague being incapable of accepting my suggestions, and me having to get a male colleague to explain what action he needed to take; the time I was chairing a Westminster roundtable with politicians and business leaders and one of the male participants assumed I was the waitress… It’s tiresome. As for how I handle it: deep breaths, counting to 10 and then a dogged determination to dismantle the patriarchy in whatever way I can.  

V: Oh goodness, what a list, although there are also many examples of men who have not only never displayed such behaviour but actively seek to call it out. Like Becky, I’ve been manhandled, out and out patronised, mansplained, told I’d be ok going freelance because my husband is so well connected, he’d get me jobs (!!!) But what makes me most furious is when I’ve been ignored or talked over in favour of the men in the room who know less than me. I let them chat, leave a pause, then slay with my expertise, making sure I ask the worst offenders the most challenging questions. 

What advice would you give other women looking to make their mark in business?  

V: Take your time to figure out your offer and niche. Network and make friends with other women in the same space—most are really generous with their advice, and many will become sources of new business and collaboration. Find a wingwoman or two and be prepared for this relationship to be as important as any other in your life. Don’t think you can’t do it. Stay focused, take constructive criticism, and keep learning. Most of all, do something you love. 

B: Don’t try and do everything yourself. Don’t try and be everything to everyone. Find trusted partners and collaborators to work with. Asking for help is not a weakness, it’s a strength. Don’t undervalue yourself. When you make a mistake (you will make many), own it, learn from it and move on. When something seems scary, take a deep breath and remember that Liz Truss had the gall to reappear in public after killing the UK economy. If she’s got the guts to do that, you can do whatever it is you want to do. Take regular holidays - you’re no good to anyone if you burn out. And make sure you have a bloody good time! Otherwise, what’s the point?  

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