Stacey Bring Digital interview

How Tough Conversations Helped Me Cultivate a Healthier Team

Stacey Purdie, Affiliates Director at Bring Digital

About Stacey

Stacey is Affiliates Director at Bring Digital, an award-winning digital marketing agency based in central Manchester. Stacey joined Bring in 2017 after building her digital marketing career at In 2018, Stacey launched our Affiliate Marketing department, which today services big-name clients like Jessops, In The Style, Cotton Traders, and American Golf. Today, she plays a key role in the senior leadership of the business, helping steer its growth into one of the UK’s best agencies for eCommerce brands.

Thanks for speaking with Women in Agencies, Stacey. Please share a little bit about yourself and how you came into your leadership role at Bring Digital.

I left to join Bring Digital in 2017. AO is a huge company compared to Bring Digital, which had less than twenty staff at the time, so looking back, it was a risk. It wasn’t a conventional fit for me: I actually turned down the first role they offered me! But, after conversations with Bring Digital’s founder, David Ingram, I bought into the vision of the business. They won me over, and one month later, I started on my Bring journey.

I started in a hybrid role that balanced affiliate marketing with PPC, which aligned with my background. We had no affiliates-only clients then, and we still needed to launch our partnership with Partnerize. But I knew that there was massive potential in the channel. I managed to persuade the leadership team, too, and after three months, I launched Bring Digital’s Affiliate Marketing department.

Back then, it was a department of one. Today, that’s grown to a team of six dedicated affiliate marketing experts who cater to big clients like In The Style, Jessops, Cotton Traders, and American Golf.

In your experience, what do we mean when we say “conflict”?

I think the word “conflict” carries a lot of negative associations that don’t help if you’re trying to conquer your fear of it. In a business setting, I’d define “conflict” as any instance where two opinions differ and a discussion is needed to align them. “Direct discussion” is probably a better way to describe it.

A conflict that’s seen through to its resolution can be hugely beneficial. People leave resolved conflicts with a new perspective on important issues and often a newfound respect for one another.

The real problems arise when people are too afraid of direct confrontation to resolve their conflicts. Agencies without a culture of transparency are at significant risk of this damaging them. It’s like any relationship: if you feel you can’t speak your mind, you’ll hold your tongue and resent one another. 

If you can get out of your comfort zone and embrace conflict, you’ll have a much healthier workplace culture.

Stacey Bring Digital

How does conflict most often arise in agencies?

You all have a shared goal in agencies: you want the client to win. Conflict arises when we’re trying to decide the best route to achieve that goal. 

Each department lead has their own priorities. It can be difficult to see it from the perspective of another team that faces different challenges. For example, going down one path might solve a problem in a client’s Google Shopping feed, but it also delays the sign-off of new affiliate partners. That can be a tough pill to swallow unless you have some way to step back and look at the bigger picture.

Within teams, conflict looks a little different. It builds over time out of those little disagreements that eventually stack up if you’re not careful. I always encourage my team to be as transparent with me as possible so that we can nip anything like that in the bud. That takes time; it takes investment into your relationships with them and the patience to not simply react when they pluck up the courage to share something you might disagree with. 

It’s the same with clients. I’m very direct with all my clients because I want to shine a light on any potential problems before they become unmanageable. Ultimately, that directness gives my clients the chance to solve problems while they’re still small, which makes life for everyone easier in the long run. 

We have a saying at Bring Digital: “We do right by our clients and right by each other.” Sometimes, doing right by our clients means disagreeing with them. It’s the same when we’re talking to our team: if someone is underperforming, it’s not fair on them to keep them in the dark about it.

Why do you think why is confidence important is conflict resolution?

Confidence is crucial in conflict because without it, you have no control. In my early career, I saw a lot of fantastic ideas lose out to something mediocre ones because they weren’t backed with enough confidence. It’s the Dunning-Kruger effect at play: those who don’t fully understand the complexities of a topic are often the loudest and most confident in the room.

I’m under no illusion that it’s easy to get confidence. I don’t believe that saying “just be honest” will work. People have to build trust over time; often, it takes years. As a leader, I’m responsible for speaking up for those who still need to gain the confidence to do so themselves. 

At Bring, we have a culture of honesty and transparency, even with clients. For junior team members joining the business, that can come as a shock. I remind them that many of our clients have succeeded because they know how to embrace conflict. They come to us for our expertise; they understand that expertise might contradict their understanding. I’ve literally had clients thanking me for disagreeing with them because they value honesty. Sometimes, “what they want to hear” isn’t actually what they want to hear!

Can you give some examples of some challenging situations you’ve had to navigate in the past?

People don’t talk enough about what it’s like to manage your friends. I actually work with one of my best friends — she was even my bridesmaid! But when I suddenly became her line manager, it introduced a new dynamic to our relationship. 

At first, formal feedback felt really uncomfortable. I found it difficult to give negative feedback to a friend. I felt there was more at stake if it went wrong; I’d be losing a employee and a friend. Anyone promoted who has to start managing former peers will understand that feeling.

Thankfully, we were both smart enough to recognise that things needed to change. We sat down, and I told her I was holding back when giving her feedback and that it wasn’t fair on her. She agreed. We needed to establish a working relationship separate from our existing friendship. I needed to be more direct.

Now, we’re both very direct with one another, and our department continues to grow as a result. She’s an incredible asset to the business, too. I’m lucky to have a team that works hard not just for our clients but for one another too. That means they stick around even when things get tough.

What advice do you have for managers and directors who want to better manage conflict?

Investing in your relationships is crucial if you want to successfully navigate conflict. Hard conversations are harder still when you don’t understand one another’s motivations; they’ll create a story in their heads that you can’t control. Spending time with that other person before conflict arises means you’ll create a safe emotional space to hash it out. For example, I can be very direct with our CEO, Justin, because we’ve worked together for a long time. We’ve set that expectation of transparency, and because we’re willing to talk directly, we get more done.

Secondly: being direct doesn’t mean being disrespectful. Be careful and kind with your words when you’re having to contradict someone: you don’t need to be blunt. Start by discussing their point of view and validating how they feel about it before explaining to them how your perspective is different. Make room for them to have their say. If things get heated, reaffirm that you understand them, then go again. The end goal is to agree, so take your time to address every point where you’re misaligned.

Finally, be humble. It’s always possible that you’re the one whose opinion needs to change. Enter these conversations with that in your mind, and be humble enough to admit to yourself when someone makes a valid point that contradicts your own. Accepting where you’re wrong changes a “lecture” into a conversation. People are more willing to address challenging topics with someone who genuinely listens to them.

What’s your advice for those more junior in their career who don’t have as much experience or authority to lean on when it comes to navigating conflict?

Building your circle of influence early in your career is one of the best things you can do. Find someone who can be a mentor for you. That doesn’t necessarily have to be your line manager; try to spot people in your organisation who you feel walk the tightrope well between directness and empathy. Even if you’re not regularly navigating conflict yet, you’ll learn so much from them simply by spending time with them.

If you do need to have a difficult discussion, don’t do it over email. Email feels safer because you stay behind your laptop or phone, and you can get all your points before the other person can respond. But emails don’t connote important subtexts like body language and tone of voice. Have a real conversation! You need to discover where you’re misaligned or if you’ve been misinterpreted. Context is super important. Be courageous enough to have that conversation in person.

Ultimately, though, your environment is hugely influential in your early career. A healthy workplace allows you to respectfully voice your feelings without being penalised. If it’s too risky for you to do that where you are now, it might be time for you to move on.

Where should readers go if they want to find support in managing conflict?

There are loads of webinars and blogs you can go to that will help you manage conflict. However, I personally think that your network is your biggest asset. Spend time with people you feel are great at handling conflict AND the people you might need to have a direct conversation with in future. The best managers of conflict I’ve ever met spend 90% of their time with people investing in those relationships so that when a direct discussion is needed, it’s amicable and — most importantly — productive.

Thanks to Stacey from Bring Digital! If you would like to contribute to Women in Agencies and share your expertise email us at [email protected] 

Beth Hellowell
Founder of Women in Agencies and co-founder of Signify Digital. Mother, social media scroller and frequent pasta eater.