Kath Pooley, Bite Communications’ new MD, still cannot believe she has landed such a senior role at only 34. ‘I pinch myself sometimes and think, oh my God, am I going to get found out?’
Her surprise is understandable when you discover she fell into PR by chance.
Unsure of what to do after graduating from university, she saw an ad for a graduate trainee at Lewis PR. The then ten-person agency was based in Chris Lewis’ old flat in Covent Garden, above an Indian restaurant and a Charles Worthington salon.
Pooley amazed herself by getting the job. ‘I’ve always had a certain degree of self-doubt,’ she admits, ‘and I still have that.’
She mastered this lack of confidence so well, however, that after six months Lewis handed her a trainee of her own to manage. It was then Pooley realised PR was her calling, and she ended up staying at Lewis for 12 years. She claims never to have thought about joining another agency, but an approach from Bite CEO Clive Armitage set in motion a chain of events that eventually saw her leave Lewis in July of this year.
She was hesitant about moving to Bite, and worried whether she would ‘ever feel as passionately about another company as I did about Lewis’. But she was struck by Armitage’s passion, and after six months of discussions decided to leave her position as UK general manager at Lewis.
It was not just Armitage’s pitch that won her over. She had always admired Bite as a competitor, and quietly cursed whenever the agency’s name came up on a pitch list. A client roster with big names such as Face-book and Apple helped too, as she mostly worked with challenger brands at Lewis.
Bite may have the heritage and the big brands, but this past year has been difficult. In May, David Hargreaves departed for the US, leaving the London office without a UK MD for a few months; then it lost a sizeable chunk of its Samsung account to Weber Shandwick in June.
The agency moved quickly to shore up senior management, however. Hugh Birley, CEO of Next Fifteen sister agency Lexis PR, immediately stepped in as interim MD, and within three months Armitage had moved to London, Ruby Quince – founder of guidebooks website Itchy Guides – had joined as head of digital, and Pooley had been lured from Lewis.
Pooley denies the agency has been in a slump this year, but agrees the presence of the global CEO and a new UK MD is something ‘that needed to happen’.
The injection of new blood seems to have revitalised Bite. Armitage says the energy in the office has gone up ‘several notches’ since Pooley’s arrival in September, describing her as a ‘cultural anchor’.
Pooley’s new boss credits her with a dynamic personality and lack of pretension, and former colleagues agree that Pooley is a lot of fun. An ability to laugh at herself, a propensity for swearing, and a talent for holding her composure in the bar all feature as personality plus-points. Clive Booth, director of public aff-airs and media relations at the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, worked with Pooley at Lewis and says her fun-loving side is balanced by a ‘steely dedication to her job’.
She will need to be dedicated to the cause if she is serious about her ambitious plans for Bite. She wants offices in Europe, initially in France and Germany, and not just associates either – these will be wholly-owned and staffed with Bite employees. Opening new offices during such an uncertain economic period could be risky, but will be planned around client needs.
There are also plans to boost the agency’s 50-strong London base with new hires – a bold move when some agencies are imposing recruitment freezes. Pooley’s tactics for survival in a downturn are managing business pragmatically and investing in the right places. ‘My number one priority for the UK is finding and keeping the best talent,’ she says. ‘This is a brilliant market for that. We’ve got more CVs than ever before.’
Booth says Pooley is ‘one of the most positive people I know’ and her attitude to running an agency in tumultuous times demonstrates this. ‘You need to have more energy in a downturn, but it forces you to make sure that everything you do is done to perfection,’ she explains. ‘We’re going to go on the offensive and attack the downturn with optimism and proactivity.’
She is aware this fighting talk could open her up to accusations of naivety, but she is not burying her head in the sand. ‘The reality is that our economy will change,’ she says. ‘But it would be wrong to come in as Bite’s new MD and say we’re all doomed.’
And if she can steer Bite through the next 12 months, she may banish the lingering demons of self-doubt once and for all.
Kath Pooley’s turning points
What was your biggest career break?
Winning the 2004 PRWeek Young Communicator of the Year award improved my confidence; it made me realise other people believed in me.
What advice would you give anyone climbing the career ladder?
Go looking for responsibility – don’t wait for it to be given to you.
Who was your most notable mentor or influence?
Ken Deeks, a co-founder of Byte Night [the IT industry’s sleep-out to raise money for youth homelessness].
The way that he has taken Byte Night from year one, where it raised a few thousand pounds, to this year, where it raised about £450,000, is inspirational. I’ve been doing Byte Night for about five years now, and every single year he has approached it with the same tenacity and passion.
What do you look for in new recruits?
Attitude counts most. They have to have a passion for PR. They have to take the initiative and go looking for opportunities.