Six months after setting up an office in my back bedroom and becoming the biggest PR consultancy in the village of Groby, work was beginning to pile up.
It was obvious I needed help and a more formal business location. The back bedroom was barely big enough for one person never mind any more, especially visiting clients.
It was time to grow up. I became an employer, rented premises and took on a whole range of financial commitments that hadn’t been there before. Things were getting serious.
Business boomed. We did some great work and found that we were particularly good at crisis management. (My first experience of crisis management had occurred several years earlier and had involved a presidential assassination and the closing down of an entire country for a while – but that’s for another time.)
At one stage, we were working for Christian Salvesen, Hotpoint, Redring and family retailer Wilkinson, as well as a host of others. Prospective clients were knocking on our door because they had seen the work we were doing for others in their field.
Suddenly, I wasn’t writing copy or talking to journalists any more, I was managing a team of eleven people who did that for me.
The danger of hubris
Some of those people were excellent and have gone on to prosper and to excel elsewhere in similar roles. Others weren’t so great, but their failing was my responsibility. It was my business. I made the recruitment decisions. I cocked up, both in terms of selecting individuals in the first place, then not monitoring them closely enough to identify and to help remedy the issues that, in hindsight, were oh so apparent.
In my self-aggrandising eyes, I was good at my job, I was a great judge of people and I expected them to get on with things, just like I did. My business. My money. What I say goes.
Humility has come a little late in the day, but I should have let other people have a far greater say in who joined our team. Yet, despite the diversity of talent and ability within the business, we continued to do well.
We were publically praised for our work by four different senior executives at a two-day European management conference for a major blue-chip.
We saved almost one million pounds for a manufacturer who had set aside a considerable budget to deal with quality issues following a major product launch.
We came up with a marketing solution that resulted in huge things for a Midlands-based distributor.
Then it happened.
The phone calls
I think it was the late, great David Ogilvy who talked about agencies being one phone call away from a major problem and two phone calls away from a disaster. We had three of those phone calls in three months.
Hand on heart, none of the major client losses we had in those three months could be laid at our door – acquisitions, mergers and changes in strategic direction all had their part to play.
The one thing you can guarantee in this business is that you will eventually lose all the clients you have today. The key is to keep what you have as long as possible by delivering a consistently excellent service and by being innovative and proactive.
But you also need to invest in a business development programme that brings in new clients on a regular basis, or at least establishes cordial relationships with future prospects.
We were too busy with current clients to focus too much attention on ongoing business development – especially when we’d had prospects knocking on the door.
The result was my most traumatic work experience ever. I had to let almost everybody go. Some were very understanding. Others took it very badly.
I saw every redundancy as my personal failure. I had started this business on something of a whim – the timing and the circumstances had just fallen into place. For years, the business had gone from strength to strength. We had already seen off one recession and I was confident – too confident – in our ability to withstand anything the world could throw at us.
How wrong was I.
Learning lessons from the past
It took a while to recover from that period in our history, but we managed it. Cautiously, we began to rebuild the team. I was far more rigorous in selecting employees and involved others in the entire process.
The girl whose crisis management expertise amounted to letting off a library user who should have been fined 35 pence for an overdue book didn’t get past the first interview.
Neither did the man whose expertise in dealing with awkward members of the press amounted to persuading an insistent local journalist to call back ten minutes later. Three years earlier, both would have been welcomed with open arms.
Perhaps the only positive from the whole experience was that I finally returned to writing copy and managing client accounts and a small team, rather than running a larger team rather badly.
Today, we are a tight team with a network of associates both in the UK and abroad we can call on as and when required.
Everyone has close contact with a range of clients and works directly on several accounts. Our most recent employee joined over seven years ago; our combined experience in the business totals well over 50 years.
As you’d imagine, we’re a close-knit team. We’re also living proof that size isn’t everything. Our global PR service currently reaches into South America, China and India as well as across mainland Europe and, of course, the UK.
We all have ‘soft’ business development as part of our remit and this has worked remarkably well in terms of getting us in front of potential clients and securing new business as a result.
Could we have arrived here a better way? Yes. Would I do things differently if I had my time again? Undoubtedly, but given the lack of time travel opportunities, that’s not going to happen.
Treating the triumphs and disasters of the past quarter century just the same and looking at the business today, I am very proud of my team and very proud of our achievements.
My grateful thanks to everyone who, in whatever shape or form, has been part of the journey.
* A small but heartfelt tribute to the genius that was Douglas Adams