Start Your Own PR Company: An interview with Jackie Cooper

Start Your Own PR Company: An interview with Jackie Cooper

Jackie Cooper is my next subject in the series of interviews with people who have started and built up their own successful PR companies. The series has been created to mark the publication of my book  Start and Grow a PR Company

Jackie, thank you for agreeing to be one of our interviewees.

You have founded and grown what was Jackie Cooper PR, then selling to Edelman after 17 years.  If you could put your success down to one thing, what would it be?

Wanting to make a difference. This simple ethos ensures progress, a lack of complacency, new thinking – all of which is necessary to build an attractive, evolving, contemporary business. It fuels the need to be better than the competition, win business and attract great people to come on the journey and work with you. It makes me still get up in the morning!!

What’s been the main thing that you have learned about managing and leading a PR company, as opposed to doing PR?

I wish I had known that running a business needs a completely different skill set to delivering the craft!  We did not do very well with the running of JCPR in the very early days. My partner Robert and I were so passionate about our work, we assumed this would be enough to run it. The business skill – a vision and strategy, knowledge of the competition, tight financial management, daily reporting systems – were all finally a effective part of our business when we realised we a) needed this as much as the campaign work and b) used the expertise of professionals in this area.

The other aspect is inspiring and leading beyond the ‘doing’. Whenever I saw our whole agency in one place (Xmas party/company meetings etc) it struck me what a huge responsibility we had to all those people. We had to keep our end of the bargain – running the business, sharing the ultimate goal for the agency, rewarding and applauding, bringing in thought leadership experiences and giving as much as taking from the staff. Having people coming in every day and working their socks off is a great motivator as a leader…

Do you still take an active role in PR, or is your role now more strategic?

My role today is more strategic – but strategy for specific clients still – for example on Unilever for Dove and for OMO global campaigns. I think good PR people must keep their ear to the ground on the specifics always – even if working more strategically. I often describe myself as a ‘jumped up publicist’ because the years of doing this really underpins my knowledge today.

What made you decide to become part of a much larger business, and continue to play an active role, rather than just selling up and moving on?

The reason for selling was never about moving on. The selling was about liberating the company to achieve bigger and greater things.  JCPR was respected and successful having grown well both in terms of revenue and stature – but where to for the next five years/the next ten? Robert and I wanted international reach, more intellectual collateral and a bigger challenge.  We certainly did not feel as if we were finished in our ambition to continue to make a difference. Edelman is the world’s largest private PR consultancy and is driven by the craft not the need to deliver figures to the City. Family run and with Richard Edelman at the helm, the entrepreneurial nature of the firm fits so well with our ethos.

Six years on we have had experiences working on clients with colleagues that have stretched, challenged and fed us. And in turn JCPR and our way of delivering a PR service has contributed substantially to Edelman too.

Can you run through a typical day for us?

As a working mother, my day starts with getting the kids out of the door, complete with lunches packed, while listening to Radio 5 live or Radio 4 and skimming through at least 4 papers – multi tasking badly!

I often am on calls on my way into the office which is a 45 minute drive or if in a taxi, reading all the stuff that I need to catch up on. Office time is predominately taken up with meetings – with the pressure of an ever increasing amount of emails hitting the inbox.  As an international business with global clients, our day cannot be restricted to 9-6.  We hub several international campaigns out of our London office and so finding slots for our colleagues to all connect is always a bit of a juggle.  An ever increasing part of my workload revolves around our Content offer. Having set this up a couple of years ago, we are now winning awards for our campaigns with uniquely produced Content at the heart of the work – for example Wonderbra and Shell.

Brainstorms, client strategy meetings, internal team meetings, meetings with Content producers, interviewing staff, connecting people who can contribute to each other’s worlds – all part of a normal day.

I try to get home by 7.00 to see my family – but then often end up logging on or managing calls once they are in bed. This really is a job that is a part of your life – even if I am watching TV or reading, ideas will come to me. In fact that is often when the best ideas come!

What’s been the worst financial worry or mistake that you have encountered?

Robert and I had another partner at the beginning of JCPR who we left to organise the move to a new office. He leased all of our furniture and equipment on astronomical rates. We then had a Financial Director who accrued for work that he should not have. As a result we learned the need to be in absolute control of all outgoings as much as revenue. It made Robert into a control freak but it was the saving of our business. The control we then instilled helped us manage bad debts, ensure we never paid for anything or anyone if we could not afford it, and planned our financials for each year fairly obsessively!

And what has been your absolute favourite moment?

Too many to pick one really. Winning business is always wonderful. Seeing a client achieving fame as a result of our work really gives me a kick still.

How do you cope with the work/life balance (if you do, that is!)

It is a daily struggle and the truth is that I probably do not do this very well. It tends to go in phases when there is more balance and then a crisis hits or a new pitch comes up and all the best resolutions disappear. I try to ensure I have time to think and to be away from the office to do this. Holiday time though is sacrosanct – both for me and my colleagues. My Dad always said there is never a good time to have a holiday – but take it anyway.

What do you look for in a new member of staff?

Passion and drive, an ability to network, experiences in life as well as experiences at work, a hunger to learn, read, do stuff – but a balance in life.

Managing clients’ expectations is always a difficult one…one minute you are pitching and selling in these great ideas, and next minute they want the results and they want them now. What are your tips for managing impatient clients?

Honesty is best – anything else ends up making the relationship complicated and ultimately leads to a lack of credibility. Transparency on what is possible while still being professional. Remind the client that they expect a stellar level of service and quite right too…but this necessitates constructive behaviour between agency and client.

Treat every client meeting as an opportunity to bring something new to the table – surprise, support, inspire – beyond their ask. This means they are always pleased to hear from you and helps in pressured situations.

Truly listen -the best sales tool–get under the skin of the culture, language and ethos of the client’s offer and people. Balance chameleon behaviour with being positively provocative. Good advice always calms clients down!

Any advice on building a team that works together or do you just hope you get the right mix?

Build the team like a patchwork quilt – a selection of expertise, a range of personalities and the litmus test that every team member can truly contribute.

In my conversations with most PR company owners and MDs, the issue of fees and pricing seems to come up again and again…do you have any advice for pricing well and making a profit?

Ifeel it is about value rather than price. The PR industry has traditionally struggled with this.  Pricing is never an issue when the client feels they have received results that are worth it. The challenge is for agencies to deliver this as so often over servicing is seen as the only way. As our role becomes more integrated and is extending into engaging audiences and stakeholders directly beyond media relations, we are now able to demonstrate that value more and more.

What have been your must have investments (gadgets, PR tools, taking the time to learn about…)?

People first and foremost. Having the time to meet experts in their field. Data, research and insights on our audiences. Retaining some of those experts to be on hand consultants.

Who do you admire most in the PR world, and why?

The people who work at the cliff face of PR delivering the stories

What are you plans for the future?

To keep making a difference, retain my sense of humour and sanity….

You can find Paula Gardner’s take on starting a PR company in her book  Start and Grow a PR Company, available on Kindle.

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