Phony at the top? Why agency leaders feel like imposters

by Becky Willis
As Growth and Partnerships Director, I’ve got my finger on the pulse, ear to the ground and some other body part connected to all goings on in the digital world. Follow me for the latest and greatest in agencies, strategy and digital partnerships.
Published on May 2024

I’m not usually one to suffer with self-confidence, most people who know me (and even a few passengers on my weekly commute) would likely confirm this. 

However, the other month I was asked to deliver a talk on the topic of imposter syndrome for our agency network and membership pals BIMA. My first thought was, ‘Why would anyone want to hear from ME?’, and then it hit me… I had imposter syndrome.

‘Okay, cool story Becky, but what’s this got to do with Just After Midnight and your fabled insight into the agency world?’ Hey, I said at the beginning of the year I wanted to post some meaningful insights from the chats, projects and late nights I’ve shared with some of the finest minds in digital. 

And actually, imposter syndrome and agency leadership go hand in hand.

Why imposter syndrome affects agency leaders 

A woman feels like an imposter

As some of you may already know, impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which individuals doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of success. 

It’s basically a feeling of inauthenticity. 

There are different types of impostors, beautifully named the expert, the genius child, the perfectionist, the superhero and the soloist – but they all share that one central belief: scratch away the lovely gold leaf exterior and you’ll see the plain ol’ undeserving human underneath. 

How many agency leaders do you know that could fall into one of these types? Struggle to delegate? Feel the need to save the day? Had ‘huge potential,’ at school you’re straining to live up to? 

Impostor syndrome is rife among high achievers, and in the agency scene (particularly in the digital and technology sector), we are in prime position for not feeling good enough. 

But the truth is no one is born an imposter (or someone who self-identifies as such). So what’s with the making-it-to-faking-it pipeline?

Well, it’s simple. A lot of agencies are built on the back of someone being a great doer in a field that didn’t exist a generation ago: digital, social media, web development or product design… then when word spread of this amazing doer, and the accounts started to pile up, they tagged in a team.

Fast forward a couple of years, and the rag-tag doers are now a fully-fledged agency.  The ‘leaders’ are expected to have all the answers around growth, team dynamics and strategy.

Couple this with a rapidly evolving tech landscape and the pressure to have an insider take on  AI, development and whether the Metaverse is, in fact, actually a thing, and the expectations start to mount.

All our hypothetical do-er wanted to do, remember, is be absolutely excellent at PPC, design or web dev, and find another couple of eggheads to bounce ideas off.

Then, when it turns out building a shit-hot graphics agency doesn’t make us a three-hundred-and-sixty degree marketing Nostrodamus – we feel like a fraud.

We feel like an imposter pretending to be the sort of person who can reel off the correct take on every digital quandary without a second thought.

But here’s the secret – NO ONE can. No one really knows everything about everything. We come up in our niches and through exposure to the broader landscape we build our little treasure troves of knowledge and expertise – and in classic human psychology fashion, we all think ours is much poorer than everyone else’s.

So we guard them carefully while constantly fretting that one day someone’s going to pop the lid.

My journey with imposter syndrome 

So, what makes me an authority on the topic? My journey has been riddled with external factors that have led me to feelings of incompetence, inauthenticity and vulnerability. I have worked in the digital and tech industry and have at times been the youngest in the room, or the only female in a sea of tech bros. 

I now lead the growth efforts at JAM as well as showing our partners some love (if you are getting FOMO at the thought of all that fun, you can check our partner programme out here). And yet, I still put a lot of my successes down to luck or being in the right place at the right time, when in reality, I actually work my little socks off. 

Anyone who comes to our events can confirm, I commit myself to my job wholeheartedly 😉 (mind, body, and when the circumstances call for it, beverage).

So, what’s to be done? When researching the topic, I found some amazing methods to tackle our inner imposter – some anecdotal, some tried and trusted by the APA. And, as the go-to girl for our agency leader pals, I thought I’d share some of the best…

How I learned to stop worrying and love Becky Willis 

Mentorship 

Get a mentor (or a reverse mentor):  While you might be at the top of the pack in YOUR business, don’t ever underestimate the power of having that external person who’s going through the same thing as you. This mentor can validate your thought processes and goals, and understand how you’re actually feeling in the thick of it.

BIMA run wonderful mentorship programmes, to which I owe a huge amount of my self-belief.  I met my first mentor through one of these programmes: powerhouse and legend Mary Keane Dawson, who is now Chair of BIMA.

 Capture the data and listen to it 

When you’re in the trenches and feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, having data to help you make sense of successes and give context to challenges provides that objective crutch in the everyday swirl of emotions, agendas and ambiguities that go with high-pressure agency life.

Get some stats down and don’t let subjective narratives run the show.

It’s OK to be OK 

Normalise imperfections. All too often as leaders, we want to be seen as infallible. We hold ourselves to unbelievably high standards, and when we fail to live up, we feel like an impostor. You’re a human being who runs an agency, be kind to yourself and embrace the occasional vulnerability that comes along with it.

Whether it’s owning a little mistake or tagging in a partner to cover one aspect of a brief you’re not an absolute guru on – more thoughts on that here.

With a little help from my friends 

Cultivate a varied network of people that give you energy and raise you up. Seek out radiators, not drains, so that on the days when you’re doubting your ability, you’ve got a team of cheerleaders. 

Times are tough for agencies right now. We need to pull together and wade through the endless challenges of staff morale, clients stuck in contractual stasis and profit margin woes… One thing you CAN control is your self-belief as a leader. Don’t underestimate the impact you have on the team who look to you for direction, leadership and a cue on how to deal with the quibbles and niggles that make us human. 

A note from my inner imposter 

It’s typical of me to worry a blog sharing my personal feelings doesn’t hit our commercial objectives hard enough. So, just remember, if you’re feeling like you project an image of an agency that delivers super reliable solutions with no downtime, if you lay awake at night wondering when you’ll be found out, there’s more than one type of support…

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