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Creating Change with Mel Exon, CEO of The Sunshine Company

Author Guy Reading

“The most important thing you have to be as a leader is more open than you’re ever truly comfortable being.”

Keeping up with change can be one of the most daunting aspects of any job, but not for Mel Exon, who has built her career around innovation. Her love of learning has seen her bring new digital technologies and strategies into old business models through the successful startup BBH Labs. With one eye on the phenomenal pace of change in the worlds of media and the other on running The Sunshine Company, her ability to look ahead and manage a business accordingly is vital for success in today’s market.

Key Takeaways

  • Have an open door. Having an approachable persona in business can be extremely effective for creating an environment where people feel safe. Be open with people: this way they gain confidence and feel they can ask for help and freely share information in return. 

  • Be authentic. Acknowledge what you’re good at; use that knowledge to play to your strengths. It’s also important to recognise your weaknesses and surround yourself with people who are very different to you: they will do the things you can’t do, challenge you and help you be more effective as a result.

  • Learn to love learning. Change is a constant in business, and having a learning mindset is one way to keep abreast of the latest developments. Stay open, take courses, improve your skill set, and experiment: the more you learn, the easier it will become to improve upon old and outdated business models.

  • Be mindful of other people. Different personalities react differently to new information. Don’t adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach to change. Consider how different people will react to a policy or strategy before implementing it and adapt your approach accordingly; you will be able to communicate with and inspire them better.

“Running BBH Labs taught me how important it was to love learning and to try and impart and share that enthusiasm with others, to try and make a workspace a safe environment for people to feel comfortable changing and developing.” 

Can you tell us a bit about what your career journey was so far?

I started out in a company called Bartle Bogle Hegarty, as what was then called an Account Manager. Over nineteen years in that company I became responsible for running the accounts for big client businesses, working with massive companies like Levi’s and British Airways. I loved it, and my collaboration with British Airways is actually what kickstarted my foray into innovation and a startup mindset; together with a small team of brilliant partners we created a social utility that connected New York with London. That was a shock: suddenly, I’d gone from a career in advertising to developing a social utility. That shift was an amazing experience and a steep learning curve, after which my work partner Ben Malbon and I decided that we wanted to do that full time.

Our realisation actually coincided with the fact that the industry was starting to wake up to the fact that the old outputs, processes and business models were beginning to date. We wanted to understand how to adapt our approach and models for a digital landscape, and so we set up and wrote a business plan for BBH Labs, and began a whole new chapter in our professional lives. 

I’d learnt a lot up until that moment in a more conventional environment, but here we were working in a startup that was exclusively about understanding new technology, platforms, processes and agency models. Running BBH Labs taught me how important it was to love learning and to try and impart that enthusiasm to others, to try and make a workspace into safe environment for people to feel comfortable changing and developing. I was subsequently made Chief Digital Officer for BBH and then later the Managing Director in London, all roles which stretched me in different ways. In the process, I fell in love not only with the work itself, but in how a great company is run and how it develops. The move to Sunshine was about taking everything I had learned and helping to shape a much more nascent, but very exciting new company.

I fell in love not only with the work itself, but in how a great company is run. The move to Sunshine was about taking everything I had learned and helping to shape a much more nascent, but very exciting new company.

Can you also tell us a bit about what you do and about what The Sunshine Company is?

I came to Sunshine because I was ready to become the co-owner of a business again: the chance to help create the future for such an exciting place was too good a chance to turn down. At Sunshine we’re a next generation entertainment company. We’re in the business of creating entertainment properties that connect brands with their most valuable audiences – both in partnership with brand owners and also creating our own entertainment IP.

Sunshine feels like an involved and exciting place, and I was very attracted to that positivity and energy. It’s a young company, but it has an incredibly intense belief in the quality of the work and attention to detail, as well as being very open, very diverse and unreasonably ambitious. In terms of its culture, you can feel it’s special when you walk in the door. We’re doing everything we can to feed that. My hope and belief is that this is a company that will always live up to the promise of our name. 

“I’ve learned to be mindful about other people’s levels of resilience to and appetite for change: you can’t assume that everybody is like you, because different personalities respond massively differently to different things.” 

What are the skills you have acquired which help you in your day to day role?

I’ve had to learn patience, and I had to learn how to temper my enthusiasm and think about other people! It’s important to be mindful about other people’s levels of resilience to and appetite for change: you can’t assume that everybody is like you, because different personalities respond massively different to different things, and you have to adapt your approach to suit different people: otherwise, they just won’t engage with you.

I’d also say a love of learning is very significant: sometimes you worry that you’re not keeping up to date with the things that are changing in the world, but I love to embrace that appetite for change and just lean into it. Having said that, it’s also important to keep a bit of fear; if I don’t feel scared then I am probably not listening hard enough. . The thing I’ve learned is to have a set of people I really trust around me, and just to be approachable; that way, if people are anxious or overwhelmed then they’ll actually tell me about it. It’s okay to say you’re not okay. It’s the first step to making things better. 

What’s been the best learning experience you’ve had?

One of the best learning experiences I’ve had, which has stayed with me all through my career, was a leadership coaching course which was run by the then-chairman of BBH, Jim Carroll. What he did was teach us the importance of being your authentic self in business: we are all oriented in a way that’s unique to us, and you don’t necessarily have to fit into a leadership archetype to be a good leader. He helped people to understand who they were as a leader, and how to play to your strengths when doing so.

He also taught us that everybody’s personality and approach brings weaknesses with it which should be cut off — often by surrounding yourself with people who are different to you, and who can help you to improve upon those weaknesses. That individual, thoughtful bit of learning and development was probably one of the most empowering (in the true sense of the word) and meaningful things I’ve ever been taught.

What courses/ learning experiences have you found particularly useful for yourself or for colleagues?

I think the things that have taken me completely out of my day job have actually in retrospect been the things that I’ve found the most useful. We were lucky enough to do a mini MBA with BBH, which was two weeks about really understanding the world of business: for instance, we were taught how to read a Profit and Loss sheet. Early in your career and in a creative company, people rarely give you the opportunity to do something that’s so business oriented, but the course was a fantastic learning experience. It was run with partners, and it was well judged. We learnt about how a business works, and about leadership. The things I found most useful were when I was taught something that I wouldn’t necessarily learn in the day job, but which could be incredibly powerful when applied to it.

“When you ask people to accept change, it takes time for it to happen. You’re changing the culture of a workplace, and you have to really embody that change in the work that you do and the mindset you have.”

Is there something you wish you’d known when starting out and if you knew this would you do anything differently as a result?

Yes, there’s a lot, and I think the most significant thing I’ve learnt has been about change, and about how people learn. Jason Fried of Basecamp has a phenomenal expression about culture which I love, where he says that ‘You can’t create culture. It’s like patina: it’s the consequence of consistently applied behaviours. You can’t tell everybody you’re this, you have to be it.’ This is so relevant when it comes to workplace culture: I’ve learnt that when you ask people to accept change, it takes time to be ‘real’, it takes time for it to become consistent behaviour.. As a leader, if you’re changing the culture or approach of a workplace, you have to personally embody that change in the work that you do and the mindset you have. You can tell people as many times as you want that they need to change but if you aren’t living and breathing that mindset, it will create problems: you are saying one thing and doing another. If you are committed and sincere, then be realistic and cut yourself some slack: as Jason says, it takes time for the ideas you create to become a part of the culture; they need to wear in, like patina.

What would you include in your learning playlist? Ie. What are your top recommendations for: 

Books

Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc. is a book that anybody on the planet with a creative bone in their body should read. It’s a book about how to run a creative business, and I’ve adopted a lot of his strategies in my own work, such as borrowing his Pixar Notes Day to do a BBH Notes Day!

Events

I’ve always enjoyed Google’s Firestarters, which is organised and curated by Neil Perkin. It’s always provocative, and always interesting, especially as it deals with the challenges and opportunities that are always arising in the world of business.

Blogs/ Publications

I do read a lot of blogs, and subscribe to a lot of writers in media. I tend  tend to read a lot about tech and entertainment in the main. I also get newsletters: my two favourites are Lenny Letter and Benedict Evans. Plus I love McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

I also listen to a ton of podcasts on Overcast, my favourites are still: A16z, 99% Invisible and Ctrl-Walt-Delete.

On Medium I subscribe to Dave Pell’s NextDraft, Danah Boyd, Talib Kweli Greene, and John Battelle.

“The most important thing you have to be as a leader is more open than you’re ever truly comfortable being.” 

What are the most important traits for leaders, and how can people go about developing them?

I would say the most important thing you have to be as a leader is more open than you’re ever comfortable with being. People can sense tension and conflict, and not acknowledging that there is a problem or an issue is much more frightening to people than just saying that there’s a problem, and discussing how you’re going to tackle it. There can be a blindness in senior management sometimes, where people think that if you don’t talk about it then it’s going to go away. I do try to be as open as I can, and combine that with being calm and controlled: that’s the best way to lead people. You need to be honest, open and authentic about what you’re good and not good at, surrounding yourself with people who make up for your deficiencies.

Whilst at BBH you developed BBH Labs- what’s the role of innovation in advertising and the interplay between agencies and startups/entrepreneurs?

We were an internal startup, so we did work with other startups, as much to learn from them as anything else. We would work on their branding and marketing, and learn about their way of thinking in return, which was sometimes intensely different to ours. Our role inside BBH was to be an internal petri dish for the rest of the company, our job was to be  innovative in everything we did. At the time, we effectively developed our business on social platforms and our blog in ways that let us share learning and thinking And we learned a lot about the way that the social web worked along the way.

The social web at the outset felt fun, open and challenging; it helped us step out of what was a fairly closed culture at BBH at the time. In those early days the ability to experiment gave us confidence and authority that allowed us later to give best advice to clients, but also to think about our own business and how that model needed to flex and change.

What is your approach to hiring great talent?

I think that when hiring into a company you need to have a really thoughtful, systematised approach. The danger is that people with different personalities interview in different ways, and you can end up hiring somebody on the basis of a great conversation, rather than actually considering whether or not they’re suited for the role. I have a series of questions that I try to get through to stop the natural unconscious bias getting in the way before I make a decision. You tend to make a judgement about somebody within the first thirty seconds, and I’m usually looking for somebody who’s very different to me, that can be quite challenging.  But we need to make sure that a new hire is going to bring something that we don’t already have in the company.

It’s also important to have the right person asking the questions, especially when it comes to hiring somebody who is applying for a specialised job. I love a polymath and probably aspire to be one, but when you’re hiring specialists you need to make sure that somebody is alongside you qualified to make the decision.

“The so-called digital and binary world is coming out into the real world, and will suddenly be everywhere around us.”

What does the future of advertising and marketing hold?

We’re screen-obsessed now, but I think we will see less of them in the future; screens will start to disappear because AI will be built into the materials surrounding us.

I’m interested in how it’ll physically manifest itself but I do think that it’ll just be part of the fabric of our lives, rather than just sitting on individual devices. If you like, a binary world integrating into the ‘real’ world, rather than the other way around. 

Author Guy Reading