Nadia Gabbie: 'It's our time now'

The MD of Seventy Seven, who took over during a period of internal turmoil at the agency, is relishing the challenge, finds John Owens.

Nadia Gabbie: 'It's a fantastic time to be in PR - it's our time now and it really matters'
Nadia Gabbie: 'It's a fantastic time to be in PR - it's our time now and it really matters'

As PRWeek waits for the rooftop photo-shoot with Seventy Seven PR's MD Nadia Gabbie to finish, many floors below, Kingsway is thronging with students.

Placards in the air, they are protesting against tuition fees, flanked by luminously clothed policemen as they pass by. The spectacle brings back memories for Gabbie, who as a student joined the poll tax demonstration 'because of the cause, the subsidised coach to London and a spirit of adventure'.

Although the political climate has changed and the coach fare is no longer an issue, the 42-year-old's career path shows her sense of adventure has not diminished.

Last September, Seventy Seven was left rudderless when its three managing partners - James Gordon MacIntosh, Alan Twigg and Jo Carr - departed simultaneously to form their own agencies.

Gabbie was swiftly brought in on an interim basis to plug the gap in a role that would leave many people apprehensive.

'I thought there might be great tremors within the agency, and from a team perspective, of course, there were. But during the subsequent months those tremors died down,' says Gabbie, who took over full-time last month. 'At first, I didn't know whether I would want to stay. I imagined there would be huge challenges, but it feels there are now opportunities.'

Even if the phrasing borders on cliche, there is no doubting her sincerity or the force of determination behind much of what she says. In an interview punctuated with laughter, Gabbie is always keen to move the conversation to the future.

Quick to praise the departed trio, she nevertheless adds that their exit allowed the rest of the team to emerge from their shadow and 'shine'.

She also emphasises that the close link with sister agency Fishburn Hedges - it inhabits the same workspace - will help going forward, as well as the advantages of continued integration between teams within Seventy Seven.

'That's why I wanted to come here and not a standalone consumer agency. In today's world those that can't offer a joined-up approach between corporate, social media and consumer have a bigger challenge than I do.'

That she took on the potentially risky role perhaps should not come as a surprise. Originally hoping to study at St Martins College of Art, after university the book-lover was lured into the world of PR while working as a receptionist at Bloomsbury, where she rubbed shoulders with Paula Yates and was yelled at by Brian Blessed.

Attracted by the fact the publisher's PR team was 'the focus of attention', she had only been with her first PR agency for a year when, aged 23, she joined Martin Ballantine as he launched Revolver. It was just the two of them. 'I thought it would be an exciting opportunity that was worth a chance,' she says.

Having learned both comms skills and business nous, she left for Scope Communications fuelled by ambition and the desire to join a bigger agency, a decision she called both 'the best thing I ever did' and 'heartbreaking'. Gabbie also reminisces fondly about her work at Scope, taken over by Ketchum shortly after her arrival, where Britpop ruled and Euro '96 offered exiting consumer brand opportunities.

The experience she gained fed into her second leap into the unknown; the launch of Frank PR. Now a consumer stalwart, she started the agency with Andrew Bloch and Graham Goodkind, both of whom had left Lynne Franks.

For the mother-of-three, who admits she 'likes change,' it was partly a kickback against an image the industry has yet to fully shake off. 'I thought this was the chance to do something different and we just wanted to do PR on our own terms. It was PR without the bullshit, as opposed to the legacy of Franks, which not everybody thought was a positive thing,' she says, adding they wanted to show 'it was not all about crystal ball waving'.

Gabbie had her second child, Remy, not long before deciding to launch Frank PR, which presented challenges, but she nevertheless relished building an agency that has since gone from strength to strength.

Steve Cumming, now head of sponsorship at Chelsea Football Club, worked with Gabbie over many years while at Carlsberg and Diageo. He talks of her 'big ideas' that were 'ahead of her time', adding: 'She has always managed to be both very committed to her job, her family and friends, something testament to the way she builds relationships.'

Perhaps suffering with itchy feet, she left the fast-growing agency to spend four years as a consultant, giving her an 'industry-wide' view of PR. Then came the job that preceded her move to Seventy Seven, overseeing Slice PR's acquisition and rebranding to Mischief on behalf of Engine.

Head of planning at Edelman, Ali Gee, who worked with Gabbie at 3 Monkeys, says this top-level experience - at Frank particularly - helped mould a 'ruthless commercial acumen', a rare addition to the creative and strategic flair needed at senior level.

'Someone I met recently asked me why I was still in PR,' says Gabbie. 'I say it's a fantastic time to be in PR - it's our time now and it really matters.'

Hearing her call to action as she embarks on her latest professional quest, the image of a younger Gabbie, banner in hand alongside fellow protesters, is not a difficult one to imagine.

CV

2011 Managing director, Seventy Seven PR

2009 Managing director, Slice PR

2005 Freelance consultant

2000 Founder and joint managing director, Frank PR

1996 Account director; board director, Scope Communications (became Ketchum in 1997)

1993 Account manager; account director, Revolver Communications

1992 Secretary to account executive, The Public Relations Business (now Starfish Communications)

1991 Receptionist, Bloomsbury Publishing

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

The first step is always the hardest, so moving from the secretarial job with Bloomsbury Publishing to my first PR account executive role was a big moment. And joining to lead Seventy Seven at this point, when it is such a great time for PR.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Two people stand out. James Maxwell, the co-founder of Scope who sadly died of a brain tumour in 2003. He cared about all his staff and clients, and genuinely listened to those around him. Martin Ballantine taught me that while our profession is hard work and demanding, it is also great fun and that one can laugh through most things.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

Smile and say 'yes'.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

The ability to do the above, while making a great cup of tea.

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