Q&A: Rob Lowe and Matt Holmes on their more ‘human’ PR agency Poem

Poem bosses: Holmes and Lowe

Two months after officially leaving roles at large agencies to launch the more “human” PR agency Poem, founders Rob Lowe and Matt Holmes sat down with Mumbrella’s Miranda Ward to discuss the agency’s future and the state of the PR industry.

What are the challenges involved in launching an agency?

Lowe: The biggest difficulty for us was deciding to do it. It’s having the balls to get out and go out by yourself, there’s not many independent agencies out there. And if there are they tend to be more specialist in terms of fashion or beauty, those kind of more niche areas. We’re much more of a general consumer PR agency and other than Edelman there aren’t that many out there that aren’t attached to a bigger Omnicom/Havas/Publicis type group.

It’s definitely a mental challenge to get out there by yourself with only ourselves backing us in the knowledge or confidence we’re going to do well.

There’s been a lot of love from the industry saying that we’re doing the right thing and we’re approaching the right gap in the market.

What does ‘more human’ mean to clients and to the industry?



Holmes: The agency for us – what being human stands for – it has a couple of meanings. One is we position ourselves as a boutique agency but with big agency experience. The background that Rob and I have, both in this market and back in the UK, there’s a line of thinking around it, putting PR at the front end of the creative process and delivering campaigns in the most integrated way possible, whether that’s in the skill set of your own business or whether that’s working collaboratively with other agencies on the roster.

The boutique element for us is client service. We’ve both been part of agencies that have grown exponentially very quickly, we have been part of big agency groups and the biggest challenge we foresee in terms of growth for the future, is making sure we both retain the culture and creative output for hopefully what stands us in good stead for the future while making sure clients are happy and providing outstanding service.

Clients who are attracted to us in the beginning are going to be challenger brands, that invariably changes as you get bigger. We want to make sure clients are getting a more human approach by making sure Rob and I are the front and centre of every client relationship.

The flip side of being more human is treating people as people rather than consumer targets. Culture plays a huge part in all our lives, we may all be defined by certain demographics when you look at data insights but there are plenty of other things that play into our everyday interests. The beginning of ideation for PR and campaigns for our clients is looking at what drives people and we think emotion is a huge part of that. Whether it’s entertaining and makes you laugh or cry or if it’s utility and it adds value or a service to your life. That’s a very simplistic way of splitting what might motivate you but those are two most important motivators and where we want to try and dig deep into an initial brief from a client.

Lowe: There’s a tendency in the industry to think tactics first – what’s going to get you earned media coverage or who are the best influencers to be pushing your product. What people forget is you need that human insight and motivating idea at the start rather than later on, it has to be at the core of what you’re doing, then you think of the tactics and the influencing and who should be involved. A lot of people forget that.

There’s no point making a whole lot of noise and shouting if what you’re shouting about is of no interest – people have to give a shit about what it is you’re doing otherwise there’s no point to doing it.

POEM_LogoFor clients looking at Poem compared to the likes of an Edelman or a One Green Bean, why should they pick you over other agencies in market?

Lowe: Imagine taking the experience of both Edelman and One Green Bean and putting it into a more boutique agency format where you actually get to talk to the owners and have the owners work on the brand every day that’s probably what sets us apart at the moment.

We have that integrated, big campaign big agency experience but what we’re doing is working with other independent skill sets and pulling them into whatever we need to do whenever we need to do it rather than being forced to work with people in-house who we’re trying to push because we’re paying them wages. It allows us to be more flexible and supply clients with a more personal experience.

Holmes: We envisage the model being a team with core skill sets with the connections we’ve made over the last 5-10 years we have preferred partners – individuals, independent agencies. For the right brief we can pull in the right resources on a case-by-case basis and that’s not necessarily the case for a lot of the bigger agencies who are buying into the model on a defined skill set. We can be agile and adapt a lot faster than some of the other agencies.

How does Poem measure success? What do you want to achieve with the agency?

Lowe: Culture would be a big part of it. A big part of my experience at Eleven was creating the team around me and working with the people I wanted to work with. Me and Matt are very similar in our outlook on what PR is and how we should be working. I’m going to take a lot of pleasure in creating that environment. I’d like to think in five or ten years time we have one of the most creative, motivated and positive working environments around in Australia.

With that will come money hopefully, and campaign wins and creative campaigns but only culture is the thing that will make our lives more enjoyable.

Holmes: In addition to that being able to look back and reflect on campaigns that have shifted the dial in terms of sales for businesses we have worked with. Some of the proudest work I’ve been part of was for Virgin Mobile – looking from the outside at Rob’s work would be clients like MJ Bale which changed their whole distribution model off the back of a campaign that had PR thinking.

They had very clear business results connected to the campaigns and the PR industry has generally done a bad job of being committed to being KPI’d against business results. What would make me really proud is to look back and see there’s some brave clients who got on board with us at an early stage and 12 months time we’d built that trust with them to show we can make a difference to their bottom line and their sales.

Does PR deserve a bigger portion of the marketing pie?



Lowe: There’s definitely a battle going on between content and social between advertising agencies and other agencies like PR. The one advantage that PR has is it doesn’t have the complicated infrastructure that ad agencies have. We don’t have to involve 25 people in a project so we’re much more cost efficient and effective. We can have a huge return on investment with a $250k budget compared to an ad agency which will use up that $250k on three months of account management.

PR is quicker, it’s more efficient in terms of cost and it has a different outlook on how creativity comes to life in terms of the campaign. PR has a bigger place at the table then it every has before because it has proved it can do things with those smaller budgets than the advertising market. Before clients thought PR was all about media relations. It’s now proved itself.

Holmes: The most forward thinking CMOs are not thinking in that silo approach anymore. They may have specialists in certain areas, but they recognise good ideas can come from multiple places and we certainly believe in that as well. Ideally we’d work with brands at the beginning of that creative brief process whether it’s with a group of agencies or whether it’s directly with us – then bring in those expertises. I genuinely believe that to bring the agency roster in at the beginning is always going to result in not only the best thinking and ideas but it will maximise their return on investment by doing so.

The turf war – agencies are trying to do everything now: PR, social, digital etc. Are we going to see specialist agencies, including PR, get absorbed into one bigger agency that does everything?

Lowe: There’s always going to be both. You’ll still get big group agencies who will have a bit of everything and sub-brands of ad agencies, PR, shopper marketing, social. And some brands will want to go to that group because they’ll have everything in one house and it seems more efficient to them and it’s easier on their lives.

There’s another argument that says it’s better to have smaller boutique pockets of specialists because you get better service and more passionate enthusiasm from the people doing it. It depends on the brand and what they’re wanting to get out of it. There’s a place for both.

What is the biggest issue facing the PR industry?

Lowe: Influencing is a big thing and the changing media landscape. Obviously traditional media has reduced a lot in the last five to ten years. Influencers are taking over and are having more influence over consumers than traditional media was. Where that leads us eventually and how new technology and platforms, Apple or Google, does more of that bespoke individualised content. Qhere that will leave traditional media companies, ad agencies, PR companies, it’s hard to say.

It’s about having influence on who is creating that content. It will carry on changing. Having influence on those people who are creating the content is going to be the most important thing. It will carry on changing.

  • Miranda Ward is public relations and publishing editor at Mumbrella

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