PR Interview with Kate Stevens, consumer technology director of AxiCom
About the agency
What’s been happening recently at AxiCom?
It’s been a busy time. In terms of client wins, one of our most recent is our reappointment by Linksys (Cisco Home Networking Group). On the agency side we’ve staffed up at the account executive level. We prefer to promote from within, retaining talent. At the end of last year we made quite a few senior level promotions, including Sally Moore and Lauren Drapala to director to lead their own practice areas which included building out a standalone AR practice which already services clients including Dell, Red Hat and Lexis Nexis. As part of retaining our talented staff pool we’re also revamping our training programme for staff at all levels.
What is special about the agency’s approach to PR?
I have a client who told me that we’ve institutionalised an approach to servicing clients that runs throughout the agency, across all staff at all levels throughout all our offices in Europe. Strategy is inbred; we get on and do the job but at all levels strategic thinking is applied.
What future plans do you have for the consumer tech division?
We’ve done some amazing work for clients that we just haven’t shouted about enough. For me it’s about building out the practice with complementary brands. For example our Alienware work has been excellent, from running gaming championships through to pan-European social media competitions. Expect to see more from us on the gaming front, as well as more focussed, innovative technologies. We’re at our best working with companies that give us the freedom to really shape their communications.
About the industry
How has consumer PR responded to social and digital media? Is traditional PR still as important?
There is no such thing as traditional PR. People forget that PR is Public Relations, not Press Relations. It has always been about communicating with your public via whatever means is appropriate. To date much of that has been through press relations and all that’s happened is that our platforms to communicate with a brands’ public have evolved and here at AxiCom we embraced it many years ago – actively building communities for clients and growing their business through these channels.
About four years ago I had a client with a great product, but journalists felt that the story was old – what they did wasn’t new. It was like pulling teeth trying to get people to write a story. We realised that if we didn’t do something quickly we’d get fired (just as quickly), and so we canned the ‘traditional’ press relations and started hosting live events for bloggers and special interest groups. In the end we built such an enormous fan-base for the company that The Sunday Times called us up asking about the company and featured them in an article entitled ‘Searching for the next Google.’ It was an enormous win and real turning point. If you get the community approach right your fan-base becomes an irrefutable reason for your company’s existence and a journalist has to sit up and take notice.
How do you think the PR industry on the whole has coped with the rapid change to digital? What’s next on the horizon?
I think the PR industry has had a rough ride and not enough credit for how well it has adapted. With so many digital agencies blinding potential clients with complicated science around digital media like a L’Oreal shampoo advert, nobody has really noticed how well so many PR agencies and professionals have just got on and adapted, adding new digital platforms to the existing routes to engage with their audience.
And this is PR’s failing – as a profession we’ve always been good at selling our clients but dreadful at selling ourselves. Despite PR’s reputation for showboating, great PR people are often too self-depreciating which is a real shame.
In terms of what’s next, we’re finding ourselves deeply ensconced in experiential marketing activities – everything from the initial concept and execution through to supporting social media and press. Where in the past PR might have been brought in at the last minute to support this type of activity with media relations, we’re now seeing clients looking for one point of contact for the whole thing that designs the event thinking from the outset how it might resonate beyond the live installation itself, getting more value for money and a broader reach for the activity.
In your opinion, what are the main challenges facing the PR industry today?
So often we see PR as a line item in a marketing budget that is the first to be cut during tough times. It should be the last, not least because it will hold the reputation of your company tightly during that time.
Our challenge is (and has always been) educating people that PR isn’t just about media relations, and when it’s ingrained in the whole marketing mix it can be the glue that holds everything together, making campaigns reach far beyond the initial concept.
Many marketing folks are starting to realise this and in part I think this is why I think we’re seeing the shift towards broader experiential marketing activities sitting with PR teams.
Who are some of AxiCom’s most well-known, or respected consumer tech clients?
Some of our most well-known clients include Dell (which includes all business units, not just the consumer arm), Alienware, Linksys, and EchoStar. I’m often asked by smaller companies if working with big brands means they’d be over shadowed. Absolutely not; we really enjoy working with innovative technologies and gadgets, and a shining example in our client portfolio is Neato Robotics.
How do you make a client stand out in a crowded consumer market?
You have to show people what the product or service does for them – how will it change/improve their life. To reach a broad consumer audience playing on feeds and speeds just won’t cut it. Take Neato Robotics for example. Their mapping technology means the resulting vacuum is the most efficient on the market – but you don’t catch people’s attention by telling them how a vacuum cleaner scans the room, works out where objects are before methodically sweeping the floor. You capture their imagination by letting them see that when they buy a Neato, they don’t buy a vacuum cleaner, they buy time. So whilst Neato is cleaning your house you’re at the pub with your friends. Smart campaigns that capture people’s imagination is what helps you to stand out.
Tell us a time you devised a campaign for a client through social media – what was the brief, the approach, and the result?
Gosh – we’ve done everything, from the early days of very tactical giveaways to grow Twitter followers through to using social media to amplify some of our experiential activities. One of the best examples would be Dell’s Ultrabook experience. As part of an experiential campaign to give people a hands on with Dell’s XPS 13 Ultrabook we asked Londoners to go on the #XPShunt. We had two Dell-branded supercars, reflecting the power and sleek attributes of the ultrabook, hidden in London and members of the public were challenged to find them through clues tweeted via @dellhomeuk. Entrants were asked tweet a photo of themselves and a supercar (using the #xpshunt or #xps hashtags) with their comment on a whiteboard explaining why they liked the XPS 13, in return for a chance to win one of three XPS 13 systems.
Best way to get a feel for how it went is our video of the event.
Is there anything the agency is particularly experienced at when helping out journalists with their stories?
Everything! I like to think we’re extremely responsive and targeted with our pitching, making things relevant and making things happen for journalists.
Working in consumer tech it’s also important to really understand the technology because you’ll be working with both consumer journalists, who are more interested in the ‘how will it benefit my life’ story, as well as tech journalists who will expect you to be able to answer questions about chipsets.
What are your three tips/rules to building and maintaining strong relationships with journalists?
1. Always be straight with them and don’t promise something you can’t deliver.
2. If you say you’re going to get back to someone within a time frame, get back to them within that time frame.
3. Have a drink, nothing beats really knowing someone. If you’re at an event, don’t just hang around with your journo mates, make the effort to talk to the journalists you don’t know so well.
If you could ask a journalist one question out of the ordinary, what would it be?
Daddy or Chips?
What media do you seek out first thing in the morning?
I always check Twitter first, that gives me everything from delays on the train through to the morning’s headlines and any industry happenings from overnight. Facebook too – make sure I don’t miss an office birthday.
Name three guests you’d invite to a dinner party and why.
Adele, Dara O’Brien and Brandon flowers. Adele and Dara for the banter (they seem like excellent pub buddies) and Brandon for my teenage alter ego; if BIG! Magazine still existed she would definitely have the 4-page centre fold poster of him on her wall…
What’s the first rule of good PR?
Don’t be an idiot and use common sense.