Laura Wade went back to uni to become chief sustainability officer at Essence Mediacom
Returning from maternity leave after a career spent content side, here's how this agency exec created a completely new role at the WPP agency.
Wade heads up sustainability strategy for EssenceMediacom
Laura Wade spent 20 years working in content across several prestigious agencies, rising through the ranks to vice president of content and innovation at Essence (now Essence Mediacom.) But after returning to work from maternity leave, she was looking for deeper meaning in the next chapter of her career.
“I’ve always felt passionately about nature, when I was much younger I was a vegetarian, I went on marches about the ozone layer – showing my age there – and I wondered how I could incorporate that into my job," she tells The Drum.
She recalls how trawling through LinkedIn introduced her to other people who felt as passionately about the same issues as she did. “It was like a blindfold had been taken off me – I realized there was a whole business community talking about sustainability, climate change, social justice, and how it’s going to fundamentally shape the economy.”
Following a conversation with Essence's CEO, Tim Irwin, Wade decided to take a course at the University of Cambridge on sustainability leadership which became the catalyst for her pitching her new role.
“I spent a year trying to dedicate 20% of my time to it and achieved nothing," she says. Wade has now been in the position full-time since 2022, first as vice-president and head of sustainability at Essence, to global head of sustainability strategy at EssenceMediacom following its merger.
“As women, we tend to have self-limiting beliefs,” she says of her progression in the role. “If you had told me in November 2019 when I came back as vice-president of content and innovation after my second child that in two and half years I was going to be the head of sustainability, at Essence Mediacom, I’d have said you’ve got the wrong person!”
But she tells The Drum that shifting gears has probably kept her in the advertising world. “[The role] immediately reinvigorated my approach to my career and the industry," she says. "Suddenly I was aligned with my values, I can see there’s a gap in the industry we haven’t addressed and there’s an opportunity to be truly creative and transformative.”
She cites the work she has done in the measurement space as her proudest achievement so far.
“When I first started in the role I thought that, having come from content, I’d be working in that space and looking at sustainable production. But I happened to get into a conversation with Matthew McIntyre (who is now the global head of programmatic at Essence Mediacom) who started to ask questions and over a two-month period we really started to devise a plan looking at sustainable programmatic.”
The carbon calculators they subsequently developed have been a huge success, producing award-winning campaigns at a much lower cost to the planet. Wade says despite actively avoiding programmatic for most of her career she's "actually been able to translate my values into a piece of work that is collaborative transparent."
Coming from a content background, Wade acknowledges her skill set has always been about “bringing people together and doing things that push clients out of their comfort zones.” This is why she says it’s now her mission to democratize sustainability within the business, recognizing that pushing for change: “Is not actually about seniority, but you do need to be quite senior to create influence because it has to come from the top. It’s still something I’m working on because I feel this in my bones.”
In her view, the need for transparency and collaboration is the biggest challenge the industry hasn’t yet woken up to. “We need an openness that is pre-competitive because this problem is bigger than us and we have to solve it together.”
Wade believes the industry is so used to being in competition, that it fails to recognize its humanity. “Success is based on metrics that aren’t conducive with sustainability," she adds.
"It’s our current belief that for every pound spent we drive six pounds to the UK economy. What if we changed that to acknowledge that the UK is currently 19th in the Global Happiness Index and really we want to be in the top 10? Suddenly the mindset of sustainability starts to make a lot more sense.”
She says it’s why she’s stopped reading books about sustainability and started reading books written by negotiators about non-violent communication. “Though I would like to brainwash a few people, just to make it easier," she jokes.