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The sense of purpose

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Nicky Young’s experience of clinical depression gave her an understanding of what is needed to help people to be the best versions of themselves, both at work and in their personal lives.


She believes that only those companies with a clear social purpose and run by leaders with emotional intelligence are going to be successful in the future.

Nicky Young, group managing director at MullenLowe salt, believes that her personal and professional experience have prepared her well to advise clients about the reasons why a modern business must have a social purpose and be truly committed to the mental health and wellbeing of its employees.

MullenLowe salt is a strategic communications consultancy specialising in sustainability and social purpose. The company is part of Interpublic Group, a US-owned global network agency.  Salt, where Nicky has been working since 2001, was acquired by MullenLowe in 2017. They were interested in salt’s expertise in earned communications. “Working with a number of high-profile organisations and brands, such as Unilever, salt helped them to identify their social purpose and incorporate it into company’s business strategy, as well as the UN Sustainable Development goals. Most recently, our team has helped designed a campaign for Dove to communicate their commitment to tackle the plastic epidemic,” explains Nicky.

“On the other side of the spectrum, we work with organisations which realise that they’re not harnessing communications to the best of their ability to become better companies. Therefore, we organise a lot of change management initiatives, working with leadership to drive positive change.”

Nicky speaking at Mad World summit early this year

A difficult ride

Nicky was born in South Africa, where her Italian parents emigrated in the 1960s. With a BA in psychology and communications, she came to Britain in 1998. “I had £400 in my pocket when I landed in London with my friend, who had persuaded me to come here. For one and a half years, I lived in a YMCA very modest room. I left behind my lovely Italian family and a very sheltered life. My life in London was lonely and, initially, quite tough. In my first job at a big management consulting firm I was treated very poorly because I sounded foreign and I couldn’t ‘properly’ pronounce names in the way my colleagues who had studied at Russell Group universities could.

“Many years later, that experience made me determined to ensure that whenever somebody came and worked at salt, they would never feel like an outcast, regardless of their age, creed, colour, culture… whoever they are.

“At the time, I wanted to get into communications consultancy, and it took me two years to do it, because getting experience proved very difficult. Then, a partner at PA Consulting Group, where I had found a short-term support role, helped me write a more compelling CV and put me in touch with people in the communications agency world. And so, my career began. I’m very grateful to those people. Whenever somebody asks me for help, I feel compelled to do so. I think to myself, it may be that foot up that they need to start.”

In 2001, a friend introduced Nicky to Richard Cox and Andy Last who, prior to forming salt, had worked in large international communications consultancies, and wanted to create an organisation with a difference. 

"I am helping colleagues realise that if they suffer from mental illness, it doesn’t mean that they can’t do their jobs. "

“It was one of those moments when you meet a couple of people and feel that there’s a marriage of minds. I gave up the security of a job with a good company to join their start-up. The journey has been tremendous, they allowed me to assume a great variety of roles and responsibilities. Initially, I was their consultant and I executed many of their campaigns. Later on, I helped set up an organisational structure within the company. Then, I was capturing the culture of salt into a behavioural framework, i.e. identifying behaviours that embody what it means to be a ‘saltie’, which is what we call people who work at salt. I distilled this into a guide, which to this day helps people understand what kind of individual we’re looking for when we’re recruiting, as well as what we focus on when we’re developing people.

“We grew, evolved, and kept on growing. I started to do a lot of global consulting work with Unilever and helped them develop their second social mission programme, working together with the World Dental Federation. It was one of the first public-private partnerships of its kind between a not-for-profit organisation and a FMCG company, and the ambition was to improve oral health globally. Lat month, it celebrated 14 years of success, so that gives me great satisfaction.”

Losing control

“My 30s saw me giving birth to my son. I struggled through this period and was about to come through on the other side when my father died in a tragic car accident. That set me back. Then, when my health began improving in 2017, we had a very demanding transitional period in the company: we were about to sell it and were going through a massive growth spurt. I was trying to recruit the right talent, among many other things. During the toughest period, I was doing four people’s jobs. People kept on saying to me ‘Nicky, you give too much of yourself’. I really used to struggle with that concept, because that is who I am.

“All the symptoms I began to experience were depression-related, such as anxiety, nausea, waking up early in the mornings, not eating as much as I should. I was waking up at five o’clock, getting up and doing work, so by the time I went to work at 8:00am, I’d already done three hours. And then I would stay at work until 8:00pm in the evening, and the only thing I would eat during the day was a salad. I was running on fumes.

I’d gone from being a professional looking woman about to go to the City, to a shadow of my former self

“When I consulted the doctor, she realised that I was stressed. She gave me medication to deal with the nausea and said there were many patients in professional jobs, such as doctors and lawyers, who took it to help get through tough days.

“However, a day after we managed a big event at Unilever – ironically, it was on International Women’s Day – I woke up in the morning and I couldn’t get out of bed. I could hardly walk; my body had literally shut down. The doctor diagnosed clinical depression, and this permitted me to be ill and relinquish control. The relief of being able to say, ‘I’m just done, I’m spent, I’ve got nothing more to give’, was immense.

“Once the physical symptoms passed, my husband gave me the objective of slowly walking our son to school and back every day. That was my job. At the school gate, the mums looked at me strangely because I’d gone from being a professional looking woman about to go to the City, to a shadow of my former self, without makeup and a messy hair. I would just put on my coat over my tracksuit and go to school. I looked terrible and didn’t want to talk to people. Then, slowly, I managed to build up momentum and I started to reclaim myself. The breakdown has taught me that I needed to learn self-preservation; unless I can identify when to stop giving, I will damage myself and will be of no use to anybody.”

A sense of purpose

“That experience has also helped me define my purpose, which is what gives me energy now. Some may feel it’s naïve, but I have a very clear North Star, which is to run a company that is the best version of itself, and where people can enjoy work and liaise with colleagues without politics and bad feelings. That should be possible while making money.

"The second is the notion of mental health being mainstream – leaders should talk about it and more should be done to eradicate the stigma surrounding it. Since I was ill, I look for the signs in others and I have learned that I have a few employees who struggle with their mental health. Many of them say that they feel comfortable talking to me, because I’ve openly talked about it. I am helping them to realise that if they suffer from mental illness, it doesn’t mean that they can’t do their jobs. 

“Mental health has become the cultural zeitgeist, not least through the support of the Royal family. I think it’s good we are opening the conversation, but we all need to do something to supplement the talk. I would like to see the government giving more support to small businesses with fewer resources to invest in mental health training, as well as some sort of tax relief. There is a strong commercial argument for it, should anybody need convincing.

“In the gig economy, there’s no longer a war for talent between companies. There’s now a war for talent between a company and individuals who can set up and do their own thing anywhere in the world. So as an employer, if I make my company the best possible place and enhance somebody’s mental and physical wellbeing, I am giving them more reasons to work for me. I’m attracting talent. You have to go above and beyond the usual benefits. I think facilitating mental health and wellbeing could become a key element that sets an employer apart from others when it comes to attracting sought after talent.” 

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