Karen Coleman is the Managing Director at Archetype, a marketing agency partnering with category creators and industry leaders around the world.
1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?
Following a few internships in New York and Munich, I officially kick started my career in Dublin, Ireland where I worked in a consultancy for just over a year. It was right at the time when Ireland was doing really well (known as The Celtic Tiger in 2006) so friends and I decided to pack in our first real jobs in preference to travelling around the world!
I travelled through S.E. Asia for a few months before stopping in Sydney where I took on a role at a PR agency in Sydney with the intention of staying for three months. Two months in, I was given sponsorship and almost 15 years later, here I am.
The journey has been an interesting one. The agency I started with was acquired, three years later we then merged with our sister brand and most recently, we had a global rebrand. So in essence, it’s really three different companies.
I started as an account manager at 25 and was made Managing Director at 31 which was hugely daunting at the time but looking back, it was also the perfect time for me to learn the ropes.
Three months after taking the role of MD, our holding group announced it would merge us with our sister agency across APAC (and eventually globally). This was a pivotal point in my career. I had nowhere to turn now as I was the boss.
For anyone who has been through or led an M&A, they know the disruption it causes from team attrition to culture loss not to mention the time it takes to rebuild it all. However, once you come out on the other side, it’s quite amazing the skills you acquire and how much of an impact it has on you both personally and professionally.
During that time, we also made a number of acquisitions globally and in the region which meant our services, structure and whole agency changed dramatically – I had to come up with new pricing structures, new career path frameworks and overall new ways of working (all while I was pregnant with my first baby). Our latest re-brand in 2019 was a piece of cake having gone through the M&A!
My current role is MD Archetype which following the M&A history is now a full-service marketing agency with strategy and creative at its core.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve built a really solid management team consisting of commercial, creative and strategic brains which means my role is less hands on than it used to be (which helps a lot with work-life balance). As a result, I can now focus on the big picture strategic stuff which I love.
I’m a natural risk taker and always looking for the next big thing (I’m really an entrepreneur at heart), and I’m lucky in that my agency supports me to do things differently and take these risks which is why I’m still part of the network almost fifteen years later.
2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?
I’m quite an early riser and I wake up at 5.30 to exercise before my brain figures out what I’m doing. I joined an outdoor training group almost 8 years ago and find that being in nature and exercising before everyone else (and the sun) gets up is the best thing for the soul.
I try to avoid emails unless urgent and following my exercise, I try to get 10-20 mins of meditation on a good day. 7am hits and my two young kids – Katie (just turned 5) and Harrison (almost 3) are awake and all my good intentions of starting the day with a calm energy are diminished (jokes!).
But yes, anyone who has two young kids knows the fun the morning time brings when you pick out the wrong shoes or t-shirt for a toddler. Once I’ve dropped the kids to day-care, I walk home listening to a podcast checking Slack for anything urgent.
I also listen to The New York Times podcast The Daily for my global news hit and scan local media before I hit my desk. I spend the first hour or so getting through emails with a very strong three-shot black coffee in hand.
I like to power through the day so I will do back-to-back meetings and if I do lunch, it’s a working lunch – I need every hour I can get as a working mom. I am also a big believer in only attending meetings that you bring value to so will often ask this question of the team before I accept any meetings in my diary. Work-life balance does not exist if you attend 8 hours of meetings a day.
In the evening, I’ll take a 1.5-2 hour break to spend time with my family, have dinner too and then once they are in bed, I’ll log back on to check emails, finish any tasks, connect with my colleagues in other timezones as well as set up my to-do for the next morning.
If I have the time, I’ll watch a short TV show with my husband (we rarely get through a full 45 minute episode these days) and then off to bed by 9.30pm with a book or meditation– I love my sleep.
In general, I try to really structure my time and compartmentalise so that when I’m with my family, I’m 100% focused on them but at work, I am 100% there too. I often do the work-life ‘blend’ too so for example, the book I’m reading is likely to be a management book versus fiction. Same with podcasts- they are often around leadership tips or learning from those who have mastered their craft.
3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?
We have had a WFH policy in place for a few years now where the mantra is ‘work from wherever you like as long as you get the job done’ so I personally have been living this for a few years.
We try to instil a culture of balance in the agency and I believe we’ve done a pretty good job trusting our team from entry level right up to the management team. I personally love the option of WFH as I can avoid the hectic rush in the morning and I also have a lot more time to focus and get the big items off my list.
However, there is no replacement for team collaboration and I also love that I get to work alongside people each week too, particularly for creative tasks.
4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?
Without balance in your life, everything is just that bit harder. Having worked in the agency world for almost 15 years, there were many occasions where work took 100% of my focus but as a result my health suffered (from the high levels of cortisol!).
I did feel that working long hours and weekends was productive but now I look back, I think if I had prioritised the balance a bit better, I would have been a lot more efficient – e.g. taken more breaks, slept more (I’m such a big believer in sleep), focused on one task at a time and so on. True balance is recognising that you can’t do it all and if you try to do it all at the same time, something’s got to give.
At this stage in my life, work-life balance is all about compartmentalising, prioritising and planning. It takes work and discipline, but when you’re structured like this, life is that little bit easier.
5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?
I have reduced my time watching the news (apart from Industry and news relating to work) as I feel that some of the general interest stories like children going missing, deaths, etc. bring no value to my day.
If anything, it’s a good way to start your day off on a negative note. This filtering of content has been extended into the shows and TV series that I watch – I tend to only watch shows that make me smile now or teach me something new.
Years ago, I’d love nothing more than to spend an evening with a box of tissues and a bottle of wine watching The Notebook and having a good cry, whereas now I won’t watch any of that stuff. Maybe I’m avoiding feeling the emotions but who cares, I’m happier for it!
Also, I’ve significantly reduced my screen-time and turned my phone off 30 mins before bed. It’s definitely helped with sleep and just making sure I’m more present in general.
6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?
Books: Good to Great by Jim Collins changed how I viewed leadership and how I approach work in general. It is a must read for anyone in business.
Podcasts: there are so many. I’ve mentioned some above but also love The Joe Rogan Podcast, Jay Shetty’s On Purpose, SuperSoul Conversations, Marketing School, Stuff You Should Know, Luminary – Russell Brand, the list goes on.
7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?
Probably my EarPods! Also, while I’m not a massive fan of Social Media, I do find that WhatsApp has really been a game-changer for me staying in touch with my family in Ireland. It’s easy for my mom to use, ensures I stay in touch with friends from school and also not loaded with advertising and distraction, yet.
8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?
Funny, I literally just bought Becoming by Michelle Obama, who I think did a fantastic job of balancing her family with her time at The White House.
9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?
You can have it all, just not always at the same time. My younger self may not have believed this, but I am living it. I’m healthy, happily married with two amazing kids and successfully running a brilliant agency with a great network of friends.
However, this does not come without a big amount of planning, scheduling and in some cases sacrifice – see above – I get up at 5.30am every day or God’s sake!
But on a serious note, if you can take each ‘chapter’ of your life, look at it and prioritise, you really can have a balanced life and without sounding completely like Sheryl Sandberg, having a supportive partner who shares the load really helps here.
Right now, at this stage in my life, priority is my family, my work and my health. This means my social life and my awesome friends may take a backseat at times. However, I’m lucky in that my friends are all in very similar situations, so we have that understanding.
It also means that my personal ‘me’ time (which tends to be exercise of some kind) often comes with one of my sidekicks – e.g. my five-year-old often accompanies me to my exercise group at weekends now or I use her to do my squats!
And while running your life as a well-oiled machine sounds easy on paper, remember that some days can just suck no matter how great the intention. That’s where a good glass of red wine will fix you right up.
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