Matt Phillips is founder & MD of PPR, a virtual PR agency specialist in growing challenger brands in the media technology & marketing services sectors. 

We asked him lots of questions about what a day in PR looks like. He had plenty to say…

Please describe your job: What do you do?

Matt Phillips: We’re a PR agency in the ‘virtual’ category – where the agency workforce is mostly comprised of freelancers, rather than employees.

It’s a growth category for two main reasons; first, there’s been a rapid growth in senior people leaving jobs to become consultants – as in most areas of professional services – so the freelance labour market and the platforms to connect them is growing. In fact one of our clients, Comatch, offers this for management consultants.

Secondly, any business looking for external PR support has traditionally faced a binary choice between freelancers, who can be tricky to manage and are usually specialists, or agencies, who are very expensive because of the high cost of retaining high-value talent as employees. Virtual agencies run networks of senior consultants to offer a premium agency-like service more cost-effectively; most clients want senior people and good value.

My current role is split across three areas; growing the business and product set, providing senior counsel to our clients, and supporting our freelance associates to help them deliver our product in the right way.

Whereabouts do you sit within the organisation? Who do you report to?

Matt Phillips: As owner-manager, I report to no one, which is both a blessing and a curse. While this gives you complete control, you take on more responsibility as you grow, both in terms of the reputation of the great brands you choose to promote, and the people that look to you for income, and as we want to scale.

We’re still small but I believe business leaders need to be held to account; it’s good for you and it’s good for your business. I’m likely to change the governance structure in the new year to bring in a non-exec and advisors to hold me to account and help me deliver the targets I’m setting myself.

What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?

Matt Phillips: Skills-wise, PR isn’t very technical, rather it’s a creative role where attributes are more important. You have to understand the principles of communication, which is critical in both our sector and leadership in general, so empathy is important.

Having made the transition from practitioner, to agency board member, and now business owner quite quickly, my role has changed a lot and will continue to change as we grow, hire new people, enter new markets and create new products. So adaptability is key.

Finally, B2B services firms that scale tend to be successful because they have a clear sense of what they stand for – so values – and a strong culture that embeds those values in a way that doesn’t entirely depend on the will and presence of the founder. I think operational processes will become easier to define and adopt when the culture is right, so I’m focussed a lot on organisational design at the moment.

Tell us about a typical working day…

Matt Phillips: If you’re a famous brand, you have attention and control over your comms, and your PR is probably mostly anchored in your own news, the things you do. For everyone else, the story needs to be more focussed on the issues, as you need to focus your story on the problem you are solving, and what’s going on in the wider world. Challenger brands have to be ready to say something useful and different when the opportunity arises.

We currently have a central team of three staff, and an associate network of six freelancers, servicing about 12 clients. Primarily, our associates are tuned in to their clients, while the central team is tuned in to the outside world, and together we’ll work to find opportunities to put our clients stories out there. A typical working day is about making sure we get better at this every day.

Each client story has six elements to it – one of which is what we call an attention trigger. It’s this that changes everyday.  Our head of media Ben will do a deeper dive into the trade media, to look out for relevant triggers and flag these to associates in a morning email, before coordinating pitches for clients. This leaves me to focus on my role.

I’m better, creatively speaking, in the morning so I’ll usually use that time to write something or prepare for a meeting. Then work through the inbox after lunch. I’m quite particular about zero inbox so need to process it in batches. Meetings usually take place in the afternoon. That’s about as structured as it gets.

What do you love about your job? What sucks?

Matt Phillips: I love it when an associate gets results. The nature of the way we’ve set the business up is so we get lots of small wins every week, and every result puts a client in a better place than they were before. Getting media coverage feels great and helps grow the client’s brand a little more and spread their message every day. It’s also satisfying because it is extremely difficult to do; not because we don’t know what a story looks like, but a lot has to go right for a lesser-known challenger brand to land media coverage, it has a disproportionate positive effect on their brand when it does, so it’s a joy when it happens.

I’m enjoying the challenge of building something different. The virtual agency model gives you scope to work with talented people you wouldn’t otherwise be able to hire. And within our category, I’m also told our business model – which breaks from the norm of hiring freelancers on fixed-term-day-rate contracts – is also different.

The best way to minimise bad days is to be picky about choosing the right customers and work hard to help them understand what PR can and can’t do. There are lots of layers to this, but generally the focus needs to be on clients who understand that PR requires a lot of work on their part and comes with a great deal of uncertainty and risk; clients who understand that earned-PR cannot be measured like bought-DR. We also need to be in a position to choose clients who are looking for trusted advisors and not cheerleaders, so we can be direct when their story isn’t good enough, and tell them what they need to do to make it work. That’s easy to say, hard to do in practice.

What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?

Matt Phillips: Most people know you need to do a blend of brand building and sales activation, and that a 60:40 budget split in favour of brand is about right, but the problem is that rules of thumb don’t hold much sway in the boardroom where hard metrics matter. What can’t get measured often gets neglected.

That’s why spend on high-impact brand advertising channels such as TV, print ads, billboards has generally declined in recent years, with Google and Facebook establishing digital ad duopolies in search and social to account for almost all the market’s growth. I think PR, also a brand building channel, has suffered in a similar way. We all know good media coverage when we see it but how do you measure the performance of the agency in delivering it, and the relative value of that coverage to the company itself – unless you understand the business outcome that the client was seeing? It’s all a bit abstract and I wish I had a better answer.

Right now we use a rough measure; we make a gut judgment at the start of the campaign based on a client’s current brand capital – as in, how PR-able that company is, based on its perceived market power, its market visibility, and its track record in proven competency and good character. Provided the client has a clear sense of what it wants to achieve, and for whom, creating the story and generating coverage is the simple part.

But even our method is a bit ‘back of a fag packet’ and I think there’s a real opportunity in effective PR measurement – it’s an area we’re looking at closely.

What are your favourite tools to help you to get the job done?

Matt Phillips: There’s a ton of PR tools out there that can automate parts of the process; PR Stack is a useful resource, which is regularly updated, so worth keeping an eye on.

Our model depends on helping the senior people in our team maximise the time they spend on creative work and investing in relationships; so anything that reduces admin and streamlines processes is a massive plus.

The bane of my life has always been diary management, which becomes even more of a headache when you’re working with a network of remote workers who all have irregular non-fixed hours – we’ve recently invested in Calendly which isn’t bad and will probably invest in more.

How did you end up founding PPR, and where might you go from here?

Matt Phillips: I’m a pretty measured person, but the thing that riles me the most is the abuse of power, whether that’s governments, corporations or individuals manipulating people’s emotions – prompting them to do damaging things by telling them it’s in their interests.

I now realise the type of PR I’m drawn to is helping companies who want to do the reverse –  who are positively activist in nature because they have a goal to change things for the better. To do that, they need to take communities with them. Brand purpose doesn’t exist for them as a concept because it’s inherent in what they do.

PR, and media relations is an incredibly effective way of getting people behind an idea. For all the focus on ‘influencers’ in social media marketing, journalists are the most influential of all – because they write about ideas that matter to them for publications that matter to the people that read them. They need stories that will connect with their audience, so if your story aligns with theirs, PR can help your ideas spread much faster.

I want to build a company that will help those companies who have something positive and new to help those ideas spread by connecting them to people that matter; that’s the ultimate aim.

Which campaigns have impressed you lately?

Matt Phillips: I continue to be impressed by fintech unicorn TransferWise, a marketing masterclass case study in how to use PR to accelerate early stage growth. I’d love to see the metrics, one day.

I think it’s only relatively recently that they’ve started to invest significantly in big brand advertising, having favoured experiential stunts that bring the customer problem to life and get the early adopters talking and spreading the word for them.

They have charismatic founders with a crystal clear focus on what the brand stands for, and a natural understanding of how to create communities and tell stories.

Do you have any advice people starting a career in PR?

Matt Phillips: Think about what you can do right now to put more practical experience on your CV. And start with basic marketing. Keep it broad, and focus on PR later if that’s the area you want to specialise in.

Find something you care about, maybe a cause or a passion, and ask them if you can help them spread the word. It doesn’t have to be pure PR, or even involve media relations – necessarily – but a proven capacity to make change by engaging people and changing their behaviour is an incredibly valuable skillset in life. Whether your media tactic is paid advertising, earned PR, social or owned media – there is always a value exchange going on between the communicator and the audience and the principles of your story should always be the same.

It is amazing how many CVs we get from grads who have studied marketing or comms yet done absolutely nothing to usefully apply it in the real world. Being driven and proactive is the single most useful attribute for me above and beyond any particular skill or academic qualification. So get started tomorrow.