The acquisition of Capella PR means big things for PAN’s next journey as an international PR agency. As former co-founder of Capella PR, now Managing Director, UK at PAN, Gareth Thomas dives into his career path to date and outlines macro-level themes in UK business press, and tips for launching a successful global program.
PAN recently acquired Capella PR (now PAN UK). Can you tell us a little more about Capella and the clients you serve?
We set up Capella in 2012 to serve the comms needs of emerging and established tech brands in the UK. We’re really proudly to have built a multi-award winning agency with a reputation for delivering real business impact through creative campaigns and outstanding press office work. Our amazing team of twenty (20?) delivers outstanding PR and digital work every day from our offices in central London, on the banks of the River Thames.
Can you give us a little more insight into your career journey, and how you eventually started your own PR firm?
I began my career working as a UK Government press officer in 1998, at a time when the new Labour government was placing a huge emphasis on communicating policy clearly through effective media relations. It was a real baptism of fire, and I was working with the most influential media in the UK, and reporting directly into ministers. I then transitioned to working in tech at a time when it wasn’t as cool as it is today! I worked for a number of consultancies, running PR and digital campaigns for start-ups as well as mega brands like Google, Sony, VMware, Deutsche Telekom and Match.com. My co-founder Nia and I decided to launch Capella as we were frustrated by how many agencies failed to give brands the attention they deserved and wanted to fix that.
What are you most excited for in bringing PAN and Capella together?
For me, it’s all about the combined brainpower and creativity of 150+ people in the US and UK. Our team has worked with PAN consultants across a number of client campaigns for some time and has benefited from pooling ideas and capabilities. I can’t wait to see that replicated across even more clients that are looking to boost their profile internationally. On a personal level, as a seafood addict, I’m also delighted to be working with a company headquartered in an area famed for delicious shellfish!
You’ve worked on a lot of global PR programs, what do you think are the key ingredients for success in launching successful global programs?
One of the toughest international PR challenges is striking the right balance between creating a campaign that resonates locally, whilst also maintaining a consistent global message. How you create ‘Autonomy without Anarchy’. To achieve this, the client (and the hub agency) needs to be very good at listening to in-market expert consultants and be wary of becoming too dictatorial. I believe over-centralization of creativity or content can lead to vanilla, cookie-cutter communications that connect with no one.
It’s also really important to be focused when allocating your resources. A brand’s ambition may be to ‘go global’ but in reality, that often means focusing on maybe 3-4 countries in the EMEA market. Sometimes brands try to spread a budget too thinly across too many countries, when it often makes more sense to focus on just a few where you can have the biggest impact. Deciding what and where you’re not going to focus is just as important as deciding where you will.
Aside from that, I think it takes very special leaders to forge single teams from across geographies and agency offices.
How to take different cultures into consideration during this process?
This is so important and it’s critical that international PR managers and agency hub leaders have some appreciation of local laws, languages and customs. But executing global campaigns can only really be done effectively with the help of on-the-ground experts who deeply understand each market.
Remember that the EU, for example, consists of 500m citizens, across 27 member states. English, French and German are the predominant languages, but there are 21 others to consider. Even within the UK, there are almost a million Welsh speakers. Each country has its own laws, customs and cultural sensitivities.
Whether it is understanding differences in attitudes to Individualism v collectivism around the world, or just being aware that an innocent word you use all the time, could have a very different connotation in another country, there is no substitute for local experts.
Different cultures also approach work in very different ways and it’s critical to be respectful of this. For example, in many European countries, stopping for a three-course lunch each day is still the norm. While that may not be the case for other office locations, it’s what makes each culture unique and the leaders of international brands should be mindful of it.
We often get asked by clients what is resonating in the UK press. What are the big macro-level themes in the UK business press?
Brexit has clearly dominated the media agenda for the last few years and remains so. For business media, that means trying to understand the potential implications of the various scenarios under which we will (or possibly won’t) exit the EU.
The environment is once again high up on the agenda. TV shows like Blue Planet II have had a huge impact on the way people think about marine waste, and pressure groups like Extinction Rebellion have injected a renewed sense of urgency around the threat of global warming. The business media is interested in innovative responses to these challenges from companies.
Equality and inclusion also – quite rightly – get a huge amount of coverage. Companies are under pressure to ensure their senior leadership teams are as diverse as the communities they serve. We’re particularly proud to have supported several high-profile diversity initiatives.
How about at the tech trade level? Are there topics that the tech trades are consistently latching on to?
As well as the issues above, the tech trade are particularly fascinated by AI and machine learning (a dystopian nightmare or a utopian paradise, depending on your perspective); Fintech (as a global leader in financial services, the UK is spawning a large number of disruptive fintech companies); Security and Privacy (there’s no doubt that British consumers have woken up to how their personal data is used, and sometimes feel uneasy about this); and the tech/digital skills shortage (particularly in light of stricter immigration rules following Brexit, many tech companies believe the UK may find it even harder to attract the caliber of tech and digital experts they need).
In your experience, are there major differences in how you communicate/work with the UK media versus the US media?
As a far smaller country, national news sites probably have more influence in the UK, and we work hard to earn the right for our clients to be featured nationally, rather than only in trade media.
Face to face time between PRs and journalists is very important in the UK. Certainly, UK journalists expect to know the PRs contacting them – with most media based in London, it’s perhaps easier to meet up face to face on a more regular basis.
It’s difficult to understate the importance and influence of the BBC, which is publicly funded by all citizens via a compulsory license fee. Because of its public funding, the BBC has incredibly strict editorial guidelines, including avoiding the promotion of commercial organizations and a huge commitment to fact checking / fighting ‘fake news’ – for example, check out its very popular Reality Check series.
That said, the fundamentals remain the same – you need to have a strong narrative and story package which will resonate with the journalist’s audience.
What is one common mistake you see US companies make when it comes to tackling PR in the UK? And what is your advice for avoiding that mistake?
It’s understandable, but dangerous to assume that because you are huge and successful in the US, the UK media will automatically be interested in what you have to say. That’s not always the case. The UK media has a bias towards local companies or US companies that have made a significant investment (in terms of staff, offices, etc.) in the UK market.
Conversely, how about UK-based companies trying to establish a voice in the US media?
We are sometimes asked to pitch US journalists from the UK, which is very difficult to do in practice. The US is an enormous market and the media is fragmented across different regions. Knowing which buttons to push and how news appetites vary across the states is not our core area of expertise in London. That’s why we always recommend working with on the ground experts, like our colleagues at PAN’s four US offices.
Are there any tech brands in the UK that you have your eye on as up and coming and doing great things?
Babylon Health is on a mission to put an accessible and affordable health service in the hands of every person on earth. Its tech-based offer is making waves and they have a strong partnership with Britain’s NHS. Having met the founder many years ago, I’ve enjoyed watching them grow.
The tech-based energy challenger brands like Igloo and Bulb are using smart home / IoT tech to disrupt the big six energy suppliers and are growing really fast. Similarly, smart car insurers have transformative business models based on smart tech that are gaining a lot of traction – By Miles, for example, only charges customers for the miles they actually drive.
Privitar is another company we’ve watched with interest for some time. They specialize in the ethical and safe use of valuable data assets – something that’s so important and many companies struggle with. They are growing really fast, with an enviable list of customers on both sides of the Atlantic.