Steve Earl, managing director, Europe at PR agency Zeno, says his English teachers would not have been surprised about his early career as a journalist as they knew all about his ability to make stuff up when he was short on information. Since then, despite a few regrets along the way (after all, he is only human), Earl’s career highlights include starting up an agency when he was only 25 and the more recent merger with agency 3 Monkeys. Here he takes a quick break to tell us all about his life so far and explain why it is important never to believe the hype
What did you want to be when you were a teenager?
A teenager. Which worked out well obviously.
Would your teenage self be pleased with how your career has panned out?
My teenage self would probably give a thumbs up to general progress, maintenance of attitude and prioritisation of principles, but scoff at some of the corporate drill and the fact that I now know how to arrange cheeses in ascending order of strength for dinner parties.
Why did you decide to become a journalist?
Because I wanted to work with words and I was fascinated by how influence worked. And if you were to ask my English teachers, because I had a knack of being able to make sh^t up even when the threads to work with were thin.
Why the move to PR?
The earning potential and the denial of the looming impact of the internet that hampered journalism at the time.
Have you got any regrets about any decisions you have made?
Loads. Anyone who says they never regret a decision shouldn’t really be making decisions, whatever Edith Piaf may have crooned. The ones that spring to mind are around business development and building teams. Above all, the lessons learned often tend to be about trusting gut instincts alongside factual info.
Was starting your own agency scary?
No. I know that sounds a bit macho, but at 25 I was too young to have any major consequences of failure to worry about. And I’d moved out of home to support myself in my teens (thanks mum for the encouragement!), so sticking my neck out with a business venture seemed thrilling rather than scary. Plus, I was a bit naïve and maverick, so that numbed the impact. But agencies are pretty simple beings at heart, so what’s there to be scared of really?
What have been your career highlights?
Working with some great people, building teams and companies, winning some amazing clients, winning awards for work and for personal stuff. All the winning stuff. You’d expect me to say that though. Above all, I’m a sucker for a brilliant story – it’s the stories I’ve worked on for clients and with the media that have always given me a (positive) kick. And getting out of life’s scrapes: snapping an ankle skateboarding, sticking a bandage on it so I could work the next day only to get stuck in a hedge during an armed siege is just one of the escapades that made a change to all the phone interviews and press releases.
What are the particular challenges of your present role?
The main challenges are all about building the right things in the right places, with persistent focus. We’re continuing to build capabilities across Europe that help us develop as a global, mid-sized agency with an enviable client list and genuine depth in important markets for clients. That means building in the right way and for the right reasons. In the UK, the challenges are not unlike those that come with any post-acquisition period – we’re working to make 3 Monkeys | Zeno stronger and better than the sum of its already-fantastic parts, for the benefit of clients and our team. An example there is to take the 3 Monkeys through-the-line approach to integrated, end-to-end storytelling across influencer and content marketing as well as conventional PR, and apply it in other parts of the world where clients want it.
What advice would you give anyone starting out in PR?
First, think long and hard about what PR really is, where it’s heading and how it’s working hard to provide more genuine value. You will hear many voices swilling around on this, so learn which ones to trust and which ones are smartest. Don’t believe the hype, as those blokes from Public Enemy said (not that I’m a big, old-school, hip-hop fan). And go into it wanting to be yourself, rather than feeling any need to conform to the expectations of an industry that is continually trying to figure itself out anyway. Oh, and be bloody good at writing stories, and check your grammar (I’m always watching).
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