Flaherty flies high
7th October 2015
Having worked in a variety of roles, including being a journalist at the Financial Times and head of content at Confused.com, Sharon Flaherty, founder of agency BrandContent, has fitted a lot in her career in a relatively short time. Flaherty has been busy thinking about different options for herself from a young age, and these options have been plentiful. She explains: “When I was a teenager I wanted to be a lawyer, briefly a TV presenter oh and a professional runner … but if you saw me run you’d know that was not going to happen! A plodder maybe, a runner, no. I remember being in a solicitor’s office on work experience when I was 15 and going through old case files and finding a detail that the solicitor himself said he hadn’t noticed, I thought it was my calling – but then as I chose my A-levels and ended up studying economics and business studies amongst others, I somehow ended up veering into business and studying an MA in International Management at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.”
Flaherty says she didn’t really enjoy her degree subject and was much more excited by a stint one summer in the USA selling encyclopaedias door-to-door. She also loved her year as an Erasmus student in Belgium, saying these experiences made her “resilient and independent“.
With the typical confidence of youth, after graduation, Flaherty was adamant she would never go into business: Instead she went to Japan to teach English for two years and it was here she had an epiphany that she wanted to be a journalist: “At last I had found my calling. I’d always being good at English and writing and story-telling and applied to do my post-grad in journalism. I came back from Japan and took a year out, ran my mum’s B&B for her and saved up the fees. The parents were unwilling to stump up for the second stint at uni!”
“I decided to go to City University after an interview day I’ll never forget. I turned up for a day of interviews and testing to find out that we had to go and ‘get a real story’ that day as part of our test. Some people who lived in London and had connections knew about it and had a story up their sleeves, but I had no clue where I was – bear in mind I’d just spent two years living in rural Japan, one year in Inverness (rural by London standards) and didn’t even know what part of London I was in, let alone anything else, and to be frank I had no idea how to get a story off the cuff!
“I didn’t have a smartphone (this was 10 years ago) or a map in my handbag so followed my nose up to Angel. We had around three hours to get the story, get back to the class and have it written up and submitted by the end of the afternoon.
“I wandered along Angel and was going into all the shops asking if anything had been happening in the area. There was no real method to my story hunting! After a few conversations that frankly probably made people think I was a weirdo, a dry cleaner’s on the street told me that the staff were mugged in the morning and there was a spate of them. There was also some hoo-ha about being lots of traffic cameras on the street but no CCTV cameras for safety. This story did later make it into the paper and was a real issue, bonus! I got my place on the City University newspaper journalism course and that was that.”
Flaherty’s journalism career took her to Euromoney, the Financial Times and also included freelancing for the nationals.
From journalism, Flaherty made the move to using her communication skills in a commercial environment, starting as editor-in-chief of Confused.com and then moving on to become group head of PR and social media at MoneySuperMarket.com. Discussing her time working in-house, and comparing it to the time she now spends running an agency, Flaherty says the main differences are the range of tasks she completes in a day: “Once you’re senior in-house you set the strategy, but then spend a lot of your time in meetings. Often my work would start at 5pm once the meetings ended. Now, there are less meetings (hurray) and as such the variety in your day is greater. That’s what attracted me to journalism in the first place, the need for variety and you definitely get that agency side. That’s not to say you don’t get that in-house, I’ve been lucky enough to have great roles where creativity and freedom were in abundance, but agency side you’re problem-solving all the time for a number of brands, which is fun.”
Discussing why she felt the need to set up on her own, Flaherty says “It was a strange thing. It was randomly the first few days into January, four years ago when I felt I needed to set more goals for myself and impulsively that day I bought a couple of URLS with the intention of potentially starting a content-marketing agency. There was a thread of an idea and a bit of a desire to build my own thing from scratch (I love building something out of nothing whether a division in a company or a campaign). But as time went on I found it difficult to walk away from a good salary and found myself accepting a new role elsewhere.”
Eventually, the pull of a high salary was not enough to keep Flaherty tied down. She explains: “As the saying goes, money alone doesn’t make you happy. That realisation was the kick I needed to start my own business. Content marketing agency BrandContent had its first anniversary in September and I love it. I’m getting to build something from scratch, we work with lovely clients and believe in what they do. And they’ve been really supportive of us and I’m genuinely really grateful for that.
“The one thing you learn fast in business is that you can’t take anything for granted, and there’s certainly no room for complacency. There are obviously challenges, but you never know what any day is going to bring and that’s so exciting. You can get an email out of the blue from a UK famous client, you can secure an amazing opportunity with TV, and have a campaign that takes off more than anticipated. It’s exciting!”
Her career may only be less than 10 years old, but Flaherty has achieved a great deal and certainly feels fulfilled, with plenty more plans for the future: “If my work life ended tomorrow, would I say I found my calling? As geeky as it sounds, I really do love content and communications and I loved journalism. I’m never bored. If I am lucky enough, later in life I would like to use some of my time to give something back though. Running my own business has been weirdly grounding because you can’t take anything for granted and I think it makes you see things in a different way. As a result, I have a stronger need now to want to help people.”