Shirley Leigh-Wood Oakes
London-based Shirley Leigh-Wood Oakes is the co-founder of WickerWood, an integrated brand influence agency which she launched following 10 years experience in strategic brand building and marketing.
Previous to WickerWood, Shirley initially trained as a professional classical ballet dancer at Elmhurst, the Birmingham Royal Ballet School, before going on to study theatre and film in London and New York. A later stint at Omega and Quintessentially saw Shirley form a close partnership with Gabby Wickham, co-founder of WickerWood, subsequently leading to the birth of the company in 2014.
Shirley’s diverse and broad range of experience within the luxury industry, creative arts and online media has allowed her the opportunity to work closely with influential luxury brands, focusing on her main strengths of devising successful membership and ambassador programmes for them in order to maximise brand awareness and loyalty.
A passionate supporter of the arts and environment, Shirley was also instrumental in the development of the New English Ballet Theatre in 2012 and continues to work closely with the company co-chairing its Young Committee board as well as sitting on the Development Committee. Additionally, Shirley sits on the committee for Charity Water, which provides clean safe drinking water to people in need around the world and is an ambassador for the Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation founded by Sir Nicholas Nuttall.
Tessa Packard [TP]: Tell us about your formative years training to be a professional ballet dancer – what prompted the move into theatre and film studies and later, luxury brand building?
SLWO: My years training as a professional ballet dancer were some of the best years of my early life. Whenever I had to make a wish, whether it was while blowing out birthday candles or wishing on a fallen eye lash, I would wish to be a ballerina. As you can imagine the training is intense, not only physically but mentally and emotionally too. But it’s incredible because you learn to push yourself with your whole mind, body, soul and heart. I miss it greatly but life takes the turns it does and you need to see every twist as a new adventure. I still support the dance world and as much as I often wish it was me up on that stage when I am watching a performance, I am also happy to be sitting in my seat watching it all from there.
I certainly would not be the person I am today without that training and I am thankful for that.
TP: You’ve built an impressive roster of clients with WickerWood, which includes George Clooney’s tequila brand – what would you say are the main drivers in big brands choosing you over some of the larger agencies?
SLWO: We are very lucky to have an incredible rosta of clients, big and small, and every one of them we work closely with to help them succeed. We are one of the leading brand influence agencies in London with our work spanning Europe and the US. I think many brands have come to us because we look at each client in a totally new light. For us the focus is on building their brands influence and ultimately driving sales. Traditional press campaigns don’t work anymore, you have to engage the audience in 7-8 different ways now to get their attention and one of the most powerful ways is through word of mouth.
TP: What key advice would you offer anyone looking to set up their own business?
SLWO: Don’t do it!
Seriously, be ready for a ride. But hopefully the best ride of your life if it all works out. It’s not going to be easy, but if you are good at what you do, or have a great idea, then go for it, just make sure that you surround yourself with the best people, because you are going to need them. You can not do everything, and shouldn’t be doing everything, so by having a strong team or advisers around you is key. Hire smartly.
TP: What are the main challenges you’ve faced over the years with WickerWood?
SLWO: Balance. This has been one of the greatest challenges we have faced. It is easy to get consumed by it all, but one needs to stay focused and remember that balance is very important in work and life. Running a company is an endless learning curve. Investing as much as you do into yourself as you do in your company is the key.
TP: What have been the biggest highlights in your career?
SLWO: There have been quite a few over the last few years since starting WickerWood with our clients, but I think the biggest has to be when my business partner, Gabby Wickham and I realised we had hit our 5 year targets for the company in less than 3 years. That was a moment when we suddenly stopped and I think both realised what we had achieved. It is so easy to get caught up in everything and not take the time to pause to see your successes, whatever size they are. Every step is a success, even if it is a step back because what you will learn from that step back is often greater than what you will learn from a step forward.
TP: Who have been your greatest influencers and mentors to date?
SLWO: There have been many through our my life in many different ways. From people I have known my whole life, to people I only met for a minute. I am continuously inspired and influenced. We have so much to learn and from so many truly stimulating people.
Nancy Cooke de Herrera, who taught me transcendental meditation. At the time, I didn’t realise the incredible gift I was being given but today I could not be more thankful. Meg Custer for restoring my trust in TM. Merce Cunningham who would let me take company class with his passionate dancers. Hearing Laureate Gobwee and Polline Akello speak at the Women of the World Summit in 2015. Watching Jiri Kylian choreograph. Listening to Ludovico Einaudi and Max Richter perform. My parents for the strength and guidance they show me every day. And of course, my business partner. We joke that our relationship is like a marriage, and it certainly is. What we learn from each is what makes us a success. She inspires me and teaches me something new everyday.
TP: Tell us more about the work you do in support of the arts and the environment? Have you always held a passion for these sectors?
SLWO: I have always been passionate about the arts and the environment. I think I get this from my mother. She always taught us to support/help others and she continues to do amazing work today with various different organises and foundations.
I have spent a great deal of my life in the Bahamas, where my family is from and based, and you are surrounded by nature all the time. From an early age, I was aware of the damages humans were doing to the environment, from the plastic waste in the oceans to over fishing. Sir Nicholas Nuttall, the father to two dear friends of mine (Amber Nuttall & Alex Nuttall), set up an organisation called BREEF in the Bahamas. It inspired me to support the environment because we have to make people aware of what we are doing to our beautiful oceans and planet.
Another cause I am passionate about is water. I recently joined to UK committee for charity water, a US based charity founded by the Scott Harrison. I am very excited about what we are going to be able to achieve, it is a pioneering organisation that has a dedicated and truly talented team and inspiring group of donors. One day, we will live in a world where everyone has access to clean water, this is our mission. Knowing that I am helping woman all over the world really inspired me. Girls as young as 10 years old spend the rest of their lives walking up to 8 hours a day for water made me want to get involved. We can change this and this is what we are working to do.
TP: You’re also a keen advocate for encouraging networking amongst up and coming female entrepreneurs. How do you go about building these relationships?
SLWO: I am a strong believer that behind ever strong woman there is a tribe of other strong woman helping her along the way. I couldn’t do what I do without the strong woman I have in my life. They are there for me at every turn, they always have my back. You can tell who are strong women, they are the ones building each other up, not tearing each other down. This is what we wanted to promote with our Ladies of Influence networking. It’s about working together and making connections that are genuine, not forced. We are stronger together than apart, in everything we do. Every contact and connection you make could and will take you somewhere.
TP: So much of your spare time is taken up with work events. When and how do you like to unwind?
SLWO: I have to say, I do love the event side of my job. It’s one of the best parts please I get to interact with so many people but it is exhausting at times because you have to always be ‘on’. When I do get time to unwind and relax I spend it with my close friends. I am lucky that I have a great group of friends in this city from all over the world who love culture, eating out, travelling. There is always some adventure being planned, whether around the city or abroad. We are quite the travel pack!
TP: What are your future ambitions?
SLWO: I have quite a list of future ambitions – personally and professionally. Right now, my focus in my life is WickerWood, nurturing the strong and talented team we have, succeeding for our clients but I am also focused on putting forward the best of myself, mentally and physically. A lot of my attention is on personal growth which I think is important from my mental advancement to my physical goals. Health mind, body and soul.
ON THE SPOT
Town or Countryside? Town
Favourite city? New York
Your perfect dinner guest, dead or alive? Meryl Streep, Martha Graham or Ernest Hemingway
If you could time travel to any era it would be…? The late 1940s in Cuba
The best meal you’ve ever eaten is? Watermelon in Burma. Never have I tasted anything so sweet
The one essential you can’t leave home without? Sadly my phone
Pet hate? Tardiness or bad time keeping
Biggest extravagance? Dark chocolate and good tequila
Favourite book? One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
What would your gravestone read? See you in heaven, I’ll be managing the guestlist
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