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Five questions with... Sunny Bates

In the second of a series of interviews with inspiring female leaders, Wolff Olins’ global COO, Sairah Ashman, interviews Sunny Bates. Sunny is a curator of ideas, talent and disruption. 

What are the most significant shifts influencing your business?

We’re now in a connection-based economy.  Big tectonic shifts in our society, in government and in financial institutions have moved us from an economy of information to an economy of connection – it’s the new currency.

This shift is heightened by a proliferation of new outlets that devolve social capital and demand transparency.  This has led to a new more flexible order of social hierarchies.  Accelerated and fuelled by the digitising of our world.

The kinds of people who thrive most in this world are entrepreneurial, highly curious, and can see round corners - people who are comfortable with ambiguity and can make deft and wonderful connections between people and institutions.

What do you see as the key growth accelerators for you over the next 12 months?

There are so many great things happening right now.  My new project Red Thread, which will highlight an idea and the person behind it each week, GE’s Global Insights Network (GIN), start ups in the Sharing Economy and Quantified Self spaces, plus my projects growing entrepreneurship in fast growth markets – all of these things drive me forward.

More broadly, I see the growth of the sharing economy as a huge driver. It’s going to change how the financial, insurance, automotive – you name it - services operate, playing into this will be changes in self reporting personalisation of data – how we think of ourselves and our wealth.

Another important area will be in the growth of co-location and co-working communities. Although we have all become self-contained workers, we still crave and thrive in communities and those communities offer us a better chance of succeeding.

From these communities come phenomenon such as the DIY movement and people working around traditional structures.  I see huge opportunities in creating these workarounds and the tools that will replace our usual, now unwieldy, instruments and ways of working.

What role do you see brand playing in helping achieve your goals?

Brand is everything. Brand is the dominant communication medium. The brand promise has never been more critical for brands because if they don’t deliver on this, if they are not honest and transparent, they’ll be outed immediately. A big question for brands in the future will be how far they can stretch and how well they live up to their reputations.

What or who inspired you in the early years of your career?

In my early years my family inspired me.  I was one of 4 daughters and we were all encouraged to have high expectations for ourselves and for what we could accomplish.  My father was a lawyer, my mother was a stay at home mom and ex-Olympic athlete.  We spent time together as a family, debated the big questions in life and I learned that hard work is essential to success.

Later when I moved to the city I felt a burning desire to have impact, further ignited by four older female colleagues I met at the time – they demonstrated that you could be different, quirky and interesting, and succeed.   Joining the media world was also a total pleasure – it was a world of culture and of ideas.

What advice would you pass on to others just starting out?

Build your network.  Feed it, water it, encourage it – it will build your life.  People used to see a divide between your personal and professional life and connections.  Now we all realise that divide is unimportant.

Also be respectful of peoples’ time.  If you’re going to ask for advice, frame your question clearly and be specific (even if you’re not entirely sure of where you’re going overall).  Tell them what you want from them.  It’s so much easier to be useful and develop the conversation if someone approaches you in this way.  Specificity makes it easy for people in your network to give you what you want and what you need.

Sairah Ashman is global COO of Wolff Olins