Entrepreneur Interview: with Kari Owers, OPR
Posted on the 16 May 2016
Winner of North East Woman Entrepreneur of the Year in 2012, Kari has been a PR consultant for 20 years, working on campaigns for hundreds of organisations large and small, private and public, start up or multi-generational.
She founded O in 2005 and is also a non-executive director at Northumberland Tourism and development agency for the commercial creative sector, Generator, as well as sitting on the steering committee for Northern Design Festival.
So Kari, tell me a bit about your background.
I grew up in Northern Ireland and come from several generations of journalists. I left Northern Ireland in the early 90s to begin my studies in Newcastle - not journalism though – after studying art and design my degree was in fashion design. After graduating, I started a job in consumer PR, at an ambitious firm. I’d recommend anyone starting their career joins a young entrepreneurial company, as it allows you to develop quickly and learn the ropes in business close up.
Some years later I moved to a one-man-band, where we became the first agency offering Pay As You Go PR in the North East. This was a really interesting time; it was during the first Dot Com Boom, which made it a really exciting time to be in media relations. Then, in 2005, shortly after my second child was born I started my own business.
When you started out, what was your first business premises?
As you might expect, it was at a desk in the loft. We soon moved into a space in a client’s office on the Quayside and we stayed there for a couple of years, before moving to Woods Pottery in Ouseburn, where we’re still based today. There were only a few of us in the company then, so it felt a bit weird having a small team rattling around in a big office but we have filled it and we love the area.
I really like Ouseburn, it hasn’t gentrified and lost its roots. There’s a strong creative community and it has a really vibrant music and cultural scene. In the early days, before we had a boardroom, we had meetings in The Cluny - we still do sometimes!
How has O grown over the years?
We grew really fast in the early years then the recession hit, so we tread water for a while, but after the country came out of the downturn we started growing again. In fact, last year was our tenth year in business and it was a record year for growth.
For us our growth has often come from a game-changing client. We did a store launch for Dr. Martens in Newcastle, this lead to us helping to promote all of their stores across the North, and now we handle all the owned and operated UK store PR.
Did the recession affect how you do business?
The recession changed our direction of travel in terms of services but not our approach to our clients. We shouldn’t pretend it was an easy time as each day was unpredictable, but some of the decisions we’d made before it hit helped us. We had, and still have, a broad portfolio of clients, which spread the risk across a number of sectors.
To fully understand our business at this time, you have to understand it against the backdrop of the rise of digital media. At the same time as the economy crashed, things like Facebook and Twitter became huge.
A lot of our clients are very entrepreneurial businesses who saw the recession as an opportunity as much as a threat, which allowed us to explore new avenues for them. They trusted us to embrace new digital communication trends, and social media became a significant area of growth for the agency.
How has the market changed since you started?
Our original business plan was written before Twitter even existed, so you can imagine it’s changed a bit. Things have changed dramatically and for the better. Some people think that PR is just about sending out press releases, but it’s about so much more, and social media has brought our skills in relationship-building and reputation management to a whole new platform.
We now create content for a multi-channel world, which makes for a completely new environment for a comms professional in which to operate.
What would you say your Unique Selling Points are?
All PR agencies would say their connections in the media, and that’s a big part of it, but our network of digital influencers is also something that stands us apart. We set up the North East Blogger Awards to recognise the excellent work people are doing in this field and now we work with bloggers and Instagrammers across the world on campaigns – they create and share unique content for us and it makes for really exciting campaigns.
Our location also plays a huge part. Newcastle is the ideal place for our business, we have clients located across the country, from Belfast to Brighton, so we think being in the North East puts us in the centre of all of them.
How do you keep your people motivated?
We work hard at this and we’ve been recognised as such. We were recently named in PR Week ‘Best Places to Work’ awards as one of the top three small agencies in the UK to work for.
Developing our team’s careers is a huge part of everyone’s motivation too. We have Opprentices, which is a voluntary work placement scheme for final year students, many of whom come to work for us. We have the Graduate Ocademy, which is a 12-month fast-track programme that brings graduates into the world of communications, and our wider Ocademy programme provides continuous professional development for our whole team.
We’re a fun place to work, and factor in plenty of time for creativity and conversation, which is always a good motivator. Something we do that’s a bit different is the Pat on the Back Award, which is a peer-nominated recognition that comes with a personalised gift.
Every year we have an Oway Day together, these are never the same, one year we went to a music festival, another year we went to my roots and visited the city of Belfast. We also have lots of staff nights out and a charity fundraising programme, which are always popular.
Keeping your team motivated starts by having the right people and in our case that means interesting and enthusiastic people. Someone can have the skills you’re looking for but not be the right fit, but when someone is the right personality fit with the culture of your company then it motivates everyone around them.
How does your motivation now compare with that when you started the firm?
My motivation still comes from being able to surround myself with great people each day. Whether that’s working with talented colleagues or with great clients. When you work with a client who trusts you, and is willing to take a leap of faith with you, it’s really inspiring.
How would you describe your business structure?
My husband is my co-director, I’m mostly the face of the business and, as well as running our creative content studio, he looks after everything behind the scenes. We’re not a hugely hierarchical company so anyone has the potential to shape their career and I’m working on developing the future leaders in the business. We recently promoted one of our team to Head of Client Services as a part of our planning for growth.
Mentors are a huge part of what the Entrepreneurs’ Forum do, how has it helped you?
I’ve been a member of the Entrepreneurs’ Forum since day one, and I’ve had a number of mentors through it. Sometimes it has just been the case of meeting them once for a coffee to get advice on a specific issue, but I have had mentors on a more long-term basis, who have gone on to become good friends.
I’m happy to mentor other people in business, it’s nice to meet people and chat with them about what they’re trying to achieve. Within O, I mentor each of my senior team every month, but it’s not limited to that, my door is open to anyone looking to get into or get on in the industry.
I also mentor young entrepreneurs here and there. It’s always great to see their passion and drive and maybe help them with some strategic thinking or advice.
Got any big plans for the future?
The way people interact with the media has changed massively over the past decade. We, as a PR agency are changing with it, and this means taking our clients further into the digital world.
We have recently helped a client with a new digital communications platform - effectively an online magazine - where we are creating daily written, visual or video content - that’s the beauty of PR, it is constantly changing and we see its relevance as a discipline growing even more in the coming years.
You have had some recognition of your own recently
As well as the PR Week Best Places to Work awards in February, in March I was shortlisted in the final 36 for the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) Women of Tomorrow Awards. The best thing was being nominated by one of my own employees - that’s the recognition every entrepreneur seeks I think, to inspire the next generation.