PROFILE: Sara Render, Co-founder, Kinross + Render -- Brutally Honest

'I was expelled from boarding school at the age of 16 after organising a protest march about our living conditions. We wanted to get more attention, so I set fire to some bathing huts. At which point we got lots of attention...'

Sara Render
Sara Render

So started a life of getting noticed for Kinross + Render's self-styled ‘old campaigner' and founder Sara Render.

Render is now celebrating 21 years since co-founding the agency and, aged 50, she has the air of a loveable home-counties mot­her.

But you would not want to get on the wrong side of her. Render was once a ‘very naughty' child, and when she wasn't burning down bathing huts she was sticking rings through her nose. She first discovered the power of the media to stir up trouble as a student, when her car was stolen.

‘The police forced entry to my flat and accused me of crashing my own car. Then the insurance company refused to pay. So I started a mini campaign. I sent pictures of my car to the local newspaper - it helped that I was a 19-year-old girl lying on the bonnet. But it made me realise that the media are good for righting wrongs.'

Despite the fact that she now has a ‘more jaundiced view of the press', it is this imp­assioned approach that has followed Render through the development of the agency, formed alongside Vyvyan Kinross in 1987 (Kinross left five years ago to form his own media training company).
K+R's pro-bono work for groups such as the Alzheimer's Society and Help The Hospices has proved as much of a source of pride as corporate clients such as Allied Domecq and Shell UK. There are personal reasons for supporting these charities.

Sara RenderRender's father died a year ago, before which he joined a hospice, following ‘callous treatment' at a hospital.

‘When I visited him in hospital, he was being fed and I noticed he was wincing. I realised the food was boiling hot. The next day he had burns all over his lips and throat.'

Render's career seems to have been fuelled by emotion. She wastes little time discussing facts and figures, and when she comes out with the old adage that she is not driven by money, for once it is believable.

‘All business is personal. I used to worry that I got wound up, but then I spoke to people about it and it was comforting to find we felt the same way. You're right to be pissed off if you've been axed by a client.'

There are two sides to Render. While she is charming and extremely likeable in person, she says she is not good at being polite and does not care whether people like her or not. And she is known to strike the fear of God into account executives merely by enquiring what they are working on.
BGL Group senior PR manager Faith McMath started her PR career as a graduate trainee at K+R, where she worked for five years.

‘She [Render] was quite fearsome at the time - especially when I double-booked her for a meeting,' reveals McMath. ‘But she gave me a fantastic grounding in PR, and devoted a lot of time to inspiring both myself and numerous others starting out in the industry.'

Render advocates the use of ‘Belbin's self-perception' personality testing system for recruitment, partly because she is a self-confessed terrible judge of character: ‘I fall in love with everyone,' she says.

Oddly, Render describes herself as a ‘shaper plant' - creative and abounding with nervous energy.
‘Many clients stay in spite of me. Our client auditing says we suffer from an over-abundance of honesty. Some clients love us for that, some find it threatening and difficult,' says Render. ‘The ex-manager of Olivetti still bangs on about how I threw a file at him. As I remember, I was simply throwing it back.'

For such a well-known agency K+R is smaller than you would expect - with 24 people servicing £1.3m worth of business.

‘You've got to ask yourself, why aren't we bigger?' she admits with characteristic honesty. ‘To be big, you have to do things that you don't want to do. You have to put up with clients you don't like. Occasionally we've done that and it's been a disaster.'

She says that whenever the agency gets past the £3m mark, she finds it uncomfortable, because ‘that's the point where you've got to be a manager, which isn't my forte. We should be a big business and we're not, because I'm not a sufficiently good manager'.

Despite this perception, Render is also chair of the increasingly successful ECCO International, the network of agencies to which K+R is affiliated. She says the success of ECCO is adding its own pressure for K+R to grow.

So what about the future? Surely Render must be considering loosening her tight hold of K+R's reins? Her answer suggests she has given this much thought.

‘I've got ten years. In five I can't be the MD,' says Render. ‘I want someone to take over, but I have not found a team that wants to own the business and take on the responsibility.'

Perhaps the prospect of stepping into Render's shoes could be a tall order for many? As much as Render protests that the agency is not just about her, she has stamped her personality all over it - a strong-willed maverick who subscribes to the old-fashioned view that PR should be about having fun, ‘and the rest is just propaganda'.

‘I don't think I've been very good at being told what to do,' she smiles. ‘I just want to do good work for good people. I've never much liked the idea of having a job. It's too much like being in the army.'

CV
1987 Co-founder, Kinross + Render
1986 Account director then deputy MD, Design Associates
1983 Press officer and marketing manager, Conran Associates
1981 Assistant editor then marketing manager, Arthur Young McClelland Moore
1980 Editorial assistant, Chancerel

TURNING POINTS
What was your biggest career break?
At Arthur Young McClelland Moore, I was the only person who worked there who knew something about marketing. I got over-promoted, which was compensated for by being really well-trained. It gave me enormous confidence. I was really lucky to have a boss like Andrew Darnill.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?
Work hard. Do not stop learning. The world constantly changes, so you need to keep researching what is going on if you are going to get anywhere. If you don't love it, don't do it. If you have more than two weeks when you feel slightly sick at the thought of work, get another job.

Who was your most notable mentor?
The people I've learned from in terms of their sheer niceness would be Quentin Bell, Adrian Wheeler and Christopher Broadbent. But Vyvyan Kinross and Darnill, the marketing partner at Arthur Young McClelland Moore, were real mentors.

What do you prize in new recruits?
Brains, energy and a gift for friendship. I want to know they can sustain long relationships. We also use the Belbin personality test. There are lots of bright kids out there but too many haven't been taught to lose - that is the only way you can learn how to win.

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