A Leithal PR
It’s a typically dreary Glasgow day as The Drum sits in the glass-fronted Millennium Hotel in Glasgow’s George Square waiting to meet Juliet Simpson, the new managing director of Stripe, the Cello Group’s newly launched PR consultancy.
Bizarrely, across from the hotel, a herd of Highland cattle is being paraded to tourists and photographers. One photographer seems not to have noticed that the particular Highland heffer he is in the process of snapping, which the obligatory ‘cute’ child is gently petting, has started to dribble violently.
Simpson has recently returned from Australia, where she spent three years as the country’s head of PR for Vodaphone.
On a cloudy and dark day like this one, the thought of anyone willingly returning to less than sunny Scotland from the home of barbecues on the beach seems, at the moment, incredulous.
“I’d always wanted to go away and work abroad, so Sydney was great” explains Simpson. “My husband and I were there together. We were travelling around the world and we got to Sydney and stayed. It’s a great, fun city. I had a great lifestyle, I worked for a leading brand and I got so much opportunity. But at the end of the day, it just wasn’t home and I know that’s a weird thing, but your heart is where your home is, and I really just felt, after three and a half years away, it was time to come back, to come home and be where I belong.”
Simpson is immediately friendly and confident, obviously from having met many a reporter in her time in the communications industry. The former account director at Citigate (now IAS) Smarts, is passionate and enthusiastic when talking about both her new role at Stripe and her experience in PR.
Simpson admits that on her return home, she was at a loss as to what her next steps would be, but was sure that there were interesting prospects to look at in Scotland.
“I certainly knew that coming back was going to be quite a challenge, because it was more of a case of ‘what would I do next?’ and trying to make sure that I found something that was going to take the experience that I’d gained in Australia and keep moving it on rather than simply going back to what I had done before.
“I didn’t ever feel it was a gamble, I always knew that I was going to do something exciting and whatever I was going to do, it was going to be a success. It was more a case of wanting to explore a number of options - which I did when I came back - and work out what felt right. We weren’t in any great rush to commit to anything immediately, but I did take a while to make sure that I did get the right role at the right company and was doing the right thing.”
Simpson goes on to explain where the opportunity to work alongside The Leith Agency arose from. “Obviously I knew Leith,” she says. “They had approached me to come in and have a chat. It was all very informal at first because it was very important to them that they got the right people as part of their mix and it wasn’t just a case of ‘look at a big plan’. And it was more of a case that there were a number of the directors there and the more we talked about it, it seemed to feel right. I’d also worked with Kevin Steeds, who’s the chairman of Cello Group. He was the chairman of Citigate. Kevin had known me in my Citigate days as well, so it was one of those weird coincidences.”
This will be Cello’s first and, so far, only PR business, offering communication strategy, corporate reputation management, consumer, brand and B2B PR as well as crisis management, sponsorship leverage and internal communications. Stripe has already begun searching for potential clients, and has appointed Sarah Forbes, formerly a senior consultant at Trimedia, as an account director. Forbes has previously worked alongside Simpson, when she was a graduate trainee at Citigate Smarts. Meanwhile Simpson is currently in the final stages of recruitment to build her team at Stripe.
“The interesting thing for me about Cello was the opportunity to start my own company – we’re a separate company, which is a division of Cello. It was an opportunity to start up my own thing – something I could create, something that could be completely unique and completely different and have its own culture and vision to be whatever we wanted it to be. As well as that we also have the support of one of the biggest marketing networks in the UK, and we will really have a strong focus on brand. I’m a massive champion of brands and I just wanted it to fit into a bigger marketing environment rather than do a separate PR thing on my own.
“For me, my passion is not just PR. I’m a PR professional, but I’m also a marketing professional, and I think that this was an opportunity to do a bit of both. That was really how it all came about, and one of the things that I recognise from Citigate is, that when an integrated agency tries to do everything, often it can be very hard to differentiate yourself. So we need to make sure that clients know that Stripe is separate if it needs to be, but part of Leith or Farm if it needs to be. It’s a bit of both worlds.
“To me it was important that we had our own identity and established ourselves as a successful PR communications company as well as being a part of something bigger.”
Cello has decided to extend its movement towards an integrated approach, hence the need for a PR division at the same time as it is also launching a new digital agency, Blonde.
“Leith has brought in Claire Kinloch to do sales promotion, while Pete Burns was announced along with Blonde Digital two weeks before me,” continues Simpson. “They were talking to the two of us, Blonde and Stripe, at the same time and the idea for Stripe came out after a discussion with Blonde. We’ll be following exactly the same model as them.
“Clients are increasingly changing the way they’re spending. The group looked at the whole picture and the one bit that was missing was PR. We now do everything, we’re a completely integrated agency. We’ve got planning, we’ve got advertising, we’ve got experiential, we’ve got online, we’ve got direct marketing. The one discipline that’s missing there is PR. So really it completes the full service offering for them.”
Stripe will, for the time being, be based in the offices of The Leith Agency, but as it is a company looking to underline its individuality, Simpson stresses that it will move to its own base as soon as is possible. “We’re currently based in the Leith Agency, so it’s a case of working alongside the team that is already there. We’ll be involved in new business pitches, we’ll be involved in ongoing clients’ consultancy. I’ve been there for two weeks and already I feel like I’ve been there for years. We’re really going to work as one team and one of the key things for me is that it’s about educating the Leith Agency and Leith clients about how PR works and making it more of a bigger part of the agency.
Simpson continues: “Agency choices are based on recommendations, and the Leith Agency has some very long established, trusted relationships and has always been asked ‘who would you recommend?’ There’s absolutely no doubt there’s a market out there.
“We will also be separately winning our own, stand-alone business as well, which is really important for us. We’re not just an offshoot of Leith surviving on their clients.”
Since her return to Scotland, Simpson admits to being slightly surprised by the developments made in terms of PR in the country over the last few years, with a definite growth in the numbers of agencies and clients realising PR’s potential in marketing terms: “There seems to be a lot more operators in terms of numbers and there seems to be a lot more practitioners out there. A lot of them are smaller and quite niche, but there has been a bit of a burst in the industry. However, having spoken to lots of clients and contacts, it seems that in some cases, standards have dropped a bit and I think that’s disappointing for the whole industry. Certainly, for me, this is about raising the bar again and one of the things that we’re going to be doing is using Leith’s planning resource, Leithal Thinking, which has the biggest planners outside of London. So we’ll be using advertising planning techniques to plan all of our PR campaigns. So rather than just using our gut instinct to come up with a strategy, we’re going to be using research and target market insights to deliver campaigns.
“That’s completely unique and will allow us to offer a very different level of service to anything that’s out there at the moment. For me, it has to be about brands and how PR fits into a brand and, really how you can reflect the brand personality in PR and in how you deliver those campaigns.”