Aberfield Communications managing director Phil Reed tells BQ what he has learned during his time in charge and what his plans are for the future...
What does your role include?
I’d love to say that I’m responsible simply for setting a strategy that everyone else then delivers, but as with any small business that’s not how it works – and it’s not what I’d want, either. I really enjoy being heavily involved with clients, and sometimes I even enjoy all the minutiae of running a business.
But my biggest responsibility is to ensure we continue to grow, and to grow profitably. A business needs both to survive.
What is it the company does?
We influence how people perceive, and behave towards, brands and businesses – whether that’s consumers, trade customers, shareholders, employees or any other audience.
We sit within the public relations field, but I think what we do is far removed from the traditional PR agency. The question most PR agencies ask is “what do we want to say?”. For us it’s “who do we want to talk to?”. Once you start with the audience, the standard PR approach goes out of the window.
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
I started out as a journalist – everything from Shoot! and Smash Hits (both now defunct) to various local and regional newspapers. It was great fun for years, but then I started to think about creating news rather than just reporting it. That prompted the move into public relations. Plus the pay was much better.
I started off in-house with a couple of building societies (also defunct – there’s a pattern emerging!) before a spell at Asda during the glory days of Archie Norman and Allan Leighton, and before the recession (and the discounters) changed the supermarket landscape.
I’ve been on the agency side of PR for the past 15 years and set up Aberfield in 2012 with my colleague Tim Downs because we both had a massive itch to do our own thing and had a shared belief in what PR should be about.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
Someone who understands that we all have different personalities, different motivations and different skills, but who can bring those differences together to create an effective team.
And a good leader (never mind a great one) recognises they’re not good at everything, and they don’t have all the answers, so they understand the need to bring in people who will be better than themselves in some areas.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
To attract the type of clients you’d associate with agencies three or four times our size. That gives you a great platform for growth. It also allows you the financial freedom to be able to work on projects that excite you but don’t necessarily have big budgets, whether that’s a start-up, an SME or a charity.
Bringing in great names such as QHotels, First Direct, Northern Rail, The Football Pools, Deloitte and the National Railway Museum, to name a few, has also given us a strong profile and reputation that helps us attract talented people to the business. We don’t sell widgets, so we live or die based on the abilities of the people at Aberfield.
That’s all culminated in us being named recently as the CIPR’s Outstanding PR Consultancy of the Year and Outstanding Small PR Consultancy of the Year, which is a massive endorsement of everything we’ve achieved in the past four years.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
I don’t get stressed by work, but running a business does mean it’s virtually impossible to completely switch off, even on holiday. There’s a huge responsibility that comes with employing people, whether it’s one person or 10,000, so the thought of failing – failing them – is what drives you on.
Sport is probably the closest I ever get to switching off. Not so much playing these days, but give me Sky Sports, Racing UK and the remote control and I’ll be content for hours.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
The first thing I remember wanting to be was a lawyer, mainly because I used to watch ‘Crown Court’ on TV during the school holidays and questioning witnesses looked like fun. Then I found out how long it took to qualify, so I soon went off that idea.
Then once I’d seen ‘All The President’s Men’ (still my favourite film) all I wanted to be was a journalist. I even started a newspaper in the school sixth form. It was more of a gossip rag, if I’m honest, but I still like to think of it as my first attempt at being a newspaper magnate!
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
There’s a tendency for companies to promote people to reward them for the work they’ve done – or to stop them from leaving – rather than for their ability to thrive in that new role. They don’t get supported enough through the transition, so you end up with demotivated managers and demotivated teams.
PR is a good example of an industry with too many layers, too many job titles. A lot of them are meaningless, just words on a business card. At Aberfield we’ve deliberately avoided going down that route. We have just three job titles (director, senior consultant and consultant) so that dramatically reduces the link between reward and promotion.
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
We’re coming to the end of our first five-year plan, and we’ve achieved just about everything on there, which is very satisfying. One of those goals was to be PR Consultancy of the Year, which incredibly we’ve now achieved.
Our next five-year plan will be even more ambitious, to take us up several levels. It will reflect what we think brands, business and organisations will need in order to reach and influence their target audiences over those five years and beyond. I can’t see our ‘positive influence’ approach changing, but how we achieve that influence probably will. But I’d be daft to give too much away!
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
I have two pieces of advice. Firstly, do what you believe in, but don’t be too rigid that you’re not prepared to adapt as your market changes – which it will. Secondly, make sure you employ a really good PR agency. There’s one I can heartily recommend.