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Meet The Team: Sarah Butler

Today we are introducing Sarah Butler, our Business Development and Marketing Director.

After starting her journey with COEL as a Marketing consultant, Sarah has been a permanent member of the team for just over a year; and what a year it has been! A year of growth, geographical expansion, restructuring and refining our service offer.

We think this is why Sarah’s feet never really hit the ground but according to her, she wouldn’t have it any other way!

Can you tell us about your role at COEL?

I oversee Business Development and Marketing, which means I have ultimate responsibility for COEL’s reputation in the market, as well as driving business growth within our target areas and sectors.

My teams look for opportunities to ‘get the COEL name out’, both face-to-face and online. For us this means a focus on digital channels – including our website, advertising, social media, and search engine optimisation – as well as hosting and attending a high number of local and industry events to forge close relationships.

Image of COEL team at CFCI Construction event in Cambridge

We also have a ‘pay it forward’ attitude at COEL and we are very proud of our local community and wider charitable endeavours. From supporting a nominated local charity, who are making a huge difference to the lives of people with learning disabilities or complex needs, to sponsoring local teams, and organising fundraising events. We also run an ethical furniture recycling programme, including donating unwanted (but good condition) furniture to local charities – therefore reducing the environmental impact of our fit-outs.

I am fortunate to manage a talented, driven and collaborative team. From a business development perspective, most people in Cambridge know COEL because of the time our team spends networking and giving back to the community. And our growing online presence further reinstates our position as an industry-leading commercial interior design and fit-out business.

Did you always want to be in Marketing & BD?

Well actually my 15-year-old self, wanted to be a lawyer.

That might not surprise people that know me well, as I tend to be pretty confident in my opinions and wouldn’t shy away from a well-structured debate every now and again!

But when it was time to choose higher education options, I thought I wanted to be in Public Relations. I took English and Media studies in Nottingham, but was well prepared by those around me (including my father / part-time mentor) for the fact that it was nearly impossible to get into PR back then…

Can you talk us through the journey that led you here?

Wow where to start?! Well needless to say the above advice was correct – it was almost impossible to get into PR! But if I’m honest I wasn’t at all ready to get straight into work. I had decided I had to travel first, and nothing was going to deter me from that.

The travel bug
So, after uni, I took a job as an Insurance Broker to make the money to travel. Then a few months later I set off on a world trip for exactly a year.

Sarah Butler - meet the team 2

Back in 2002 travelling meant being really ‘off grid’. We didn’t take mobile phones. We sent email updates whenever we found internet cafes and used phone boxes to touch base with home. Honestly as a mum now, the thought of my kids being ‘off grid’ terrifies me, but then the idea of them travelling for Instagram ‘likes’ as opposed to the experience, saddens me even more. (I know funny coming from someone in digital marketing, right?!)

Apart from getting married and having kids, that Asia-Australia-New Zealand- Fiji-America trip remains one of the best times of my life and has led to my love of travel and adventure ever since.

Back to the ‘real world’
When I got back to the UK, the Insurance company offered me my job back, which was lucky because I had amassed a pretty healthy student loan, as well as some travelling debt!

Still no closer to the PR dream; but I could live with a friend (in my hometown of Northampton back then) and start to pay off some debt.

London calling
The city was calling, and I felt that a move to London was the best option to get into the career I wanted.

I managed to get a job in London for another Insurance Broker and moved into a rather damp ex-council flat in Clapham South with two of my uni friends. I loved city life and even though I’ve moved away, I will always love the vibrancy, culture and diversity of London.

Learning the hard way
Whilst insurance was not my dream, I will admit that working in the commercial insurance sector taught me a lot of the skills I still use now in Business Development.

It’s a hard sell. Noone wants insurance but everyone has to have it! Your ability to support a client through each interaction, know your policies, and be confident in negotiation were essential to success. Plus, you learn how to lose (a lot), pick yourself up and move on!

Finally getting ‘the’ break
This broker happened to be part of a larger group, a commercial property agent in the hospitality, retail and care sector near London Victoria. A chance encounter at a company event with the Communications Director finally changed my fate. She was looking for a Marketing-Communications Executive.

It was a big pay cut; there was no commission; but I was in!

I’ll never forget that manager. She was kind and supportive but had exacting standards. I can trace back my attention-to-detail in branding and proof-reading to her teaching. She also taught me that being a good manager is the best way to progress in business – it’s the successes of the people around you that really make you feel successful.

I worked with the team for 3 years. Then, an opportunity to run a website redesign project changed everything for me. It wasn’t PR I loved; it was Marketing. I was hooked! I wanted to know so much more about how we could reach our customers through this new world of digital.

I had itchy feet and wanted to experience working for an agency.

The move to agency
My first job in an agency was for a Chelsea-based team, specialising in high-end residential property. We worked closely with local agents but still a lot of what we created was ‘offline’ – brochures, adverts, content, and annual reports (boy do I not miss annual report collation!)

The shift to digital marketing ‘first’
I worked at a few agencies and progressed quickly to an Account Director, before joining a small firm, called New Brand Vision.

We worked hard and we played hard. Hours were long and work was all consuming – but we were all in it together. Somehow that made it ok, and the late-night pizza and beer deliveries might have helped (!) We loved the pitch, the win and then the delivery of a great piece of work, which really helped our clients to grow their businesses.

That was when I really fell in love with agency; multi-discipline teams working together to deliver amazing results for our clients. This was also the first place with an in-house technical director and that’s when I knew I could start to flex my digital muscles a little more.

Advancements in website design were slow 20 years ago, so it was much more about content and basic functionality – our understanding of user experience, analytics and customer behaviour online has evolved at an alarming rate since then.

Moving up the ranks
The team grew quickly. Our baby steps into web-based work turned into search engine campaigns, complex digital app builds, high-budget online advertising campaigns for big brands and omni-channel campaigns for multi-national firms. We even built a global voting app for Miss World – just imagine the traffic load on voting night!

By 2014, we were 33 people and the technical team had built a pretty impressive analytics system. The CEO decided to break this off into a separate business which he would spearhead, leaving me to take over the Customer Experience and design-led areas of the business, as MD of what was now ‘Decibel Digital’.

A change in priorities
It’s a funny thing to have made it to that level before you are 35 but then realise everything is about to change. I was pregnant and very excited about being a mum. I remember thinking; ‘it’s ok, I can do this. I can have both’.

It wasn’t until I held my baby later that year that I realised I didn’t want that. I wanted to be mum first and career woman second. I took the difficult decision to leave whilst on maternity leave.

The company supported me incredibly well – offering other roles and flexibility – but I’d made up my mind. I needed time to be mum, and we were also leaving London to raise our family in rural Cambridgeshire.

Going it alone
After settling into our home in Kimbolton, I took some time out with my son, but it wasn’t long before I wanted to get busy again. I decided I was going to work for myself – something I went on to do for 8-9 years.

I worked as a trainer and mentor for a company who were retraining highly-skilled marketing and communications executives with in-demand social media skills. This taught me a lot about running remote webinars and interactive training sessions – but was also a strong values-match as these women were mums, who wanted to carve out a flexible career around their families.

I worked on some fascinating projects, including a global digital transformation project for a German construction company, involving a multi-territory, multi-lingual website and SEO campaign, and including geotargeting for localised content.

And then I met COEL…
As that contract ended, I was referred by a business contact of mine to the team of Directors at COEL. We instantly hit it off and I started working with them on a consultancy basis, to draft a marketing strategy and establish the initiatives that were needed to support the company’s ambitious growth plans. It was evident that there was enough work to keep at least one additional in-house resource busy!

And here we are now…
Despite vowing that I was no longer the ‘in-house’ type, I could see huge potential for COEL. We had hardly scratched the surface with the opportunities a structured marketing plan could deliver… and the pull of working as part of a team again, with shared ambition to succeed, was strong.

At a time of change and growth, when subsidiary businesses were being brought into COEL to create a full turnkey solution under one roof, it just felt like it was meant to be.

So, I joined the Board and took on the role of Marketing Director in January 2023, and have since taken on responsibility for overseeing our Business Development activities as well.

What is your favourite thing about working at COEL?

I can confidently say that it’s the team. We employ such a diverse range of people – from plumbers to furniture experts, quantity surveyors to interior designers, project managers to decorating teams.

There is a common thread that runs from the office to onsite teams, and it’s the values that the people embody. We talk about a ‘family feel’ and, whilst that sounds like a cliché, now that I am working at COEL, I can absolutely feel it. It’s just a nice place to work!

Also, working for such a design-led business has been lovely. I have always had a love for design (maybe a missed opportunity to be a designer in another life?!). Having worked closely with graphic designers in my agency days, it has been exciting to be creating content centred around such talented designers again.

What do you get up to when you are not working?

My love for travel continues. My mum lives in Spain so each year includes at least one trip to her. I visited Rome for the first-time last year and would like to explore more of Italy. My brother has recently moved back to Europe after 20+ years in Africa and after numerous visits, I have a genuine love for Kenya. I hope to be able to take the kids there in the next few years.

I also swim. You know the old saying ‘I come up with the best ideas when I’m in the shower’, for me it’s in the pool. It’s a great way to de-stress and process busy thoughts!

Most of my time, however, is spent with my husband and kids. Max is 9 (football-mad, science, computing, and drumming enthusiast) and Mia (dancing, singing, gymnast with a wicked sense of humour), is coming up for 7.

It’s true that there is no greater challenge than being a parent (…insert taxi driver / cheerleader / personal tutor / bank machine…), but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Every weekend is an adventure and every day I am thankful that I have such a happy and healthy family to navigate life with.

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