Opinion

What I’d tell my twenty-eight- year-old self

Ahead of One Green Bean's 10th anniversary in May, founder and executive creative director Kat Thomas reflects on the journey of the agency that became the first Australian PR firm to win a Lion at Cannes.

You’ve got no idea what you’re letting yourself in for. But what you lack in experience you’ll hope to make up for with blind enthusiasm and gut instinct. Turns out these two things will get you by pretty well.

Your founding client is Virgin Atlantic, joined by Virgin Mobile 6 weeks just later. You’ll go from one Bean to two, then three. You’ll be incredulous when there are 15 of you. Almost as shocked as your parents.

You will set the cultural tone early on. You’ll instill rituals that become sacrosanct traditions, like Christmas in July, the Mel-bean Cup and the quarterly Golden Pigeon. You’ll discover these events are best not held in the office, unless you want to pick brussel sprouts out of the carpet or scrub red wine off the ceiling. You’ll learn that company overnighters should come with enforced NDAs and insurance waivers, and some things can never be unseen, like a man in a mankini.

You’ll grow. In the early years, these spurts will be sudden. The lag between winning and hiring will hurt. You’ll get better at it, but remain eternally grateful to those colleagues in the early days who hung in there. You’ll learn what happens when you ignore your instinct when recruiting. That the “anybody is better than nobody” adage is bullshit. You’ll figure out that ‘managing director’ isn’t a role you’re best suited to. You’ll decide to hire one. You worry you won’t find someone brilliant who’s also fun in the pub. You needn’t.

You’ll launch a staff happiness survey and commit to it annually. It’ll be enlightening and occasionally terrifying. You’ll put lots of energy into building a training program because of the appetite for professional development. Three people will turn up. This will improve dramatically with the introduction of Cheezels.

There will be tears. Mostly of laugher. Partly because a GSOH is a company mandatory, mainly because you have a million moments of sheer ridiculousness ahead of you. You’ll get investigated for importing 250,000 fake cigarettes from China, panic that Immigration won’t let Vanilla Ice into the country to apologize for his crap music. You’ll launch a doggy high chair and have a crisis meeting about the visibility of canine testicles in the video. You’ll light fifty scented candles to disguise the stench of sewage on the day of a pitch and realise in hindsight it looked like a séance. You’ll be briefed to promote a meat sausage without mentioning what kind of meat it is. You’ll be asked to find out when the next ISIS attack will be, so a client can plan their experiential events around it. You’ll spend six years signing in at the Coke office reception as Pat Thomas.

There will be the occasional tear of the other kind too. From exhaustion or frustration. You’ll try and excuse yourself when things get a bit emotional in one internal meeting, but you’ll trip over a chair and walk into the door frame instead. You’ll feel like a dick. But you’ll realise this happening just once in a decade is actually a massive achievement.

You’ll pitch for business. You’ll wonder why the hell you said yes to being briefed on a Thursday and pitching the following Tuesday, when there was no brief, just the old ‘we’ll find the money for the right idea’. You’ll be perplexed by the urgency and try to fathom why a brand team has just six days to figure out their entire year’s strategy. You’ll learn to say no and your team will thank you for it. You’ll get asked to ‘PR our new ad’ far too often and you’ll get pretty good at explaining why you can’t ‘PR’ something with no inherent news value.

You’ll win clients. You’ll work with inspiring, switched-on marketers who get the agency’s philosophy – that people don’t give a shit about blatant advertising, they care about what interests them culturally – art, film, TV, music, comedy, celebrity, innovation. You’ll work with brand teams that have a similar desire to engage not interrupt people, and who will reap the rewards of buying modern minded creative work.

You’ll lose clients occasionally. You’ll be gutted every time. There will always be reasons: from the twitchy desire for ‘fresh’ faces to not having a national footprint. One time you’ll get told you ‘just didn’t schmooze me enough’ and realise that lunching meant more to one marketing director than the best year of PR coverage their brand had ever seen.

You’ll win awards. Agency of the year for six years straight, content company of the year for the last two years. You’ll be the first Australian PR agency to win a Lion at Cannes, and follow this up with several more, including a Titanium Grand Prix. You’ll discover these wins mean nothing and everything.

You’ll build a stellar leadership line-up in Sydney, allowing you to get stuck into your next challenge – launching a London office. The abrupt transition from being a biggish fish in a small pond, to the tiniest fish in an ocean will be both daunting and exhilarating. You’ll marvel at how ‘British’ the Brits are, how they’ll talk around an awkward subject for an hour. Unless that topic is Brexit. You’ll hate the crappy lunch options and despise yourself for eating sushi from WH Smiths. You’ll get excited when you see a dog on the Tube.

You’ll work with a richer cultural mix of people in London, but notice how few women are in creative roles on both continents. You’ll have awkward interactions with ‘women in media’ lobbying groups. Not because you disagree with the sentiment, but sometimes the tone feels a bit jarring. You’re a woman. Your second in command is a woman as well. Hers too. No big deal you think, but actually it is. You’ll make sure you have no gender disparities when it comes to pay, and wonder how this can even be such a thing in 2017. ‘Fuck that!’ you’ll say in a room full of men. You’ll laugh at the irony of being so unladylike.

Suddenly before you know it, the business will be ten years older, and so will you. You’ll be knackered. But you’ll be proud. Of the work and the growth, but mostly of the team. And you’ll still have that counterfeit fag dealer on speed dial just in case.

Kat Thomas is speaking at Mumbrella’s CommsCon which is being held in Sydney on March 30. To buy tickets and to see the program click the banner below.

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