'We need to think bigger and differently' says Kirsty Leighton on the evolution of City PR

The Hudson Sandler MD is hugely determined but tempers her persistence with a healthy dose of tactfulness, finds Alec Mattinson.

Will to succeed: Impossible is not in Kirsty Leighton's vocabulary
Will to succeed: Impossible is not in Kirsty Leighton's vocabulary

The convergence of advertising and PR may not be new, but Kirsty Leighton can claim to have recognised it earlier than most.

Back in the 1970s a six-year-old Leighton was picked to be the face of Pears Soap, fronting the historic brand's ads as Miss Pears. It was during her year-long reign that she got her taste for PR: 'When I met the PR team I just thought they had the most brilliant and exciting job,' she remembers.

Miss Pears may not provide the most natural of platforms for leading a financial comms agency, but the Hudson Sandler MD is used to confounding expectations.

There were more than a few eyebrows raised when the tech specialist shifted to the rather more austere world of City PR, with her effervescence seemingly the antithesis of the cliched grey men in grey suits.

'It was an easy decision,' the 41-year-old says of changing her consultancy role into a more permanent position two years ago. 'There was a huge opportunity to cross-sell a wider range of services to existing clients.

'One of the things (CEO) Andrew Hayes and (chairman) Michael Sandler wanted me to do was to look at the existing financial PR model as it was feeling like its life span was running short,' she explains. 'We needed to think bigger and differently.'

She admits the evolution was 'slow starting', but shifting Hudson Sandler's focus from pure financial comms to more proactive brand campaigns and reputation management has, she insists, paid dividends.

After kick-starting with a 2012 brand refresh (moving from a tagline of 'financial and corporate comms' to 'elevating comms'), Leighton claims the firm won a client every six weeks last year and she oversaw the launch of a distinct digital practice earlier this year - although she caveats: 'Our offer is still not as evolved as I'd like, but we will never walk away from financial PR. Our heart will always be in the City.'

Former colleague Claire Lematta, chief client officer at Waggener Edstrom, talks of Leighton's 'immense energy and charisma, strategic thinking and ability to motivate a team toward common goals'.

'Impossible is not in her vocabulary - if a first attempt is thwarted, she will reinvent the strategy until mission accomplished,' Lematta says. 'I don't think there is anything she couldn't do if she put her mind to it.'

A self-confessed social being, wine lover and advocate of not taking everything too seriously (her Twitter tag is @PRLaydee), nevertheless a fearsome drive lurks just underneath the surface.

There was no falling into PR for her - it was all meticulously planned. She describes writing to every agency on the PRWeek Top 150, getting rejected by them all, pestering them again and eventually securing 15 interviews and ten job offers. 'From early on I learned persistence pays,' she notes.

Her career began in consumer before morphing into tech via Weber Group and Edelman and taking her to Waggener Edstrom where her career took off. A series of rapid promotions followed, until she reached the exultant title of global head of client development, working with the heads of the business across the world.

Then came a move that did not work out. In 2010 she joined Text 100 as the tech agency's UK head - a move that elicits an exaggerated scowl when mentioned.

But ever the diplomat, she says: 'It wasn't about the agency itself, sometimes things just don't work out.' In fact she admits to considering life in the diplomatic corps, before deciding her 'slightly over-excited side' may not be cut out for the world of international relations.

After Text 100 she took a break, conceding that leaving Wag Ed to take another job with long hours and a life spent in airports was a mistake. 'I thought at the time the kids needed a bit more attention,' she says of her two sons. 'Then within four or five months of leaving I thought I was going to kill them,' she jokes. 'I love them dearly, but thought "actually I'm not cut out for this".'

Leighton is completely open about how family priorities have influenced her career path, but is noticeably less comfortable addressing the lack of women in leadership positions in the City PR industry.

Whether she is driven by modesty is unclear, but Leighton has no interest in being a standard-bearer for females in what has traditionally been a male-dominated domain. 'The clients tend to be male, but we've got a nice balance here,' she deadpans.

She works the equivalent of a four-day week, quick to add how lucky she is to have 'intelligent and experienced people' around her. 'I'm very fortunate that the situation here allows me to continue to put the children first,' she says. 'Well, equal first.'

Maybe the diplomatic service did miss out after all.

CV

2011 MD, Hudson Sandler

2010 SVP & MD, UK & Ireland, Text 100

2008 VP, global head of client development, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide

2007 VP, European director, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide

2005 Head of technology, UK, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide

2000 Associate director, Edelman

1997 Account director Europe, Weber Group Europe

1993 Account manager, Publicasity

Kirsty Leighton's turning points

What was your biggest career break?

I've been incredibly lucky to have had a number of different breaks, redirections and reinventions, moving from consumer to technology and then to an international focus. But probably the most accelerated part of my career was with Waggener Edstrom, where I moved quite quickly from head of tech to European director, to global head of client development.

Have you had a notable mentor?

My time at Wag Ed was under the wonderful Claire Lematta, chief client officer, who saw me relishing new opportunities and kept throwing them at me. She's a phenomenal woman, unbelievably inspiring and a brilliant sounding board.

What advice would you give people climbing the career ladder?

Take every opportunity thrown at you and never stop learning. Even if you stick to one sector, the industry is always evolving so you can't be formulaic. Finally, set some goals, stick to them and have fun.

What do you look for in new recruits?

Enthusiasm, ambition and a willingness to learn. Even when you've done something for a long time, you never know it all.

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