Wolff Olins’s New CEO On Branding, AI, And The Future Of The Design Agency

  • Sairah Ashman
Interview when I took up the CEO role last year.
After three and a half years as CEO of the global branding and business strategy agency Wolff Olins, Ije Nwokorie has stepped down, leaving former chief operating officer Sairah Ashman to take his place. (Nwokorie will stay on at the company to mentor client teams.)
With 23 years working at Wolff Olins, Ashman has a deep familiarity with how the company–whose recent work includes branding for Zocdoc, Grubhub, and 3M–is run. But with an interest in new technologies and a recent masters degree in digital sociology, she is also poised to offer a fresh perspective on the future of branding. One area of focus for Ashman is artificial intelligence and how businesses will be more nimble than government to set the ethics standards for new technologies. Wolff Olins is partnering with leaders in AI, she said, and is interested in helping shape business strategies for new technology companies (for example, by branding the internet of things standards organization Zigbee Alliance).
AI is increasingly changing Wolff Olins’s own industry as well–with companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google automating the type of targeted advertising that branding and digital agencies had specialized in. For agencies, it makes sense to have someone who is literate in emerging technologies and their impact on society at the top. We caught up with Ashman to talk about what she plans to bring to her new role, as well as the future of Wolff Olins–and the design industry at large.
Co.Design: What prompted this structural change at Wolff Olins?
Sairah Ashman: It was quite natural. Ije [Nwokorie] and I talk frequently about what we’re doing in the business and where the business is going. We’ve known each other for 10 years, and have been working really closely hand in hand for the last three and a half. As we were talking about what we were personally spending more time on, it turned into a conversation on what we really wanted to double down on. Ije is phenomenal at client work, and he’s been increasingly involved in that for the last six months to a year, and that was taking up a lot of his time and attention. Whereas I was spending more time running the business. So we said, “Well okay, let’s switch it up.”
CD: You’ve spent 23 years at Wolff Olins, seven of which you spent as COO. How have your previous positions prepared you for your new role?
SA: I started out in this hybrid account management/strategy spectrum. From there I headed our account management department, as it was called back in the day, and left for a bit to study at business school. After I came back to work for the London office, Karl Heiselman was CEO and asked if I would partner with him more globally. I did that for a few years. Then Ije took over, and we’ve been working [for his tenure]. So yeah, I’ve played a few positions, and I know where all the bodies are buried [laughs].
My biggest client over the last two years has been Wolff Olins–figuring out our trajectory and how to work together for our clients. Organizationally, I understand the business. From a client’s perspective, I have a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes. What I’m interested in adding to that is more of the future-based work: thinking about what the future for us is and where can we take the business.
CD: What should design agencies be doing and thinking about to stay relevant?
SA: If I try and think about that broadly, I think design is always going to be relevant in the world because it’s all about solving problems. And there will always be a nice constant flow of those I think.
I can’t speak for all sorts of design agencies in the world, but for our business, the thing that we’re going to concentrate on is making sure we stay contemporary in terms of what’s on our clients’ minds and how to service their needs and push them into new directions. Also, as a business, making sure that we’re thinking deeply about what we do, and keeping up to date with all the trends and shifts in the world, and playing some part in the changes ourselves.
CD: What are the biggest challenges that designers face right now?
SA: I wouldn’t say that they’re facing challenges, actually. I would say that they’re facing a lot of opportunities. I think that the way we think about design and how we’re making things and the integrated nature of that now–it’s a really exciting time to be a designer. There’s a lot of wide open space. There are plenty of creative challenges we can apply ourselves to, and there are lots of new ways of doing that.
CD: You have a masters in digital sociology that you finished up last year. What is that, and how do you apply it to your work at Wolff Olins?
SA: No one knows what digital sociology is, and I certainly didn’t before I started doing the masters. It’s quite simple, really. If sociology is about understanding why we behave the way we do, as individuals and as a society, then digital sociology is studying how technology influences our behavior. The interesting angle to that is of course we interact with technology, but technologies interact with each other now, too. So there’s this wonderful expression in terms of what you can research around the social lives of individual objects.
It can take you into interesting areas, including what became my final project: a research piece around what we understand digital privacy to be and how we interact with that in the world every day. For me it was a good opportunity to get closer to technology in a number of ways and think about how it influences our behavior, and to think about how that behavior is influencing society. Of course, given the work that I do in the world of brands, that’s very relevant right now and it gives me a nice platform to work from in speaking about how the digital space and technology are influencing the world and the business I work every day from.
CD: You gave a talk recently about artificial intelligence, and our responsibilities as consumers, employees, businesses, and so on, as technology begins to outpace what the government can do in terms of regulations. Can you talk about what that means specifically in regards to the design industry, and also your work with Wolff Olins?
SA: The main crux of the talk  is that there’s a lot of change going on right now, and a lot of ways we can use technology that is very exciting and very fresh. But just because we candoesn’t mean that we always should. It makes a lot of sense in my mind to take a step back and question what we’re doing and why, before we set ourselves too far in the distance, and while there’s still time to think about the effects of this technology and the unintended consequences.
From a business forecast it all starts with a really strong sense of purpose, and thinking about the end result instead of just embarking on a voyage of discovery. There’s so much that we can do, but we want to do it in a very purposeful way—asking the right questions, and being very thoughtful about it. We’re going to be working in new ways and discovering things we haven’t really known before, and that’s exciting. So we should also be very optimistic in thinking about the possibilities, as well as thinking about the legacy we’re going to leave behind.


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    Wolff Olins