In our latest Industry Insider, we sit down with Emma Lax, who is Head of Strategy at creative agency Cake, a member of the Cake and Havas UK leadership teams and Co-Founder and Director of the Women’s Rugby Association.
Tell us about yourself, what is your current role and what roles have you done previously?
I’m Head of Strategy at Cake, a creative agency breaking new ground in sport, entertainment and culture.
Clients include the likes of Adobe, Arsenal, Aston Martin, Carling, Commonwealth Games England, EE, Harman Kardon, Jaguar Land Rover, JBL, JD Sports, Major League Baseball, PUMA, Sport England and the FA.
I’m also a member of Cake and Havas UK leadership teams responsible for growth and development of the agency and network.
Outside of the day job, I’m Co-Founder and Director at Women’s Rugby Association, a players’ union to provide support and a collective voice for the Allianz Premier 15s.
Other personal projects include founding an award-winning women’s fitness site Lunges and Lycra and Summer of Sweat, an initiative delivered in partnership with London Sport, to provide discounted access to London’s fitness scene to underrepresented communities.
Before joining Cake, I founded and managed We Are Disrupt, a sports marketing agency specialising in women’s sport and was Head of Women’s Sport for CSM Sport and Entertainment.
Before CSM, I was Insight and Innovation Manager and then Campaigns Manager at Women in Sport, the UK’s leading women’s sport charity. My role was to provide insight led consultancy to the likes of the FA, ECB, RFU, British Cycling and England Netball on how to develop activity, communications, and campaigns that women and girls want to be a part of. I also provided secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women’s Sport.
What do you do in your current role?
I am responsible for leading and overseeing the agency’s strategic offer, managing, developing and growing the strategy and insight team and providing hands-on strategy development on key pieces of work.
This includes working across a variety of strategic projects spanning sport and entertainment – from research and insight to brand, creative, comms, partnerships, and commercial strategy.
I’m also responsible for driving growth of the agency through the generation of new leads, leading the strategic thinking on key pitches and supporting on agency marketing.
I also developed Meaningful Brands in Sport and Culture, our proprietary framework for helping brands find their place at the heart of culture. This is a study and a robust planning process, that not only tells us that consumers believe that brands and have an important role to play in culture, but also where and how they would like brands to make a difference. Latest results dropping soon.
‘Normal’ isn’t a thing in sport so what does an ‘average’ week look like for you?
One of my favourite things about working for Cake and Havas is the variety. There is no ‘average’ week.
Last week included supporting the team across several different pieces of client work – a new gaming brief for EE, design of a partnerships workshop for Adobe, a refresh of a brand marketing playbook for MLB and development of a value proposition for a new sports property – as well as supporting on the final stage of three new business pitches.
I also work on wider agency and network initiatives. I’m currently working on the development and roll-out of a new brand positioning, a review of our services to identify areas for growth and investment and the development of a new joint venture. My current focus from a network perspective is the development of a new HKX strategy community, to help us take a more integrated approach to new opportunities.
On top of that, I also do lots of less exciting but important things like reviewing financials and client scopes, capacity planning and recruitment.
How did you end up where you are right now? When did you know you wanted to work in sport?
This one is a long story.
When I left school, I couldn’t be more disinterested in sport and probably would have laughed if you suggested it would become my career.
I didn’t have the best time growing up – one parent was an alcoholic with brain damage, dementia and nerve damage bad enough it put him in a wheelchair, and one was abusive. When I turned 17, I escaped to Edinburgh to study politics, while also working an eclectic mix of part time jobs to pay my way – weekends at the fish counter in Morrisons, evenings cleaning houses and nights as a care assistant for someone with severe disabilities. As well as still caring for my dad who was in and out of hospital over 100 miles away.
Eventually, it all became too much, resulting in a plethora of mental health issues – depression, anxiety, anorexia, PTSD. So, I turned to the doctor for help. I was lucky enough to have a brilliant GP that helped me to navigate my way through it all, and one of the things she suggested might help was sport. By this point, I was willing to try anything, so put on my trainers and made it out for my first run. It was not only a game changer for my mental health, but it also became a big part of my identity. Since then, I’ve run hundreds of races from 5Ks to ultras, cycled the whole of Scotland, qualified as a Personal Trainer, launched a sport and fitness blog, launched an initiative to improve access to London’s fitness scene and eventually turned sport into my career.
It was 2012, against the backdrop of the Olympics, that I made the decision to transition into sport. I started applying for jobs and was quickly told that my chances of getting a job in sport were slim because the sports industry was so competitive. Luckily, a recruiter helped me to understand what the gaps in my CV were, so I could fill them. He said I needed experience with the brands agencies want to work with, relationships with the right media, and proof of my sports marketing skills. So, on top of my day job, I started a blog that would help me to do just that.
I teamed up with a friend and created award winning women’s sport and fitness blog Lunges and Lycra. The community grew to 30K, we built relationships with media landing ourselves features in Stylist, Red Magazine, Easy Living, Cosmo Body, and Zest and worked with loads of different brand partners including Nike, Virgin Active, adidas, PUMA and GNR.
This enabled me to build out my CV and landed me a job at Fast Track (now CSM). I started out as an Account Director working across: Sainsbury’s, Youth Sport Trust, National Lottery, Polar, Lidl, Disney, Unilever and Sporting Equals. I was then promoted to Head of Women’s Sport and Lifestyle.
While at CSM, I befriended some investors who encouraged me to set up my own agency. I soon left CSM and launched We Are Disrupt, an agency specialising in women’s sport. I did this for two years and worked on some amazing projects for some amazing brands – Reebok, Canyon, The FA, Chestertons, Middlesex Cricket, Women’s Sport Trust and Fatima Bint Mubarak Academy – but I was finding start-up agency life lonely, I wasn’t getting to do work I enjoyed, and I wanted to be part of something bigger. So, I made the difficult decision to make the move to Cake and I’ve been here ever since.
What is your number one focus when it comes to your work?
Ensuring the agency’s strategic output is excellent, but not at all costs. My focus is ensuring that the team have everything they need to do their best work, as well as enjoying it along the way.
Can you tell us about a time you failed and what you learned from it?
In 2017, I launched We Are Disrupt. In 2019, I closed it down.
It was an amazing experience which I wouldn’t change but it got to the point where it was making me deeply unhappy. I found it lonely, I wasn’t getting to do the work I enjoyed as I was constantly searching for the next lead, and I missed being part of something bigger where I could learn from others.
I learned a huge amount from the experience about running an agency but the biggest thing I learned was what was going to make me happy from a work point of view and what wasn’t.
Shutting We Are Disrupt down was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make but I came out the other side way more self-aware about what I wanted from work and life.
What are you excited about in your industry at the moment?
I’m excited about the rich intersection between sport and other areas of culture. It’s not only a valuable tool that rights holders can use to attract new audiences, but also where the most interesting innovation is happening.
If you could change one thing about your Industry, what would you change?
Ensuring everyone has equal access to sport – as fans, as participants and as a career.
Sport is a hectic industry, what do you do to switch off?
I either head to the gym or get outside. I train at Fuel, an amazing gym in Twickenham, set up by ex-international rugby players Alice and Jo Richardson-Whatmore. Not only are they amazing coaches but the gym has a brilliant sense of community. If I’m not there, I’ll be dragging my husband or some mates out on a run, hike or swim.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to someone wanting to work in the sports industry?
Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. There is always a way.
How to connect with Emma Lax…
You can follow me over on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/emmajanelax/
Or if you want to chat or have any questions you can drop me a line here: email@example.com