Katie Lee, COO, Wavemaker

After taking a degree in biochemistry, Katie Lee COO at Wavemaker UK decided to make waves and go for more of a creative career…

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role?

After graduation, I fell into the heady world of advertising and have since had the opportunity to work at, and with, some of the best creative agencies and minds in the UK. This includes the role of Managing Director at Leo Burnett, Gravity Road and Sunshine, as well as, earlier on in my career, working for Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), Saatchi & Saatchi and Collett Dickenson Pearce. In January 2019, I joined Lucky Generals as CEO.

In 2021, I took a break from the advertising industry and stepped into the role of Chief Executive at a technology startup called Clementine – an app on a mission to reduce stress and build the confidence of millions of women.

I made my return back to the world of advertising when I joined global media agency, Wavemaker, as its UK Chief Growth Officer. In this role I was responsible for new business and bringing the agency’s positive provocation mission to life. Then in May 2022, I was promoted into the role of UK Chief Operating Officer (COO) working alongside Kelly Parker, CEO. Now, I am responsible for how the business functions and ensure it is set up to solve our clients’ problems in the most effective way possible.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Absolutely not – nothing in my career has been planned as such. I think it’s probably the same for most people.  On the whole, I change jobs because of the people I meet – I meet them and realise I want to work with them. Interestingly, most of my job decisions have been made emotionally, but the two I made rationally have been my best.

My current role as COO at Wavemaker UK has been the best decision I have made, and my favourite role to date. This is all because of the partnership I have with Wavemaker UK CEO, Kelly Parker, which is just amazing. We are quite different people, but our core integrity and values are very similar. We get on so well, and that makes the job that bit more enjoyable.  

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Earlier in my career, I was made redundant during my probationary period. When I look back on it now, it was a really challenging time for me and to be honest it took a while to get over it. It would be fair to say that I was constantly looking over my shoulder after that. It came out of nowhere – and when that happens you have the realisation that it can happen to anyone, at any time.

Another challenge which will resonate with many female founders and business owners was when I was working at a small tech start-up and we were looking for funding. It was probably the time in my career when it felt that I had the least control over the outcomes that were happening. We were so reliant on others. In part, this was simply down to the lack of funding that is accessible to female founders – you are expected to show up in a certain way and jump through multiple hoops to get it. It will be of no surprise to those who have been in similar circumstances, but some VCs will say that they want to diversify their portfolios, that it is important to have different types of founders, businesses, and so on, but the reality is they want different types that act exactly the same.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

It’s got to be my role here at Wavemaker. I joined Wavemaker as its UK Chief Growth Officer and moved into the role of Chief Operating Officer (COO) in May 2022.

This is the first time I’ve worked on the media agency side of advertising. My heritage lies within creative, and that meant I found the onboarding process a little challenging, especially as the Wavemaker team really put their faith in me not only when I was recruited for the initial role, but then again when I was promoted to the fundamental role of COO.

Wavemaker hired me to be different, think differently and ultimately bring a different perspective. It’s very easy for a company to say that they want provocative thinkers, but Wavemaker is an agency that is truly transformative and not performative.

I’ve felt empowered to ask questions such as ‘why do you do it that way?’, and I’ve been vocal in saying ‘I don’t understand why you are doing something’, or ‘why do you use these job titles? What do they actually mean?’ And that’s a pretty mean feat for such a senior role in a big blue-chip organisation.

The ability to question practices gives us the ability to effect positive change, because after all, nothing changes if nothing changes.

I am fully aware that it was a leap of faith. This role of COO has, for me and Wavemaker, been a real success, and it’s only the start of our journey together.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

My husband.

Personally, I do not believe that you can both have big jobs if you have children – too much suffers when you do. I am sure that many female leaders will have experienced how slowly you see the motherhood penalty happening. If you are not in those meetings when certain discussions are happening, you don’t get to the same place as the person who is in the office. Hybrid working has helped a bit, but it’s a sad reality which isn’t right or fair.

My husband and I never sat down and made a conscious decision that I would be the one with the ‘big job’. It was more just the case that I didn’t cancel meetings I knew I had to be in. It’s about balance and what is right for your family, of course, but I absolutely take my hat off to any couples who do it without one career suffering. I am in awe of you!

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I love mentoring and have always had mentees. I am part of WACL and its ‘Talent Sessions Mentoring Programme’, where you have a different mentee every month. I also have a couple of other mentees.

I myself don’t have a mentor at the moment, but I do have a coach. Early in my career I had a couple of mentors that were totally invaluable. I’ve always had them at those moments when I’ve wanted to take the next step but didn’t know how to do it. Some have helped me with networking while others have given me brilliant and honest advice.

However, what I would say is that it is most valuable to have a mentor when you are in a good space, not in a state of distress. You need a mentor to see who you are when you are firing on all cylinders, so that when you are not, they can truly help.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be? 

More affordable and better provisioning of childcare – we could learn a thing or two from the Scandinavians. 

If you could give one piece of advice for your younger self, what would it be?

It’s just a phase!

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

I am under a year into my current role, so my focus is still bedding into it. Right now, I am trying to be more mindful about the fact that there’s always a challenge and something to achieve today.

I have never looked to the future of what I want to achieve. I believe that it is vitally important to not think too far ahead. It skews your view and you end up acting in accordance with what you imagine for the future (which may end up totally different) rather than what’s in front of you in the here and now.