#PartnersinComms: Phil Szomszor and Jo Jamieson

About the author

Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Interview with Phil Szomszor and Jo Jamieson, partners in social media and strategic comms consultancy, Brightside.

What’s the story behind your life partnership and your business partnership. Which came first?

Phil: We met through work, at Berkeley Communications where we were both senior account managers. I ended up running the Derbyshire office and Jo was doing the same in Reading. 

I decided to move down south and we got together then. I’d always had a bit of FOMO having spent most of my career to that point in the East Midlands. In 2007 I got a job at Citigate Dewe Rogerson and kind of self-appointed myself as head of digital, mainly because nobody else seemed that interested and I could tell it was going to grow. 

A couple of agencies later we ended up working again at the same company – this time as husband and wife – at Harvard. We’d just had our first child and Jo was looking after the agency’s marketing and business development at that point. I was hired to grow the social media and content marketing practice. 

It’s funny how people respond to a husband and wife working together – it’s usually a mix of bemusement and sometimes horror!

But it seemed a very natural decision to set up a consultancy with each other. After all, we’d worked together before and both got to the point that we wanted something different from our careers.

For me, I’d got to the point where the division had grown so much and so quickly I had become more of a people manager and new business generator – and I worked out I didn’t want to be an MD. 

I just enjoy “doing the doing” and don’t have ambitions to build an empire (once I overcame the ego aspect that drives many people). But likewise, knowing you’ve got a partner in crime relieves so much pressure too. It’s like the answer to what we wanted was staring us in the face. 

Jo: One of the things I distinctly remember Phil saying to me when we first worked together – and well before we got together as a couple – was that I have no ego. No matter where I’ve worked, I’ve never wanted to run the show – I’ve always been happy to be an employee, part of a team and just get stuff done. My strengths lie in hands-on client work, team management, client relationships and operational organisation. I’ve never seen myself as strategic or driven enough to run a company, or my own business. 

By way of explanation, I’m naturally risk-averse, but that isn’t the whole story. A lot of it boiled down to a lack of self-confidence and that old foe, imposter syndrome: I just didn’t think I was good enough. And, if anything, that feeling was magnified when I had our children (who are now 7 and 3). 

I returned to Harvard after my first period of maternity leave in a part-time capacity to establish a marketing and new business function within the agency and I really enjoyed that for a while. But once we had our son a few years later – the logistics of getting one child to nursery, another to school, and then getting myself into London for work just became too difficult.

Instead, I used the time to go back into education for the first time in years, and did a Digital Mums course specifically designed for people like me who’d had a successful career in traditional PR, comms or marketing and wanted to sharpen up their digital marketing skills.

That gave me a lot of confidence as well as teaching me the social media marketing nuts and bolts so that I could set myself up as a freelancer. 

Phil and I spent a lot of time talking about what we wanted out of our careers, what we didn’t want, and actually how we wanted to improve our family life. Putting it simply, we didn’t want the children growing up without seeing their Daddy from Monday-Friday. 

It wasn’t an enormous leap then to take the decision to set up a consultancy to help business leaders, brands and agencies use social media to build their profiles and engage with their audiences. 

How have you adapted to life under lockdown? What are your home working arrangements, and how do you manage the life admin together?

JoWe have very clear roles and responsibilities! Right from the start, we made the decision that I would only work 2-3 days a week until our youngest starts school in 2021. That gives me the time to focus on the children, the household and the endless life/school admin. 

So, if you ask the children who runs things, they’d say “Mummy” without hesitation! But Phil very much takes the lead on the business – in terms of ideas, business strategy and lead generation. 

So lockdown hasn’t been quite as difficult for us as it is for parents who both have full-time jobs, or those who are single parents. My heart goes out to them.

That’s not to say it’s been easy either! I’ve been getting up at 6am every day to do a few hours’ work while Phil gets the kids breakfasted and does the first lessons. Then I take over the kids at about 10am while Phil gets on with his work – for as long as it takes. Homeschooling a reluctant seven-year-old with a toddler causing havoc in the background is HARD, and we genuinely can’t wait for school to reopen. But our clients have been super-understanding, respected our working timetable and tolerated the appearance of our children on Zoom calls! 

Phil: Well, one thing I’m pleased about since kicking the business off in January is having had a good run at it before Covid kicked in. It gave us time to work out a few things, win some business and complete some projects. 

Because when we did have to juggle the homeschooling aspect, not everything had to change. As Jo says, it’s that aspect that has been hardest, but it’s still much easier for us being able to tag team than other working parents stuck in a 9-5 job. 

What do you admire in each other as business partners?

Jo: We’re an amazing team with a complementary skillset – in business and in life – and that’s something I’ve really come to appreciate in the last six months. Phil is strategic, analytical, full of ideas and never stops learning – and he manages to focus all of that on making Brightside better every single day.

Phil: We complement each other well. Jo is a super-organised, detail-oriented, mega multi-tasker. She also acts as a foil for all the strategy stuff, gives honest feedback and is a top-notch copywriter and social media strategist in her own right. 

What helps is that, although we’ve come at the business from different perspectives, we were really very clear about what we wanted to get out of it, and thankfully those things are aligned. 

How are you getting on now there’s so little separation between home and work, and so few options for external activities? What advice can you offer to others ‘stuck in the middle with you’?

Phil: It’s hard to say, because we’ve spent more time as a business partnership in lockdown than out of it! I think I’m a bit better at compartmentalising and shutting things off, but Jo still does more than me on the home front, so she has more things fizzing around her head overall. 

As Jo says, having clear roles is important. Both at home and in the office. Even when it has come to homeschooling, we found it worked better taking responsibility for different lessons (I’m Maths, Jo does English, for example). 

Jo: I’d say some time apart does the world of good! We both like to get some exercise in, so we’ve prioritised time for each other to go for a run or bike ride when we can manage to park work and the kids for an hour or two. 

We’ve also kept our weekends as free from work as possible, even if that means doing some longer days during the week. We try to avoid talking about it and focus on spending time as a family: lazy mornings, cooked breakfasts that the children get to choose, walks in the woods, pottering in the garden and family meals.