'Cheap stunts to make us like your brand won’t work anymore' - Talking Creativity with MSL's Kim Allain

In our latest interview with a leading PR creative, Sunny Side Up partner Nick Woods talks to Kim Allain, creative specialist at MSL.

'I will gladly try to break any ceiling that’s put in my way, but I can only do it by being authentically me,' says Kim Allain
'I will gladly try to break any ceiling that’s put in my way, but I can only do it by being authentically me,' says Kim Allain

This series has so far featured almost 20 of the most senior creative thinkers in British PR. This instalment is with Kim Allain, who, while still only in her mid-20s, is a creative specialist at MSL and, I suspect, part of the next generation of creative leaders in our industry.

I came across her for the first time last year when, as creative lead at the noisy Talker Tailor Trouble Maker, she joined the Creative Mentoring Project as a mentor. I then also noticed when she followed Jo Grierson out of TTTM and over to MSL – which is, to put mildly, different gravy.

We had a good old Zoom a week or two ago to talk about her role, her approach and her thinking.

Tell me about your role at MSL.

MSL is a much bigger agency than I’ve ever worked at, and I’m getting a range of different experiences. Part of my job is to bring my unique knowledge, culture and creative skill and act as bit of a bridge between a traditional PR account team set-up and a brilliant creative studio, who haven’t always been as close they could be.

Beyond that, we’re part of Publicis Groupe and I’m being given the chance to work with creative teams across the whole group, which is obviously amazing.

Can you describe what you bring that is different to your creative role?

I’m 27, I’m black, I’m a woman, and I’m from south London… there are not many like me in the industry, and I think that means I bring a really valuable view. I’m connected to a different culture and sub-cultures, so the culture I want to inject to a client’s work is, I think, really authentic and I know which artists will work, which won’t and which will look plain wrong.

I’m also from a generation for whom cheap stunts to try to make us like your brand won’t work anymore – we see through it. And we need to believe in you and your brand before we’ll buy it. I can help brands be believed.

Tell me more about the importance of authenticity.

It’s everything. If you’re a sportswear brand and you’re part of the British youth scene and BLM comes along, you have a choice: talk about its importance and how much you believe in it, or actually show you believe it, actually demonstrate its effect, act on it. Talk is cheap. People can see the difference between brands that talk a good game about how ‘London’ they are, versus those that actually get involved.

What’s your personal approach to creative development?

I like to hear opinions. Creatives, reputationally, have big egos, but for me ‘it takes a village’. I like to sound ideas out with people and ask for their improvements. I take as a wide a variety of reference points as I can – not just from my own background and culture, but I’m on a learning curve too, and I’m getting to know more elements of white, British culture too, so I can use elements from it. I call friends and ask them, I want valid data, valid arguments and valid emotions. And while I don’t mind not having my idea as ‘the winner’, it often sits with me to make a decision from all the inputs and I don’t mind that either. It’s not always a democracy!

Long or short deadline – what’s your preference?

I like to work to a mid-to-short deadline: I need some pressure, I need to really dig deep in a short time, to go into fight mode. And it nearly always starts with anxiety and adrenaline; I feel like my whole life is about leaning into adversity and accepting I’ll succeed. I care so much, I care about my creative, I lean into 'tough', so when the pressure is on I can remind myself I’ve never failed, I’ve always succeeded, even when really big challenges have come my way. So I embrace it and think of, and see, the positives. I actually fear the quiet; I find that much more unsettling – noise and busy is my world.

Race and diversity are obviously pretty hot topics. What’s your view?

Our industry clearly has problems with class, race and gender. And, for my part, I will gladly try to break any ceiling that’s put in my way, but I can only do it by being authentically me and by being true to who I am. I’m proud of my life and my background and I bring a really different perspective to clients from the majority of my peers. But I don’t want to be used as a poster-child for black female creatives; I want to do good work. If a by-product of that is there are other people like me, looking at me and wanting to do their version of it, then that’s even better.

Do you think being black affects you in PR?

I think it used to. I come from a different background, and was in an industry that doesn’t represent me, so to begin with there was a shrivel… I was the only black person in the room, I felt like I stuck out and I was shy. I was in brainstorms thinking: “Hey, I had that idea 10 minutes ago”, but not saying anything. But that’s not me, that’s not who I am, so I grew. I’m a lot bolder now and it doesn’t seem to be doing me any harm.

A lot of people think PR can be a rough career, what’s your view?

I’m from Camberwell. Things in south London can be rough, so someone crying because they missed a deadline? Sorry babes, that is not rough!

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