Personal Image: The business of looking good

Image isn't everything but, as three brave PROs found out, it can affect how clients view you professionally. Maja Pawinska reports.

Even before image experts Trinny and Susannah started poking people on primetime TV in their drive to get us to dress better, it was common knowledge that first impressions count. And in the world of PR, an industry based on image, how PROs project themselves through what they wear is crucial.

Clients and workmates subconsciously make judgements about a person's role, capability, personality and success within a few seconds of meeting them. What one wears is a significant factor in this equation.

And while some might try to dismiss it, what PROs wear directly affects their business success. 'I've heard clients say they liked what an agency had to say, but were reluctant to hire it because its staff looked so shambolic,' says Khalid Aziz, chairman of The Aziz Corporation, which advises business leaders on improving their communications skills and personal effectiveness.

Dress-down culture

His comments are as stark as this. The days of automatically donning the uniform of the suit may well be over, but the dress-down culture seems to be causing more and more confusion. 'Some executives still equate a dress-down look with a dress-down mind, and may ask themselves how much attention to detail an agency will pay to campaigns and budgets if they don't dress appropriately. PR is too fast-moving to risk a comment that you are great once people get to know you - there just isn't the time,' says Aziz.

Losing a pitch purely because of dress might seem a little dramatic but Firefly Communications CEO Claire Walker agrees that even before a team starts to present to a client, its fate is often sealed: 'Before you have said anything, you can either be immediately recognised as a real professional and worth listening to, or look a shambles and be relegated to last position in a pitch parade. If you're relegated based on image you have a steep climb before a client listens to what you have to say.'

Aziz advises erring on the side of formality until you are absolutely sure of your client: 'You won't go too far wrong if you overestimate people's prejudices: a whole raft of professional men of a certain age still look aghast at anyone in jeans.'

Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule. Resonate has clients including Fila and Nuts magazine. MD Michael Frohlich agrees that while what consultants wear is important - particularly as many clients hire agencies because of that company's overall image - casual clothing is increasingly acceptable: 'Clients are looking for young, cool agencies and want to see that reflected in the agency office environment and the way people dress. But it shouldn't be a conscious effort - if you have hired the right people for you, the cultural fit should mean they instinctively dress right.'

Resonate doesn't have a dress code, but Frohlich says the team does talk about how to present itself in a pitch: 'We think about whether the client will expect jeans - as the majority of our clients will - or a suit. When we are first meeting clients I would expect staff to at least wear smart, clean jeans and tops rather than a ripped T-shirt and dirty, baggy jeans.

'But, as the MD I will often put a suit, or a shirt and blazer on, even if the junior members of the team are wearing jeans. This way clients feel like they are in a safe pair of hands. Clients might be looking for a cool agency, but they still need to take us seriously and see us as responsible.'

Confused? You should try not to be, says Aziz: 'Most PROs don't pay as much attention to grooming and dress as they should, through laziness or lack of time, but everyone is looking for an edge, and clothes are an important working tool.'

Aziz Corporation senior image consultant Debbie Gray adds that in choosing what to wear, PROs should ask themselves what perceptions they want colleagues and clients to have: 'Does what you are wearing match your brand values and those of your client? Bear in mind that they are buying a service from you and don't necessarily want you to look exactly like them. If you don't make the effort in what you wear, it doesn't say much about how much effort you will make for the client.'

When buying clothes for work, Gray advises changing the criteria you would normally use: 'Ask yourself "Is it professional, credible and creative?", for instance, rather than just "Does it fit and do I like the colour?".'

Walker gives her teams a helping hand with these decisions. Every employee goes through image training, and the company's expectations of dress are part of the induction process. 'For a handful of men and women who have struggled to find their individual style, we've arranged for private sessions with a personal shopper, which has transformed their image and really boosted their confidence,' she says.

Walker says times have changed since she was sent home to change into a trouser suit in 1984, but standards still need to be high: 'Occasionally I've politely suggested people buy a jacket or briefcase or, as a last resort, go home to change. I suggest people dress more formally than they need to, and look and behave more senior than they are. We have our fair share of tattoos and piercings, but they are hidden until we get the measure of our clients.'

SUZANNE ELLIS, SENIOR ACCOUNT DIRECTOR, FIREFLY COMMUNICATIONS

Debbie Gray - 'She looks professional, although black can look quite harsh, as well as sophisticated, and is a bit of a cop-out. The pink shoes soften the look - and along with the unusual ring shows she is a confident and creative individual - but they could easily go unnoticed. I can't tell the quality of the outfit so there are no clues to her role, which could be anything from a temp to a CEO.'

Khalid Aziz - 'I'm fed up with walking into businesses and seeing hordes of women in black - it's so boring, like a uniform. She does look well groomed but she needs some colour as the black makes her look washed out.'

Suzanne's response 'The way I put together an outfit is dependent on the day ahead. The day of the shoot was grey and cold and I had two meetings with tech firms. Knowing that I was to meet high-level executives, I chose black without being in a stiff, corporate suit for a look that I believe is classical, while still showing my personality with little touches such as the corsage and pink shoes. If I wore more colours, I'd be expressing my personality rather than my professionalism. If I was meeting one of my other clients, supermodel Georgina Glenville, I'd dress entirely differently.'

MARC PREMA-RATNER, MD, Z'EST PR

Debbie Gray - 'He looks professional and immaculately groomed, and the overall impression is of quality. The unconventional shoes and bold jacket are creative: this is not the outfit of a shrinking violet. The look would go down well in a creative industry, but should be used cautiously in a more traditional environment, where it could be perceived as too flamboyant.'

Khalid Aziz - 'The check jacket will get him noticed, but it is a high-risk strategy - he could equally be giving odds on the Gold Cup. He's clearly got a lot of personality, so why does he need the jacket? For me, it's just the wrong side of dapper.'

Marc's response 'I've always been interested in clothes, and attention to detail in the way I dress is reflective of the ethos of my agency.

Confidence is portrayed to clients by wearing what you are comfortable in. I agree that my style wouldn't work in healthcare or financial PR, but our clients are celebrity artists from around the world so I'm in a doubly creative business. On the way to the shoot someone crossed the road to tell me how much they liked what I was wearing, but however much you dazzle clients with expensive designer clothes, their ultimate judgement will be whether you deliver results.'

LISA COLLIN, CONSUMER ACCOUNT DIRECTOR, WEBER SHANDWICK

Debbie Gray - 'This is businesslike, with good use of accessories, and the contrasting colours give her impact. The loose hair, combined with the use of a soft blue, and more casual fabric trouser give her an approachable, non-threatening look. Her top is cut low, and while her jacket allows her to button up if necessary, movement could cause an unbusinesslike distraction.'

Khalid Aziz - 'She looks young, and I can't tell how senior she is: the long hair in particular doesn't give her a lot of gravitas. I would expect her to look more groomed, and to ask herself whether she is spending more on well-cut, quality clothes than she was five years ago.' Lisa's response 'I think it's essential to be yourself and feel comfortable in what you wear, rather than hide behind a "look". I am really pleased that Debbie says I look approachable, as this is what I want to achieve with clients and colleagues. I was surprised that Khalid felt I needed to be more groomed because I think my colleagues would probably have the opposite opinion.

'The days of having to wear a suit to be taken seriously are hopefully behind us. In fact, I can think of clients in the fashion and FMCG sectors who would be completely turned off if I walked into a meeting in a full power-suit.'

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