There are two ways of getting to the top - by moving and shaking your way there, or by taking the softly, softly approach demonstrated by Graz Belli. The MD of Band & Brown started her career at the same agency 13 years ago and, having overseen the introduction of the first recognised PR apprenticeship scheme, has laid the foundations for others to follow in her footsteps.
The scheme, introduced late last year, has given two young people aged 16 and above the chance to work in a real, paid PR job with recognised training towards NVQs.
'This was an opportunity for us to practice what we preach,' says Belli. 'All the staff were really behind it, as it was their idea.
We are a hotbed for entrepreneurship.'
The two young people currently housed at Band & Brown could do worse than to follow Belli's example. The 37-year-old is as far away from your average egotistical agency head as you can get and clearly feels awkward being the focus of attention.
But the fact she was promoted by agency founders Nick Band and Gill Brown to take over the day-to-day reins in November 2008 shows what a valued commodity she is within the agency.
Her vision for Band & Brown, and PR in general, is to lead clients' brand communications ahead of other marketing disciplines.
'PR has always been subordinate, but now it's time for PR to redefine itself,' she says purposefully.
'The recession has been hard on the reputation of brands. People have been looking to navigate some of these issues and because of that we've got the ears of the CEOs and senior management teams.'
Band & Brown CEO Brown describes the moment she realised she could hand over to Belli as 'strangely cathartic'. 'She has incredible drive, an inner strength that is a delightful blend of creativity, strategic thinking and business acumen,' says Brown, adding that Belli's feel for brand communications and 360 degree media literacy are a step up from her own.
But it has not been the easiest entry into the world of MD-ing. She took the role as the banking crisis hit and she has grown and developed as the recession has deepened and worsened. Surely this was a tough time for Belli?
'No, I was really excited by the opportunity, but it was quite a challenging environment. I had lots of plans, but decided not to put them all in place immediately.
I thought it was important to shore up the business. The biggest challenge was trying to make sure our existing clients felt secure with the agency.'
Born to Italian parents, who run their own restaurant in Newport, Belli is as cautious as one would expect from someone who has spent a large part of her life working in the same offices in Camden.
When asked what she would be doing if she was not in PR, she is momentarily stumped. Finally, she comes up with the surprising choice of a Formula One racing driver, then cringes with embarrassment at having said it.
Belli is more comfortable with discussing her plans for the agency than talking about herself. She aims to build Band & Brown's planning offering, while expanding into CSR and consumer PR.
One sign of her commitment to intelligence-led campaigns is the recent appointment of Future Foundation co-founder Melanie Howard as a non-executive director. Belli explains: 'Clients expect that rigour.
They need to know that campaigns are based on evidence and by running them, they will have a direct impact on their business. But it has to be combined with creativity.'
Iris PR MD Bill McIntyre recalls joining Band & Brown at the same time as Belli: 'For me, the clear quality that she displayed from the moment she walked in the door was her work ethic.
'She's passionate about what she does and dedicated to delivering for her clients.
There's no doubt this dedication has served her well in terms of leading by example, and it's testimony to her that she has worked her way up from a trainee to managing director in one agency.'
But what is it that really excites Belli about the job? 'I still like being involved in accounts. I enjoy driving strategies and love working with teams and people.'
National Lottery Promotions Unit director Lisa Quinn confirms Belli's shunning of the limelight: 'Frankly, I am amazed you got Graz to agree to a profile piece, as she hates talking about herself and is a rare mixture of talent and modesty.
'She is also funny, clever and engaging, so she's great company. Graz is super bright - her brain works at a million miles an hour and she is always one step ahead.'
GRAZ BELLI's turning points
- What was your biggest career break?
My biggest career break was getting the job at Band & Brown. I didn't realise it would be, as I had just graduated from university. I 've always been interested in languages, which is why I took a French and Russian degree. I wanted a career that would involve this and also be very creative and ideas-driven, which is why I chose PR. It's been a fantastic journey and it only feels like yesterday.
- Have you had a notable mentor?
Obviously, Nick and Gill have been a huge influence. Their strong leadership and emphasis on people is inspirational. My parents too, as they taught me the importance of hard work.
- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
Get a mentor. Someone you respect and with whom you can spend time down the pub. Someone who is going to provide you with impartial advice and tell some home truths, if need be.
- What do you prize in a new recruit?
I prize self-determination and the ability to understand that everyone sees life differently.
- 2008 Managing director, Band & Brown Communications
- 2006 Board director, Band & Brown
- 2004 Associate director, Band & Brown
- 2003 Group account director, Band & Brown
- 2000 Account director, Band & Brown
- 1999 Account manager, Band & Brown
- 1998 Account executive, Band & Brown
- 1997 Graduate trainee, Band & Brown