New Wolff Olins boss Sairah Ashman on taking up the top job

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The opportunity to climb the meritocratic ladder, one rung at a time, is one of capitalism’s greatest feats. If you’re good at something and stick to it, eventually you’ll reach the top.

Sairah Ashman, chief executive at brand consultancy Wolff Olins, is testament to that notion. Having worked at the firm for 23 years (“longer than I care to remember”), she has the top job. But she says, doesn’t she feel like a chief executive, just someone with a lot of work to do.

“I guess because I’ve been here so long, and seen it through so many iterations, it felt quite natural. But when I first started, I never imagined for a second that I’d end up doing this one day, I have to say.”

Born in the heady, halcyon days of the sixties, the firm is a permanently evolving stalwart, with social conscience at its core. Every chief executive wants to add their own flavour, and Ashman is no different, although, she says, some things are precious about the place that she’d like to enable, protect, and propagate.

“The one thing I’ve always loved about Wolff Olins is that it’s constantly evolving. When I talk to the guys who founded it, they said that in the beginning they didn’t know if it was going to be a business, a film, a disaster. They had all sorts of thoughts about where it could go because it was a time when anything was possible. As it’s grown up, the things that create the right kind of spirit – and enable us to do the kinds of work we do – those are the things I want to protect.”

Before stepping into her role, Ashman completed a Masters in digital sociology, a subject she admits knowing little about when she started.

“If sociology is about studying behaviour in society – the invisible hand that guides us – digital sociology is studying it online. So how we interact with digital objects, how digital objects interact with each other, what happens to all that data and all those trails, and how that can influence us in ways that are good or bad.”

She says it was a crash course in an awful lot of things, and gave her a chance to catch up, not being digitally native. Ashman has a penchant for artificial intelligence (AI), and by coincidence, the morning of our meeting the government had announced that it was going to ease off attempting to regulate the UK’s booming AI industries. We discuss the ethics of AI, and while cautious, Ashman is sanguine.

“I think it’s exciting, and I take a positive view of technology, because I don’t like the alternatives. You have to work with what’s happening: how do you get people and intelligence to work together? That’s going to be the key thing. How do you get us to evolve in our thinking rapidly enough to avoid unintended consequences?”

While talking about AI all day would have been pleasant, we move on to discuss a report Wolff Olins has produced in conjunction with CitizenMe. The report, Radical Everyone, aims to discern attitudes towards the role businesses should play in shaping the world.

The report raises some compelling, conflicting, issues. On average, 41 per cent of respondents believe businesses ought to be a force for positive social change, while just 13 per cent believe they are doing so, because of a narrow focus on profit. Interestingly, only 31 per cent believe responsibility for driving positive change rests with the state.

“What’s been really interesting is just putting the report together, and having the chance to speak to a lot of people and to think about things from different perspectives. And I thought it was quite heartening – there’s a role for business to be doing some good in the world, and to be filling the gaps that have appeared through governments not being able to tackle stuff either fast enough, or not having deep enough resources to do so.”

The report did highlight a scepticism of institutions, with respondents believing groups of individual people have brought about more positive change than national governments in the last decade, something Ashman was not surprised about.

“It’s kind of hard to trust everything at the moment full stop, isn’t it? With the elections that we’ve had, and everything else going on in the world, the institutions, bodies, and the things that we took for granted – that trust has dropped.”

It’s not all doom though, rather an opportunity. Wolff Olins’ core value of having a social conscience is something Ashman believes its clients, and other firms, can weaponise in a way that engenders reciprocal benefits for the businesses and their consumers.

“I think if we’re consuming things from companies, they’re an expression of who we are, and how they behave is an expression of what we believe in. Companies do sort of behave like people to some degree, and we relate to them as such.”