Interview with Helen Foord, CEO of ELE Global
Find out how a redundancy forced Helen Foord, CEO of ELE Global to finally start working for herself.
What’s your career background?
I began my career in Oxford spin-off companies, building e-learning, e-commerce and online communities, before moving on to a number of in-house marketing roles working for Top 100 firms and leading barristers’ chambers.
In 2008, I incorporated Elephant Creative, one of the first virtual marketing agencies operating a flexible network of self-employed professionals. The agency went on to also be one of the first virtual agencies to achieve B Corp status, demonstrating its position as a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit with social and environmental responsibility.
In 2019 I launched ELE Global, an international strategic and tactical agency empowering people to make a commercial and professional difference, in a socially, environmentally, financially and communicationally responsible way.
It is the first responsibility-focused strategic communications agency for the legal sector, advocating the Triple Bottom Line, recording and reporting on performance across economic, environmental and social measures.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
I’d love to say that I had a thunderbolt moment but I really didn’t. Like so many people I started working for myself because I was made redundant.
Elephant Creative was a fantastic agency but I became increasingly frustrated that we were working on tactical, creative projects rather than the meaty strategic or responsibility-focused opportunities.
When we became a B Corp I started meeting some truly inspirational people and I gradually felt that I wanted to play a bigger part, professionally, in how business works in the future. This required a rethink, rebrand and to an extent starting again.
In short, I think ELE Global came from there not being another agency out there that understands both purpose and responsibility, but also the legal sector.
Lawyers are in a unique and privileged position in having responsibility towards their clients. Their advice has the potential to transform the wider business world.
How did you move from idea to actual business?
In short, I just did it. When you work for yourself you can’t take loads of time out to plan and get things perfect, you have to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in.
I confess I have taken advantage of some of the time we’ve had over lockdown to invest in working ‘on’ the business not ‘for’ but really it has been a case of trusting my instinct, communicating clearly and getting on with it.
What’s your USP?
Across the agency’s freelance associate network professionals, ELE Global delivers understandable, plain English marketing solutions that benefit clients in a sustainable, economic way – without sacrificing human values.
Associates help clients grow and earn profit whilst also supporting the non-economic aspirations of those in and around their corporate community.
The business strives to create systemic change across the business world, not only helping law firms and chambers to become more responsible, but also working closely with them, to better communicate with and support their clients, steering them towards this transformation too.
What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?
When I was in-house I was very theoretically-minded and was able to build great strategies and plans, however when I started working for myself I thought that was what people wanted from me. But over the years I’ve come to realise that clients need someone that understands the emotional drivers as much as the commercial ones.
What I mean by this is that in my own business I’ve made a lot of mistakes and had to learn as I’ve gone on.
But the one thing it has taken me until very recently to realise is that I can have the best strategies and plans in the world but if I’m not also taking care of the emotional side (the barriers to success… the ways I might be struggling with impostor syndrome or doubting my ability) then I’m never going to get the benefit from the excellent plans.
Now, as a consultant I spend a lot of time understanding what motivates my clients, and their personalities, before crafting a plan. Sometimes these are very tactical, and I leave them to it but for others, it involves a lot of mentoring and support.
Sometimes it feels more about human resources/learning and development than marketing.
And your proudest moment so far?
I think the thing that makes me proudest is the way ELE Global has been set up to also support a wide range of pro-bono and social enterprise initiatives.
For example, as a team we’re working on projects including the Just Festival (Edinburgh’s social justice and human rights festival that happens during Fringe time in August) and ElephantsAbroad (which we set up some years ago and are now about to relaunch, to support women in West Africa with business training, mentoring and funding).
For me, our biggest achievement isn’t our client list, it’s that our flexible structure makes it possible for us to work on these projects (as well as plenty of smaller things), using our skills and networks to make a real difference.
Why is work so important to you?
As long as I can remember I have had a passionate desire to contribute to changing the way the world works so as to support those that need it most.
At school I was involved in campaigning for better conditions in Romanian orphanages, raising money for a local youth project and I represented Great Britain at the first international symposium for Adaptive Rowing (before working for many years to establish it in the UK, leading to it becoming a Paralympic sport).
In recent years I’ve become particularly interested in the power professional services organisations have to create systemic change within the business sector.
I don’t think systemic change happens as a result of governments imposing extra taxes or fines, but through businesses recognising the benefits of changing, and creating a groundswell of change from within the sector. And that’s what we aim to do at ELE Global through responsible and purposeful legal services communications and strategic planning.
The B Corp movement seeks to balance purpose and profit and I find it exciting that organisations, such as law firms, can not only establish a solid foundation for their own growth but pass this on to clients. I don’t see purpose (or responsibility) as ‘nice to haves’.
Done right – perhaps even advised by a specialist agency like ELE Global – they can underpin real organisational success and growth. And, ultimately, it is only by each business taking a stand and behaving in a responsible and purposeful way that we’ll see questionable business activities disappear.
Who inspires you?
The first person that has long inspired me is Nicola Webb from Implementor. She has long been one of the most respected legal marketing professionals in the industry. When I was thinking about going freelance, and then setting up, she was the first person I called. Her advice was (and continues to be) invaluable.
More recently, though, I’ve come to realise that inspiration doesn’t have to come from a really ‘go-getting’ woman in business. I’ve been particularly inspired by my closest and oldest friends. It’s one of the great things about lockdown that we’ve all had time to meet for regular Zoom drinks and impromptu coffee chats.
Quite often, as women, we think we need to spend time and money on coaching and personal development when actually, if we open our eyes, we have a wealth of knowledge, experience, love and support around us.
So, I’d say that my greatest strength and inspiration has often come from opening a bottle of wine and picking apart a problem (sometimes, with brutal honesty) with my friends.
Fond out more about ELE Global.