Colleen Oates is the managing director of One Rockwell. Founded six years ago by veteran e-commerce strategists responsible for creating some of the most successful online stores in the world, the agency not only helps brands venture online; it also supports them in creating strategic multi-channel roadmaps to make the most return on their investment. Chances are, the agency doesn’t ring a bell but if you’ve been paying attention online over the past few years, you’re well and truly acquainted with their handiwork. Mara Hoffman, Eddie Borgo and Reed Krakoff are just a few of their clients.
It’s easy to assume that people like Colleen have it all figured out; that’s it’s been a simple, linear route. She’s young, successful and works at the forefront of the digital space. But what you don’t see from afar is the hustle and countless ‘sliding doors’ moments that got her to where she is. Despite starting her career on the retail and operations team at Anya Hindmarch, it was actually her intention to become a funeral director. I kid you not, it was last minute cold feet that brought her to One Rockwell. She joined the team as an account manager and climbed to managing director in the space of only two years. “I have put friendships, relationships, and life experiences on the back burner at times due to the amount of time this role requires. But when you step back and you see what you have accomplished, nothing else compares to it.”
When we caught up, Colleen spoke about her role as the liaison between the agency clients and the constant balancing act that involves, what she’s learnt about managing (and inspiring) a team and why she’s only getting started on the career milestones she wants to tick off her list.
HOW HER CAREER BEGAN & HOW SHE LANDED AT ANYA HINDMARCH: When I was making decisions for further education, it appeared to me that my options were medicine, finance, or other. I chose other. I functioned as a hybrid of sorts when it came to my interests and decision making (creative/business), so a career that fell within the buying/production realm felt like a solid target. During Post Grad, I struggled to find my place – bouncing around from buying, to wholesale, to retail, and onto operations and management. I was looking for a home and found that at Anya Hindmarch. It was a family run business at the time, lead by visionary minds and brimming with incredible talent. I had a wonderful mentor there (Nathalie Hardy, Head of Retail) and soon learned how a career driven woman could enforce change. Nathalie was receptive to ideas, but pushed for stats and explanations around anticipated profit drivers. She saw potential in me, applied pressure, and expanded my role. She created an environment in which she empowered her team. I was 24 with incredible responsibility.
THE BIGGEST LESSONS SHE LEARNED THERE: First to mind was how thrifty we were stateside; we could run an event or conduct a store renovation on next to no cash. Secondly, I learned about employee retention: we learned how to create a space in which we could all see the larger vision and identify means to contribute. And lastly, I learned how to listen. We learned more about affairs, delinquent children, financial struggles, legal troubles, and of course sexual discrepancies more than we did about the type of handbag that they needed. By listening to our clients, we learned how to help solve a problem. The difference between us and therapy was that we always had a fix, and that fix usually found its way to our clients in the shape of a calf leather tote with a beautiful tassel.
ON WHY SHE MOVED TO ONE ROCKWELL: On the record? Digital was the future and One Rockwell was the vehicle heading in the right direction. Off the record? I actually was applying towards becoming a funeral director / embalmer and backed out last minute. Enter Plan B. I came to One Rockwell when there were a handful of people in overarching roles. We all become designers, account managers, project managers, data architects, strategists, and therapists. Our founders only brought in top talent; very forward thinking individuals. Only by working in the trenches were we able to properly develop out departments and implement processes and standards. My birthday present was a visual merchandiser from our lead developer, my Christmas present was a new product data structure. I do believe it’s difficult to develop an effective product or service plan until you have struggled without it or been on the receiving end of a poor vendor/brand relationship. To recap it at as managing director, I fell in love. I was attracted to data and being across multiple brands. I thrived in this new environment that allowed me to learn, to teach, and to innovate.
PROMOTION & PAY RISE 101: When transitioning to a new industry, one needs to accept the fact that you are going to be demoted and you will struggle for the first three months. Moving careers will impact your personal life, your finances, and both your physical and mental health. This is very important to accept and to plan accordingly. Expect longer nights and weekends and accept the fact that you are years behind others and they may expect you to function at their advanced pace. Once you have caught’ up to a certain degree, it comes down to how effective you are executing, managing, and planning. Promotion and pay rise should not be the goal. Don’t look at bettering yourself, look at bettering your business and your company. If your company thrives, you will as well. It’s important to remember you don’t need to necessarily be the smartest kid in the room. All you need is common sense and have a good work ethic, to be a creative thinker, to see the opportunity, and to ask questions. Avoid setting career goals or financial goals if you cannot see past them and try not to compare yourself to others. Last but not least, hire people smarter then you. A strong team will allow you to think bigger picture.
ON HER ROLE ACTING AS A LIAISON BETWEEN THE AGENCY AND CLIENTS’ INTERNAL TEAMS: I think about some of the brands we have worked with or pitched into over the years, and our interactions with their teams. Imagine being in an environment where upper management micro manages and questions your decisions and capabilities. We see these incredibly talented and educated professionals sort of crumble under the pressure and become hesitant in their decision making. We realized that we couldn’t be any agency that creates an “us verse them” environment. We found a place where we could become the e-commerce director’s advocate and work towards creating an ecosystem in which we provided support on both a technical and emotional level.
HER (NOT SO AVERAGE) DAILY ROUTINE: Yoga. Emails. Phone Call with Founder 1. Taxi. Coffee. Meetings. Juice + Cereal. Phone Call with Founder 2. Meetings. Budget Planning. Chocolate. Meetings. Proposals. Emails. Work Event. Tequila. Emails. Bed.
ON MANAGING CONFLICTS WITH CLIENTS: No agency is perfect and no client is perfect. Acknowledge the issue, apologize, be transparent, discuss how to make it better, and move on. Come to a financial agreement that works for both parties. Increase communication and document all requests. Spend quality time outside of the work environment. Take a spin class together, have lunch out of the office once a month, learn how to communicate and relate with one another.
HOW TO RETAIN CLIENTS: 1. Create a program that is flexible for clients 2. Provide the client with structure and processes 3. Provide financial transparency 4. Produce quality work 5. Maintain relationships 6. Create an internal structure that supports both build and retention mentalities. Happy clients will be your best advocates.
ON HER MANAGEMENT STYLE AND HOW TO MOTIVATE A TEAM: Our VP of Technology gave me the best advice when it comes to managing and structuring a team: does the member contribute to the team (+1); are they just about pulling their weight and their need to improve (0), or are they bringing down the team (-1). This allows us to separate personal connections from performance. What a powerful means to measure everything from your personal to your professional life. It is important for your team to have goals to work against and visibility into how they are performing.
SWITCHING OFF (OR AT LEAST, TRYING TO) & WHY THE HARD WORK IS WORTH IT: I completely crash on Fridays at around 3pm. It’s not easy to switch off. When you are dedicated to growing something, there is no off switch. You dream about scoping, you brainstorm in yoga class, you sketch things out at dinner. I have put friendships, relationships, and life experiences on the back burner at times due to the amount of time this role requires. But when you step back and you see what you have accomplished, nothing else compares to it.
ON WHAT SHE’S MOST PROUD OF TO DATE: I’ve just gotten started! We have a long way to go. No retirement (or rich husband) in sight just yet.