After a twenty year career with media giant Trinity Mirror, Sara Wilde-McKeown helped turn Paver Smith PR into full service agency Influential. She shares her business journey with Suzy Jackson.
"Oh my goodness!" Sara exclaims, when asked to take us back to the beginnings of her career. And it soon becomes clear why; though working for a single employer for twenty years, her background is far more diverse than most.
Sara started out in media, having joined Trinity Mirror as a graduate in the late eighties. "I went up in a commercial route; marketing and sales and then as a commercial director," she says.
The benefits of being in that type of regional media business were huge. "I worked with the guys who ran Trinity, and who'd run it since the late seventies and grew it. So I was there when it merged with the Mirror, and when it became the PLC it is today."
Sara become an MD in her early twenties, running magazine operations at the firm. "My first big role was setting up, buying and launching magazine and exhibition operations in Trinity Publications - based in the Midlands with stables of national magazine titles and exhibitions. Great fun, lots of opportunity to buy as well as launch and redevelop magazines, and a really interesting little business to run."
She describes running this for seven years before the 'mothership' of the media business called her back. "You're sent out to have a little adventure, growing and doing other things, and then you get the call, 'Are you coming back?'
"I'd started my career in Merseyside and the role I came back to was assistant MD for the Liverpool Echo, and that started me off on the next part of my career." Sara took responsibility, eventually, for the Northern titles and the Welsh portfolio - and the travel that came along it. "Some great titles," she reflected, "and a whole range of free and weekly-paid titles which made it quite a big part of Trinity.
"Great fun, great people, great brands, and a mix of some strong periods of growth and some more challenging periods, with the change of global markets and the impact of digital on the business - and the restructuring that comes with taking something that's a print business and changing it to something that's got a far more mixed portfolio."
Massively challenging, but very intellectually stimulating to work with teams through that period.
Her last role was as commercial director for the whole of the UK, with the brief of transforming the commercial model - and in 2010, this was very much about reflecting the impact that the internet was having.
"When I was MD of the Echo, I'd bought a web business called Ripple Effect - so I had that in my portfolio, and it whetted my appetite for diversification into digital services - not just the movement of newspapers onto the web.
"You have to cover a lot of commercial ground - negotiating contracts, managing acquisitions, managing a few thousand salespeople and looking at how you train them, how you reward them - how you motivate them."
Coming up through a commercial route meant that side of Sara's skills were highly developed, but she also recognises that she was fortunate to experience more general managerial roles which kept her fresh in the organisation, but equipped her well for a more entrepreneurial life after Trinity Mirror.
"I loved the business, but there are only so many times you can go through the same machinations," Sara says. "I'd earned my stripes, I'd done all the hard stuff for a big corporate, and it was time to find another challenge.
"I'd always thought that I wanted to so something myself, rather than dipping back into another corporate - at the other end of the spectrum, so not big business or a big boardroom."
So with an open mind, Sara started to look for a business she could invest into and take charge of, and she came across a PR agency called Paver Smith. "A couple of chaps were people I'd worked with in Trinity Mirror before, so I had a decent understanding of them, and it had run for some years as a fairly successful PR agency.
"But, with the backdrop of the world changing, to continue to be successful you needed to broaden what you're able to offer clients. Even if you're not hankering after a full service agency, the lines are so blurred now that you can't really go to market dividing up your services to be bought from lots of agencies."
She joined in May 2013 as an investing MD, and continues to be a part owner alongside other directors. "We brought in new investing directors with a range of new expertise," she says, and the business now is double what it was when she joined.
"We've grown not just the PR client base, but we've grown a marketing client base, a digital one - particularly around social, and the use of those channels, and we've also added branding and creative in the last twelve months."
And so Influential is a multi-service agency, focused on the North West of England but with an office also in London. "Anyone who says their business is completely different in this field is probably not being very genuine," she muses. "But where we know we operate very well with clients is by taking a very strategic approach to a client's objectives."
And it's an interesting mix of business acumen, marketing skill and a very thorough understanding of a complex media market that is credited with making Influential what it is. This is PR and communications as a strategic management tool.
"It's meant that we've won business and we've retained business, because clients recognise they have that acumen there to dip in to, as and when they need it. We understand how to get things done efficiently," she says, citing the extensive media and newsroom experience she's brought in to Influential.
"We'd never advocate something to a client just because it looks good on paper. We want it to efficiently achieve their objectives, so people are only spending where they need to and spending where it'll make a difference."
With a client base that's about two thirds B2B, they also cite Camelot, the Liverpool One and the Blackpool Tower as more consumer-based clients where they have to be creative about grabbing media attention. "Even in our most excitable moments, the ideas still have to pass the test of making a difference."
"Over the next five years we expect to see some changes around the use of digital technology, and we'll continue to develop some of those services for our clients," she says.
"I'm proud that we're a strong Northern agency with a good Northern client base that expects us to market them nationally, but it would be nice to develop the international part of the business, either through developing some client markets, or with new clients.
"Markets do move, and even if you just plan to continue with your existing clients, you have to be able to bring something fresh – what's changing in their businesses, and what do we need to do about that in the next couple of years?
"I've seen the positives and negatives that can come from not responding to market changes, but we need to be looking 2-3 years down the line and asking, 'how do we make ourselves more valuable to them?'
"We want our clients to be delighted with us, five years down the line."