Women in Digital: Tracey Follows

Tracey Follows, founder and futurist at Futuremade, on what led her to set up her own consulting business, the best advice she ever received and from where she draws inspiration

Posted 4 October 2021 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?

I did enjoy school because I really loved learning. From a very young age I always had my head in books, sometimes reading all through the night and going to school a bit tired and exhausted. I really enjoyed featuring in dance performances and singing in the choir, as well as playing in the school orchestra. School wasn’t so much fun as I entered my teen years as I became the object of a particular group of bullies. But what can I say, it was character-building!

What qualifications do you have?

I studied Philosophy as an undergraduate and passed with a First. I had secured funding and support to do a PhD in Philosophy. That was the plan until at the last minute I decided to do a MSc in Technical Change & Industrial Strategy instead, thinking it would help me find a job in industry.

Has your career path been a smooth transition, a rocky road or a combination of both?

I have found that my career has moved in seven years cycles. My first job was in advertising as an account handler but after seven years I swapped to a client-side role and ran all the advertising at One2One, the mobile phone operator, then T-Mobile and then marketing communications at BT. After that I did seven years back agency-side as a strategist culminating in my appointment as the first female CSO at JWT London. But by then I wanted to use my innovation skills in a more interesting and innovative way and left to retrain as a futurist and set up my own consulting business. That was six years ago so who knows what I’ll have gone on to do a year from now!

What is the best career advice you can give to others?

Whilst I was at WPP, I did a leadership course run by Charlotte Beers, ex-chairwoman of Ogilvy, and a real force of nature, a true trailblazer. She taught me an important thing about 360 appraisal programmes. She made it clear that 360 appraisals tend not to give an accurate sense of your strengths and weaknesses, rather a lot of feedback that is agenda-ridden especially if those giving feedback see you as competition of some kind. Nevertheless, they are a useful exercise because ‘it tells you exactly what people are saying about you’ and you need to know that! She also said when you go to a meeting, ‘always take a gift’ – it could be an actual object or just a piece of knowledge or advice – that’s a great tip.

If you had to pick one mentor, that had the biggest influence on you, who would it be?

It would have to be John Wringe. He took me under his wing at Cogent, when I first started out back in 1994, and I still have regular lunches with him even now, nearly 30 years later. Like me, he comes from a hard-working family, has a similar work ethic, loves creativity and innovation and not only has never let me down but has always cheered me on. He is the one who has taught me most about how to run a business, both from a financial point of view and from a governance standpoint. We also share a similar sense of humour, and an appreciation for Stewart Francis jokes!

From where do you draw inspiration?

From noticing change around me: trends, we might say. It could be what’s going on in the art world, or new scientific breakthroughs, or it could just be noticing how cultural and societal values are changing. My very favourite thing is people watching. Just watching people and listening to their conversations. That probably comes from my many years of doing consumer research and probing for what people really think – which is often very different to what they say.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced to date?

Setting up my own business, I guess. You never know if it will be a success, or whether you can lead it to success, or what you want success to look like. Every day is different, and every day there is a new obstacle or challenge, but you just have to find a way through. When you have clients who are like-minded and find people to work with whom you can trust and everyone is energised by amazing ideas, you need to stop and just appreciate it – those are some precious times.

What qualities do you feel makes a good leader?

I’m less interested in leadership than in thought-leadership. I enjoy inspiring people with a new vision, so I suppose it’s that. I admire people who are able to paint a picture of an alternative future that people had never considered – who can make people see things they couldn’t see before. 

From a work viewpoint what has the last 12 months been like?

It was pretty tough. New Year’s Eve 2020, I was in hospital caring for my father in a Covid ward. He contracted it in hospital a few weeks before when admitted for something else, and by Christmas Day he was severely ill. I spent two weeks by his side, even sleeping on a camp bed in the ward, helping nurse him. I couldn’t pitch, run the business or chase up on any work projects for quite a while. But by March my book came out, Dad was recovering, and business started to pick up again. We’re pretty much back on track now but it’s been a year I won’t forget in a hurry.

What would you say are the biggest tech-based challenges we face today?

The main challenge is that technology is in the hands of oligopolies.  As a result, end users, consumers, and citizens are losing many of their rights as we see nation state governments working hand in hand with technology platforms to install a type of technocracy on their populations. The danger is that technocracy is replacing democracy. Many people feel that they are losing their autonomy over their own lives and personal choice is being throttled, as a result. Meanwhile the wealth inequality between this oligarchical tech elite and the everyday person gets wider and wider until the two are living completely different types of lives.

Give us a fact about you that most other people wouldn’t know.

I’ve sung on stage at the Royal Albert Hall.