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#PR – Ask the experts: Noel Penrose, chairman of Juniper2 and former commercial director at Omnicom

Written by Paul Stallard

Noel Penrose

Welcome to the next in my series of #PR – Ask the experts interviews. This month I spoke to Noel Penrose, chairman of Juniper2. Noel has worked for Omnicom agencies for 20 plus years in a variety of senior operational, commercial and general management roles. He has worked closely with the CEO, president, founder or chairman of large or small agencies to help them grow,  build, manage, change, lead and motivate performance from the business and management team.

How do I know he is an expert in this field? Because Noel has been my mentor for the past 12 months and go-to wise owl and I can vouch that he does all of the above. Enjoy.

Paul Stallard: Noel, would you please introduce yourself and explain why readers of this PR blog should be interested in your insight.
Noel Penrose: Through my small consultancy, Juniper2, I help people who want to improve the performance of their business, and their own personal performance as a leader.   I am a sounding-board, coach and mentor with many years of experience working alongside successful people as well as those who have made mistakes along the way.

Paul Stallard: You have written a book called Dadvice – what has been the best piece of advice you have received?
NP: I’m not sure there is a ‘silver bullet’ of a single piece of advice, but three pieces of great advice come to mind for me.  The first was ‘pick your battles’ which was given to me when I was getting hot under the collar about something that I perceived as a slight on me personally – I realised that I was taking the issue too personally and was able to rise above the issue to stay focused on the longer term need of the situation.  The second was about being fully-committed rather than partly-engaged if you want to be serious about change and have an impact.  You need to be giving it your all, your very best.  Part-time dipping-in to anything may be easier for you, but if you want to make things happen, you have to show up with all guns blazing and go for it.  The third, though, is probably the most important and it is a lesson I pass on whenever I can; don’t take failure as anything other than a chance to get it right next time. What matters is how we deal with the failure, how we get back on the horse and how we finish it that counts.  Confuscious said ‘our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising each time we fail’ – he was a smart man indeed!

PS: You have watched and managed the growth of many PR agencies – what are the stages of growth to look out for?
NP: Growth can come from many areas, but growth that comes from innovative thinking, innovative problem-solving for a client so they start to appreciate and value your contribution and commitment to their cause is the best kind of growth, because you feel great delivering it!  Growth that raises your game, growth that takes you to a new level yourself – that’s always the best kind.  That said, the changes from Infancy to Childhood are challenging, but the step from Childhood to Adolescence is most demanding on every aspect of the agency.

PS: What are the main challenges PR agencies face during the stages you have mentioned?
NP: The toughest phase of growth for any agency is when the founder has to step-up from hands-on managing to leading, from being ‘in the business’ to being ‘on the business’.  By that, I mean the founder needs to look up and out, to view the horizon and spend more time thinking about where the agency can go to, what competitors are doing, where the agency should be innovating, how the agency can retain its key talent, yet attract still greater skills to the business.  This is not an automatic step, and many don’t make it to the Adolescence stage because the founder either isn’t able to step-up, or lacks the insight to promote or recruit someone who can perform that forward-facing leadership role.  It’s lonely being the founder, you don’t have a boss and you can’t always talk to your senior team about your biggest issues without seeming uncertain or indecisive.  Where do leaders go when they have self-doubt?  They need to find a sounding-board or mentor; it’s a tough phase indeed.

PS: What are the common mistakes that management teams at PR agencies often make?
NP: From a purely operational performance perspective, the desire to satisfy client needs no matter the cost results in heavy over-servicing at most PR agencies.  I have found that over-servicing (or under-charging if you want to look at it that way) is most common in the PR element of the marketing communications sector.  The headline pricing of bill rates and fees is fine, but the account teams always spend more client time than anticipated, so many accounts break-even at best.  The mistake made by agency management is not knowing where the over-servicing occurs, which clients are loss-makers and what to do about it.  It means that some clients subsidise others, of course, and the best account managers (from a client delivery and satisfaction perspective) may not be the best from an agency performance perspective.  But few agency leaders can determine this without good operational management analysis.

PS: What are the biggest dangers of growth?
NP: Changes to culture are inevitable as a business grows, and PR agencies are no different.  As the organisation scales up, new ways of working are essential, processes and structure become important and non-billable senior management talent in HR, IT, finance and operations become essential.  All this changes the ‘way we are’ and cliques form internally.  It’s very hard to maintain the old, connected and dependent culture in the face of such essential change.  Founders can easily lose touch with what is happening inside the business, who people are and what work is being done.  That’s why the founder has to be able to step back and work ‘on the business’ rather than becoming buried inside it.  It’s the only way to preserve the culture, it’s the only way to inspire the talent.

PS: Improving performance is the dream of all agencies. What is the first thing that you would suggest any business owner looks at?
NP: Locking-in the key talent with some sort of performance reward, whether it is bonus, long-term growth incentive or share options is important.  Making profit an objective, rather than an output, is key to performance improvement, so too is managing by performance objectives – setting benchmarks for key performance metrics and indicators that can be measured and managed.  But these only work if those who can shape and influence the revenue and delivery of the work are aligned and facing the same direct  at the same time.   Unity and Clarity is an important mantra for agencies wanting to improve business performance.

PS: What makes a good leader?
NP: The definition I like is ‘leaders attach themselves to a cause, and take others on the journey with them’.  The key elements here are the cause and bringing others along.  A good leader is someone who holds firm to the cause, strives with a passion for it, and is able to encourage others to follow, through personality, belief, courage, empathy or force of character.  A leader sets an example that others aspire to.  I talk about the JEDI characteristics in some of my articles for leadership; Judgment, Empathy, Drive and Initiative, but perseverance is also key, so too a competitive streak to win. Not at all costs, but to succeed, to achieve the goal, to make the journey and deal with the failures along the way.  Shackleton embodied those characteristics for me; strength and courage in adversity, putting his men ahead of all else at all times.