After rising through the ranks at the biggest marketing communications agency outside London, Sharon Mars is ready for a new challenge – and rescuing the planet is high on her to-do list, as Peter Ranscombe finds out.
Think back to your primary school days; there was always one kid in the class who was forever asking “Why?”.
You know the one I mean – the one who always put their hand up first with the answer, the one who always wanted to know how stuff worked, the one who made the rest of us look bad.
Sharon Mars was that child. And she’s never grown out of those habits.
And I mean that in the nicest possible way because it’s one of the traits that set entrepreneurs apart from the wider population – that drive to not accept the status quo, but to question why we do things like we do and ask if they can be improved.
I first met Mars back in 2009 when she was a fresh-faced graduate joining The Big Partnership, the Glasgow-based marketing communications agency that has grown to become one of the largest in the UK.
Within eight years, she’d risen through the ranks to become one of the agency’s directors and was one of the six equity partners that bought the business from two of its founders in 2016 for £11m.
Along the way, Mars launched the company’s operations in the north-west of England and worked with blue-chip brands including accountancy firm Deloitte, transport organisation TfL and ports operator Peel Group.
Last year, she decided it was time for a new challenge.
“I love learning and when I stop learning new things I get bored,” admits Mars.
“Having joined the board at The Big Partnership, I wanted to prove to myself that it wasn’t a fluke and that I could do it with my own business.”
Shooting for the moon
Not satisfied with just having one company to run, Mars has opted for three.
She was introduced to management consultant Al Walker by Jim Duffy, the founder of the Entrepreneurial Spark business incubation programme, which was bought by Royal Bank of Scotland earlier this year.
Initially, Duffy and Walker had intended to on Moonshot Academy, a business accelerator scheme.
Duffy has now stepped back from the project, but Mars and Walker have taken up the reins, refocusing Moonshot on a specific issue that trips up many fledgling businesses.
“A lot of the start-ups and scale-ups we were working with hit a pitfall when trying to raise investment because of a lack of market analysis,” explains Mars.
“It meant they didn’t understand their customer, which had a knock-on effect when they went for investment.
“Moonshot is working with one of its investors in India, which has a vast data centre that can crunch the numbers to deliver market analysis and plug that gap for start-ups.
“A lot of businesses would say to us, ‘The market’s worth £14bn and if we could get 1% of that…’ and we’d ask ‘Why 1%? Why not 0.5%?’.”
Combining human and machine
Moonshot ties in with the pair’s wider London-based consultancy business, Mars Walker.
Mars describes Walker as the “machine” side of the business – a mechanical engineer with experience of the “Six Sigma” lean management strategy – while she brings the “human” or softer skills, such as marketing and branding.
“We don’t work with clients like a marketing business would, charging a retainer and then staying forever more,” she says.
“Instead, we design a brand strategy, design a marketing strategy, analyse data and advise them on what they need to do, working alongside an in-house chief marketing officer or their equivalent.
“Al does the same when it comes to process improvement and often the two are linked, because marketing is becoming more automated and much more data-driven and so it’s more process-driven.
“We need to embrace the machine, we need to embrace the side of the business that branding and marketing didn’t like to talk to – the scientific, logical side of the business.”
Large and small clients
Bringing Mars Walker and Moonshot together gives the pair the chance to serve a broad range of clients, from large companies – including one FTSE100 constituent – to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
“Moonshot allows us step in and say ‘If that’s your addressable market and that’s your route to market then this is what your brand and marketing strategies and your financial model need to look like,” Mars explains.
“It gives them a solid grounding and some realistic forecasts.
“With names like ‘Mars Walker’ and ‘Moonshot’, it sounds like something out of a sci-fi film, doesn’t it?” she chuckles.
The third element is that Mars and Walker are also partners in Business of Brand Group, which has operations in London, Australia, North America and Singapore.
The firm was founded by branding strategist Linzi Boyd and fund manager Darren Shirlaw to help entrepreneurs build their companies.
Philanthropy in action
In amongst all the talk of business, business, business, Mars also has a higher purpose in mind for her new endeavours.
She highlights Walker’s engineering interest in the circular economy, reducing waste and making processes more efficient.
“I just want to save the world,” she shrugs. “If Wonder Woman was a role then I would apply.”
Their shared interest in “giving something back” to society has inspired the other side to Mars Walker’s operations.
“It’s a ‘circular’ consultancy – we’ll work with corporates and SMEs but then 10% from our day rate will be put into a charitable foundation that we’re setting up,” explains Mars.
“We’ll build up the fund over the course of the year and then do something tangible with it in August when London is closed, like build a school or teach kids how to read. We can do different things each year.
“The idea is that, while we’re using our skills to help corporates, there’s also another reason for doing it.
“It gives us a reason to get out of our beds in the morning – it gives us that extra motivation.”
‘Save the world’ hackathons
As well as the philanthropic side to the consultancy, Mars wants to take the concept of problem solving “hackathons” from the technology industry and apply them to a wider range of problems.
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