From ‘fad’ to ‘fab’ – Wendy Thompson Q&A

22 Apr, 2024
From ‘fad’ to ‘fab’ – Wendy Thompson Q&A
Wendy Thompson, co-founder of Thompson Spencer

Meet Wendy Thompson, co-founder of Thompson Spencer, a full-service global creative and media advertising agency.

With a keen eye for recognising untapped potential, Wendy founded the groundbreaking digital marketing company Socialites in 2010 after graduating with a Bachelor of Business from AUT in 2000.

At a time when many dismissed social media as a ‘fad,’ Wendy saw the power and opportunity it held to connect brands and businesses with communities. Fast-forward to today, Wendy's visionary approach has led to a very successful, globally recognised business. Over her journey, Wendy has picked up many business awards and was a finalist in EY Entrepreneur of the Year.

The AUT alumna shares her remarkable journey - from fad to fab.

Can you share your career journey after graduating from AUT? What steps did you take to get to where you are today, and what were some pivotal moments or experiences along the way?

After graduating, I worked as a junior executive at a small PR firm; one of my daily jobs was to type up handwritten notes from senior directors and turn them into emails. About six months in, one of the senior PR left the firm to join a text-marketing start-up called E-Zebra and tapped me on the shoulder to join her. After a few years, I moved to the bigger advertising agency network, DDB, as part of the direct marketing team, handling millions of dollars of advertising a year for our clients.

In 2005, I took a break from advertising to work as a deckhand/stewardess on superyachts for two years. However, after only six months, I became pregnant with my first daughter, so I was off the boat and back in Aotearoa. I returned to DDB and other world-class advertising agencies as a senior suit until I started my own specialist social media business called Socialites in 2010.

We'd love to hear about your business journey or how and why you decided to start your own business. What motivated you to take this path, and what challenges did you encounter? How did you overcome them?

In 2006, my husband and I started a Pilates and physio practice, and I began using Facebook to communicate with our clients, a relatively new platform, and I saw the benefits immediately. Every post had 100% organic reach, and it was incredibly powerful at filling our Pilates classes and creating a strong community culture, all for free. It really levelled the playing field for small companies to reach customers in a way that, traditionally, only large companies with big marketing budgets could do.

This was ground-breaking, and I knew it would change our industry forever. I doubled down and committed to learning everything I could about this new ‘fad’ social media. My friends saw our business success with Facebook and asked if I could help their businesses. And so, Socialites was born.

Like every business, it’s been a rollercoaster of a journey. Over the last 14 years, we have worked with most of New Zealand’s blue-chip brands and global companies like Microsoft and Airbus. At last count, we have campaigns running in 69 countries around the world and over 7,500 influencers in our creator database. Over the last 12 months, our team ran 1591 campaigns for our clients and moderated over 22 million social media comments. It’s grown into a bit of a beast!

A pivotal point was when the exceptional Melanie Spencer joined me in the business in 2019. We co-CEOed together through COVID-19, and now Melanie is CEO of our growing agency group whilst I look after special projects.

In the last few years, this has included leading our Buy & Build strategy (buying complementary agencies) and working with our Robot Team (dev team) to roll out groupwide technical efficiencies. We are all committed to building the ‘greatest little agency in the world,’ so we are always looking for ways to improve.

Through our acquisitions, we now have an internal production team and edit suite, a media team, a talent agency, and specialist capability in influencer and Chinese marketing. We aren’t just social media anymore and rebranded to the more suitably named Thompson Spencer in May last year. Building up from our social roots into a full-service creative and media agency, the team is having the best fun creating impactful advertising in TV, radio, billboards, and, of course, digital campaigns.

Along the way, I have faced many challenges and made plenty of mistakes, but everyone has been a valuable learning experience, so I treasure them for that. From small but tricky-to-navigate things, like posting the wrong brand on a social media channel, to expensive things, like investing hundreds of thousands of dollars on tech only to have an API (Application Programming Interface) change and make it worthless. You need rain and sun to make a rainbow, and as an entrepreneur, I am programmed to be a problem solver, so I have no regrets.

Right now, I’m in the early stages of setting up Thompson Spencer offices in Sydney and London—'little agency, big cities’.

Community engagement and giving back are important for personal and professional growth. Could you tell us about your involvement in your community and how it has significantly positively impacted your life and career?

I love helping other entrepreneurs and business owners strengthen their businesses. Over the years, I’ve spoken at hundreds of events in Australasia, sharing my knowledge of marketing and/or entrepreneurship with other business owners. As someone petrified of public speaking, the unintended personal benefit is that I’ve slayed that particular dragon.

Every year, I give my time to judging industry awards, including serving as the Westpac Business Awards Marketing judge for 4 years. I also sat on several Boards over the years, including the Well Foundation and the Rugby World Cup. It’s an incredible honour to work in a team to create something inspirational and special, as we did with the recent women’s Rugby World Cup in 2022, filling Eden Park with sell-out crowds. My experience building communities and being at the bleeding edge of new communications technology adds a different and valuable perspective to the mix of interesting people around the Board table.

As I’ve become more successful, I’ve also been able to give back by angel investing in some exciting companies like Tracksuit, Jeuneora and others. Following their progress is so rewarding.

Hot tip: Check out Pyper Vision, a friend of mine's deep tech company that is taking on the challenge of using drones to dissolve fog at airports. The founder, Emily, is an absolute weapon, she is literally changing the weather.

Have there been any specific projects or initiatives within your community that you've been passionate about? What motivated you to get involved, and what positive outcomes were achieved through your contributions?

One of the projects I’m most excited about is at Pacific Cooperation Broadcasting Limited (PCBL), where I’ve recently joined the Board as an independent director. Our mandate is to strengthen New Zealand’s partnership with the Pacific, take Pacific ‘story sovereignty’ to the world, and protect and support local broadcasting (language, culture, and heritage).

We do this by sourcing and donating broadcasting equipment, running training programmes and bringing together local broadcasting teams under our Pasifika TV brand to cover special Pacific events.

We also have partnered with NZ On Air to establish the Pacific Regional Media Fund, which matches New Zealand Pacific production houses with local Pacific broadcasters/producers to create Pacific content using our broadcasters' talent and equipment.

However, the way we consume news and media is evolving rapidly, and traditional TV viewership as we know it is dying. A very current example is the closure of Newshub.

I was elected to the Board specifically to give guidance and support to transition PCBL into a digital future. I will do this by helping develop content plans and a commercial model to help local broadcasters thrive. I see a future where Pasifika TV is as well-known around the world as the iconic BBC, so stay tuned for some very cool news and content initiatives that will be coming out shortly.

Aside from your career and business endeavours, what are some of your general life interests? How do you successfully balance your personal passions with your professional life, and what role do they play in your overall happiness and success?

I don’t believe in work-life balance; it’s all just life!

Business is my passion, and I am obsessed with always learning and improving my skills and knowledge so I can help make our company better. I spend a lot of time talking with other entrepreneurs and am an active member of the Entrepreneurs Organisation, a global group of 15,000 top entrepreneurs.

In the first ten years of running my own company, I sacrificed a lot of time with my children and family. Running your own business is a 24/7 job, and no matter what, the buck stops with you. You also can’t quit. However, I am now proud to see my two daughters showing exceptional work ethic and leadership qualities. My eldest is even following in my footsteps and is in her first year of university, studying business and marketing.

Aside from that, I love the sea and sailing and have recently taken up wing-foiling, so if there’s a decent breeze blowing, you’ll see me out on Lake Pupuke or the Waitematā Harbour.