As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicola Piggott & Anna Rozwandowicz.
After a 10-year career in brand communications, Nicola entered the world of competitive gaming at Riot Games, where she led global communication for Riot’s esports team and the most successful esports title in history. Nicola has given counsel and training to esports teams organizations worldwide. Named one of PR Week’s top Women in PR in 2015, she has managed communications around global events like the annual League of Legends World Championships which is the most watched esports event in history. Prior to her career in gaming communications, Nicola worked as in-house comms counsel for brands including Hilton and Nestle. She is a native Londoner living in Los Angeles and a brand new mom of an adorable son Toby.
Before co-founding The Story Mob, Anna was the VP of Communications at ESL. Leading a worldwide team, Anna has overseen global corporate communications, public relations, crisis management and internal communications on behalf of ESL, as well as all of its major properties: ESL One, Pro League and Intel Extreme Masters across the world’s top esports titles, including League of Legends, CS:GO, StarCraft II and Dota 2. She’s also led the setup of the industry’s first integrity initiative (ESIC) and is an adviser for the Cybersmile Foundation. She’s a native Polish turned Dutch, and her homebase is Amsterdam, but she spends most of her time between LA (global HQ) and London (EMEA HQ).
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Nicola: Thanks for having us! My career has always been about 30% good planning and 70% good fortune to be in the right place at the right time — and that’s definitely the story of how I ended up specializing in gaming communications. I’ve been a lifelong gamer — and worked on a team supporting SEGA when I started my career in London — but never thought I could blend my passion and my expertise into one job until I started at Riot Games. I joined in 2012, just when Riot was investing heavily in esports and competitive gaming, and it all clicked. I instinctively understood the dedication and fanaticism that goes into a good sports story and was lucky enough to have a ringside seat as esports grew from a niche sideshow at gaming events to a stadium-filling powerhouse. After over 5 years traveling the world with esports, I saw a gap in the market for comms professionals who specialize in gaming and digital entertainment, teamed up with my partner Anna and the rest is history.
Anna: I have been organizing whatever I could lay my hands on since I was about 7 years old — kids who lived in the same apartment building would knock on my door, asking my parents if I could come out and help them decide what to do with themselves during long and hot summers in the city. I kind of always naturally grasped processes and systems that ruled every undertaking in my life — so throughout my school and university years, I’ve always been in positions where, one way or another, I was building something. I never planned for an entrepreneurial career — I come from a conservative family that values security and stability of a paycheck and a guaranteed pension. Taking a deep dive into creating and owning a company together with Nicola, after years of stable gigs at exciting companies — Newzoo, Perfect World, ESL — was very thrilling. It’s been 4 years since we had the first conversation and I still remember the moment we committed to the Mob.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Nicola: Leading a company and building an international team has been a humbling and eye opening experience from day one. I could talk endlessly about how proud I am to have built a team of amazing comms pros from around the world who love, live and breathe gaming — but for something less self serving: a year or so back, the Olympic Committee held an esports summit, specifically to educate themselves about esports and whether or not they should be included in the Games. Who’d have pictured that 20–30 years ago? We trained several speakers — from players to NBA legends turned esports team owners — to represent our industry at the event. Personally, I think the Olympics needs esports more than we need the Olympics, but that’s a different story.
Anna: Owning and running the Mob together with Nicola has been a series of blessings and learnings I’ll always be thankful for. To me, the most interesting thing that keeps happening is trying to find the right people for the Mob. Nicola and I spend a lot of time trying to find and attract candidates who are not only a great fit when it comes to their skillset and mindset, but also are diverse and bring in an edge we wouldn’t otherwise have. Hiring for character is definitely our top priority. The most interesting project I’ve ever worked on was helping the English Premier League enter the esports space, and figuring out all the unknowns a traditional sports league has to figure out before they speak to a digitally native, critical and more connected than ever esports and gaming audience.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Nicola: I’m notoriously bad at personal admin, and it was a steep learning curve going from a big company environment where I could skate by on the minimum to a small business, where every delay was irresponsible and cost us money. When I was at Riot, I filed almost two years of expenses in one afternoon — so terrible. The running joke was that the reimbursement paid for my wedding. At The Story Mob, I got it down to a year’s worth of expenses in one go, but even that was shameful. We had to send our accountants personalized bottles of wine to apologize for all the extra work. I’m better now, I promise!
Anna: I can confirm that Nicola hasn’t been behind on her expenses ever since! I went from the comfort and safety of a big company and two very capable bosses who helped me out when I made mistakes (which was often and plenty), to being in a role where the buck stops at our desk. Except that the bucks keep coming, the desk is on fire, and the office is spinning. Plenty of times Nicola and I would make a call on something without any certainty that what we decided was good. Thankfully, we’ve never made a mistake that has seriously jeopardized our business or our team — a lesson that things tend to work out in the end 🙂
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Nicola: Any female-led company in gaming is going to be pretty unique, as there are so few of us. With that said, I think we stand out for our genuine dedication to what we do and the audiences we serve. So many communications and PR companies stay surface with the areas they touch — flitting from dog food to tourism to packaged goods, so it’s rare to see a team who truly understand the community they’re trying to reach. Just this past weekend I logged on to our company Slack to see our entire team simultaneously organizing a game of Among Us, cheering on their favorite teams at a tournament and discussing the latest PS5 release. They’re not faking it.
Anna: Not many comms consultancies are as deeply rooted in the culture they advocate for and speak to, as we are. Few years ago, you’d find me at esports events walking around with a screwdriver trying to find things to put together, and getting my hands into anything I could — for the experience, but also from the genuine will to help and be a part of that incredible team that made the most spectacular esports events happen. I remember sitting in press rooms with Nicola and waiting for the press conference to finish before we each would grab our spokesperson to go to their next thing. Everyone at the Mob is equally comfortable talking about where they came from — which is an array of surrounding industries they got a ton of experience in — and about gaming culture and fans we want to serve. To Nicola’s point, we’re also a very tight team and got each other’s back, leaning in where we need to to help a fellow Mobster out.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Nicola: We have long running relationships with most of our clients, so we’ve been lucky enough to work with them across multiple exciting projects — whether it’s introducing Michael Jordan to his first esports investment or collaborating with Wiz Khalifa on a gaming stream. It’s been clear throughout this pandemic that social gaming allows us to stay connected to each other — and we need that more than ever. I believe that adopting this online life by necessity has made us all gamers in one way or another.
Anna: We’re going through a really exciting transformation where we are branching out of dedicated esports comms services and expanding our reach to gaming culture as a global phenomenon that touches many surrounding industries. The way we see gaming culture is like a red thread passing through many industries. Gaming can be — and increasingly, it will be — so many more things than just a form of entertainment or competition. Our new safe, our social moment, our art, our experience with music, fashion and sport. The upcoming iteration on our brand identity will be 100% about that.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Nicola: For Anna and I, building the kind of team culture that we wished we’d been a part of when we were starting out was key. We focused on treating people fairly, with respect, with transparency and giving them the tools they needed to succeed — and I think it’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to build as quickly as we have. It’s not necessarily a female trait, but I think so many new CEOs are too focused on the future goal to pay attention to how you get there. It’s my dream that everyone that works for the Mob comes away knowing that they were valued and respected during their time with us.
Anna: I couldn’t agree more. From day one, our hiring mantra was “find top talent and pay them at the top of the market, in the current market”. We have never taken advantage of anyone who was willing to work for (sometimes much) less than the salary we’ve budgeted for a role, just because that person was so eager to get into esports. Another advice I’d give is to hire for character first, skills second. The right type of character will be keen to learn any skills — but no skills will compensate for the lack of character traits that make you successful at the Mob.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Nicola: I’ve never experienced managing a large team as a man, so honestly I couldn’t say there’s anything specific that we do because we’re female leaders. I would say that we’re not afraid to empower the talented folks on our team. There’s a world of grey between micromanaging and being completely absent as a leader. I tend to fall into the ‘hire talented people and set them free’ school of thought. If you’re inserting yourself into every conversation, every meeting, every email, you’re never going to be able to grow beyond your own limitations.
Anna: We have designed this company to be global and always remote, offering people location flexibility from day one — and we knew that this will come with challenges we will have to tackle as we grow. Managing a large, distributed team starts with hiring the right kind of people — if you let the right people on the bus, they will find their place on the bus, as James Collins wrote in “From Good To Great”. I agree with Nicola that a lot of success comes from empowering talented, ambitious people to do their thing, and while it can be hard to let go of having your fingers in everything, it’s important to step back and let your team completely own things.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Nicola: So many it’s difficult to count. My co-founder Anna is absolutely the ying to my yang and I’d be lost without her. Her ambition and fearlessness have got us to where we are, and I’m grateful she’s carried me along for the ride. Before that, I was lucky enough to have multiple mentors who helped me break out of a limited PR mindset and challenge things I’d always taken as read. Vlad Coho, my former boss at Riot, was the first person to suggest to me that I specialize in esports. Little did he know he was lighting the fire of a lifelong career!
Anna: Every single day I take a minute to be grateful for so many great bosses and mentors I’ve had in my life. From the high school English teacher who practically put me on a bus to Amsterdam to get to the University exchange program, to exceptional leaders from MTG and ESL, most notably Jette Nygaard-Andersen, Craig Levine and Yvette Martinez-Rea. Nicola has had the most remarkable influence on my life on so many fronts: as a comms pro, a leader and a business owner. She is carrying me as much as I carry her and I can’t wish for a better partner in this adventure. The way our thinking and leadership styles compliment each other is in this incredible state of balance that’s both intense, because we’re so different, and yet unbreakable, because we’re so alike in so many ways.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Nicola: Not enough, frankly. I’d like to do so much more. This year really put us to the test — from gaming’s own Me Too moments to Black Lives Matter awareness, we challenged ourselves to think beyond PR platitudes/carefully worded statements and work with our clients (and ourselves) to take a step back and think about what the actions we could take that would make a tangible difference. It’s a work in progress, but I’m hopeful I’ll always be given the grace and the patience from those smarter than me to keep learning.
Anna: I know we could do so much more, but I also like to think that we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got at hands: we care about our Mobsters more than anything else, we donate time and skills where and when we can, and, we’re actively trying to reach more diverse talent pool to add more perspectives and more edge to our team. It is a work in progress, and I definitely hope we can make a substantial mark on the industry in the years to come.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Nicola: In brief, here’s a few :-
Hire Slow — We’ve taken our time to get to know each new candidate that we bring into the Mob. Internal culture is so precious and so fragile — particularly in such a specific group like ours — that the wrong people would cost us greatly. It’s meant we’ve lost out on one or two candidates, but I’m always grateful that we’ve really gotten to know each and every member of the team and felt confident in them from the outset.
Don’t give in to the fear — The Story Mob was my first business, so I had a ton of self doubt about whether or not I was equipped and qualified to lead a team and run an international consultancy. If I made mistakes, it was because I doubted myself and went against my gut.
Trust your team — Having my son this year and having to step back for a few precious months of maternity leave was a big challenge for me. I felt that my effectiveness could only be measured in elbow grease — if I wasn’t present for each meeting, I wasn’t doing my job. Luckily, I have an excellent Co-Founder with whom I’ve built a talented team who are more than capable of shouldering any burden thrown at them.
Think big early — When we were getting The Story Mob off the ground, it felt counterintuitive to me to be thinking 5–10 years down the line — how could I concentrate when there was so much to do just that day? Anna has always been better at this than me, and encouraged me to see the bigger picture from our earliest days. It’s because of that kind of thinking that we’ve gone after bigger contracts, prestigious clients and grown a team in such a short amount of time.
Have fun — I mean, otherwise why bother? Not every day of work is transcendental. I’m not always bouncing off the walls with glee. But when I count up my moments of deep contentment or fulfillment, I’m always grateful that I took a chance and set up my own company.
Anna: Rely on discipline, not motivation. Motivation comes and goes. You will have random moments of 2am motivation when you wished you slept at your desk to jot down what you just came up with. You can’t count on those happening. It’s the discipline — your schedule, cadence, commitment to an appointment you made with yourself — that will move you along the way.
Take time to rest. The most notable change in my life since I started the Mob is that we’re always running. There are no natural breaks caused by an event ending, end of an announcement cycle, end of a fiscal year. You run from one thing straight to the other. You’ve got to give yourself a finish line to cross and then take a beat before you start your next thing.
Say no to things that don’t make your heart sing. Instinctively, you always know what’s good for you. With pain in my heart, I have walked away from opportunities I thought I could make work but knew I couldn’t. If something doesn’t make your heart sing, the money or the prestige that might come from it won’t make the cognitive dissonance the opportunity will cause you worth it.
Be bold. So cliche, but today is tomorrow you were so worried about yesterday. Pitch the idea, ask for that feedback, say what you really think of that thing that really doesn’t sit well with you.
Don’t forget why you started this. We’ve started the Mob because we believed in freedom and ownership — and we were well equipped to fill a niche with skills the world needed. When you hear your 10th no to a proposal this month and your top candidate asks for way more than you can afford, remember what drove you here in the first place — and always, always, remember to have fun.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Nicola: Oh boy, a ‘person of great influence’ — that’s going to take some time to get used to! I spend so much of my life online — from social media to entertainment to games — that I’ve got to say I’d love to inspire more kindness in our online behavior. More accountability. Less anonymous avatars ripping each other down, and more genuine human moments from either side of the screen. Not to sound like a naive Miss World, but I think if the internet is used correctly it can be a place that dishes out empathy, not just vitriol.
Anna: If that’s the case, then I’d generally advise to not do anything I would — it will get you in more trouble than you might have bargained for 🙂 But more seriously: I’d call for more compassion and kindness in the world. Especially in business, and especially if you’re in a position of influence or power: build people up, don’t bring them down.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Nicola: Truth be told, I hate inspirational quotes. No offence to anyone that finds them helpful — I just can’t shake the feeling that people like pithy quotes because they don’t want to put in the effort to read the whole book, or listen to the whole speech. With that said, one of the best pieces of advice I was ever given is that I don’t need to be liked by everyone. I’m freer and make better, bolder choices when I accept the fact that I’m not going to be universally liked.
Anna: None taken, Nicola! 😉 It’s not like I keep a book of those, but I got one that ties into what Nicola said: “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks’’. Aside from that, I live life and do business by a few simple rules: don’t be afraid to speak up, be kind to everyone you meet, and there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Nicola: This is a little niche, but this week we lost Jamie Tarses — a TV industry exec I really admired. Despite being behind some of the biggest hits of the last few decades (I’m a *huge* fan of Frasier, to name just one), Jamie was dismissed and undervalued by the entertainment industry because of her gender. The New York Times ran a profile on her in the 90s that referred to her as a ‘girl’ multiple times — she was a powerful exec in her 30s! Her passing is a sad loss. As a female exec who’s also suffered the indignity of being called ‘emotional’ in an effort to reduce or dismiss me and my work, I would have loved to have swapped war stories with her.
Anna: I was hoping this question would come up! Shoutout to Mark Cuban for endless entertainment and inspiration while Nicola and I were binging on Shark Tanks before setting up the Mob — I’ve got a ton of questions about entrepreneurship in sports, making deals and negotiating. I also very much admire Sara Blakely, for how passionately she’s grown her business and managed to do so without raising capital, and would love to hear her secrets about it.
How can our readers connect with you on social media?
Nicola: @nicolapiggott on Twitter
Anna: @amrozwandowicz on Twitter and LinkedIn