To celebrate 18 years of business, one of our new team members, Shannon Slade, sat down with Founder and Managing Director, Leilani Abels, to find out the secrets behind an ever-evolving, successful business.
SS: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in 18 years of business and how did you overcome it?
LA: During Thrive’s 18 years in business, we’ve survived a global financial crisis; the dot.com boom and bust; have seen multiple PMs and policymakers promise and exit; witnessed “hot” PR agencies come and go; and been a part of a threatened media landscape that’s had to digitally transform or die. So in short, there have been many challenges throughout Thrive’s history.
Three of the main challenges have been:
HR and finding enough quality talent to meet the demands of a brilliant stable of clients. Remaining an independent agency has allowed us to overcome this. Thrive attracts top talent because we offer the best of what a boutique, family-run business offers, along with the resources, clout, training, career acceleration, and opportunities of a multinational. As an independent agency, we have the advantage of being nimble and flexible for our team and clients, boundaryless and innovative with our thinking. For example, we’ve implement industry-leading HR practices, including paid parental leave and childcare support policies for our working parents, or supporting dual careers for our team who want work flexibility, the list goes on.
Scaling. When you have four, soon to be five, offices, you need to deliver consistent services across consultants and we have been able to achieve this with an incredibly high level of accountability and best practice systems across our offices. We’ve created leadership teams that inspire and develop all levels of the business so our depth of talent is very strong.
Keeping up with an ever-changing media environment. However, when you’re a fast-moving independent agency you can be ahead of industry changes. We demonstrated that well when we opened our own content and production facility, Thrive360. We recognised the need for our clients to produce quick turnaround, low cost, quality content before most other agencies, Thrive360 allows us to do this.
SS: What is your most memorable campaign?
LA: There are so many stand out campaigns! We’ve launched some of the world’s biggest brands and travelled the world on assignment for clients.
It’s hard not to highlight brands like Twitter and Callaway Golf where we have developed campaigns locally which have rolled out across multiple markets globally or work in San Francisco for some of our tech clients.
It’s not always about the big brands though, as it’s been equally rewarding launching small FMCG brands that have gained national distribution and become household names.
I’d say, some of our most interesting work has been issues based, managing comms for major companies and keeping them out of the news. The work for not-for-profits is some of our most important with the likes of The Salvos and The Alannah & Madeline Foundation, where we’ve tackled some very serious social issues and lobbied for change.
SS: What piece of advice has stuck with you?
LA: A former client and friend taught me to strive for continuous improvement. I adopted this as a core value for Thrive. Every morning I wake up and I think “What can I improve today? What can I make better for my team and my clients? How can I strengthen my relationships or better partner our suppliers.”
I used to think seeing the gaps and wanting to improve every day, was a negative thing for those around me but now, I don’t apologise for my standards and I’m always on a mission to continuously improve. I say to my team, “I want you to leave work feeling proud of what you’re doing. Care.”
At Thrive, we are so lucky because when you work with tech companies you learn how to be agile and innovative. 18 years on, we behave like a startup but with decades of experience in the industry. There are many examples like this at Thrive, where we embrace a “Magic and Logic” way of working.
One of my goals in 2018 is systems automation…look out! It doesn’t sound like your typical PR agency, right? Well, Thrive is not typical.
SS: You’re a working mum, along with many others in your business – many people say this isn’t realistic or achievable. Why is it important to you to support working mothers?
LA: Many of our team are working mummas and we do a lot for working parents, but that actually doesn’t mean they’re more important than all of our other fabulous consultants. What it does mean however, is understanding their out of office demands in a different way.
I think our industry has lost a lot of brilliant talent because parenthood and the demands of PR don’t necessarily align. I believe, when your agency is large enough, and your processes and team are strong enough, then you can support flexibility for working parents in a way that is actually an advantage – not a disadvantage – to your clients.
My clients understand that I have a toddler and I like some flex in the mornings to be with him, but when they need me at midnight on an international time zone, I’m there. Transparency (and the right technology) is the key.
SS: What’s the secret to attracting and retaining great talent?
LA: There are a couple of key factors;
Flexibility – from both sides.
Paying attention and listening to all levels of the business, what’s important to one person isn’t the same as the next
Career mapping, ensuring your team members know what’s next for them
Support and letting your team know that you’ve got their backs. Being willing to say goodbye to a client that’s not right for your agency – team over client dollars (it actually has the opposite commercial effect)
Delivering perks that are unique to your competitors. It can be fun stuff like the day off for Melbourne Cup Day for every office (just because Thrive was born in Melbourne) or sneakers landing on everyone’s desk to promote wellbeing
SS: What does the next 18 (or maybe just 10!) years look like for Thrive?
LA: We have a very clear vision at Thrive. Some of the most exciting things to come don’t exist yet in our industry but we’ve set goals for not the next ten, but next two years. We have ideas that came out of our last Thrive conference that will totally innovate our industry if we can execute them.
Some of the goals include:
Thrive will have a Gold Coast office in coming months and our second international office within the next five years.
We’ll still be working in our major sectors across banking, retail, sport, media, tech and others.
More clients will see the advantage of sitting their full 360 degree comms requirements with us including corporate, consumer, internal, crisis and stakeholder comms.
Earned media will continue to be what Thrive is famous for, yet digital will dominate. We will have more of the creative, media buying, content development and broader marketing services under our remit, and we will continue to bat above our weight, winning major business in the region.
We’ll have doubled our numbers! I’d love Thrive to be a 100 person agency that still breathes and behaves as we do now, delivering our “Smart. Simple.” mantra.
And most importantly, I want to be working with many of the same people inside and outside of Thrive as we do now.
SS: What’s the biggest advantage of having offices and people on the ground in both Australia and New Zealand?
LA: Service delivery to our clients and career opportunities for our staff. ANZ clients are busy, they want to streamline through one agency across both markets. You need people on the ground in key cities who know those markets well, if you want to be the best PR agency and deliver most effectively to your clients. We are one of only 8% of registered AU agencies with an established PR agency in NZ, so that’s a great advantage for our NZ and AU clients.
SS: How has the role of PR & comms professionals changed in your 18+ years of being in the industry?
LA: We’ve certainly climbed the tree and earned a place at the boardroom table. Even five years ago, PR used to be an add on. Now businesses see PR as the comms/marketing service that can have the biggest impact, for the most cost effective budget. Brave PR consultants are delivering incredibly creative campaigns, and big clients for the first time are saying, “I don’t care where the idea comes from”, whereas in the past they relied solely on their ad agency for great ideas.
PR has greater relevance now, in light of social media, and the increased need to defend, protect and build brand reputations. PR is the glue that can align and integrate all the agencies – I think that puts us in a great place going into the next decade.
Some quick fires!…
When I’m not working you can find me..…on Bondi Beach with my partner and son Rafa, and at KX Pilates keeping my mind and body strong
My favourite place to holiday is… NYC…my life is not about balance, it’s about integration between professional and personal and therefore with every city I visit I fuel both parts of my life
The book on my bedside cabinet is...Gail Kelly, Live Lead Learn.
My first meal of the day is…Almond Milk Latte from Lox Stock & Barrel
The best thing about being a woman in business is..creating opportunities for the next generation – both male and female – in PR