IWD 2024: In Conversation with Sam Mitsios

Sophie Gyles

For the final conversation in our IWD series, we put the spotlight on our very own Sam Mitsios, co-owner and director of Tundra.

When Sam Mitsios and her business partner Andy Brown took ownership of Tundra, it was 2020, a year most of us remember as the year we learned how to wear masks, wash our hands properly and only leave the house for an hour a day.

But for Sam, it was the year she also learned what it meant to be a business owner and company director during a global crisis at age 31.

Sam isn’t one to shy away from a challenge, but even she couldn’t have anticipated what would come her way in that 18 month period. Not only did she take co-ownership of a digital agency during a pandemic, she’d also just had her first baby, ruptured her achilles (incapacitating her for four months), and sold a house.

Three years down the track, Sam’s able to reflect with a bit of distance on those hectic years.

“One of the things I'm most proud of is how we got [Tundra] through covid and the rolling impacts of the pandemic. We thrived, which is pretty unheard of in the agency landscape,” she reflects. “I think we were incredibly smart in the decisions that we made at an economic and strategic level, and the way in which we worked to support the team’s health and wellbeing. We also stayed true to our client partnerships, doing everything we could to support them in such unique and evolving circumstances.”

The combination of the pandemic, business ownership and personal challenges would’ve seen other less steely folks turn away from business ownership entirely, but not Sam. A high achiever, she has always been driven to succeed, and to motivate those around her to do great things, going right back to her school days captaining sports teams, coaching netball and being part of leadership teams.

“I think I've always taken a natural accountability or ownership of whatever I'm doing,” she says. Sam’s natural leadership qualities combined with her ambition and persistence, has seen her create—and be offered—some incredible opportunities over the years.

Sam graduated from RMIT with a degree in Communications, specialising in Advertising. Towards the end of her degree (and after some persistent door knocking), she was offered an internship at advertising agency Ogilvy, where she cut her teeth writing ad copy for global brands like BMW and Mini. Back then, Ogilvy, like many ad agencies, outsourced its digital executions to another group—DT Digital (now AKQA). This gave Sam early exposure to a whole new world of developing innovation and learning about the digital revolution that was just beginning. So, when a Digital Copywriter role came up at DT, Sam, who was hungry for the next challenge, applied and was successful.

“Looking back, I think that job [at DT] was quite pivotal. A lot of the advertising agencies back then didn't do digital at all, or it was just a single execution as part of an overall campaign. It was great timing, and launched me into the digital space early on.”

Sam started out at DT as a digital copywriter, expanding into content strategy as time went on, working on some huge digital transformations where her strategic nous shone. She also contributed to new business development and pitching while at DT, invaluable experience that she’s taken with her throughout her career.

'I thrive under pressure and enjoy being able to get creative with how we solve problems.'

From DT, Sam moved in-house to Origin Energy and from there to Deakin University, where she took on a career-defining role leading the content stream for a two-year digital transformation and replatform project. The project involved re-thinking, re-architecting and re-writing the entire Deakin University website (which was also being redesigned and rebuilt onto a new enterprise platform). As launch approached, she was involved in recruitment for the ongoing BAU maintenance team and workflow creation, while managing a team of content writers and orchestrating extensive stakeholder engagement throughout the whole process.

“I had to meet with hundreds of stakeholders, a lot of whom weren’t ready for change. I had to build relationships with them, understand their perspectives and try to get fundamental changes through. It was a huge undertaking,” she says. “I had to learn a lot of lessons, like not everyone's going to like you; people aren't always going to want change; and perhaps most importantly—you need to really believe in the cause and know what you’re doing is right, in order to push it forward.”

Sam says her time in-house at both Deakin University and Origin Energy, gave her valuable insight into the way commercial businesses and government entities operate. These are lessons she carried with her to Tundra and continues to shape how she, and the wider studio, works with our client partners.

“I can empathise with the complexity of bigger organisations; the process they have to work through with varied stakeholder engagement, competing priorities, varying capacity and different strategic levers being pulled in different directions,” explains Sam. “Our solutions truly need to solve problems and meet overarching business objectives and goals for our client partners—not only in a project capacity, but more broadly; more deeply.”

It was while she was at Deakin University that Sam was contacted by a recruiter about a role at Tundra. Sam wasn’t looking to move, but she was drawn to the business, and Rob (the owner at the time) was willing to shape a role around her skills and ambition.

“I think he saw that strategy and creative problem solving was somewhat missing at Tundra at the time. When I came on board, I was getting pulled into a lot of work that needed someone to take a step back and be able to see it from a higher level, rather than getting straight into solutions or execution. I think he saw that as an asset in me early on, something I could bring to the business that wasn't there,” Sam says.

Within her first week or so at Tundra, Sam was offered the Strategic Director role, with the task of helping move Tundra into its next phase. As she excelled, she continued to be given more responsibility in terms of helping to manage the business and its people more broadly, before Rob eventually came to her and Andy (one of the other team leaders at the time) to see if they wanted to take the business on, eventually as co-owners.

As a talented strategic thinker, this progression came somewhat naturally. Sam thrives on creative problem solving and being able to articulate and create meaningful strategies which bring value down the line. She also loves working in a team environment, and at Tundra, cross-team collaboration is the norm.

“I thrive under pressure and enjoy being able to get creative with how we solve problems and think about solutions from different perspectives,” she says.

'The toxic pursuit of ‘having it all’ is exhausting and unrealistic.'

Sam has co-owned Tundra now for almost four years. At 35 years old, she’s a relatively young agency owner and perhaps even more rare—an agency owner with two children under five. Sam’s always been passionate about having a family and pursuing her career, things she sees as complementary and achievable with the right support.

“I always knew I really wanted to have a family, but on the flip side, I was just as passionate about wanting to work and have a career. I think early on, you're told that it's one or the other, or that you take a break from one in order to achieve the other.”

“Being really passionate about being a Mum and having a really solid, strong focus on career is absolutely achievable. It’s not easy, nor are workplace structures built in a way that naturally supports this in Australia, but I think I can be proof that one doesn’t have to take away from the other,” she says.

Just don’t ask her if women can ‘have it all’.

“I don't like the idea of ‘having it all’ because I think having it all looks completely different to everyone. And, the toxic pursuit of ‘having it all’ is exhausting and unrealistic,” she says.

“When I’m at work I’m 100% focussed on the work, the clients, the team, the projects. When I’m with my kids, I’m all-in with them—offline and in the moment. ‘Having it all’ is generally not possible in today’s society, and unfortunately systemic bias and invisible hurdles for women (and other marginalised groups) creates deeply rooted barriers that we all have to continue to shift with education and behaviour change over time.”

Sam has brought her perspective as a working parent to her leadership at Tundra, offering flexibility to those who need it. It’s also played out in her hiring process, where she is interested in the layers of experience people have built up across their lifetime, including as a parent if that is their story. She knows only too well from her own experience how being a parent has positively impacted how she operates.

“Becoming a Mum has made me so much more decisive, efficient and direct in my communication, which has undoubtedly made me a better employee, employer and director,” she reflects.

Sam and co-owner Andy have an appreciation for the uniqueness and strengths of each individual in the Tundra team, knowing it's the richness of each person’s story that can bring diversity and creativity to problem solving, and positively impact the energy and output of a team. There is also a desire to give everyone a voice, helped in part by our deliberately flat structure; our two Tundra teams are self-managing and without hierarchy or lines of management other than to a team leader.

All of this makes working at Tundra a supportive and democratic experience, but particularly so for working parents who might be returning to work from a period of parental leave, or people whose career trajectories don’t always match a traditional path.

'It’s made me really want to invest my time and energy into building something that empowers women.'

As a relatively ‘young woman’ in leadership and now a Mum, Sam brings a set of skills and perspectives unique to her experience. And yet, Sam says her status as a ‘young woman’ has at times felt like a barrier to being taken seriously or given opportunities she deserves—something she absolutely wants to avoid at Tundra, where close to half the team are women, many of them under 30. Sam recalls on one occasion in her mid-20s being challenged by a hiring manager to prove she was capable enough to take on a role given her age and gender.

“My response was, I might be young, but I've spent my entire career so far in digital, and content and content strategy. I'm passionate and I want to do this. So why not give me a go.” And they did.

Unfortunately, it’s not the only time Sam’s experienced microaggressions in the workplace due to her gender/age. She says she’s often been the only woman in the room, particularly since operating at a more senior level.

“There have been so many scenarios where I've walked into a room and people have assumed that the male is the boss, or the male is the one who's written the proposal. Or you’ll have people look to a male in the room to answer a question, assuming they’re more senior or more intelligent simply due to their age and gender.”

Sam takes these moments and uses them to motivate herself. “It just gives me fire; makes me want to show them that I know what I'm doing and I'll prove it.”

The culmination of those small moments over the course of her career have led Sam to want to create something different and better at Tundra.

“It’s made me really want to invest my time and energy into building something that empowers women and that gives women value, voice and equality in the way that we work and the way that we manage things.”

In line with this, Sam has tried to focus on retaining the women at Tundra as they progress through their career, instead of losing them to an in-house role because of the perceived safety and benefits of a bigger business when they might be looking to have children.

“What you'll notice in agencies is that, stereotypically, the senior leaders are male, because either women have moved out of the agency landscape by the time they would be at a senior level, or women don't receive the flexibility or support to continue training towards management and more senior roles early in their career.”

Under Sam’s leadership, Tundra has developed a flexible return to work framework that’s designed to support new parents' return in a way that suits their circumstances and preferences. It also gives them tailored time to onboard into projects and reconnect with team members early on so they can feel confident and supported as they return.

“What I’m trying to do at Tundra is to empower and nurture the talent we have on our team and offer the flexibility that enables them to progress within our business over time, as opposed to them only being able to find that next step elsewhere,” she says.

Sam is personally grateful for a number of female mentors over the years—both formally through women’s leadership programs and informally through relationships she’s built—who have shared the insight and encouragement needed for her to stay the course towards senior leadership through various challenges and life changes. There is, she says, immense power in surrounding yourself with the right people.

“It's really important to me to have people around me that I trust and that I believe in, but who can also challenge me and provide me with different perspectives. I think that's really enhanced how I think about things and how I move forward.”

Just like with the others profiled in this IWD Conversation series, we asked Sam what she wishes she’d known when she was younger and just starting out her career in digital.

“I would have loved to really believe that everyone is just human, which sounds really basic, but I think having that perspective changes how you interact with people,” she offers. “You’re less inclined to be intimidated by titles or years of experience. We're all just human and we're all just doing our best, in our own unique way.”

Apart from having a more balanced perspective of others, Sam says it’s invaluable to have a really clear view of yourself when younger, too.

“Focus on who you are and what you want as an individual. I think for young people starting out, finding out what you’re passionate about and really focussing on that without worrying about where everyone else is going, is really powerful. Having that clear vision and passion for what you want to do, can be an absolutely amazing driving force to push you forward in where you're going.”

If anyone has a clear vision and the motivation to chase it, it’s Sam. With Tundra turning 20 this year, the future of the agency under Sam and Andy’s leadership is looking bright. As a business which started the year Facebook began, the year Google launched Gmail and before iPhones were a thing, Tundra is no flash in the pan. It’s always stayed in step with the evolution of digital technology, and with Sam’s strategic brain and empathetic self at the helm, the business continues to thrive, stronger than ever, and we are immensely grateful for her thoughtful, passionate leadership.

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