Tag: Business

When value and values collide

People often refer to PR as some dark art but that’s not the case. It is true that there is some ambiguity about what it delivers based on the difficulty in measuring the overall impact that you can achieve from a campaign. After all, how do you truly measure word of mouth or a person’s shift in sentiment without putting in place a robust research study?

The challenge is always the same, budgets. Clients invariably want more for less but in some instances, there has to come a point where that simply isn’t possible. The immediate problem with PR is that everyone believes that they can do it. The question remains, can you do it well?

PR is about managing the reputation of a business, arguably your biggest asset. For those that don’t believe in the value of PR just look at the largest brands in the world and explain why they invest in a specialism if it doesn’t deliver.

Some of the industry’s strongest ambassadors are Richard Branson and the founders of Innocent Drinks. It’s perhaps a cliché to use these as examples, but you can’t deny that the way that they defined their audience, shaped their message and then used PR to attract attention worked. 

As an agency, we have very strong values, we always have and it was one of our founding principles. It was 2008 and we were just about to feel the full force of the most challenging period of our careers, the recession.

Launching a business perhaps wasn’t the most obvious thing to do, but we had a plan. We would become the straight-talking PR agency that would deliver results. Our objective was simple; do the job and do it well. We were bold with our messaging too: what you see is what you get.

That still holds true today and some eight years on we have an enviable client list and a strong and capable team. We work together with our clients, we develop creative campaigns that meet with objectives, we deliver results and we repeat – it’s quite simple, well, on paper anyway.

Based on the return on investment you can generate from PR, I find it staggering that people don’t place more value on it. Obviously, I am biased, but if I had a marketing budget I would be making sure a good proportion was set aside to invest in my reputation.

All we hear about is the value of well written copy, a great piece which featured in the paper or on the radio or television, an article online that was shared hundreds of times. Where do people think this content comes from? It isn’t coincidence, it’s planned and timed to align with a wider campaign.  

PR isn’t a dark art but finding an agency that will add real value can be a challenge. One of the things we explain when we meet people is that we won’t ‘do air kissing’ – although a good Yorkshire hug is absolutely fine – and we will never take a client for lunch or dinner and charge it back – surely, that’s just rude?

But, there’s a balance.

We were attending a pitch in London recently and one of the only criticisms during feedback was that our budgets were significantly underestimated. Actually, they weren’t. The costs were based on actual quotes as opposed to approximates. We realised very quickly that our values had meant we had inadvertently undersold what we could deliver.

So, what was the answer? Should we increase our fees to a level that the client would find significantly eye watering or should we stand true to our values and hope that in time the client would come back – after all, they did mention that we were a team they would like to work with? 

When we launched we spent a long time deliberating over what we would be called. We found it really difficult to make it clear that we were genuinely different. We were going to use our business to tackle and challenge some of the perceptions that come with the industry head-on.

After many hours we looked at all of the words that we had used to describe what we wanted to be, what we felt and what was truly representative and Open jumped out at us. That is exactly what we are, open.

And there is the answer. We can’t change the way we work. We won’t be tripling the fees to appear suitably expensive. We will continue to do a great job and to be honest with our clients. Values are a huge part of our business, perhaps it’s our Yorkshire roots.

I am very proud of Open Communications and what it stands for. I’m not sure there are many people who can say that and really mean it. We will continue to pitch great creative ideas and campaigns that will add value and meet with objectives, we will continue to do this with integrity, we will not work with competing businesses, we will get excited by our results and we will have fun in the process.

If you want to join us on that journey, then please do give us a call. The kettle is always on.

What you really achieve during a 16-hour working day

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It seems to have become a bit of a trend over recent years, where people make a point of letting you know just how many hours they have worked. It’s no longer considered acceptable to get into the office at 9am and work to 5.30pm, if you don’t work until your mind is whirring and your eyes are burning you simply aren’t committed.

I have to admit that before the Christmas break I had got into the habit of coming into the office at 7.30am and working through to around 6pm every day, thinking that this was reflective of my desire to do a good job for my clients. WRONG!

Most of my clients were still in bed, and although I do still get into the office earlier than my contracted 9am start, it is for the right reasons – usually to read the news and to prioritise my tasks for the day ahead.

While reading the i today I came across a really interesting article written by Katie Law, which further reinforced my fear that working longer hours doesn’t necessarily make you more productive. In fact, quite the opposite.

The piece, titled ‘How to do a full day’s work in only four hours’ (no surprises for why it caught my attention) places the emphasis on efficiency as opposed to the hours that we spend doing stuff. The main message, which was taken from Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a 52-year old former Silicon Valley consultant and lifestyle expert, was that most people can only focus for four hours each day.

If that’ the case, why are we trying to drag this out to eight or more and commending people for it? Basically, we are rewarding inefficiency or at least giving someone who should be recruiting the kudos to believe they are super-human.

In order to be as effective as you can be, the idea is that you work to your limits and that we try to change the mindset that we have all created; longer and longer hours translates to commitment and results.

What started as a desire to do well suddenly manifests itself as a route to ill-health, tiredness, inefficiency and resentment.

But, here’s the good news, there are ways to change. The tips from the article are as follows:

1.       Four hours focus

Focus on tasks and don’t be distracted by emails, voicemails or unnecessary meetings.  Interestingly, it suggests Smartphones should be turned off at least two-nights a week.

2.       Curse of the open-plan office

We have an open plan office, and whereas it definitely has its benefits, the article makes a good point – it’s a honey pot of distractions. The recommendation is to use headphones to cancel out the noise and chatter or go back to individual offices *gasp*.

3.       Break-out areas are bad

Although breaks are confirmed as being a good thing, the idea of having a break-out area doesn’t serve its purpose. Rather than giving people the time to refocus, the article says that all they do is keep people in the office for longer.

4.       Keep meetings short

Pang says that meetings should never be longer than 40 minutes and any devices should be banned! I could marry this man. One thing that irks me above all others is people taking phones or laptops into meetings. It’s rude. As far as I’m concerned, we should go into a meeting, get to the point, create a plan, assign actions and get on with it. Perfect.

5.       Routine is critical

Probably my favourite of them all, and not easily achieved in PR, but routine keeps the mind focused and allows someone to be more organised. Needless to say, this means that you also use your time more wisely.

6.       Take a nap

I love this idea but it’s totally impractical. Apparently, companies including Google have nap pods and encourage employees to take 20-minute shut-eye every six hours. Bonkers, but hey, you can’t fault a multi-million corporation for trying something different. I’m all for a bit of disruption – in fact, I might go for a lie down. Zzzzzzz…

7.       Stop working mid-sentence

Finally, neuroscientists have found that when people stop working on something knowing that they will go back to it, their subconscious keeps processing it. As such, the idea is to embrace this and ‘zone out’. Let your mind do the work for you.

Although I don’t agree with all of the points made by Pang, I am going to try and put more routine into the way I work and to stop believing that working 16-hour days makes me a better and more productive person.

The truth is that no one will thank me, least of all the husband that I never see.

Make sure spending a penny doesn’t make you an ar*e

Whilst browsing a local news site yesterday evening I came across a story which caught my attention. It was about the owner of a book store in Hawes, who has found himself in hot water – and headline news – for being a little less than friendly to his customers.

Wracking up an almost impressive 20 complaints in the last four years about his rudeness – in one instance referring to a customer as a ‘pain in the arse’ – Steve Bloom has got more than he bargained for. Not only is he considered rude but he brings new meaning to the phrase ‘spend a penny’ as he asks for a 50p donation for people to browse his store.

His excuse for being rude is that ‘he’s not really a people person’, but it does beg the question why he chooses to have a customer facing business. The donation on the other hand is apparently to make sure that his shoppers are ‘serious’. Book reading has suddenly become an extreme sport!

He resides in an area known for its attraction to hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, which are absolutely essential to the economic sustainability of the region, so again, to not be wholeheartedly welcoming is somewhat missing the point.

However… there’s always a but… and I feel quite sorry for this fella and I’ll explain why. For those who don’t know Hawes, it is a beautiful town in the North Yorkshire Dales and as well as being famed for its views, it is also the home to businesses such as The Wensleydale Creamery.

Coming from the Dales I am hugely biased and find it difficult to hear negative stories, however deserved, about the area and particularly the people and businesses based there. What did make me smile was that living in this area is like no other. People are ‘real’ and they say it as it is. There are no ‘airs and graces’ and everyone is on a level playing field, usually up to their knees in sheep muck.

There was many a time when we first arrived back in the Dales and I was astounded at how abrupt people were, only to realise that actually it’s just the way it is and you either like it or quite frankly leave.

People don’t always mean offence, they are just unwilling to change their ways to suit yours.

There has to be a little give and take. Clearly, not everyone is the same, and I suspect this man has made a bit of a nuisance of himself with the local parish council but is it the end of the world and should it be attracting national headlines?

The people in the Dales are honest, hardworking and typically friendly. They would do you a good turn before a bad and I am guessing some neighbours have been round to make sure that Mr Bloom, with his lovely flowery name, is doing ok following his rocket to fame.

We discussed this in the office and weren’t absolutely sure if this story wasn’t a PR stunt – albeit a good one. There must be an opportunity to find the grumpiest – yet most loved – shop owner in the country as a result. Someone that would make Mr Bloom smell like a sweet bouquet of fresh cut roses.

The outcome of the article in many media was a statement from Hawes Parish Council Chairman, John Blackie who said: “He is doing a disservice to the other traders, to the reputation of the town, which is very much a friendly town. We welcome people to come and visit us.”

The irony is that I would put 50p on the fact that this particularly book store owner is going to become somewhat of a local celebrity and tourists will be flocking to hand over their hard-earned coinage to take a serious nosy around his shop.

Not only will this benefit his business but also those around it. As they say, there is no such thing as bad publicity and I have to admit, I’ve considered suggesting a ride out on Saturday myself.

Never underestimate real talent

I’m somewhat ashamed to say that following the London Olympics in 2012 I was relieved to turn my TV back to my normal viewing and didn’t give a second thought to the Paralympics. It wasn’t that I didn’t care as such, or that I didn’t think the talents of these athletes needed support, it was just that it didn’t really register with me.

This year, however, is a totally different situation and much of it, I believe, is down to The Last Leg and Claire Balding. I make no secret of the fact that I love The Last Leg, it is one of few programmes that can effectively debate really serious global issues with humour, and Claire Blading is a great example of a presenter that manages to be both professional and personable while having an edge.

I also commend Claire for providing some continuity as she chose to go from presenting the Olympic Games to the Paralympic Games despite the channel change – I’m sure a pay cheque was involved along the way, but it has given further credibility to the coverage none-the-less.

Thanks to the way in which Channel 4 have taken the Paralympics, added some personality and made it a ‘must watch’, for the first time that I can remember people are discussing how many medals we have won and sharing details of the athletes that are competing each day.

Jonny Vegas may not have been an obvious choice where athletics and elite sportsmen and women are concerned but he’s added a comedy to the Games that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. Nominated to get the crowds going, he has shown his stomach painted as a Union Jack, handed out shower caps and screamed with delight throughout each event.

What better way to champion our Paralympic athletes than by celebrating in the only way he knows how – with real gusto! Like a true Brit on tour, he’s had people chanting, singing and dancing and it hasn’t always been in support of England with him cheering on Jamaica despite them turning in a less than medal winning performance.

And perhaps that’s part of the appeal. The Paralympic Games aren’t taking themselves too seriously. It’s not that the athletes don’t deserve the commendation or the support they have received – quite the opposite in fact – but what has become apparent is that these sportsmen and women have personalities and they are ‘real people’ beyond their chosen events.

Like any athletes they have dedicated their lives to training, they are elite, they are the best, they are of a gold winning standard but they are also husbands, wives, sons, daughters, dads, mothers and friends.

I would like to think that what Channel 4 have successfully done is two-fold; they have raised the profile of the Paralympic Games to a mass market, allowing people to feel involved and showcasing how inclusive it can be – something that I feel has previously been notable in its absence – and they have created opportunities for these athletes to secure sponsorship from brands, an essential consideration for their future careers.

For once, I can see Paralympic athletes being just as appealing to brands as Olympians and rightly so. If you work hard to become the best and you dedicate your life to taking part in a tournament that will see you represent your country you deserve something back.

So, which brands will be the first to take to the podium and to give something back to these amazing individuals? Who knows, we might even have a sports personality of the year within the Paralympic Team GB. Let’s be honest, much stranger things have happened.

How to turn net-work into business gain

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Firstly, I have to start with a caveat, the following blog is written honestly and objectively but the book that I refer to throughout was written by a client of Open Communications. In true Open style I would prefer to be completely honest and… well, Open, about that before we start.

And so, on with the blog.

It’s been a while since I have written about our experiences or the things that we have been up to and for that I apologise. Like many other businesses, the day-to-day gets in the way and clients come first.

Recently however, and for the first time, a client wrote a book. I’m not aware of any other clients that we work with having done this and was intrigued as to why a hard-working business woman would put the time and effort into scribing more than 100 (141 to be precise) pages when they have a to-do list as long as your arm.

Rashmi Dubé is well known throughout Yorkshire and London. Her legal practice, Legatus Law is award winning and just three-years after launching the business it is expanding with new offices in Leeds city centre and appointments to the team.

Still, Rashmi felt that she had some tips that she wanted to pass on and so started to write a book that would help people to do something that many of us take for granted – in our social lives at least – every day; networking.

Some people scoff at the need to network, considering it a waste of time and money but others, perhaps those that are doing it right, see the value and benefit from meeting contacts and once a relationship has developed, sharing business.

The book, ‘Making a Splash (a Personal Guide to Networking)’ gives really honest advice about networking and what you should and should not do when you are faced with the opportunity to meet a room full of new people.

What struck me about the book was that it isn’t a difficult read. There is nothing worse than getting in on an evening after a busy day and turning to pages of manuscript that you have to read time and time again to work out. I don’t want a business thesaurus for my bedtime read, I want something interesting and insightful and this book didn’t disappoint.

The chapters are really structured so you can either read it from cover to cover, like I did, or dip and in and out of the parts that would be most relevant to you. Not only does this make it a really useful guide for those who are networking for the first time but also for those who have been attending events for years and feel that they need a bit of a refresh.

I’m in the latter group and have done everything from very structured and formal networking meetings to conferences, balls, dinners, charity events and just about everything in between. When you work in PR the best word to describe the events that you attend is varied and so one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to networking.

I’ve always thought that being honest was the best policy and have found that this has worked in my favour. Rashmi reiterates the need to be authentic when you meet with new people and this really resonated with me. There is nothing worse than meeting someone and knowing they are ‘playing the game’, it’s far from appealing.

What really peaked my attention was the fact that Rashmi was actually a shy child – now that I didn’t see coming! As such a confident business woman you would never know and that made me realise that her techniques are working. She explains in chapter 2 that through channeling her alter ego she is able to address a room with not so much as a stammer, even when she is as nervous as a child on the first day of school.

Other things I really liked about the book were the use of real people as interviewees to ask how they approach networking. As I know and network with some of them, it was really insightful to hear their thoughts and also the tips that they apply. I hadn’t realised that people thought so deeply about events until now and it was really refreshing to know that we all share the same doubts and annoyances that can come from being in a room of strangers.

The one thing I hate is people trying to sell to me at networking events. I can usually tell within 10 seconds of a conversation because they will use the term ‘we have synergy’ shudder or worse they will refer immediately to a client and ask for their contact details groan. This again was addressed in the book with the consistent tip that it is not about collecting business cards but about making relationships – long-term.

I don’t want to give too much away about this book as I genuinely think that people will get a lot from reading it. I wasn’t sure what I would learn but am thankful and not ashamed to say that I am already putting the tips that I have learnt into practice.

Whether it’s the way you approach new people, the way you dress, the attention you pay to your ‘own brand’ or the follow up there is a suggestion on how you can apply Rashmi’s techniques that just might make your next event less nerve-wracking and more productive.

For your copy of the book head to Amazon. It’s only £9.99 and well worth the read.

 

A TIME FOR NEW CHALLENGES

The Pretty Muddy event in Rother Valley.

The Pretty Muddy event in Rother Valley.

Once again it’s been a really busy year – we find ourselves more often than not saying “We just don’t know where this year has gone!” in much the same way we did the year before. It seems that we are so focused on doing the doing that we have lost sight of all that is around us.

I don’t want this blog to be negative, we’re having a great year. We’ve been involved in some amazing projects and have some fantastic news to announce (watch this space) but I can’t help thinking that I need a new challenge.

For the last – nearly – eight years we have had Open; we have focused on building a reputation, delivering results and staying true to our values. That, thankfully, hasn’t changed and we are still the straight-talking agency we set out to be.

What has changed since then however is that we now have an enviable, and if I do say so myself, fabulous list of clients that we are very proud to work with, we have a growing team (please pass on details to anyone you know who is looking for their first or next role in PR) and we have plans to make our office space more bright and vibrant.

So, what is it that we don’t have? Well, it’s not so much what ‘we’ don’t have but what I feel that I have lost. Somewhere in the last eight years, I have forgotten that I need to focus some of my time on me.

Selfish, I know. But I have realised that both professionally and personally I have lost my way. That isn’t to say my work has suffered, far from it, but it has become my priority and my only focus.

I’m not sure when it became apparent; there wasn’t so much a lightbulb moment as much as a number of discussions, passing comments and a niggling doubt in the back of my mind that I was doing something wrong and that something had to shift.

And so, I have put a plan into action.

Here’s a really quick list of things that I am going to do and have committed to achieving before the end  of the summer:

  1. Join a gym – I’ve been going for about 3 months now and really enjoy it. I find it a release and it gives me space to think and re-group. Plus, the added bonus is that I should lose some weight. What I need to do is keep it up.
  2. Lose some weight – I’m not so much cuddly as noticeably overweight and so that has to be addressed. I have never been fat but am very aware that I need to sort myself out and stop using excuses to make myself feel better.
  3. Read business books – I went through a phase of buying a number of books that I intended to read but never did. After reading a clients debut book on networking recently (Making a Splash by Rashmi Dube) I realised that I either get on with it or I take them to the charity shop. I’m getting on with it.
  4. Take time out for the business – I was at a new business meeting and was asked ‘Why don’t you put your own good advice into practice?’. I had no answer, other than I focus entirely on clients as a priority. Not really good enough to be honest and so I’m going to start to blog again and give some time to Open.

That’s it for now. There are a few other personal things that I have also challenged myself with and hope that by the end of the summer I will be able to set some new goals, but for now, I’ve enough to be getting on with.

I appreciate some people scale Ben Nevis and others climb Mount Kilimanjaro but for me, I’m going to start with something a little more realistic.

I know already that there are going to be times when, just like with New Year’s Resolutions, I wish I hadn’t bothered, but I am also aware of the feeling that I get when I have achieved something I set out to do.

I’m on a mission and I intend to see it through.

 

Being the centre of attention

I’ve never really bothered about being the centre of attention, in fact, in the right scenario, I quite enjoy it. I think part of that is coming from a large family; when we were younger if you did manage to get someone to pay any notice of you then you made the most of it.

On Friday I was asked to present during an event hosted by the Wakefield Bondholders at Hatfeild Hall. It wasn’t an unusual topic, I would be providing people with advice and some hints and tips on how they could use PR to benefit their business.

Now, if I couldn’t get that right then there was something really wrong!

Coincidentally, during a recent team meeting here at Open Communications, we were discussing nerves and how you can overcome them when presenting. I’ve always felt that being nervous is a challenge that has to be overcome and as such have always done my best to step up to the mark when I get butterflies. If I’m honest, I like the feeling of pushing myself and being in a position that may be slightly uncomfortable but knowing that it’s up to me to turn it around.

During the meeting I was asked by a colleague why I never get nervous and how I always appear so confident. The truth is that I do get nervous and the confidence comes from playing a game with myself – it’s how I react to that situation and that feeling.  Some might call it bravado but to me it’s just a natural reaction.

Friday morning was a classic example. I don’t see getting nervous as a weakness, far from it, I actually think that the day you go to present in front of a room of 80 people and you don’t feel nervous you have crossed the line to arrogant or worst still, dismissive. Well, it was clear to me at least, that I certainly wasn’t at that stage – I was very much a bag of nerves.

Hiding it well behind several coffees and some idle chit chat I counted down the minutes until it was my turn to face the room. I was fortunate enough to have some friendly faces that I could call upon from the front and so I began.

I was handed a microphone – which made my knees shake even more than usual – but there was no turning back, it was now or never.

The funny thing is that even with the microphone once I’d started I was fine. I could stand up there all day but the first five minutes was the most challenging. I have the same questions as everyone else does when I stand in front of a room of people; will they like me, will they understand what I’m trying to explain, have I pitched the level right, will anyone take anything from it, what will they learn, will they question me and most worrying, will they consider me to be good at what I do.

By the time the presentation ended, I was shaking like a leaf, but I have to admit that I really enjoyed it. I hope that people learnt something from it but mostly I hope that those I work with realise that everyone gets nervous and that it’s ok, it’s how you handle it and how you challenge yourself to overcome it that’s important.

I had some lovely comments following the event and people did say that they had learnt something, which is what it was all about, but most surprisingly I had three separate emails from people complimenting me on my presentation style and confidence.

I always think it’s a huge achievement when people take the time to thank you and to tell you that they think you did a good job and so last week I closed Friday with a big smile on my face.

My hands have finally stopped shaking and I’m ready for the next time I’m asked to present to a room – may be next time I can push myself that little bit harder and even look forward to it.

LEEDS BUSINESS WEEK, IT WAS MUSIC TO MY EARS!

Leeds Business Week is one of the annual events of the business calendar and this year has been no exception. I’m always really intrigued by the variety of seminars and talks that are on offer and in particular those that are either very low cost or free.

Once upon a time there wouldn’t have been the trust there is today; to encourage so many people to come together to share their thoughts, ideas and specialisms, but thankfully things have changed.

Today I attended my second Leeds Business Lunch at Bibis restaurant. I was invited last year and was really impressed by the speaker (I know, let’s be honest this is usually the part that you dread) and this year I came face-to-face with a… legend.

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I’d heard a lot about ‘Tony’ from Leeds Arena but had never had the chance to meet with him. We’ve talked and emailed but never actually taken the time to meet up – such is a busy work schedule and life in general.

I’m always really cautious when people take to the stage – I’ve known some great speakers and some dreadful ones – you know, those people who are so chatty generally, humorous and personable yet come across like a bad Mr Bean sketch when the spotlight is on them *groan*.

Thankfully Tony was none of these things, he had us all laughing from the off.

Rather than talking at the audience Tony chose to present through song – I’m not absolutely convinced he didn’t just plug in his iPod play list and hope for the best but it worked amazingly and went a little something like this…

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  1. First was a blast of U2, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. Well, you can’t argue with that. The concept behind the song choice being that if there is a gap in the market for something – such as the Arena in Leeds – then there is also a business opportunity too.  It was also to reiterate that although it can be hard work to get approval on an idea, it will be worth it in the end.
  2. Madonna, Like a Virgin (confession time, I once sang this to my coal man and my Dad has never forgiven me – I was 4 years old!). The thought behind the song choice was that it symbolised the first time that in business we do anything and to remember how you did it and most importantly what you learnt.
  3. Michael Jackson, You Gotta Be Starting Something. Tony explained that in the city there is a trend to start things and not finish them – I don’t think this is exclusive to Leeds but have to admit that he has a point. The idea was to plan and think about how you are going to finish a task before starting it. Good advice that is often dismissed but should be considered, very carefully.
  4. The Troggs, I Can’t Control Myself. The theory behind this was that people aren’t always creative and ‘STOP PRESS’ this doesn’t make them wrong. We need a mix of individuals and characters in a business to make it work; some creative and some not. Without the planning and controls nothing can ever be delivered and although the ‘big idea’ is exciting the doing makes it happen.
  5. David Bowie, Loving the alien. This did make me giggle. Right from launching Open Comms we have always said that we don’t want to be a PR team of clones, and we aren’t, but I wouldn’t go as far to say any of us are aliens. That said I did understand where Tony was coming from. He said that we should accept people for their quirky personalities and different characteristics because the person you consider ‘an alien’ could one day be your biggest asset.
  6. Lady Gaga, Bad Romance. This one was simple. If you have a negative atmosphere in the workplace and you do nothing to try to address it then, like a bad romance, it will continue to deteriorate until there is nothing left. I like this analogy and have seen this happen to businesses in the past.
  7. Freddy Mercury, Great Pretenders. Again, one that is close to my heart. It’s ok to pretend but then you need to be able to substantiate the claims and promises you have made with actions and results. Time and time again we come across this in our industry – promises of names in lights but not even a dimly lit candle to show for the budgets invested! It’s important to be honest and to be realistic with clients’; they will thank you for it in the end.

And so, that was the end of Tony’s talk and what a cracker it was too. I would like to personally thank Tony for making me laugh until my sides hurt. If you would like to hear more about him then follow @FDArenaTony or @JKTChallenge.

 

Empowerment of women leads to an unlikely enterprise

During the Buy Yorkshire Conference on the 28 and 29 April, it was with great interest that delegates welcomed Jacqueline Gold to the stage. Not knowing what to expect from one of the most successful women in the country, who has reinvented a business that has changed the lives of women (and men) up and down the country, it was hard to determine what she would share. Her story was not only compelling but inspirational. For more details about an entrepreneur who she never be underestimated read below.  

As a naïve and shy 19 year old, Jacqueline Gold had no idea what path her career would take. Sitting in a smoke filled room at 21 in a council house in South East London drawing pictures of her boyfriends ‘meat and two veg’ on her head wasn’t quite what she had planned!

And so, Ann Summers was born, well, reinvented at least.

Admitting that Ann Summer was multi-channel way before it’s time, she explains that the business was set up by Kim Waterfield and that the brand was actually meant to represent an image of an English Rose.

With no real direction the business went into liquidation within a year and in stepped Jacqueline to purchase two stores and the brand name for just £10,000; one of the best deals she says she’s ever made.

Recognising that women wanted to buy sexy underwear but didn’t want the embarrassment of going into a sex shop, Jacqueline came up with the concept of house parties. Taking the suggestion to the board she was met with some resistance and a comment that still resonates today: “Women aren’t even interested in sex!”

Pushing forward with her idea, Jacqueline advertised in the London Standard for party hosts and was met with 25 candidates. Not all were suitable but the concept quickly grew and in just a single year the business was growing so rapidly a decision was made to stop advertising altogether.

Creating something that sat outside of the typical and traditional ‘raincoat brigade’ Ann Summers was on to a winner and the mantra to unleash sexual confidence in women was born.

Shops quickly followed, which would become a portfolio of 140 that now amount to 60% of the business, but this didn’t spell the death of the party. More than 5,000 parties still take place every year attracting tens of thousands of women.

Results show a performance that in the first year reported £83,000 and now boasts a staggering £35m. Now that’s a lot of fun and very happy couples.

When asked what makes Ann Summers different Jacqueline explains:

–          We have a female friendly focus

–          The business is controversial

–          The company stocks a range of innovative products

–          The customer experience and engagement are fundamental

Today the company sells 2m vibrators every year, which amounts to 5,000 every day and 7 sex toys every waking minute.

Despite this success there are some concerns at the business and in particular with the perception of quality. However this is being address and as Jacqueline explains, ‘We use the same manufacturers as Stella McCartney’.

In order to be successful Jacqueline says you have to have a point of difference to set you apart, innovate not imitate and rely on feedback from customers who will be your greatest advocates and your biggest critics.

The company continues to grow at a rate of 20% every year and the parties are still a big part of the package offered with this being the first experience that most people have when they embrace the Ann Summers brand.

As an advocate of PR, marketing and in particular social media, the business has used some situations to its advantage creating great opportunities to generate sales such as the launch of the Seven Shades of Grey novel. During the launch phase of the book many Ann Summers stores sold out of handcuffs and blindfolds.

So, what is around the corner for this international phenomenon? Well, the future development of the brand perception is high on the agenda, along with in store technology and further international expansion.

Giving further advice to those considering starting a business Jacqueline says:

–          Create a story and brand identity

–          Have a clear proposition

–          Embrace technology

–          Have an international strategy

–          Put in place a seamless omni-channel infrastructure

As a huge advocate of empowering women Jacqueline leaves the audience she has so obviously captivated with one final thought “If a shy and naïve 21 year old can walk into a room of grey suited men just because I had the will and the courage to do so, then so can you!”

Billion Pound Panel puts industry greats in the hot seat

Happy Friday to you all. It’s certainly been a busy week at Open Comms. Now on to our next blog from the Buy Yorkshire Conference. This time focusing on the Billion Pound Panel, a Question Time style session which invites the great and good from industry to engage with the audience and discuss topics that are most prevalent to them. We hope you enjoy it.

The hustle and bustle to get into the room set a precedent for how popular the Billion Pound Panel has become since its launch four years ago. Arguably there is still no session in any business event that can rival what has become a must see and this year was no exception.

As we all took to our seats, the panel was introduced; Chairman of LNT Group, Lawrence Tomlinson; Managing Director of HARIBO UK, Herwig Vennekens; CEO of AESSEAL, Chris Rea; Chairman of York, North Yorkshire and East Rising Enterprise Partnership, Barry Dodd and the chair of the event, Associate Dean of Leeds Becket University, Simon Jones.

It was almost immediately apparent that the discussion was going to be an interesting one with a mix of people from a range of backgrounds – just what you want when you are sitting in a room waiting for a question time style discussion. There’s no point if everyone has the same opinion on everything!

The discussion started with a gentle question that focused around what benefits Leeds becoming a Capital of Culture 2028 would achieve with differing views. Barry Dodd was particularly vocal with his thoughts around ‘Why?’. His main points were why would you do this when the city and region has a strong reputation that it could build on and why ask for an award when you could give it to yourself.

In contrast Herwig Vennekens explained that when he introduces people to the HARIBO business they often find it difficult to understand where Pontefract is and he spends much of his time explaining that it is ‘near Leeds’ with mixed outcomes even then.

The discussion then moved on to motivating staff and how you can ‘sweeten the deal’ to the humoured groans of the audience.

Interestingly Chris Rea explained that through not being greedy you can build a team that you can trust and that you can rely on when delegating tasks. You certainly got a sense that he has a strong team in place who support him, with reference made to his PA on a number of occasions.

Lawrence gave a glimpse into the culture of the company that he has created, explaining that as someone who only sleeps for 5 hours per night he has to keep connected with the whole of the business. As a result he has given every one of his employees an iPhone, which is a perk but also allows him to communicate with them – in this example sending a podcast from his most recent 24 hour racing event.

A great example of how technology can be used in a simple way to communicate and connect a workforce that otherwise may not engage.

 Barry then sat forward to make one of the strongest comments of the session when he said: “What we all need to remember is that no one works for you, they work with you. Once you remember this your attitude will change and you will take on a culture that you can build.”

There were lots of nods from both the panel and the audience at this point.

The discussion then moved on to local community. The most consistent response came from this question with every member of the panel agreeing that it was important to show your commitment to your local area if the reasons for doing so were valid.

Once again Lawrence was able to showcase how LNT Group have implemented an internal charity called the LNT Foundation, which allows employees of the business to decide how the company invests its money to the benefit of the local community. Another good idea and something that perhaps companies could learn from when they are in the position to do so and to genuinely give something back.

Herwig reiterated that CSR needed to be honest and to meet a genuine need, otherwise why bother. He also explained that it cannot be about a marketing exercise but about meeting with a specific need that a community or local area had.

Next on the agenda was start-up businesses and what top tips the panel had. Chris set the scene explaining that you should never do what a competent person can. And always get people to hire their replacements.

Herwig then added that it was about priorities and the need to identify the difference between something that is a real urgency and something that hits your inbox but can wait. “It’s about being rigorous about what is a priority and what is not. Not doing this absorbs a lot of time. Put a ream around you that you can trust 100 per cent and that are capable also be careful not to employ people who do the same as you. It makes more sense to complement your skills rather than duplicate them.”

Further reiterating this point was Barry who said: “Surround yourself with good people or change them. Don’t end up keeping them and doing their job.” He then went on to pass on a tip that many of the audience seemed to scribble down which was: “Give an accurate time for a meeting such as 10.10am so that people know when they are expected. If you say 10am then people can have a tendency to be late or to feel they can give or take 10 minutes.”

What makes the Billion Pound Panel so interesting is the diversity of the questions and the next one which focused on a possible European Referendum raised a number of eye brows and some genuine discussion.

The panel appeared split with some feeling it is easier to work with Europe if you are part of the EU and others believing that uncertainty and instability was almost forcing decisions that otherwise may not have been made.

Whatever way you choose to agree or disagree there was no doubt that these businessmen were well aware of the possibilities and challenges that may or may not lie ahead.

And then came the last question, which asked what each panellists would do with £1bn to improve the region. An interesting one but the strongest and most consistent response was that the panel were aligned to thinking that education is something that needs addressing.

Finding ways in which education and skills gaps can be aligned was discussed and how this could then create a talent pool that would lead to stronger opportunities. Once again there were many murmurs of support from the audience as people recognised from their own companies the challenges that can be faced with recruitment and how a strong talent pool would make things simpler.

With that the applause went up and the curtain metaphorically came down but overall what a session. The panel was diverse, the room was packed and the questions were coming thick and fast. There is little doubt that the Billion Pound Panel format works and that many people could have stayed in that room for a further hour or two but it’s here that we will leave it until the next time.