Customer director, oasis fashions
Talking career, leadership style, her love of fitness and whether achieving a work life balance is ever actually possible
Briony Garbett is a name widely respected in the world of retail ecommerce. She has had an impressive career to date, making Drapers 30 under 30 list at age 27, was promoted to Digital Director at Oasis by age 29, and has been cited as one of the foremost leaders of innovation within the UK ecommerce sector.
She is a powerhouse, and proof that hard work pays off. ‘I’m not one of those inherently brainy people. I have always been someone who needs to work hard to get to where I want to go’ says Briony, who also credits part of her success to strong mentorship early in her career.
‘I’ve been quite fortunate to have had people that have backed me at a young age and haven’t looked at me and thought ‘she’s young, she hasn’t got any experience’, but have valued that I am someone who is willing to learn and will work incredibly hard.’
In a digital world, where knowledge and power sit in the hands of the young, and generations anew join the workforce with an innate sense of entitlement, Briony has a very refreshing and measured approach to leadership, work ethic and the gender balance around the boardroom table.
We spoke to Briony about her career to date, her leadership style, her love of fitness and whether achieving a work life balance is ever actually possible.
You graduated from Oxford University with a BA in Psychology, Philosophy and Neurophysiology. How did you end up working in eCommerce?
To be honest, I ended up at Oxford because it was the only place doing that particular course. For various reasons, I only ended up with two options for university because I got rejected from quite a few others.
Doing that degree, I didn’t go into it thinking that I wanted to be a psychologist or a brain surgeon, I just thought ‘right, I’m going to study for three years, it’s going to be really difficult and I’m paying my own tuition fees for it, so it may as well be something that I have a genuine interest in’.
I got to the end of my degree and, anyone who has been to Oxford or Cambridge knows, that there are really only four career routes for that grouping of degrees - medicine, Law, finance or you become a consultant.
I went to a job fair and saw a poster that said something like ‘do you love online shopping?’ and it immediately caught my attention. It was a consultancy firm, but they specialised in retail and eCommerce. I remember calling my mum after that evening and saying, ‘this is the job that I want’.
I had such strong opinions on which brands were doing well, which weren’t doing well, and if they weren’t, what they should be doing to change that. I was offered a position on their grad scheme and got thrown in the deep end.
Tell me what being the Customer Director entails?
Basically, a little bit of everything. As customer director at Oasis, I look after Digital, Marketing and Pr. Within digital; I look after customer services, logistics, trade, web design, development, online marketing and digital projects. And then on the marketing and PR side, it’s all of the content planning, campaign development, social media, and influencer strategy. We also now have a customer insight function, which is two data analysts who sit between digital and marketing and work together to evaluate how successful campaigns are.
The good thing about being the Customer Director is that you’re always championing the customer, and as a customer myself of many brands, with a clear view of what service is good and what isn't, I find it’s quite a natural fit for me.
It’s also just such a varied role, which I love. I could be in a finance meeting one second and then discussing whether it should be a unicorn or a zebra in the window the next second.
Oasis is consistently referenced as having one of the most innovative eCommerce offerings for a high street retailer, most of which has been under your leadership. Can you tell me what makes the Oasis offering so impressive?
To be honest, I think some of the things we’ve done that people would say were innovative is just us trying to work with what we’ve already got around data and technology, and just servicing it to the customer in a different way.
An example of that would be when we re-platformed in 2016, we already had real-time data and inventory in our stores, and the website has a view of that stock, so we were able to build in a functionality that gives the customer the option to filter on the website for stock that is available in each store. That was quite innovative in terms of facilitating that journey where people are researching online and then purchasing in-store - which is still a huge proportion of customers - but actually it wasn’t overly complex. We had all the data, we were just looking at it in a different way.
A lot of these ideas come from the team, but I think one thing that sets Oasis apart, is our collaborative style of working. We really encourage input from each member of the team, and we encourage everyone to stop and celebrate successes. It’s so easy to get bogged down when you’re already off working on the next thing, but I think it’s really important to stop and take stock to keep the team energized.
Tell me about your love for fitness outside of work?
I just love fitness really. I wasn’t really into fitness when I was younger, I didn’t play any team sports, but I went to University and everyone started rowing. It was great actually; there aren’t many things that you haven’t done by that age, but with rowing, the vast majority of people hadn’t ever rowed before, so it was an even playing field, and everyone was in the same boat! (Ha, I’ve used that one before!)
When I moved to London I discovered cross fit, and the rest is history. What I loved about Cross Fit was the team environment and being able to really track your fitness goals, while seeing your mates. So, by 7am, I’d had a workout, gotten really sweaty and had met all my friends, so you’re set up for the day and can allow yourself to work that little bit later if you need to. It’s also the only place for me where I can truly switch off. It’s impossible to think about your to-do list or whether you phrased that email quite right when you’re in the middle of a tough workout.
There are varying views on whether it is possible to truly have a work life balance when you’re striving to be at the top of your game and getting results often requires long hours. Have you found that you have had to make any sacrifices to get to where you are today?
I once had to miss a Jon Bonjovi concert. I’ve never quite gotten over that. No, I’d definitely say that early on in my career I absolutely had to make a lot of sacrifices and as a consultant we were working incredibly late.
My personal boundary is around working weekends. I used to get incredibly resentful if I had to work a weekend. I remember one Friday actually, when I was a consultant, I worked until about 5am Saturday morning because I just did not want to work the weekend.
I don’t think it is impossible to have a work life balance, but I think it’s incredibly difficult and you’ve got to have a lot of personal discipline to make it work. In retail in particular, it’s getting so much tougher in the market and you’ve got to be so efficient and effective and have that “always-on” mindset in what you’re doing and it does make it difficult to squeeze a personal life in.
Everyone’s got a different view of what a work life balance means. For me it’s fitness and having a weekend, but for other people it might be getting home each evening to see their families. It’s the pressure we put on ourselves and everyone has to decide what their non-negotiable’s are.
What advice would you give any woman who may be looking at a similar career path?
It’s getting a lot more difficult so make sure you definitely want to work in retail or fashion. To be honest, you’ve just got to be passionate about it and you’ve got to have a strong work ethic. I look at the people in my team who I’ve promoted, and they are the ones who I know are incredibly reliable, conscientious and happy to go the extra mile. Different leaders have different approaches, but personally what I appreciate in my team is not the ‘I want, I want, I want’, but more subtly delivering time and time again. That makes me want to give them more and elevate them within the business or even externally.
2018 is 100 years since the first women won the right to vote in the UK. How do you see gender equality 100 years on?
I think it’s a really interesting one actually, because in many industries there is a sense of equality. The hot topic at the moment is all about the pay gap and I think there’s a difficult balance to strike there. If I look in retail, there are definitely more men in senior positions and around the boardroom table, but sometimes those men are simply the best people for those roles so I don’t want to get to a place where we’re disparaging certain genders simply to meet a quota. Equally though, businesses have to get better at facilitating things like flexible working hours so that both men and women are able to take leave to support their families so that role is not the sole responsibility of the woman and thus having an effect on their trajectory.
What does the word feminine mean to you?
To me it does have all those soft qualitative connotations, but I guess the thing is that they don’t have to be mutually exclusive to qualities like strength, assertiveness and confidence. You can still have all of those and be feminine.
If you were to nominate one woman who has inspired you either inside or outside of your industry that we should interview, whom would you nominate?
A friend of mine, Fran Bailey. She’s taken a big leap setting up her own PR consultancy for ethical and conscious brands. She is just a hugely inspirational woman and someone who I am completely in awe of.