'It was a leap of faith when we first moved here' - Talking Creativity with Golin's 'Brit abroad', Charlie Coney

In our latest interview with a leading PR creative, Sunny Side Up partner Nick Woods talks to US-based Brit Charlie Coney, executive creative director at Golin (West Coast Region).

Charlie Coney and his children Poppy and Max supporting the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team
Charlie Coney and his children Poppy and Max supporting the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team

“As a discipline, PR has traditionally had pretty fast turnaround times and been tasked with developing brilliant ideas quickly – and that's served us well over the past seven weeks."

Charlie Coney worked for Golin in London when it was in its old offices off Chancery Lane, and The Colony on Brook Street was the after-work hangout of choice. Today he lives in South Bay, Los Angeles, near Manhattan Beach and about as close to the ‘living the dream’ cliché as a Brit creative could imagine.

He still works for Golin, but has moved on from The Colony having been seduced by the US in 2017, partly because of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live in LA, and partly because of the creative challenge offered by setting up the agency’s West Coast creative dept.

I caught up with him to talk through his view on being a Brit in La-La Land, the creative differences, and how he had to prove he's “more than an accent”.

So Charlie, South Bay, the beach, lots of travel, big title… where did it all wrong?

Ha! It was a leap of faith when we first moved here, but these kinds of chances are pretty rare and, in the end, felt we had to take it. Professionally I think my eyes have been opened in a way I could never have imagined, and personally, well, the whole family has enjoyed our experience here. It’s an amazing city, state and country.

How do you see the difference between being a PR creative lead in London vs LA?

I guess there are some similarities – they’re both big global cities, after all. But California is massive, hugely diverse and very liberal; it’s the world’s fifth biggest economy and the diversity of people, perspective and background is never-ending. So spend and sheer volume of media opportunities reflects that. I also think, compared to London, there’s more separation between comms and marketing and ‘integrated’ work isn’t as commonplace as I saw in the UK.

The other difference is in-house production – we’ve built a team with a brilliant producer and a team of editors, designers, copywriters and a ton of external design and editing capabilities too. We’re seeing more demand than ever for amazing, super-slick content, produced quickly and effectively. So creative isn’t just selling ideas, but supporting that with content that can contribute a significant amount of revenue.

And is the approach to creative different?

We are about 60-strong in LA, but work regularly with other offices so it’s not unusual to have a seven-office brainstorm using shared Google Docs and video-conference calls. We often pitch with none of us in the same room until literally the day before. And that can be really tough, to get the best out of everyone.

But the flipside is, the melting pot we pull from is that much richer given how diverse this place is… we have literally every demographic, race, gender and sexual orientation imaginable and that adds fuel to the creative fire.

Which clients are you working on? All in LA?

I am based in LA but support San Francisco too, so work with a fair share of West Coast clients like Clif, Adobe and Twitter, alongside state bodies like the California Department of Public Health and California Avocados. I also support other client teams across the country, so there’s plenty of collaboration with our New York, Chicago, Miami, Toronto and Dallas offices.

Do you think your London role was almost the perfect training for your US role?

One hundred per cent. In London, I was the agency’s first creative director under (what was then) the new G4 model, and we built a team that turned creative into a fundamental part of the agency offer, and an income generator. I recruited some super smart people like Alex (Wood), Zac (Schwarz) and Gemma (Vardon), and we did some really punchy work; but we also learnt at Cannes, and started training and developing teams across Europe and Asia.

London is a shining jewel in the crown in global PR terms. Journalists are well-trained not to take PR at first glance and that leads to a certain rigour among teams; it teaches you to craft a story and make sure you’re working off a genuine cultural insight – and that’s critical regardless of your market.

Any issues from US clients when a Brit walks in as their new CD?

I don’t think so. I mean, maybe there was a certain novelty to begin with, on hearing my accent, but I was able to gradually build relationships, spend time with them, understand their attitude to risk, share some insights, work at speed and deliver for them. Once you’ve done it once, you’re off and running.

How has the lockdown affected you/your team/the agency's creative?

It's been a challenge for everyone to maintain focus, creativity and quality under these new circumstances, but I've been really pleased with how quickly we've adapted to it all. We’re used to collaborating virtually with people in different locations, and lockdown is no different. As a discipline, PR has traditionally had pretty fast turnaround times and been tasked with developing brilliant ideas quickly – and that's served us well over the past seven weeks.

In addition, much of the work we're now doing has real purpose and meaning to it, which provides an added incentive to do great work – if it was needed. We all miss the daily face-to-face interaction with each other, but regular video calls and connecting with other teams in other offices via Teams means it's sometimes easier to bounce ideas around than it was before.

PRWeek UK is committed to having a more diverse selection of commentators in our articles, and is compiling a list of BME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) PR professionals who are willing to be quoted. To be added to the list, please email john.harrington@haymarket.com and include your specialist areas of expertise, and/or preferred subjects for commentary.

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