Why I started Spark 20 years ago and musings on building a successful tech PR agency
Starting an agency is one of the most exciting things you can do. I’d just turned 25 so was too naïve to find a downside, if it didn’t work out then I knew I’d get another job – especially as we were just about to reach the peak of the dotcom boom and tech PR people were in extremely high demand!
Many people said wait until you are a bit more experienced and have more contacts – I am not sure I would have done it if I’d thought through the pros and cons too carefully or waited until I was older! The research backs this up – risk-taking when it comes to your career has been proven to be much more likely when you are young.
Takeaways for those of you in your twenties: take risks to build your career and find your dream job. Work for enjoyment rather than just a pay cheque. If you want a career break when you have children, get where you want to be before becoming a parent. Trying to climb the ladder with no sleep and no downtime is much harder!
What’s the driver for starting a tech PR agency?
I’ve listened to a lot of the agency founder interviews on the PR Moment podcast and the most typical reason for starting an agency is wanting to do it your way and believing that you can offer something better, different or unique. That was definitely the case for me – there was also an element of recreating the early days of Weber UK – we genuinely felt we were the best tech agency around and the cliched “work hard, play hard” team was why I absolutely loved it.
A lot of PR companies at that time were started by people who’d worked at Weber before the Shandwick merger. We had a boss that pushed us to believe in ourselves and I went from a graduate trainee who would say nothing in meetings because I was scared I’d get it wrong, to confidently advising clients and leading pitches in what seemed like no time. A business class trip to Kentucky to represent the UK office in a pitch to Lexmark was pretty exciting for a twenty-four-year-old!
You might wonder why I left that lifestyle for a tiny basement office where I made my own desk out of a slab of wood and Ikea screw in legs. It’s a bit like going to university – you leave a lovely home to live in squalid conditions, but you don’t really care as you are doing something that you feel really passionate about!
A PR agency is all about people and if you start an agency you need to have a passion for developing them (and yourself)
While it is developing yourself and your career that leads you to start an agency, the team are definitely what makes it special. Helping people develop is the best part of the job. Sometimes their passion isn’t tech PR but it’s a great feeling to know that something they learnt when they worked for you has helped them in the future. The only exception to that I hope is Rob Gibbons (former Spark account manager that left to co-write Alan Partridge) – if anything he experienced at Spark has made its way into any of his TV shows then I don’t want to know!
Each person that comes through the door helps shape the agency, whether they bring creativity, empathy, humour, drive or even frustration – it all helps us to develop. I have no idea if there is a certain personality type that fits Spark’s culture or whether we have a group personality that adapts and changes to fit the current team. Each agency does have a persona, as I am sure recruiters will tell you, but it isn’t static – it has to evolve and change. The only way to be a successful and happy business is to keep that curiosity about the outside world and learn from group experience.
I am really glad I started Spark, but it would have been pretty overwhelming if I’d done it alone. Finding the right people is difficult, but the chances of finding the right partner to start with is one in a million and I was really lucky that I met Alex Ruczaj, a very talented colleague from Weber who became one of my best friends and persuaded me that we could make an agency work. There is no way we could have gone from zero to thirteen staff in a year without each other. If you decide to start a business, pick the right partner as you will be spending at least twelve hours a day with each other for the first few months (sometimes including weekends)!
As you’ve probably gathered, good people who you believe in, want to help grow and work well with are pretty much all you need to create a successful PR agency. The work then speaks for itself and the clients come through word of mouth. So, a massive thank you to everyone who has ever worked at Spark and made it what it is today.
Finally, don’t forget process – you can’t do it without time sheets, account resourcing and giving everyone an operational job as well as a PR job in the early days. That’s my musings on why we were one of the fastest growing agencies in our first few years – you can find my thoughts back then in PR Week's top 150 agencies supplement if you want proof that we’ve really been going twenty years!