We ask senior communicators for the best piece of advice they have ever been given in their careers. Here are ten pieces of wisdom you cannot afford to ignore.
Keep it simple
Catherine Maskell, head of marketing at recruiter REED: “I have been lucky enough to have worked with some fantastic people over the years. During that time I have picked up some brilliant pieces of advice from a number of people – there’s something to learn from everyone within a marketing environment as the ways of working are always changing. The piece of advice that always sticks with me is from when I was working at Levi's. My boss there said to me, ‘at the end of the day they are just blue pants that keep your legs warm’.
“It’s a phrase that’s stuck with me because it highlights how simple marketing should be. You’ve got to communicate your message in a straightforward and clear manner to reach your target audience and leave a lasting memory. I think it’s especially relevant now as people will so often see through marketing buzzwords and hype. They want to know what’s in it for them, and why they should be interested.”
Watch and learn from the best
Saska Graville, director, consumer lifestyle at PR agency Ketchum London: “As deputy editor at magazine Red for a decade, one of my annual highlights was our Red Women of the Year awards, celebrating brilliant women from every walk of career life. Working with these inspirational role models, from fields as diverse as politics, fashion, science and the charity sector, was a masterclass in career development. What better way to absorb how to be successful in business, than by watching the likes of lawyer Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, Southbank artistic director Jude Kelly and Yvette Cooper MP in action? All of the outstanding women I met over the years, share a few key traits. They are authentic, connecting brilliantly with those around them by being themselves – and by being nice. They’re confident about their fields of expertise, not falling victim to the insidious ‘imposter syndrome’ that afflicts many women (disclaimer: it still gets me sometimes). They leave their egos at the door, always acknowledging the teamwork behind their success. They’re tough without being shouty, direct without being confrontational, and always empathetic. A lot of them were also very funny and wore great shoes. I learnt something from every single one of them.”
Get your hair cut!
Graham Goodkind, chairman and founder of agency FRANK PR: “The best bit of advice I got was from my first boss, Lynne Franks. I used to have very long hair, seventies’ footballer meets sixties’ pop-star style, even though it was the late nineties at the time. She told me that if I wanted to get ahead (pardon the pun) in PR I should get my hair cut. Clients would take me more seriously and it would give me more gravitas, apparently. So I took myself to the barber, got the barnet lopped off and she was right. Clients were much more eager to take my consultancy and advice and I could really sense the changed reaction to the new neat and tidy me. Also, subconsciously, the fact that she'd said if I did x then y would happen gave me a lot more confidence and belief too. I've never let my hair get too long or unkempt since…”
Know your audience
Helen Rainford, managing partner at agency Smarts Communicate London: “And that isn’t code for ‘have a quick look at a Mintel report and then throw it away’. Listen to what people say and how they say it. Transport your mind. Pretend to be them. Remember that not everyone lives in London.
“Whether you are writing a client presentation, pitching to a journalist or masterminding a content calendar, try as hard as you can to understand what really matters to the people you want to reach and then work out the best way to get their attention.
“A client once explained how her CEO would stop her in the corridor of their office. He would ask her what she was working on, but, always in a rush, he carried on walking as they chatted. She would have about five seconds to tell him an idea and often found herself tongue-tied. From that day on, every proposal we wrote for her included a ‘corridor-friendly’ summary.
“It sounds simple and it was. Once we had got to know our audience really well – in this case our client – we could understand what mattered to her and give her a practical solution. The next year she was promoted and we became her lead agency.”
Make your own reputation as much of a focus as your clients’
Will Hart, deputy MD at PR firm Nelson Bostock Unlimited: “I’m not even sure who I first heard this from, but it’s excellent advice to keep in mind throughout your career in any profession – and particularly so in the PR and comms world.
“Just as we work collectively to protect and enhance clients’ reputations, so it’s an obvious truth that we all need to grow our individual reputations throughout the course of our careers. Great reputations are always hard-won, but they’re also remarkably easy to inflict lasting damage upon. Ours is a sector in which people move around a lot, and over the years it’s amazing how often we come across familiar faces. We all know ex-agency colleagues, now in-house (and vice versa), and we're reminded constantly that we live in a very small world indeed as reputations precede those familiar faces – for better or worse.
“I am personally hugely grateful that when I left Nelson Bostock many years ago, I did so with strong enough relationships to enable me very happily to return a couple of years later. That was five years ago: longevity built primarily upon unburnt bridges.”
Say what you think
Tim Lines, associate director a Nelson Bostock Unlimited: “Often the best advice is wonderfully simple, don’t you think? That’s true here, with four words that have guided me throughout my career.
“It's about following your instinct in any situation. It's about having the confidence to speak up and have a go, no matter what your level or team structure. Take a risk and share your opinion. Invariably, you'll be right. And if you're not, you'll get to the right answer quicker. It’s the first step to being a true consultant; a vital step for individuals and the industry as a whole.”
Areti Tziorta, PR Manager of Birmingham venues The Rainbow Venues: “There have been many occasions where revisiting the archive of great advice was necessary. Though the world of PR comes with many advantages, it can be very stressful (as with all jobs). Thankfully, in my last agency, I was lucky enough to have a team who offered the wisest of words.
“I often think about when my senior told me “it’s not ER, it’s PR!” When times get a bit stressful, it’s good to remember that it’s not a matter of life and death and it’s only PR. Don’t panic! Don’t let things get on top of you! Sometimes a journalist might want to cover Kim Kardashian, instead of your huge new, never-done-before event. It will all be okay.”
Don’t give up before you’ve even started
Sophie Raine, head of brand at agency W Communications: “’Things are only stressful when you haven’t done them before’ – This was a piece of advice given to me in the early days of my PR career, when I so often felt swamped by the magnitude of my to-do list, crammed with many tasks that I had no experience of executing. Once you rationalise it in this way it helps alleviate the worry. It’s advice I’ve passed onto juniors throughout my career.”
Accuracy is the most important thing
Simon Turton owner of agency Opera PR: ”One of the best pieces of advice was given to me when I was working for a textile manufacturing company before I went to college (and whilst the UK still had a textile industry, but that’s another story). I was a young 18-year-old and had just finished my A’ levels. During that first year in the world of work I did make a few mistakes. On one occasion I had to see the MD about one of those mistakes; it wasn’t that the error was that bad, it was that I was working for a family company and he was very much involved in the company’s day-to-day operations.
“As we were reviewing this elementary mistake – a careless error – he said to me very calmly and clearly that: ‘accuracy is the most important thing’ and he did stress the ’the’. I have never forgotten what he told me and although it wasn’t within a PR arena I think the advice is particularly appropriate to what we do. Whether you’re writing a press release or planning a long-term media relations campaign, I think that accuracy does – or should – underpin all that we do.”
Pick one thing, and put everything into it
Dan Whitehouse, marketing director at agency Jam and Spoon PR: “When I was 21 the first credit crunch happened in the UK. For me, I had no job and not a lot else going on. Every company in London was downsizing, which meant no job opportunities for a young guy like me. I’ve always been a guy with ideas, these ideas lead me in many different directions – some good, some less-good. One of these ideas was to start a business, the other to write a book, the other to create web apps, the other to re-write my CV and try and make a career of it. Working across all these avenues was certainly spreading myself too thin. I was working around the clock and getting little traction with any of them. All the while this was going on, I was engaging people, building relationships and getting to know more and more people. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was building ‘social capital’ and a little black book of people who I could talk to, lean on and gain advice to steer me in the right direction. One such contact changed my life, and I can’t even remember their name – which is a modern-day tragedy! But this person told me exactly what I needed to hear at the time. He said ‘pick one thing, and put everything into it.’ Having only had an email conversation with this person, they knew the measure of me right away. What did I do? I downsized my operation, and put all my effort into building a career. Don’t be a busy fool. Find a path you love and put everything into it.”
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