Profile: Nina Wheeler, owner, Brazen

Nina Wheeler might well be the most talked about agency PR professional in the North-West. And whatever anyone says, they cannot claim that her agency - Brazen - has failed to turn heads.

The Manchester consultancy, which has 30 staff and annual turnover of £2.3m, has just celebrated its fifth birthday and moved into new premises. The party - complete with hot-tub and pole-dancers - was very much on-message as far as the outlandish Brazen brand is concerned.

The ‘B' in Brazen's logo is meant to look like a pair of breasts, and the agency's new offices are awash with
orange - orange stripes on the walls, orange chairs, even orange ink in the boardroom pens.

As Wheeler - tall, slim and suitably flame-haired - says: ‘We're Brazen by name, Brazen by nature.'

An English and philosophy graduate from Birmingham University, Wheeler began her career at a small agency, Marksman PR, before moving to Harrison Cowley and then Mason Williams. At the latter she met Brazen co-founder Emma Beck (née Thornley), and - at 27 - decided to go it alone to ‘do something more daring'. At the time, she says, Manchester's PR scene was stagnant: ‘For 15 years it was just the big three - Mason Williams, Communique, Staniforth.'

Although keen to stress her respect for her former bosses at Mason Williams - John Williams and Rita Rowe - Wheeler admits that they fell out over a client soon after she left. Wheeler and Rowe have not spoken since.

And as the agency grew, Brazen ruffled even more feathers. Wheeler's fiancé was - until recently - David Bell, CEO of Manchester-based ad agency Cheetham Bell JWT. There has been speculation that Wheeler was drawing from a pile of his cash to fund Brazen, although she strongly denies this, saying the agency's set-up costs were actually minimal: ‘We already had a client. All we had to pay for was a month's rent on one room, one lap-top and some furniture. When you set up a PR business, that's all you need.'

Some also gossip that Wheeler's 11-year relationship with Bell gave her an advantage when it came to winning business. But Wheeler points out that of Brazen's 38 clients, just two are shared with Cheetham Bell JWT.

Brazen is now in the process of buying back Bell's shares (PRWeek, 22 September).

There are other reasons why Brazen has raised eyebrows - on the local scene, at least. Last year's North-West CIPR Awards, for example, were memorable for raucous Brazen celebrations. And the agency's website even advises visitors who are ‘not feeling Brazen today' to instead visit the websites of Mason Williams, Staniforth and Communique.

Simon Donohoe, who reports for the Manchester Evening News, describes Wheeler as ‘feisty', adding: ‘Nina must be pretty tough to have shaken up the scene in the way she has.'

Wheeler herself says: ‘The Manchester PR scene was like an old-boys' network - all the big agencies were run by men. But us setting up enabled others to think they can do it - lots of other agencies have launched in Manchester. It's not just the "big three" talking about how marvellous they are - the PR mafia. There's lots of different speciality agencies now.'

Wheeler is the consummate PR professional, even turning my inquiry about her hobbies into a plug for clients -‘We go skiing with North Face every year, and I love drinking in The Lowry's bar…'

She also takes time to express admiration for many of the more senior members of Manchester's PR scene, particularly former Communique CEO Paul Carroll.

As for the future, Wheeler will not be expanding Brazen down south (‘If clients don't want to work with Brazen because we don't have a London office, they're not right for Brazen'). Nor will she be selling any time soon, she adds.

Later, she concedes: ‘All I'm interested in is doing my job and making sure my clients are getting loads of coverage, and that staff are happy. I don't give a shit whether or not I am the most popular person in the PR world.'

CV - Nina Wheeler

2001
Owner and co-founder, Brazen

1998
Senior account director,Mason Williams 

1996
Account manager, Harrison Cowley

1994
Account executive, Marksman PR

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