Women in Events: Interview with Claire Stokes

Claire Stokes, founder and managing director of The Circle Agency, shares her thoughts on setting up her own business and women in the event industry. She made number 54 in the 2012 Event 100 Club.

The Circle Agency's founder and MD, Claire Stokes
The Circle Agency's founder and MD, Claire Stokes

Has it been a help or hindrance as a woman setting up your own experiential agency?

Setting up your own agency is difficult, no matter what sex you are. But the challenge, in my experience, has been worthwhile. While there have been occasions when being a woman has influenced my career in both positive and negative ways, having the confidence to overcome those challenges is absolutely what sets apart those who should, and those who shouldn’t, take the plunge.

I do think that there is a desire for women to prove that they are as good, if not better, than men in the boardroom. So much so that we compete like for like, rather than highlighting the unique benefits of having women as business leaders.

I believe that this, once again, comes down to the reticence of women to self-promote. Sharing our successes – and when appropriate our failures – helps to highlight our strengths.

I think that the biggest pressure on women today is our desire, and in some instances that of societies, to believe that we can be extraordinary in everything that we do, all of the time – we cannot.

Do you think there are enough women in the event industry who have or are taking the same leap as you?

Absolutely not. Not that owning your own business is for everyone, far from it. But I think many young women find it difficult to imagine how they will balance all of the day-to-day demands that face women today, especially if you would like to have a family. 

Trying to imagine running their own business is just a step too far. We have to have role models within the sector that can prove you can have it all – if you have the stamina and determination to go for it.

And of course, as our industry grows and matures, there are some very senior positions within agencies, and client side alike, that do not require you to take the leap and become your own boss. Two out of the five people who sit on my senior management team are women and I fully expect that this will be the case in many more agencies in the future.

Does The Circle Agency benefit from having a woman at the helm?

Well you would have to ask my staff to really know, but I would like to think so. One of the things I am most proud of is Circle’s reputation as a great place to work. We have been in Event's Fab 50 for two years running. I think that women naturally want to nurture and I get no better reward in my role than seeing young talent flourish. Our internship programme is now in its sixth year and our graduate scheme in its third.

Having said that I am nurturing, I also have had to learn to be tough – ask my team. Not much gets past me. I have high expectations and I expect everyone in our business to live up to them. However, I have learnt to bring people on the journey with me. To inspire them to want to always live up to those expectations, because as a team we are all mutually responsible for the success of the business.

I am very open about our successes and our failures. I want my team to understand their role in both. Only when they understand their part in the overall vision, can I expect them to truly want to come on the journey with me.

What can we do in the event industry to encourage more women to set up their own companies?

Owning your own business isn’t for everyone, it has to be a calling really. You have to be prepared for the responsibility that comes with success. One day you wake up and realise that you have 30 people who work for you and rely on you to steer the ship. I have had more sleepless nights than I can count.

It is important to go into it with your eyes wide open. I had absolutely no idea the number of legalities that I would have to deal with when I first set up the business. But I think the most important thing that we can do is to continually ask and answer questions. To provide regular access to women who have done it before and learned from it.

The question I get asked most from young women is did I always know that I wanted to start my own agency or business. The answer is emphatically no, I did not. I had watched the pressure that my parents were under operating their business. I thought that it would be easier to work for someone else.

There came a point, however, when my clients were asking me to deliver things that my employer at the time didn’t understand and didn’t have the resources to deliver. In that moment, it made sense for me to go it alone and my father told me, "What do you have to lose?"

Which females within the event sector do you admire or look up to?

I admire Archie Archer at Contraband; Lou Garrod, deputy managing director at Sense; and Lucy Gallions at Wax Live. 

There is just not enough of them. While we are increasing in number all of the time, we certainly do not do enough to tell our story and inspire others. In terms of role models, there are many British businesswomen who have been role models for me.

Some of my favourites (and I warn you it is a mixed bunch):

  • Jo Rowling (she needs no introduction)
  • Dido Harding, chief executive of Talk Talk
  • Sarah Speake, strategic marketing director at Google
  • Sally Cowdry, chief marketing officer at Camelot
  • Carrie Longton, founder of Mumsnet
  • Laura Tenison of JoJo Maman Bebe
  • Sherilyn Shackell, founder of the Marketing Academy
  • Rachel Bell, who founded PR agency Shine

What can do to encourage women in more junior roles to rise to the top?

As I have said, it starts by showing them the way. While not everyone has the benefit of working for a woman at the top of their organisation, we can share those stories and experiences.

And let's not just share the stories of those women who have climbed to the top of the ladder, let's highlight the careers of other young women who are carving out their careers today. 

Sometimes it is difficult to imagine yourself at the top of the organisation when you are only a graduate. But showing successful career paths of women three or five years in is much more obtainable.

What would you recommend to any female event professionals thinking about starting their own company?

If you believe that you have what it takes, don't let anyone convince you otherwise. Only you know what you are capable of. I had an old boss who was very pig headed and sexist – he was quick to put me down and point out all the reasons that I shouldn’t (as a woman) succeed on my own. Thankfully, I still had enough confidence then to know that this was rubbish. I now take great pride in reminding him of my success at every opportunity.

Determination is the key. It doesn’t hurt to be just a little bit stubborn as well. But to be 100% sure that entrepreneurship is the right thing for you, you also have to be adaptable.

Most importantly though, don't do it for the money, do it for the love of what you do, and because you believe you can do it better.

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