Why clever PR agencies are stealing ATL biz

PR business opinion piece

This article first appeared in Marklives.

Recently, we PR peeps were put firmly in our place when he-who-knows-all-things, Sir Martin Sorrell, informed us sternly that PR agencies who think they can take on advertising agencies (unless being generously allowed in as part of an integrated pitch) were “living in la-la land”.

Phew! Glad to hear that’s finally been sorted! We can go back to our little corners and continue scrabbling around, hoping that a few scraps get thrown our way when those higher up the food chain get tired of then.

Although — dare I say it — could he-who-is-never-wrong be mistaken?

I would point him to look at wider trends, where business and budgets that previously would have been allocated to the big ATL players are being passed on to PR agencies (plus other niche offerings, such as digital or social media hotshops). And I know from personal experience where just that has happened; within my own business, we have been the lucky recipients of that a couple of times in the last few months.

I concede, at this stage, that it would be rare to find any pure-PR agency being the lead agency on a big piece of business (although there are cases). But I would warn the traditional agencies to show caution, because clever PR agencies that know what they are doing are starting to snap up their business. And here’s why:

1. PR people are also “creatives”

For many years, the ad agencies snapped up the most-promising creative minds by offering a sexier option. Visions of Mad Men-esque all-night benders and outrageous antics tempted the craziest dreamers into a promised land of rule-breaking and creative nirvana.

But we only need to look globally to see how this has shifted. In the US and UK especially, some of the top creative talent and brightest strategists are starting to choose PR over advertising, as they realise that it offers credible choices for canny communicators. We only need to look at how the lobbying industry there offers big bucks for smart and creative thinkers.

Even outside that, I would argue that PR people are inherently “creatives”, though’ we have to be, because we need our ideas and stories to be interesting enough for a journalist to run or for someone to share. We cannot just buy media space and plonk them out there.

Good PR people have to be on the pulse of popular culture, at the forefront of trends and damn familiar with what is news — we need to be in order to make stories that are relevant, and we need to be able to identify and mitigate threats to our clients’ business long before anyone else does.

Clients are beginning to realise all of this, too, and are approaching us for creative leadership, not just to “PR” the ad idea at the end.

2. We have business models that are tighter and more nimble

Traditional old ad agencies are struggling to deal with the kind of turn around and budgets that clients and consumers demand. And they always will until they fundamentally change the very way their business models and systems have been built.

PR agencies, however, have always been quicker and more nimble. When a crisis is breaking, we don’t have the luxury of a six-month turn around that involves millions of people and hundreds of creative presentations and reverts. We have learned to think quickly, respond even faster, and work with clients in a way that allows feedback, reverts and approvals to be virtually instant.

Good PR people are not just PR people, either. Or “creatives” (see point one above). We are account managers, strategists, writers, art directors, social media managers and general schmoozers all-in-one. The industry favours multitaskers and polymaths over people who stick to a job description.

It means we can be even faster and more adaptable. We don’t need to wait for account management to brief traffic to write a job bag to brief a writer for a copy change for a creative director to review. We just do it, in the fraction of the time, and for a fraction of the client’s budget.

3. Bought media doesn’t make the same kind of sense it used to

I challenge you to find a marketing manager anywhere that doesn’t wince at the eye-watering amounts of cold hard cash that are needed to run a good old-fashioned media campaign. That’s not just because of the cost, but because of the acknowledgement of how much of it is wasted.

Anyone with half a brain can work out how much traditional advertising is NOT being seen and NOT being noticed, just as a result of ad-blockers, skipping YouTube prerolls, and PVR-type functionality, not to mention the rest. Clever marketers know that clever PR really can be effective — because, if it’s done well, it creates the kind of content that people want to read or see, not skip through.

As the old saying goes, “Advertisers make things. PRs make news.”

I reckon Sir Sorrell doesn’t have to worry too much immediately. His big ’ol advertising agencies will still make him a couple of squillion bucks this year. But he shouldn’t underestimate us feisty ’lil PR poppies. We may show him a thing or two if he doesn’t keep an eye on us.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to


Hire the person, not the talent

This article first appeared in Marklives.

I often see people focus so much on the experience or list of achievements on a flashy CV that they fail to think hard enough about the person who hides behind it. And this, I think, is fatal.
There’s a theory floating around on the web that a person is made up of an average of the five people they spend the most time. Although this initially sounds like the kind of vomit-inducing motivational statement found on Pinterest, perhaps there is something in it. For it is true to say that a person’s personality mirrors the people they hang out with, and good and bad habits and traits become exaggerated when surrounded and encouraged by similar behaviour.

This stands true, I think, for businesses as well.

I have seen many a culture affected — both for better or worse — by the introduction of just one person. I am convinced, too, that the addition of just one incompetent person to a pool of good talent dilutes that talent and makes everyone else just that little bit more rubbish.
I would even go so far as to say that just one bad hire may make or break a business. I have twice seen first-hand the disastrous effect that the introduction of one toxic person at a senior level can bring to a business, in both cases leading to the loss of staff, clients and irreversible damage to the bottom line.

It makes sense — clients don’t only choose an agency because of the work they have done. They have chosen it because they like, and trust, and have chemistry with the people whom they have to deal with. And, as much as employees want a good salary and to work on sexy brands, they also don’t want to be bullied or miserable or traumatised every time they sit down at their desks.

As I have said many times, we spend more time with the people whom we sit in an office with every day than our friend, families and lovers. So who wants to be miserable for the majority of their life because of the asshats whom they are forced to work with?

There a more fundamental point to this, though, than simply whether people are nice or not.
Nothing to be done with a bad attitude

Skills may be taught and people may be invested in — but there’s nothing that may be done with someone who has a bad attitude. I would choose an eager and personable junior who’s willing to learn over an obnoxious, aggressive or lazy person with loads of experience any day.
For an industry where most of us have just two real assets — our reputation and the people whom we employ — isn’t it crazy that we so often overlook the value of the second?

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to

Secrets they never tell you about starting up a PR shop

The Friday Street Club

This article first appeared in Marklives.

A friend of mine has finally made the leap and is leaving the big corporate world to start up on her own. She’s asked me for some tips on what I’ve learnt since I started my own PR shop, just over a year ago.

Looking back, it wasn’t the usual business tips about tax and company registration that have been the most useful. Instead, it’s the personal realisations I’ve made along the way, of how to behave and what to focus upon, that I like to think are the more valuable.

So, here’s my cut-out-and-keep advice on starting a new business.

If you build it, they will come

I decided to start a business and resigned from my job with no clients lined up and two months to get something sorted. My friends looked aghast at what I had done, but one wisely nodded and said “If you build it, they will come.” And she was right.

If you are good at what you do, offer something that people need or want, can be competitive in how you offer it, and works wholeheartedly to create a good and legitimate business, there’s no reason that it can’t be a success.

Another friend asked what my back-up plan was. I looked nonplussed, as I didn’t have one.
I still believe that is the right approach — because if you always have a Plan B, you are never committed to making Plan A work. And if you don’t believe in yourself and what you can offer wholeheartedly, then why would anyone else believe it and offer to pay you for it?

Network the hell out of your contacts

It sounds obviously, but this is so valuable in a country such as South Africa, where personal and word-of-mouth recommendations are the true drivers of business.

One of the first things I did when I started up was go and meet up face-to-face — for a coffee or a cocktail — with everyone I could think of even remotely linked to the industry, and told them what I wanted to do.

It doesn’t matter how random the connection is, it doesn’t hurt (and anyway, it’s always good to spend some time connecting with old pals over a drink and snacks).

My first piece of business, and first retainer client (a global brand), came as a result of a catch-up glass of wine with someone I knew from varsity — someone I hadn’t seen in ages — who recommended me to a brand manager who was looking around.

Act like a business from day one

Many people think that starting small and safe is the way to go — by hoping their freelancing will grow into a business; and by not wanting to invest in the business until lots of cash is coming in.

But I believe that you only have one chance to make a first impression — and that impression sticks. So if first impressions of you is of a fly-by-night freelancer making ends meet, it will be hard for them to start considering you as a legit business when you suddenly feel like you want to be one.

Invest in getting some proper branding (not a kak pixelated image you nicked off the internet). Print business cards out on decent paper. Get a website that isn’t covered with clip art and rainbow coloured Comic Sans.

And, for heaven’s sake, pay the people who design your logos and make your website — you are a business now, and if you don’t treat suppliers as businesses in their own right, why should anyone treat you as such?

Don’t try to please everyone

When people start a business, their focus is often on trying to get any piece of work possible — and that often means trying to be everything to everyone. But that leads to a lack of focus and a tendency to become vanilla — something inoffensive, but not memorable.

The best businesses are built around a unique and memorable offering — and customers and clients are attracted to something that sticks out and appeals to them.

My advice to start-ups would be to wholeheartedly embrace that which makes them interesting and different to what else is out there; it will attract the right business from clients who see that way, too.

Don’t be a dick

Well, you could be a dick. There are lots of people who are dicks who run very successful businesses. But you don’t have to be a dick.

I believe that people — friends, colleagues — are attracted to people they want to be around or whose lives they want to be part of. And this goes for clients, too.

The good ones are attracted to people that not only do good work, but who are decent people that they enjoy spending time with (and spending their money with).

There’s a misconception that you need to be an autocrat, a bully and a loudmouth in order to be a good business person. But I have found that doing good work, treating people well, having fun and making money don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to

How can we sell something if we don't believe in it ourselves?

Work we are passionate about

This articles first appeared in Marklives. 

When chatting to a young entrepreneur the other day, he casually mentioned about how he had never considered using a PR service to launch any of his businesses or products because PR was “expensive and all PRs were liars and spin doctors”.

How sad that our industry is perceived as such, when, out of all of the communications streams, ours is the one that relies the most upon trusted relationships, and the one that can offer the most bang for the buck.

And, yet, it’s not surprising when we look at the evidence.

I can think of many times, back in the day, when I had to harness my growing shame and dread in order to hound a poor journalist to try and get her to write a glowing report on some rubbish product or other we had been paid to spin.

One highlight that springs to mind was a catalogue that featured, wait for it, other catalogues, that I was tasked on getting media coverage for! And then there was that other time I sent a beauty journalist to try out an “amazing new spa”, and she returned, horrified, telling tales of change rooms that smelt of poo; crusty dirty bathrobes; and dodgy, dusty, fake plastic fruit arrangements as décor.

The shame of it all.

No wonder the poor editors at the other end of the phone, hounded by hundreds of breathless, eager young PRs, grow more and more brusque and irritable when taking our calls.
This is not limited to consumer products and PR. Corporate clients take this up a notch, insisting that their dull sustainability measures or photos of big cheques being handed over to grateful impoverished charities are headline news or front-page features. And then there is the opposite, when we desperately spin tales and webs of confusion in order to keep bad news out of the public domain.

What a sad state of affairs, as our reputation as an industry of lying spin-doctors becomes ever more entrenched.

So it’s been a relief to start my own business and make a few rules of my own. Joining the first hard-and-fast rule (that I don’t work with or for horrible people or people who have bad attitudes), is the second, but equally important one — that I don’t work with any brands or businesses that I don’t fully believe in or like.

For how can I market something if I don’t believe it is the best thing since screw-top wine bottles were invented? And how can I sleep at night if I am responsible for spinning a web of deceit about a business that is doing something that I have fundamental moral issue with?
It doesn’t stop with choosing the right people or brands to work with, though. There are times when we need to take a step back and question whether what we are doing or selling is really relevant.

I’ve been working on a content strategy with a corporate recently, where we were looking at and reviewing all of its streams of communications — from its B2B newsletters to consumer-facing magazines and social media streams. It was wondering why its “levels of engagement” were low, when it spent so much time and money telling all sorts of fascinating stories about the business in prettily designed pages.

So it took some guts for it to realise, and address, that it had been playing to egos internally, allowing every bit of work or achievement (from new internet cables to energy-efficient light bulbs, I kid you not) take pride of place in every piece of external communication.

It was only when it could take a step back and ask what people wanted to HEAR, rather than what it wanted to SAY, that thing suddenly became exciting.

So, as a PR consultant, the learning is clear. Work with people and brands that you love, and that value you as a consultant rather than a service provider. You need to believe in what they are all about, and yet be able to step back and question when something feels wrong.

It is only then that we can begin to address this issue we have of being “lying spin doctors”.

 Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to

A strong reputation isn't built through PR

Markllives PR

This article originally appeared on Marklives.

There has been many a client which has asked how it could build its profile and reputation, asking me to “PR” it and make it a loved household name. And it would be easy enough to sell a PR approach that promised a bunch of press releases in return for instant fame and adoration.

But those brands that are loved and revered are not those which have sent out a million statements about how great they are or what they have achieved.

They are the ones that have quietly gone about doing their job really well, and growing the reputation and column inches as a result.

And this is important, not only for the CEO’s ego, but also for the bean counters behind the scenes, because it has been proven time and again that those companies that have a good reputation benefit in a myriad of ways — from attracting (and more importantly) retaining the best talent through to a strong bottom line.

Let’s look at a South African success story for some insights. And what better than South African Breweries (SAB), which has grown from being a small local brewer to a world leader?
Obviously, there’ve been a number of business decisions made along the way that made it the force to be reckoned with that it is today — from water-tight and extensive distribution channels to strong and innovative brand development and marketing.

But at the heart of this is the aim to be a company that has an authenticity at the core, whether it be using its flagship brand Castle to join the fight against rhino poaching or building ways into the management and building of its breweries that have an understanding of sustainable growth at its core.

It would have been easy to slap a “Responsible Drinking” logo on every drink and tick the box of “good marketing”. But, instead, funds are channelled into carefully researched, on-the-ground projects — from educating taverners on responsible trading to the development and funding of entrepreneurs and startups.

The resulting effect is a place in which employees and consumers have a sense of pride and ownership, and that loyalty pays off multiple times over when the end of the year’s financial results comes in.

The learnings for us, as communicators, are many.

First, I would say that it doesn’t matter how good a PR team you have on board if the core of your offering is not strong and authentic; it will never gain traction. We all know that famous saying about the futility of polishing things that rhyme with words.

Secondly, there needs to be an inherent understanding — in the boardroom — that there’s a value in a strong reputation that cannot be measured. And that the PR or marketing team is not the custodian of this — it lies instead with the whole management team, who needs to let the philosophy and values run through everything that is done.

And, lastly, it is the understanding that the reputation of a brand or business is not made through press releases and holding statements in times of crises. It is made up of all of those little moments and encounters that people have with it — from what they read in a newspaper or see on social media down to their impression when they arrive in your reception or how they are greeted by your security guard.

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to

The death of traditional PR

Emma King

This article first appeared in Marklives.

I’ve been banging on about it for ages, but it is becoming ever more prevalent and I do feel I need to take a stand and shout it out. Traditional PR — the PR of old, where press releases are schlepped out far and wide — is dead. And any agency that continues to do so is wasting the time and money of its long-suffering clients.
There are a few reasons for this:

Traditional print media outlets have changed

Back in the days of old, PR consisted of getting loads of media outlets to cover an event or piece of news. Much of this was generated from the good old press conference or media briefing. But this concept is outdated and clients who have expectations that their news warrants this are likely to be disappointed.

This is mainly because the media landscape that we are working in has changed so much. Just look at all the melodrama with newsrooms at various media organisations — teams being made redundant; senior reporters, columnists and editors throwing up their hands in disgust and leaving in droves; and what appears from an external viewpoint to be general chaos all around.
Teams appear massively reduced, with one or two journalists frantically trying to cover enough stories each day to fill a paper. This means a greater reliance on getting news from syndicated feeds, being provided with content that they can literally cut and paste, and generally, no time to waste in sending bodies to sit around for hours hearing brands drone on about how great they are.

Added to this is the reduction of media outlets and brands themselves. Every year, we see more and more titles disappearing off our shelves, as budgets are cut and print media appears to become more and more obsolete.

It all adds up to less media space and less time for the few journalists left to create the news.

The spread of information has changed

As traditional media shrinks, so we see the growth of all the other ways in which consumers obtain information and are influenced. Just think back 10 years or so — how we made so many of our decisions based upon what we saw on TV or what a magazine or newspaper told us was cool?

But, fast forward to today, and I’d take a bet that traditional media — competing with digital, social and word of mouth — plays a massively reduced role in driving perception.
So the ongoing desire to get coverage in traditional media, over and above anything else, seems to be misplaced. Perhaps instead we should be looking at all the other ways that we can share information and guide perceptions, and place as much importance on these as getting a column in a broadsheet.

The immediacy has changed

One only needs to look at the way news outlets have changed to realise how differently we now consume news. Back in the day, we were content to get our information once a day when we picked up our newspaper or tuned in the 6 o’clock news. But, what with 24-hour news stations and stories being broken online, we have come to expect our news on demand and as it happens.

An interesting example is the recent communications put out by Eskom, which appears on some days to be relying upon Twitter to update the public on loadshedding. It is then up to digital-savvy journalists and news teams to monitor and run the news via more traditional outlets to reach the wider South African population — not the worst of strategies..
When considering the last-minute and ever-changing nature of our electricity crisis, perhaps having a channel where updates are given in real-time is the most effective and realistic way to communicate?

Marketing has changed

My last gripe with ‘traditional PR’ is that it is, well, so traditional. But very few brands (if any?) benefit from having all of their PR, advertising, digital and other services separated into little silos.

It seems mad to me to have a PR team which only deals with sending press releases to traditional media, without any synchronicity with what is happening digitally or out in the real world.

Why not, instead, have a team that understands how content can be shared across channels, and works to have a holistic view across all?

The answer to all of this is, obviously, to look at PR campaigns as more than just “free advertising” or a chance to see a CEO on the evening news. It’s an understanding that no communications can work in isolation; that a brand’s reputation is made from more than a couple of holding statements in times of crises; and that people are influenced just as much by the friends and family that surround them as by the media they consume.

I do believe that many of us PR practitioners “get” this. We just need to get our clients to do as well…. :)

Seven things I learnt in 2014

Seven things

This article first appeared on Marklives.

It’s that time of year again, when we’ve said goodbye to 2014 (some with regret and some with a big sigh of relief) and have started to plan all of the ways in which we will be better and more successful in 2015.

Our industry is rife with people telling us what the next big thing will be, and what trends we should be investing our time, money and energy in. But, sometimes, I find it just as useful to spend some time reflecting on what has been and what I’ve learnt.
The previous year was a big one for me. I made the jump and started my own business — and, of course, with such a massive change, came massive learnings.

So, without being deadly serious, here are some of the things that I learnt in 2014:

Spend time being insanely productive or doing something extremely fun — instead of wasting time being average.

Sometimes I’ve felt I’ll meet my death from meetings-about-meetings. Or that there’s never enough time to do everything, yet I still find myself spending hours looking at kak on the internet or lying on the sofa watching the Kardashians and wondering where the hell the human race is heading.

An eye-opener was not just cutting out the kak but gaining the understanding that, to be super-productive, means not only getting my head down and focusing, but also spending the times in between having huge amounts of fun.

If I were going to watch TV, it would something I really wanted to watch, and I would make a damn fine meal to go with it. If I were going suffer from a hangover in the morning, I’d make sure there were at least some good friends, good bubbly and a sunset the night before to justify it.

Don’t go chasing after new clients.

I’m always amazed at how much time agencies spend on new business pitches vs time spent keeping an existing client happy. Yet it’s not rocket science to prioritise on keeping existing ones happy — not only do they have the potential to grow, but they also (as I have found to my joy) are a source of new business themselves — through happy word-of-mouth recommendations.

Follow your gut instinct.

It’s always right. I had a situation where, against my better judgement, I brought a supplier in on a job, because it had passed the work to me. Its work was shoddy, the client wasn’t happy and it was awkward all around.

When your better judgement says to change the situation or move on, don’t let your analytical head override it.

Be authentic.

In world and industry where everyone is trying to one up the other, there is something refreshing about people who are just… themselves. People are drawn to them and want to be part of their circle.

In business terms, I have learnt that this means not to try and be all things to all people — and that, by keeping it niche and marketing yourself for the audience and clients that YOU want, is ever more powerful than being the vanilla one-size-fits-all option.

Even the biggest asshole can become your friend.

We can’t avoid assholes in our industry; they are pretty rife. And, sadly, no more so than in positions of power — as bosses or clients. Our default response is to kow-tow and try to please, but last year I learnt that treating them like everyone else breaks down a whole lot boundaries, and surprising friendships can occur.

Sometime that asshole-ness is a front for shyness, insecurity or stress.

But that doesn’t mean you have to be friends with them.

Sometimes, however, it’s not a front for anything, and they are pure and simple idiots. And those kinds of idiots seldom change or get better.

How great it is to be adult and make the decision to remove them from your life and leave a negative situation — whether that’s leaving an uncomfortable job or walking away from a piece of business!

Make the call on what 2015 means for you, and let it manifest.

The first of January 2014 saw me sitting in a swimming pool, wearing a feather headdress and swigging champagne out of the bottle. I was surrounded by friends, it was a boiling hot mid-summer’s day, and life was notably fabulous.

I had the sudden realisation that life recently had not always been so fabulous and, on the spot, decided to make 2014 the year where I started living each day to the fullest, and making it as fabulous as possible — I declared it the #YearOfFabulousness.

It meant I stocked up my fridge with bottles of pink bubbly to whip out in emergencies; slicked on some red lippie just because; and got rid of a lot of negative people and processes that were niggling away at me.

The results were surprising — the amount of goodwill that came back to me was heart-warming. And it even resulted in me quitting a safe job and starting a business, because I decided not to be average any more.

The learning? Making a pointed decision to change something is often enough to start making it manifest.

And so, you may ask, what am I declaring this year to be? I’m thinking that 2015, the year of the #InternationalPlaygirl, has a certain ring to it…

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to

Navigating the industry as a woman

The Friday Street Club

This article originally appeared on Marklives.

We’ve had some strong women making the news recently. From our feisty public protector showing the country who is boss to Maya Angelou’s legacy, we have had no lack of inspiring role models paving the way for future strong women.

But in amongst that there are a few whisperings that leave me uncomfortable: a shortage of women MPs and representatives at a high level in our newly formed government; atrocities committed to women in the name of religion; and debates about whether stars such as Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé can be good businesswomen while also embracing their sexuality.

Perhaps we have some way to go before we can consider the place of women in society as completely equal to men.

My mother is an eminent scientist who, in the ’80s, headed up some developments and processes that became industry-leading globally. It resulted in her being a consultant at a high level for institutions including the UN and the World Bank, and being on the Mekong River Commission — a collaboration of four countries brought together to manage the Mekong River in South East Asia. She’s recently just been to the Hague to sit as an expert witness in the International Court of Arbitration, where Pakistan was suing India about shared water use.

So she’s definitely badass.

And yet, even she has stories about how she has been treated as an inferior because she is a woman, such as engineers refusing to answer her letters when she signed her full name but then engaging with her when she dropped her first name, and used just the prefix “Dr”.

Personally, I have never felt as if I’ve have been held back in my career because of being a woman. But, bar PR agencies (which have a higher than average women/men ratio, for reasons we won’t go into here), we would be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of MDs, CEOs or ECDs of major local creative companies who are women.

Why is that? Is it because we are intimidated by the old boys clubs? Are we ‘distracted’ by marriage and having children? Are we just not cut out for it?

We are bombarded by advice on how to progress as women in a man-dominated world. We’re told to act more like a man, to get tougher and be one of the boys. We are urged to “lean in”.

But I don’t know that there is one right answer that works for everyone in how to tiptoe and navigate through tricky territory. Personally, I’ve found embracing both a masculine and feminine approach to getting ahead works well for me.

That means, on the one hand, learning from the men in how to play the game. Being tough; being confident to have a strong opinion and to compete with colleagues; and being able to separate emotional and rational approaches to problem-solving.

But hand in hand with that is the understanding that being a woman can be an advantage, not a disadvantage. There’s a lot to be achieved from having empathy with a colleague, nurturing a junior member of staff and using intuition to solve a problem or come up with a solution.

Women make good managers — not just because of the stereotypical ability to multitask — but because they are empathetic and not so inclined to be driven by ego. And mothers are even better managers — they know when to fight for something, and when to let it go, and they are used to dealing with egotistical, spoilt brats (and those are just their colleagues!).

I think the old days of the ’80s, when women had to parade around in big shoulder pads in order to compete with the gang of guys, is over. We don’t need to pretend to be guys but we don’t need to be simpering idiots in pink either. We’re lucky that we can, in the most part, choose to have a tequila with the boys on one day yet demand to work decent hours to be home with family the next.

So, guys, take note: there are some damn smart, awesome women in our industry. And we can work on the beer and cars brands, too, not just on the cosmetics campaigns!

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to

Dear brands: Please stop (the dumb) things you do

The Friday Street Club

This article first appeared in Marklives.

Last month, I wrote about some things that I think we, as agencies, should stop doing. It was inspired by a book I’d been reading, which talked about the difference between good and great companies — the latter being ones that focus not just on what to do but also what not to do, and what to stop doing.

In a similar vein, it’s interesting to look at what our partners — the brands we work with — should not do, or should stop doing. Here are some of the things that bug me the most.

1. Stop giving away things free of charge!

Everyone loves a freebie — that little hamper of goodies won by commenting on a Facebook post or the stash of products that arrive by magic for referring friends.

Being a brand that is generous as part of its strategy to encourage trial and recommendation is no bad thing. But, when the giving away of stuff becomes all that a brand does, it devalues itself.

With that, the customers who flock to your social-media pages for freebies will NEVER be the ones who flock to your stores to part with cold, hard cash.

2. Stop asking for things free of charge!

There are those brands (you know who you are!) that think it’s OK to ask for services for nothing or in exchange for product. But, nice as it is to get some free shizz, the stash of stuff you want to give me is not going to pay my mortgage — and most suppliers (those who are any good) do not need to work ‘for free’ in order to “boost their portfolio”.

You wouldn’t go into Pick n Pay and ask for a leg of lamb for free, or in exchange for a hamper of your homemade, strawberry-flavoured mampoer. So don’t do it. It’s rude.

(Linked to this are the brands that want PR companies to work for them because they don’t have any budget and want ‘free’ advertising. Grrrrrrrr.)

3. Don’t get sucked in by the BS

We know. The world of marketing and social media and research and all that malarkey can be confusing. Especially if you don’t come from a background in it.

But don’t think that you need to do everything just because other people are doing it.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if you are a combine-harvester manufacturer in the Free State targeting old and middle-aged farmers, you don’t need to have a Facebook page, Twitter handle, Google + account, YouTube channel and blog from your CEO to be successful, just because everyone else is.

Likewise, if you team is getting sold something that sounds good to be true, it probably is. Being promised Heidi Klum in a helicopter for your R3 budget? Be prepared for an old bird on the back of scooter.

There are a lot of charlatans who are making a pretty penny from selling things to brands that they don’t understand or can’t afford. Don’t be sucked in.

4. Don’t try to be something you’re not

There’s no need to spend all your time emulating the big brands and trying to be them. They took ages to get there, and spent a whole lot of money. They have that corner of the market nailed now, anyway.

Don’t be shy because you have a local product with a quirky twist or interesting people who work for you. Embrace it and be authentic. We love that.

5. Don’t think that your brand is made just by your marketing team

Many brands — the ones that don’t ‘get it’ — leave all that “marketing stuff” to the marketing team, the rest of the business instead being focused on financials and sales projections and so on.

But the brands that do ‘get it’ know that every single part of the business is what makes or breaks a strong brand — not just the label that gets stuck on the box, or the ad that goes in the newspaper, or the statement that the PR person puts out.

Strong brands know that everything — from the people whom are hired and the way the leadership team behaves to the way the business operates within its community — builds a reputation and builds a brand. It doesn’t matter how much the veneer is polished; a rotten core cannot be hidden.

Sounds complicated?

Not really.

Just be authentic, think big, and treat people the way that you would like people to treat you and your family. Easy.

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to

Business mistakes that hold us back

The Friday Street Club

This article originally appeared in Marklives.

In Jim Collin’s book “Good to Great”, he conducted research into how a good company can become a great one. One of the key things he discovered is that “…great companies did not focus principally on what to do to become great; they focused equally on what not to do and what to stop doing”.

So what are we, as PR and communications agencies, doing that perhaps we shouldn’t? Here are some of the things that immediately spring to mind:

1. Working with tyrants because we want their money

It’s an age-old problem — the people with the cash are often psychopaths (there’s obviously some universal law about wealth being inversely proportionate to personality).

In the corporate world, this often means that some of the biggest-paying clients are hard to work for, and doing so is often detrimental to your business’s ways of working and your employees’ morale.

Despite the mental abuse, we kowtow to these clients because they pay our bills (and, more importantly, our salaries). And, in doing this, we compromise our values, our culture, and our self-respect.

So what would happen if we decide to chase the right work and not the cash? Hopefully, we wouldn’t go out of business. I like to think, instead, that if we build an operation that is focused on values rather than cash, we would attract likeminded partners to work with (and, hopefully, the cash would then follow).

2. Trying to force old business models to suit new ways of working

One of the mistakes I see happening time and again is with established companies that are desperately trying to squeeze and squash their existing business model to service clients’ needs today.

Yet an ad agency whose entire way of operating is based around creating epic TV ads will always be too expensive and slow to service the quick and clever turnaround of social media. And a PR business whose only skill set is churning out self-congratulatory press releases will never be able to shine when results are not measured in AVE.

The most exciting and successful businesses are those that are brave away to throw away the outdated and clunky structures they have relied on for decades, and that are flexible enough to build new ones around the very real ways in which we need to operate.

3. Prioritising process over getting shit done

This relates to the above point.

When processes get in the way of delivering work faster and better, they are not processes. They are hurdles. Get rid of them.

4. Operating in hierarchy silos

Old ways of working place an importance on hierarchy and autocracy. Yet this discounts the value that all employees can contribute.

Yes, there needs to be management structures and leadership. But debate and collaboration with all members of staff can deliver innovative, relevant and surprising results. And, in any case, it also makes staff empowered to play a meaningful role in the company, rather than being a bunch of foot soldiers blindly clocking in and out.

5. Focusing on channels and not communities

This one’s for PR agencies. Delivering coverage just through traditional (or even non-traditional) media channels shows a lack of understanding of how things work today.

Instead, we need to look at what communities we need to reach — maybe it’s a group of fans on Facebook, maybe a community of residents who live in a certain area, perhaps a group of likeminded people who are passionate about a cause.

Then we need to look at what they want to receive and how we can be part of that — and, many times, this won’t be through a press release and traditional media coverage. It may just as likely be video, an event, or face-to-face briefings. Or, even better, an innovation and new kind of service or product.

6. Relying on research and marketing models over instinct

A wise colleague once said to me: “There are two kinds of marketers: those who can encapsulate an entire brand strategy in one picture, and those who rely on templates to develop one.”

I know whom I’d rather entrust with my brand.

An agency or a marketer who believes in death by powerpoint, and that a brand is made better through a million “brand pyramids” that “ladder up” to something, is dangerous, whereas those who are brave enough to trust instinct over research are the ones that make exciting work that resonates.

The learnings in all of this? Be brave, innovate and embrace input from colleagues and outsiders, no matter their experience. Above all, be prepared to look at things when they are not working, to throw them away, and to create new ways to make magic happen.

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissindent Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to