A day in the life of… a HR director at an in-house agency

Here’s what she does with her time, alongside some tips for anyone thinking of going into HR, or who simply wants to get the best out of their team.

(As usual, a quick reminder to check out the Econsultancy jobs board if you’re looking for a new digital marketing role yourself.)

Econsultancy: Please describe your job: What do you do?

Amina Folarin: I am the global HR director of OLIVER, a global in-house agency that plants teams of creatives within its clients’ offices to encourage collaboration and improve project efficiencies.

My catch-phrase is ‘Empower the line’ – I believe firmly that HR is everyone’s responsibility and my job is about making sure our senior and middle management have the support, training and tools they need to lead happy, productive teams. I lead the People Function at OLIVER, overseeing learning and development, recruitment and employee engagement and communication. I act as the business’ people conscience in senior management team meetings to discuss the impact business decisions will have on our people.

E: Whereabouts do you sit within the organisation? Who do you report to?

AF: I report into Sharon Whale, the CEO of OLIVER UK, and sit on OLIVER’s global exec committee and UK senior management team. I regularly meet with both teams to review and resolve any HR-related issues, including recruiting for new business and discussing the talent needed agency-wide. I’m seen as the managing director of people within the business, so it’s my job to bring employees into the conversation and make sure their needs are continually addressed.

E: What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?

AF: Empathy, resilience and good commercial nous. You need to be amenable, have a big personality, understand how business works and what kinds of levers you can pull to drive profitability. This involves working with managers to ensure you hire the right people and provide employees with the training to help develop and nurture their skillset.

E: Tell us about a typical working day…

AF: I’m going to echo many of my agency peers when I say, ‘no day is the same!’ The role really is so varied, and that’s one of the things I love most.

But to give you a flavour, a day might be spent meeting with the senior team to help them develop plans to forecast the talent needed for a new biz win. I may then meet with my team to discuss the actions off the back of the meeting and plan out our next steps for recruitment. We ask that all of our employees complete regular employee engagement surveys, so I’ll probably spend some time reviewing the feedback and sharing this with the senior leadership team.

Today is ‘new starter Friday’, an internal initiative we run to introduce new members of the team to the rest of the agency – the ice is usually broken over drinks!

E: What do you love about your job? What sucks?

AF: I’ve been in the role for 18 months and the hard work is really starting to pay off. The feedback we’re getting from employees has significantly improved over the past year – this is in no small part due to the efforts of the People team and the senior leaders who have really embraced the feedback from their teams. We’re placing employees’ wellbeing centre stage by not allowing issues to linger, the impact of which can be felt agency-wide.

And what sucks? Simply not having enough hours in the day to get everything done!

E: What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?

AF: Businesses all too often turn to HR when employees lack direction or morale – or for disciplinarians! But as I’ve said, one of my goals is to empower OLIVER’s managers to oversee the development of their own teams. It’s no longer about passing the buck when things turn sour. In my view, HR professionals are consultants, and company directors need to be the ones to address the internal issues they face and fix them. We can facilitate and provide the best practice, but we cannot do it without the support of the business and strong leadership.

We have many metrics to measure the success of that! These can range from ensuring all new starters have been on-boarded properly to KPIs measuring the performance of our managers. Currently, eight out of ten of our workforce rate their managers as being ‘exceptional’, which means our people are engaged and inspired by their mentors.

E: What are your favourite tools to help you to get the job done?

AF: Our monthly employee engagement survey is a personal favourite. It enables two-way feedback in real-time. The response we receive helps shape the conversations we’re having at a senior level and allows us to flag any internal issues before they flare up.

E: How did you get into HR, and where might you go from here?

AF: My HR journey started in retail. After I graduated from university, I started working for fashion retailer All Saints and helped the company set up its Paris operation. I started out running the shop floor, but the part I enjoyed most was recruiting people and managing talent. I would scour the streets of Paris in search of hip and happening people to work for the brand and run the assessment centres. I realised I wanted to pursue this as a career, and ended up landing myself a HR role at Burberry in 2009.

In terms of where I might go from here, I’d like to take on more of a client-focussed role. I’m an entrepreneurial individual and see myself eventually becoming the COO or MD of an agency.

E: Which companies do you admire when it comes to people management?

AF: I really admire the companies that do more with tight budgets. Kathryn Austin, the chief people and marketing officer at Pizza Hut, really turned things around by adopting a people-first approach. It’s the belief that if you look after your people, they will look after the profits. John Lewis is another business I admire when it comes to HR. The business’ employee ownership scheme is a fantastic way to motivate and retain people, giving partners the opportunity to influence and oversee change within the business.

E: Do you have any advice for people who want to get into HR in agency land?

AF: HR is HR, and the same principles apply across all businesses. For anyone considering getting into HR, I’d say focus on building skills around empathy and resilience. Also try and get as much experience as you can – internships, summer jobs, you name it. Think about the things you’re doing outside your degree, because that’s what’ll set you apart from the competition.

And also, a message to hiring managers: be brave and give junior candidates a shot. Not everyone will have X amount of years’ worth of experience, but with the right raw material and a leap of faith, the rest’s down to training. After all, we all started somewhere!


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