WeAre8: the disruptive social media platform endorsed by Rio Ferdinand
Sue Fennessy has a wealth of experience in the advertising space and spent the last 30 years creating disruptive businesses in the digital economy. Now, she is revolutionising social media through WeAre8, a democratic social media platform with B Corp Status that redirects ad-wealth to people and charities.
What was your journey to being the founder of your own social media platform?
It feels like everything I’ve done over the last 35 years has led to this moment. I built my first company when I was 21 and sold it to Omnicom. Thirteen years ago I built a company called Standard Media Index. Media distribution is worth about $600bn so advertisers spend that amount of money to get their adverts in front of people. We saw that a lot of this money was going to Facebook…last year it was $100bn. The crazy thing was that all of the media agencies and brands we spoke to said that the average engagement rate on Facebook is under 1% — I thought “there just has to be a better way”.
There was a catalyst moment when I was living in New York and the Federal Reserve came out with a statistic that 40% of all Americans cannot find $400 in an emergency. That was before Covid, they think now that this has gone up to 80%. That’s when we thought “can we reimagine digital ad delivery in a way where ad money comes back to people in a much better way and that money is funnelled directly into people’s pockets as well as creating a place that is hate-free.”
You’ve built companies across the globe – in terms of your leadership style, did you have to alter this depending on where you were?
I’m shockingly embarrassed that I did this, but in the late 80s and 90s I felt that the only way to get heard was through framing your ideas through a male voice. The good thing about being 21 is that I didn’t know any different and I just got on with it. We recently sold my stake in SMI but people would assume I didn’t understand the technology. I’ve been told to my face: “You just need a makeover.”
But I would walk out of those rooms knowing that I didn’t want to fit their mould because it hasn’t actually served people. I decided in those moments that I’m going to do this and it’s the very fact that I don’t fit into that broken world that I’m going to succeed. It fuelled my obsession with injustice and just toughened me up.
Have you felt the barriers women in tech typically face in achieving funding?
The stats are horrific because people fund people that look like them and only 2.3% of funding goes to women in tech. I can’t wait till we really flip the system and change the narrative. Once we build WeAre8 to where we want it to be, I’m going to spend my whole life empowering and elevating diversity in leadership and tech, because the solutions end up being very boring and one dimensional when the money goes only in one direction.
Do you have any advice for female founders on how they can achieve funding?
It was always the toughest part of my role. It’s important to get really crisp at communicating what your business proposition is and believing in it. There are people around you who can give you feedback on how to hone your story and your business proposition. Get the right people around you. If you’ve got a great business idea, and you’re willing to fight for it, you will get there. I don’t think you choose to be an entrepreneur, it chooses you. Because you see a problem and you can’t rest until you’ve fixed it — ask my beautiful husband and kids how obsessive you need to be to build a business.
What is the significance of the number eight in WeAre8?
We did a lot of work with behavioural scientists around social media algorithms. Because social platforms want to keep us scrolling more to serve us ads and make more money out of us, they take us to our lowest common denominator. The algorithms are based on linger times, so if something is more shocking, we are likely to spend more time on it.
The average time spent on TikTok is 90 minutes, and four hours on dating apps…it equates to three months of our lives a year. It’s making us feel worse and so our antidote is splitting the ad delivery and letting our users get paid for the time they spend watching adverts, and a portion of that goes to charities. Our whole approach to content is pure inspiration and we curate the best content into eight minutes every day. There is such a pure agenda with that eight minutes.
The original purpose of social media was for it to serve us…have we strayed too far from this?
Things become the biggest manifestation of their original intention and if we look at Facebook, it was built so guys in the dorm could get dates and I think Facebook has become a big manifestation of judgement. It has a beautiful side because it has connected us and opened up people’s worlds, but because it is controlled by a money-making engine, any values that may have been there erodes away. It’s time for this to be reinvented.
But why would advertising companies want to give any of their power away?
Facebook wouldn’t want to give any of their power away. But brands and advertisers have a different agenda, they want to sell their product but they also want to get closer to the customer and want your attention. If the average engagement rate on a Facebook ad is 0.4%, we wondered whether it was possible to present someone an ad that made them feel loved and valued, which we explored with behavioural psychologists. Instead of the brand paying Facebook to show ads, the brand pays the person directly. Advertisers just want to get close to people and they will put their money where they get the best results.
It would be difficult to touch on social media without mentioning recent events that have taken place. What is your opinion on Elon Musk taking over Twitter?
I really feel for Jack Dorsey. There’s a lot of hate on Twitter even with all of the good it does. I think Elon Musk is a market manipulator and a business guy. He doesn’t know the media industry and free speech and hate speech are two different things. Some tech companies are hiding behind free speech but it’s really hate speech with no guard rails.
We need to come together in a place of respect, even if we disagree. Around 30% of Twitter users aren’t verified which allows that anonymity. We are interested in bringing people together with an entirely different intention. It is amazing to me that someone with no experience in a sector can get massive amounts of funding.
What is your leadership style like?
One of the tough things about start-ups and leadership is that if you have a big vision and a lack of funding, it’s difficult because you have to compromise. You have to hire junior people for senior roles and so on. It’s been tough for me to compromise on that. When you put the wrong people in the wrong roles, coupled with a big idea and demanding stakeholders, it can be a recipe for disaster. You need to be able to hire the right people and very experienced people.
The start-up space isn’t easy. I just continue to ask myself “how can I be a better leader?” and actively spend time working on my own leadership technique. It’s important to be transparent and to trust your team. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I know what I am good at and when I am being too demanding. I love my team and I trust them with my life.
How do you deal with adversity when people don’t believe in your idea?
You have to take on feedback and then you have to back yourself. If the idea is good and the business model is good, then you need to back yourself. As an entrepreneur, if you’re around criticism all the time you can’t have space to succeed. It takes energy to bring shit to life that doesn’t exist.