…you have to have tough conversations without getting upset — the end. Not every conversation is easy, but they have to happen, or you bury it until you explode, and no one wants a leader who goes off on a tirade because they failed to communicate effectively.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Tourville.
Sarah is the CEO and founder of Media Frenzy Global, a PR agency that builds brands for innovative and disruptive companies in the US and UK through strategic messaging, Public Relations and creative content. Founded in London in 2006 and Atlanta in 2013, Media Frenzy Global helps technologists tell their story and drive national and global brand recognition. Sarah is also a regular contributor to Forbes on communication best practices and agency growth and an advocate for women in business, female entrepreneurship and leadership.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I am forever thankful for the degree I chose in international marketing management as a young woman fresh out of high school in England. I was always naturally curious about the world around me. I knew national PR and marketing campaigns did not excite me as I loved understanding cultural nuances and developing initiatives that would resonate in different markets. My passion for creating a “media frenzy” for global brands led me to head up the European launch of Microsoft Expedia and work for Motorola, where I was responsible for communications in the European, Middle Eastern and African markets. It was such a great experience and helped set the stage for what I do now. My work with these powerhouse brands also sparked my interest in technology.
People always ask, “what led you to create an agency?” When I worked on the corporate side, I had the opportunity to collaborate with around ten agencies in different markets. They each had their style and way of expanding brand awareness using different methodologies and processes to help them achieve their goal and of course, we were there to guide them. They were phenomenal. I wanted to take the best of what I had experienced and pull those aspects into my agency. I knew I wanted my agency to deliver excellent and personable customer service, one of my sweet spots. I advocate for customer service because it is critical for success. I also wanted an agency that was business-minded and entrepreneurial. At Media Frenzy Global, we think about our clients’ business to better understand the parallel of PR and its relation to their business growth. Another key focus for my business was being results-driven. We work on this consistently, especially amid the current pandemic. Lastly, the goal for my agency has always been to think differently. In 2018, we created a new mantra, “Go There.” It sounds simple and, to some possibly cheesy, however, we use this barometer when we’re prospecting clients, winning new business, creating strategy, or pitching to the media. How are we setting our clients apart? Are we maximizing our creativity and taking everything we do to the next level? The components have aided in the success of the agency and the team. I’m very proud of what we have achieved up until this point.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Winning and losing our most significant client would have to be the most valuable lesson in business I’ve learned to date. The story is quite fascinating when I think back on it. We had won the client first, which led to creating the agency and hiring five people to run the account. We were responsible for their entire marketing and pr strategy. In a way, the company appointed me as their CMO, so the account was quite significant. Our team dedicated so much time and energy into helping this particular client that, as a business owner, I did not have time to generate leads to grow and diversify our clientele. Eight months into the project, the client’s investors pulled out, which meant all marketing stopped, and we lost the business, having to fill a 30K per month void with high operating expenses. I struggled to sleep for an entire year as we worked to replace the loss. This moment became a wake-up call to me and changed how I would move forward with running the company. The experience was a hard pill to swallow yet, I learned so much about business, planning and forecasting. You should always have more eggs in your basket. Always.
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?
I don’t necessarily have a funny mistake to share, but indeed a serious moment that turned comical. Earlier in my business, I became very intentional with networking with other business-minded leaders to understand how Media Frenzy Global could leverage our services and grow. After a few recommendations and warm introductions, I set up a meeting with a prominent leader in the city I was in at the time. During the conversation, he propositioned me over a kale salad. I was caught off guard and started choking almost to the point where the Heimlich Maneuver was needed. As a woman, it amazes me how, when professional boundaries are crossed, women are told to overlook the moment or brush off. It’s almost like we have to wear a shield so that inappropriate comments and situations bounce off us, so we’re not labeled as difficult or “not grateful.” I could not get over the fact that someone with such visibility and prominence had stooped so low. It taught me never to lean on anyone and create your own success.
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?
My husband, Tim, is my greatest support. He is straightforward and gave me the motivation to step out on faith and follow my dreams. Early on in our marriage, after I had my two daughters, I wavered on my next professional move. Would I go back to corporate? Start my agency? I continued to ask myself what I wanted, tossing ideas back and forth but never deciding which route I would take. However, my husband drew a line in the sand for me during one of our many conversations. He said, “You have two choices in front of you, head back to the corporate world, or follow your dream and start your agency.” I had talked about it for years, and it was then I decided to bet on myself. The very next day, after our conversation, I got to work. I haven’t looked back since. My husband has been by my side every step of the way. He’s experienced the highs of my professional career, and because he is business-minded, he’s been a great support system and sounding board on my journey.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
The way I cope with stress as a leader is by thorough preparation. What this looks like for me is writing everything down by hand. When gearing up for an important meeting or presentation, I must write things out from beginning to end. For example, our company has a marquee event that we put on quarterly (monthly since the onset of COVID-19) called PR Reimagined, where we examine how communicators can think outside of the box and reimagine how we do business from a PR and marketing perspective. I’ve moderated many of these events, and before each one, I research the topic, the speakers, and write everything out by hand, down to the questions I want to ask and the points I want to make.
I use this method when pitching a new client or attempting to secure a partnership agreement. I don’t necessarily re-read the copy; however, as long as I’ve written it down, I also know that I’ve committed it to memory. There have been occasions where I’ve had back to back client pitches, and in every scenario I’ve written down what I wanted to say or convey for every presentation. This process helps me show up prepared and confident, consistently.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
From my earlier point, I’ve always been interested in learning more about how people from different backgrounds think and what motivates them. It’s the reason I majored in international studies in college. As CEO, I’m proud of the diverse team we have created and believe it’s essential for agencies to reflect internally who they are helping externally. Meaning, if your client comes to you wanting a campaign or content created from a Black perspective, it becomes crucial to have Black team members who understand the nuances and intricacies of Black culture. We’ve seen where major brands have failed when creating campaigns because everyone who had a seat at the table looked the same and made decisions based on similar experiences. You have to bring a diverse perspective to the work you are doing for your client, and that means having a diverse team.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I’m proud of the work my partner and colleague Katie Kern and Media Frenzy Global is doing in partnership with Lee Deas of Obviouslee Marketing based in Charleston, SC. Together, they’ve created the Act In Solidarity Pledge to stir action from agency leaders. The communications industry (marketing, pr and advertising) has a long way to go when it comes to creating equitable change for Black professionals. Our goal is to make sure agency leaders and owners across the nation hold themselves accountable for their lack of Black talent and Black upward mobility in predominantly white spaces. This pledge provides a springboard into taking actionable steps in the right direction. The mission is to make work a safe place for Black professionals where they are given the same opportunities as their White counterparts and allowed to bring their full selves into the office setting. I am proud of the work we are doing in this effort.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
As CEO, I am not on the ground floor of my business. I often get close because we are small; however, my team is better at PR, marketing and social media than I am. I trust them immensely as they are the catalyst for our success — however, my day-to-day consists of selling our services and achieving growth. I am continually working on methods to grow top-line revenue, increase margins and identify mutually beneficial partnerships. The business of the agency is top of mind for me consistently. While I wouldn’t say I am the “face” of the company, when issues arise, they fall on me. As a leader, you have to be comfortable in managing the wins, losses, successes, and failures.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth I believe is essential to dispel is that CEO’s have all the answers. I surround myself with people who have the answers. It’s the foundation of being a great leader and the reason I partnered with my colleague Katie Kern. Katie is an excellent ideator and continually drives the team towards achieving our goals as a company. I always say she’s been a game-changer for our agency. Our Marketing Director, Jonathan Young, is a stellar writer who can dive deep into the needs of a business and help solve their problems. Nikkia Adolphe, our PR Director, continually drives results for our PR clients, and her department is solid. My team continuously blows me away, and I trust their decisions. I don’t know it all, and I’m okay with that.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women have to do it all. I have to run the company, manage the children, maintain the house, and the social calendar. I never just get up and go to work. This is not to take away from my husband in any respect. He is an amazing husband who is present, active and supportive. However, men have a much different experience when it comes to balancing career and family. They don’t always have to adjust as much as we do. I could have hired a nanny; however, I’ve always wanted to be a woman who was there for my children and there for myself. My agency is what I do for myself outside of the home, and while it’s not always easy, I make it work by any means necessary.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Starting out, I assumed as CEO; my role would consist of closing deals and securing partnerships without having to keep such a keen eye on spending. Historically, we’ve always had someone help in this respect; however, over time, I became hyper-aware of every dollar spent. I can tell you where my business is financially down to the penny at all times. I probably look at it more than I should, but I’ve heard of business owners who have been burned by not keeping an eye on their finances, and I never want to share in that experience.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
As a leader, handling conflict, having tough conversations, and handling grace under pressure becomes your superpower.
You cannot be afraid of conflict. Disagreements will arise with your team, clients and vendors. While conflict doesn’t necessarily mean World War Three, there are times when you won’t see eye-to-eye, or you will look at business differently from your leadership team. How can you effectively communicate when you are firm in your belief, and you feel your way is right? It will happen, so knowing how to handle those situations will make the difference if you sink or swim.
Second, you have to have tough conversations without getting upset — the end. Not every conversation is easy, but they have to happen, or you bury it until you explode, and no one wants a leader who goes off on a tirade because they failed to communicate effectively.
Lastly, having grace under pressure. In the agency world, the pressure is always on. So handle every failed client pitch, or a business meeting that didn’t end well, with grace. I’m thankful for every rejection, and no, I’ve received. The 30K client who dropped us after month 8? They are back on our roster and one of our star clients. There is always a silver lining. It’s not easy, but it can be done.
Since we’ve transitioned our team to working 100% remotely in the last five months, I have found there is less pressure, which has been refreshing. At times, the office can create a pressure cooker situation, especially when you are in a meeting after meeting without a break or tensions, and expectations are high on a particular day. I’m unexpectedly grateful for the time the chaos of the pandemic has provided. Our team is the best we’ve ever been. We’re still winning new business and achieving goals for our clients and company.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
I advise any women in business to join a CEO entrepreneurial group. When I think back, I’m baffled that It took me so long to make the commitment and not understand the importance of having solid business advice to help me get to the next level. While I couldn’t join until our company hit a specific revenue goal, I’m glad I decided. It’s a game-changer for sure.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I am passionate about female leadership when it comes to young women, so I make an effort to speak to high-school women specifically and instill confidence in this age group. There are so many distractions and While it may sound cliche, they are the future, and I make an effort to pour into them and provide insight on my experience any chance I can.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You will never be able to put the baby down, never.
- You won’t sleep as well as you would have in corporate America
- You will have anxiety
- You will always think about payroll every two weeks
- You will earn less than you would at a corporate job — right now anyway!
While this may seem negative, it’s true. Nothing rewarding comes easy. My career is rewarding. I have a great family, a great company and team, and I am living my dreams. There are nightmares here and there; however, I roll with the punches and know that to whom much is given much is required. I will take some sleepless nights because I am living life on my terms.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
My movement would be to create a social media app called Selfless Social. It would help teenagers become less focused on themselves and help uplift other people. Social media can be such a derogatory place, especially for young people, and the next generation needs to understand it’s not all about them. The app would allow them to take time to do great things and encourage others. The current state of the world could certainly use more positivity.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The harder I work, the luckier I get” — Thomas Jefferson.
We are very blessed that some very prominent 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.
Madonna. She’s 61 and has reinvented herself at every stage. I would love to sing a line or two of ‘Material Girl’ with her.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.