'Flip PR's role in the food chain': Unity on awards, sector future and how to be a creative comms force

Unity's 'progressive DNA' has made it a creative force in UK PR. John Harrington gets the lowdown from the founders of the 2016 PRWeek Awards Agency of the Year.

It’s unusual to drink beer during a business profile interview, but here we are. I’m in the London nerve centre of PR agency Unity with founders Nik Govier and Gerry Hopkinson. It’s late Friday afternoon and we’re sipping from bottles amid the pre-weekend office buzz.

There’s a feeling of tools being down, but looking around the office there’s plenty of evidence of the creative work for which Unity is famous, not least the board etched with notes from a recent brainstorm session. It’s an apt setting for an agency that has become one of the UK’s most award-winning creative consultancies.

This has been another landmark year for Unity, as it added to its impressive PRWeek Awards haul by being named Agency of the Year and securing five campaign gongs at the October event.

It’s some achievement for an agency that is a relative minnow in national terms – ranked 75th by revenue in PRWeek’s most recent Top 150 list (revenue rose 20 per cent to £3.2m last year). But with an impressive roster that, over the years, has included Marks & Spencer, Diageo, Amazon, Unilever and Cancer Research UK, Unity is clearly doing much right.

Govier and Hopkinson met at now-defunct PR agency Band & Brown, setting up the corporate and B2B arm in the early 2000s, before its sale to Canadian marcoms group Cossette. Going it alone, the duo established Unity in 2005. The terms of their departure forbade them from taking Band & Brown staff or clients. This was actually a good thing, says Govier, as it forced them to think differently.

It was more by accident than design that Unity started doing consumer work. "The first client we had was Capita, which is about as hardcore corporate as you could get," Govier explains. "Then a friend rang me up and said: ‘We’re looking for a consumer PR agency, could you recommend any?’ I said: ‘We’re not doing a whole lot at the moment, give us the brief and we’ll see what we can do.’"

The client was homelessness charity Crisis. Unity’s campaign focused on a Crisis Christmas Pud "with all the trimmings". People were urged to buy the dessert, with proceeds helping to pay for food for the homeless, plus "trimmings" such as seeing a doctor or dentist, or getting a haircut.

The work foreshadowed what was to come.

Breaking new ground

Govier says: "Eleven years ago, it was the advent of experiential and social, none of those things had existed before. Because we had no idea what we were doing… we took all the principles we knew [and decided to] see what’s possible. As a result, we created an absolutely ground-breaking campaign, but we didn’t realise that at the time – until we entered it into the PRWeek Awards.

Unity entered five categories that year, and was shortlisted in all of them. "That really set the blueprint for who we’d become," says Govier. "The fact that we didn’t, at the time, know what we were doing meant we were not in any way formulaic. We were always pushing the boundaries, and that progressive DNA, we hope, has continued onwards."

Hopkinson describes Unity’s approach as a "humanist take on marketing". He explains: "Most people would describe marketing in terms of behaviour: you try to get the target audience to think, do, feel, and then they do what you want. We started from a completely different point of view: that the 21st century belongs to human beings, to employees, to consumers, and brands should, and do, want to serve them and make their lives better."

Or, as Govier expresses it: "It’s about increasing human happiness."

The pair’s backgrounds point to their potential as a creative force. Before moving to the UK, Hopkinson, who grew up in Vancouver on Canada’s west coast, studied English and critical theory at the University of British Columbia. "It was sort of a wanky way of talking about criticism and thinking about thinking – how to apply your brain," he says.

After working as an art reviewer for Time Out, Hopkinson joined PR agency QBO on a friend’s recommendation. His debut client was online and telephone bank First Direct. "I got the bug. I got hooked." A first stint at Band & Brown followed, before he moved in-house at MasterCard, then, after a short experience "in the dotcom world", returned to Band & Brown.

Govier studied history of art in Leicester and was inspired to enter PR by something quite different. "I thought it sounded quite interesting, based on two words: Absolutely Fabulous.

Moving to London "with nothing but a set of dreams", Govier became a tour guide at Madame Tussauds, where she worked with the PR team to gain experience. "I realised it was something I loved." She joined PR shop Scope (later bought by Ketchum), where she rose to head of new business before moving to Larkspur, which was acquired by Band & Brown in 2000.

Govier and Hopkinson make for an engaging business partnership, and are fizzing with energy – despite the beer – as they discuss plans for the business and their views of the wider industry.

But first, how does Unity devise its campaigns? Hopkinson identifies three key stages: understanding the brief through interrogation; getting to know the product and audience; and third, the "secret ingredient" – "filling your head with good stuff".

"Really great ideas come from communities or individuals who are curious about certain things. We spend a lot of time going out into the world, talking to other people, observing things, reading, going to gigs, arguing in bars, listening to TED Talks. You’ve got to fuel yourself. Geeking out on information is really important. You can’t stop being curious.

Group brainstorming sessions, where "everyone’s allowed to speak up", are used, but Hopkinson cautions: "There’s a temptation to say: ‘I’m going to have the one killer idea.’ We’ve all been there and we’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work. But if you get 15 half-baked ideas, little thoughts, then you can rank them very quickly, and see the connections, and very quickly stuff jumps out. That becomes a direction."

Flexibility and smart thinking

Over time, Unity has moved toward having fewer, bigger clients. This suits the agency’s structure, which is more like a studio or production company, with about 35 employees and roughly the same number of permanent collaborators providing services such as social-media content. It allows the agency to ‘tool up’ quickly when big client work arrives, and reduces the extra wage burden in quieter times.

The co-founders have strong views on where PR agencies are going wrong at present. "It’s still too siloed from the client perspective," says Govier. "Many of the ways they are structured do not bring out the best in agencies. They still see the world as marketing and comms – as two separate things – whereas, of course, human beings don’t distinguish between the two.

"There are a lot of people trying very hard to keep PR, in its broadest sense, separate from the rest of the marketing mix without realising they are actually not doing that. All they’re doing is allowing other disciplines – ie advertising – to filter into this space. We’re allowing them to put all their brilliant resources into thinking about our world, and [the industry is] not being brave and bold enough to do the same."

For Govier, there’s no reason why PR’s usual perceived role in the ‘food chain’ can’t be flipped, with advertising amplifying the PR campaign.

"Agencies are going to start to be defined by their intention," Hopkinson predicts. "The real opportunity for PR in the next decade is not to try to square up to ad agencies and buy up all the talent to make good 30-second spots, or whatever’s flavour of the month. The really smart thing to do is to say that behaviour is virgin territory. Looking at how brands behave and figuring out brand behaviour strategies is way more interesting, and potentially more valuable, than communication strategies."

What of Unity’s future? Govier says it is "approached often" by suitors, but a sale would be a "monumental decision". However, she’s open to the idea of having a partner to "take Unity to the next level". This could mean entering other countries; Hopkinson mentions Paris, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo as desirable locations. A "more defined corporate offering" is also considered.

Whatever the future holds, who would bet against Unity remaining a creative force to be reckoned with in the years ahead?

"We are in rude health, and we’re just going to keep doing it because we love our work," Hopkinson concludes. "That’s the truth. We’re lucky. We’re lucky, lucky, lucky."

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