When I was but a young editor at Style at Home magazine, the online world was much smaller – Twitter was fairly new, Instagram wasn’t even a thought in anyone’s mind, and people actually connected with each other as a community rather than as a way to build an audience to make money.
One of the people I followed on Twitter from the get-go was Ashley Cassidy Seale (Ashley Bartlett at the time), a tech-savvy PR pro in Toronto that seemed to be connected to EVERYONE. She used social media in its early stages to start the conversation and grow an audience for the brands she repped in a natural and organic way. And as someone who personally saw the growing value of the internet as a media source, it was refreshing to see a PR pro treat online editors and bloggers with the same respect as traditional media.
Ashley’s PR career was on the up, and then several years later in 2015, she announced she was dropping it all to move to Paris for six months. Huh? “People around me were really shocked by it,” Ashley admits. “But I had hit that wall. I was burnt out and felt like my identity was rooted in my career. I didn’t have those stories of backpacking around Europe after graduation, and I needed to find myself outside of my job.”
Turns out a little breathing room was all she needed. Ashley’s back in Toronto and has just taken on her biggest project to date – the launch of Ruby Social Co., her own creative communications agency. “The time away in France made me realize that my unhappiness came from always working for other people, rather than doing something for myself.”
Keep reading to find out how Ashley went from being a busy PR pro to a driven renegade who found her true purpose and happiness after a life sabbatical in France.
You’ve become a fixture in the Toronto PR scene – how did you get started in the industry?
Well, I didn’t go to school for PR because it wasn’t really an option at the time, so I actually studied Business Fashion at Humber College. I didn’t get too much out of the program itself, but I did a lot of field internships which got me excited. My first internship was actually at West 49 (haha!) because that was totally my world at the time, and I found myself doing marketing and events for them.
Then I started working for Pink Tartan as Kim’s assistant, which was huge because I loved the brand. They actually didn’t hire me at first because I was super shy and had no experience. But the girl they originally hired didn’t work out, so they called me back and I ended up working there for just over a year. I found myself doing way more than just helping Kim – I was pitching media, working on the runway shows, and eventually moved over to a marketing role.
First jobs are excellent for teaching you alllllll of the skills.
Oh absolutely! Plus, my shyness melted away as I gained more experience. I also realized that I really liked the PR aspect of my job and planning stories with media, so I moved on from Pink Tartan to work for Brill Communications. It was a really exciting time and I was on the team that launched Victoria’s Secret in Canada. It also helped me learn the ropes of the agency world – the endless hours and the hustle and bustle. After that was Narrative, where I worked for just over 3 years, and at the time there were only about 13 of us, so I really got that chance to grow.
So what was it about PR that drew you in?
It just really suits my personality, because I love writing and love working with people – it’s a good balance of creative and strategy. I also like the bigger thinking of PR and all the facets – the strategizing, planning, outreach, social media. There are so many moving parts that come together, and when I started my career it was really in the early years of social media – we had no followers and Instagram was new, and since I was the young kid who was into the internet, it naturally became part of my role.
I was burnt out and felt like my identity was rooted in my career. I didn’t have those stories of backpacking around Europe after graduation, and I needed to find myself outside of my job.
And then off you went to Paris for 6 months! Where did the idea for a life sabbatical come from?
Well, I was 28 when the idea first came about. I was thinking about turning 30, and wasn’t freaking out necessarily, but more of contemplating: ‘What have I accomplished?’ Even though I’d accomplished so much in my career, it controlled my identity. I hadn’t travelled or been outside of North America – I felt like I had no stories. So my then-fiance and I made the decision to go on a sabbatical to France. We saved up a lot of money over the following year so that we could go away and enjoy ourselves without having to stress about work. I gave my boss a month’s notice, we got rid of our apartment and we took off overseas.
Good for you, girl! It takes a lot of guts to do that.
I’m so happy we did it. We were in Paris for four months then Biarritz in the south of France for two. We stayed in a different Airbnb each month so that we could explore different neighbourhoods, and to keep on-budget we made a promise not to spend more on rent than we did in Toronto.
It was a little scary at first, but I needed to find myself outside of work. One of the main reasons I took the sabbatical was to give myself breathing room and really figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I had my blog, Quaintrelle, where I shared my travels, but I was also able to grow my social media with daily posts from Paris. During that time, I came up with the idea for Ruby Social Co. and started to conceptualize what that would look like.
After that big adventure for six months, how did you adjust to moving home to Toronto?
We actually got home from Paris on the day of the terrorist attacks [at the Bataclan and throughout the city]. When we landed, that’s when we found out everything that had happened. We had lived in that neighbourhood, and our friends still lived in that neighbourhood. We just wanted to cry on the car ride home.
That’s a heavy way to end such a positive journey. Did you find it tough to get back into the swing of things in Toronto?
For sure. Just because we fell in love with Paris so much, and I needed to find my groove again. A few weeks after we got back and settled in, I started working at Holt Renfrew as the marketing manager at Yorkdale – it was a great learning experience working on the brand side of things again. But my old bosses at Narrative had opened another agency called Pomp & Circumstance, and I was drawn back to the agency side. It was great and I loved the people, but something was missing – I still had that itch to do my own thing and start up Ruby Social Co.
It wasn’t until Andrew and I got married and went back to France that I got my drive again – being back in that place physically put me back in the same place mentally. When we got back to Toronto I told my bosses (again!) that I was leaving and I launched Ruby Social Co. right after Christmas.
Such a huge step, and I have been there, girl, so congrats! Were you terrified?
There was definitely an adrenalin factor after Paris that kept me focused, but yeah, I was terrified. I was so thankful that I spent all this time building up my own community online through my blog and Instagram and had these amazing people that supported me. People often forget that it’s a community – it’s not followers, it’s real people. It probably would be a different story if I didn’t have that, because once I announced what I was doing online, people just started reaching out and already the brand started to grow.
What services does Ruby Social Co. offer?
I do communications (PR strategy, media outreach) and social (content curation, strategy, influencer outreach) for boutique businesses. A lot of time in PR, social content is an afterthought, and so I want to make it more holistic. Working with the right influencers for my brands rather than scrambling to get just anyone on board or looking for people with the biggest following. I’m interested in the people who are actually influential and starting conversations.
Have you brought on any clients in the first few months?
Yes, and I love them! I’ve brought on The Health Hut and also just launched ALWAYSxALWAYS‘ lifestyle products and Greenhouse Juice‘s new cookbook They’re all local businesses and happen to all be run by women, which is pretty cool. And that’s the best part – I wouldn’t have been able to work with these brands at a big agency, but with Ruby being a boutique agency, I can work closely with these small businesses and do some really fun creative stuff and actually feel the impact.
It’s only been 4 months, but what has been the best part of being your own boss so far?
Definitely the ability to choose what I’m working on. I still work crazy hours getting the business off the ground, but it’s my own project and passion so the feeling is totally different. Plus, the hours that I’m putting in now are productive hours. I find that at an agency or open workspace, it can be easy to get distracted and you work long hours, but they’re not often ‘working’ hours.
And what’s been the toughest thing?
It’s early stages, but I can already tell it’s gonna be tough just mapping out my time. When you have different clients, you wear a lot of different hats. Also just working from home has been an adjustment – it’s great having flexibility, but it’s too quiet. I’ll probably join a shared workspace to get me out of the house.
I’m so inspired by your choice to drop everything to take a breath and start over again. Do you have advice for aspiring renegades?
Don’t be afraid of your big crazy dream. If you plan it out, it can come to life and can really thrive. People were pretty shocked when I left my job (many thought I was going through a crisis), but there just needs to be more people dreaming big and going for it.
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