Tamara Littleton is founder and CEO of The Social Element, a consultancy-led social media agency advising some of the world’s biggest brands on how to use social to solve business challenges.

Tamara LittletonShe founded the company in 2002 before the explosion of social media with the ambition of challenging the conventional agency model; pioneering and building her global business (now 300+ strong) predominantly through a remote working model that to this day is truly innovative in the agency market.

In 2013, Tamara also co-founded Polpeo, a crisis simulation platform for brands and their agencies so they could prepare for how a crisis would affect them online.

Tamara is a tech pioneer, a champion of the diversity, LGBTQ and female entrepreneurial agenda and passionate about keeping children safe online.

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

I’m Tamara Littleton, CEO and Founder of The Social Element and Co-Founder of Polpeo. The Social Element is a social media agency I founded when social media was in its infancy and has been going for 17 years. In 2013 I co-founded Polpeo, which helps brands rehearse a reputational crisis breaking on social media on our bespoke simulation platform.

My Co-Founder, Kate Hartley, and I kept seeing big brands getting their crisis communications so very wrong on social media and by combining her PR and crisis background and my social media expertise, we joined forces and created a tool that allows brands to fail safely so they can be better prepared.

I’ve always been in pioneering technology and I’m unashamedly geeky. My early career included working with an academic publisher to create the first online journals being downloaded on the web, and my other seminal job was running the Webmaster Team at BBC Online in 1999 when the BBC was at the forefront of digital. It was truly an incredible time.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

My career planning is probably best described as a series of unusual events. I studied Psychology at Manchester University and threw myself into the sports scene whilst I was there. I was a goalkeeper and represented the University, Manchester County and England Universities too. I won trophies and got my colours but along the way forgot to really focus on my studies. It’s fair to say I scraped a 2:2 in my degree and when I left and went to London, my plans to be a criminal psychologist came to a brutal end as the competition in the job market was too strong. I was unemployed and so I went back to my geeky roots instead.

I’d always loved computers so I taught myself to touch type using a computer game, and was lucky enough to get a publishing secretary job with my Hockey Captain as I was still pursuing my Hockey career. Being able to touch type ended up being the single most important thing I’d done. I progressed in publishing and ended up moving to Chapman & Hall and eventually taking on the new online publishing project with a then small start up called Adobe as my predecessor got head hunted and I was the only one who’d been shadowing his computer work. It was the mid 90s and it was all very exciting.

At 25 I was put in charge of the entire department and got to fly around the world working with people who were the driving force of digital publishing.

I was an internet consultant for a brief period before making myself redundant by accidentally falling off a ladder and breaking my right wrist and left elbow. Finding myself once again unemployed, I landed an amazing role at the BBC and that was the springboard for me starting The Social Element (called Emoderation at the time) and building it into a 300 person strong, global agency.

What was your motivation in setting up your agency? 

One of my key motivations was seeing the rise in online communities such as forums and virtual worlds. I predicted that brands would want to move more into this area of community and social media and I had a vision that they would want to protect their reputations and their users online. I am also passionate about child safety online and was shocked at how bad the early virtual communities were – to describe it as being akin to the wild west wouldn’t be an exaggeration.

Anyone could setup a virtual world without moderation or guardrails in place and children were exposed to harmful content, bullying and grooming by pedophiles as a result. The industry was very young so in the early years I was helping to educate industry, charities, schools and parents on the potential dangers that such a cavalier approach to digital communities could bring . I ended up being part of the original Internet Taskforce for Child Protection on the Internet which led to guidance being published in 2005 that set the standards for the world. That commitment to child safety is still at the heart of The Social Element and we’ve been honoured to work over the years with like minded clients such as LEGO, Disney and PlayStation.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

The main challenge has been building my own confidence. I was always very happy in a leadership role and creating teams around me. I’m a natural communicator but I suffered from low confidence when it came to selling. I had to really work on what was holding me back and how to overcome it. I’m an ambivert and often have very introverted days so networking and public speaking were far from my comfort zone. Again, I had to work hard and get training to push through this and two years ago I gave a TEDx talk – something I would never have believed I could do. I’m now a big fan of pushing myself out of my comfort zone.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Running two companies at the same time makes me incredibly proud and having one of them still growing and adapting after 17 years is a big achievement. I’ve worked hard to surround myself by brilliant people who allow me to focus on the vision and driving the agency forward.

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

I would say that I am driven by a dual approach of passion and tenacity. To build a company takes grit and you have to be able to navigate a lot of anxiety and dark moments, then huge waves of excitement as you win new clients, take on new staff or change direction. I’m hugely passionate about business, growth and my industry, and I think that rubs off on the team. Tenacity allows me to get up every morning and keep going even when it’s not easy.

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

I belong to various groups focused on entrepreneurs and I’m committed to helping other women scale their businesses. As an out LGBTQ leader, I’m particularly focused on LGBTQ entrepreneurs and I’m part of Series Q which is a group that supports that vision. I also run a group called Evil Genius locally in East London which helps female entrepreneurs. It has been incredibly rewarding and I get a thrill when people take the plunge and start a company.

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

I’ve been championing the use of a remote workforce for 17 years and I see the impact that flexible working has on gender parity. Having the choice to choose your hours and your place of work has a major impact on women returning to work or juggling family commitments and their career. To me it’s such an obvious way to work that has a positive impact on diversity. I would like more airspace given to why this is the work model of the future.

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

It’s ok to be different; in fact it’s an advantage – embrace it.

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

I’m on a mission to prove that creative collaboration is possible using a mixture of the traditional agency model and the remote working, agency of the future model. I’d also like to write a book on remote working models, company culture and I wouldn’t mind launching a business networking club centred around karaoke too.