18 Sep Start Your Own PR Company: An interview with Catherine Warrilow
Catherine Warrilow of http://www. seriouslypr.co.uk is my next subject in the series of interviews with people who have started and built up their own successful PR companies. In the five years since I oroginally interviewed her catherine has grown the business, and now runs a team of seven. The series has been created to mark the publication of my book Start and Grow a PR Company
Catherine, tell us a little about your business. Do you have any particular niche? How many staff do you have, and where are you based?
I run my own PR company which I set up in February 2008. My background is in the children’s toy and nursery sector so I did imagine that I would specialise in that area, however, I was introduced to the local business networking scene very early on so it has really been small and medium size local companies looking for one off PR campaigns that I’ve worked heavily in so far.
I’m based in Oxford and while most of my clients are local I’ve worked with companies nationwide. I don’t employ anyone, but work closely with other freelancers.
Over the past five years, the business has grown organically with a values led approach, into something very specia. There’s always a better way to do things, and we like to find it. No fluff, just great writing and time dedicated to supporting journalists with their daily needs. We are becoming the go to agency for destination PR – covering the travel, leisure and family markets”. Seriously PR works for Home Away and Owners Direct the two leading villa and holiday home rental sites as well as a number of family and leisure orientated clients across the UK.
Why did you start the company? Was it something you always intended to do, or did you fall into it?
I had always wanted to set up my own business – a tea shop, a boutique or something very day dreamy like that! Realistically though I knew where my strengths were – in writing. It’s something I’ve loved since I first learnt to write, and spent Sunday mornings copying articles out of the newspapers while my parents had breakfast! My husband and I travelled the world after marrying in 2007 and the plan was to return and set up the business. I happened to also be pregnant at the time, so it was a busy year, but it’s worked out well-now our son is a toddler and the business is growing well.
Did you start it alone, or with partner(s), and how did that work out for you?
I started alone – working for myself for the first time my connections locally were very limited so I didn’t have contacts to join up with. I had really good relationships with local marketing and PR agencies and had some great support and advice there. I also kept closely in touch with my previous boss who has become a real mentor to me.
The PR industry can be really supportive I’ve found, I’ve been introduced to hugely successful people who run big agencies and they’ve always been open and welcoming with their guidance.
Do you work from an office, or home? Why have you chosen to do that?
I work from a home office. We moved this summer and a big reason for that was so that I could have dedicated office space. There’s space for three people to work from here so I can expand without the overhead of an office becoming a necessity, however in a year or so I imagine we’ll have a serviced office. See, I’m already saying ‘we’!
What was your vision for you business when you created it?
My vision was to create a small but successful business that could make a difference to small and medium sized businesses – to show that you can take a different approach to stand out – that quirky and creative is good. You can achieve a lot by breaking the mould.
Has that actually happened in reality?
I think so yes. Definitely the making a difference part. I’m really proud of the campaigns I’ve worked on with local businesses. Now I want to utilise what I’ve learnt about running the business to attract bigger clients.
Regarding the small but successful business, I’m getting there! I work a three day week, and am mum the other two days. Since returning to work in January I’ve taken on two big retained clients, finished a big restaurant launch campaign that was really successful, and am moving forward with expansion plans, having just joined up with another freelance PR woman locally who also has a son the same age as mine.
What do you think you have that clients appreciate?
I think we listen and understand. This is a small business too and we appreciate the challenges – there’s no huge pot of money for marketing and PR, but there is a need to stand out above the competition. We’re honest, flexible and creative. It’s not a PR machine, we don’t pump out press releases. We listen, we research, we test and try and we get to know our client and their business so that we can do them justice. We strive to be innovative and original and capture the imagination as well as the attention of the media.
Who are your favourite type of clients?
Those who want to do things a little differently! They’re bored of paying thousands for an ad in business directories every year and want to take a different approach. For example, a high street coffee shop who will enlist a local artist to do pavement art guiding customers to their door, rather than just handing out buy one get one half price coffee vouchers.
Can you run through a typical day for us?
A typical day is really tricky, but a typical week will include some of this – time on our own PR – updating the work blog with news and PR advice, scooting around Twitter and LinkedIn, keeping up to date and posting comments and ideas, meetings with clients to discuss next steps and review current activities, conversations with press about securing coverage for clients, writing of press releases, articles, news stories, editorial and other copy for client campaigns, attendance of local networking meetings, our business development – website, strategic planning, pitches, our portfolio and marketing material, a quick lunch break, reviewing artwork for clients, commissioning photography, website design, graphic design, and a quick cuppa before heading off for the nursery run!
Are you still very much hands-on, or is your role now more about bringing in clients and management?
Very hands on. One day I’d like to focus on the running of the business, with a smaller role in the day to day client campaigns – purely because this is how I see the business growing. I’ll always want to retain my commitment to the creative planning side of the business.
What’s been your worst financial worry?
I’ve been lucky that PR is booming during the recession as a cost effective alternative to marketing. I think my biggest worry has been when I need to make big investments such as the media databases I need for up to date journalist contacts. These are really expensive but an absolute must have.
And your absolute favourite moment?
Getting a client in with Paris Hilton, onto the Paul O’Grady Show and into Heat Magazine, all in the space of a week. I was over the moon, and the client was too!
How do you cope with the work/life balance (if you do, that is!)
It’s the biggest challenge I’ve faced and something I think about daily. I have to be really strict that work time is for working (that’s the easy bit), but mum time is quality time with my family (that’s the hard bit!). Because I work part time, it’s very easy for work commitments to spill out beyond those days. I just work my socks off on my three days so that I have time to dedicate to my son when I’m being mum. You have to be extremely focussed. I admit that if my husband is working late though, that the laptop comes straight back out after my son is in bed!
What’s been your worst moment?
I’m not sure, I’ve had a few frustrating moments – a huge opportunity with prime time TV that a client decided not to pursue, and a campaign that changed course completely and lost a lot of momentum when new management came in. Without going into detail, I think the hardest moments are when you put your life and soul into making something work, you can see the finish line and then something unforeseen changes at the last moment.
How do you cope with clients that are behind on payments?
This has only happened to me once thankfully and it was resolved within a week or so, but it can be really stressful. If I had to pursue a matter I think I would call a meeting. I ask clients to sign a contract upfront. If they don’t want to, it’s a good indication that reconsidering the account may be worthwhile!
What do you look for in a new member of staff?
Passion, lots and lots of energy and most importantly creative flair – the ability to brain storm and bounce around ideas.
Has the recession made much of a difference to your business?
No, in fact it’s been a positive influence on my business which is a relief.
What have been your must have investments (gadgets, PR tools, taking the time to learn about…)
Number one has to be the PR databases that I subscribe to which I could do my job without. Others include storage – it sounds simple but I can’t work efficiently in a messy office! Branding – always invest in a professional designer, and my Blackberry – although not really an investment, just a free upgrade!!
Who do you admire most in the PR world, and why?
Ideas that come out of nowhere – original, inspired ideas. Not reports off the back of news stories, or market research shoe horned to fit a story. I really like quirky thought provoking stunts – like the T Mobile flash mob dances at Liverpool Street station.
What are you plans for the future?
Now that I’ve joined up with another PR, my plans are to continue expanding and working with small and medium size businesses. I also want to pitch for more copywriting work in the children’s toy sector – I did some party plans for a very well know fashion doll and really enjoyed it – writing as if you’re a 7 year old girl is a lot of fun!
I also want to cement the suppliers I use and over the last year I’ve found a fantastic website designer, photographer and graphic designer so I’ll be using them regularly.
I’m also rolling out a rebrand which will be a new umbrella that allows the business to grow and work with other freelancers.
It’s an exciting time and I’m really pleased that the business is doing well. Hopefully next year we’ll be able to work with even more businesses and get stuck in to some great PR campaigns with them.
You can find Paula Gardner’s take on starting a PR company in her book Start and Grow a PR Company, available on Kindle.