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Leadership Lesson with Laura Oliphant, Founder of Stand 

How did you get into comms and what initially drew you to the field? 

I always had an interest in human behaviour and studied psychology at university. I realised my natural love of communications and wanting to change people’s attitudes and behaviours would suit PR. I attended a PRCA career’s day and took their advice to get some internships and see if PR was for me.  I worked at Thomas Cook and British Sugar over the summer and after graduating and going travelling for a year, secured an Account Executive role at a small agency working on the RSPCA account. Six weeks in, the Account Manager left and suddenly I was running the account day to day. It was a sink or swim moment, and as has happened lots during my career, I swam.  

I had a similar sink or swim moment when I set when I set up Stand. I was freelancing at a branding agency after leaving Kindred after 10 years, and launched one of their clients, a new bank. A few months in, the agency closed, and the bank said they would come with us if we could set a new agency up in two weeks. I will never forget the trust they put in us, and 12 years on, so much of our work leads back to that relationship. 

What personal attributes do you think have helped you succeed? You mentioned being quite driven and ambitious? 

I enjoy thinking on my feet and am told I have an ability to cut through the noise and find the key point – whatever the topic. I love business as much as comms and my natural curiosity means I enjoy meeting new clients and getting to understand their organisational challenges. I guess it goes back to psychology. I find people genuinely interesting, and it helps me form lasting relationships that have helped Stand grow and move into new areas.  

I think my business success comes down to my comfort with risk. When I started Stand, I thought success would come down to the number of hours we work, but it's not about that. It’s about how close to the edge you are willing to go before you panic and move back. Opportunities are found at that edge, so if you're comfortable with risk, it helps you be a successful entrepreneur. 

What do you think are the key qualities needed from leaders in sustainability comms in 2024 and beyond? 

You have to believe in the long-term vision. Often you are convincing people of something that isn’t there yet. A lot of what we talk about – in terms of carless cities, achieving NetZero, and powering our lives by green energy isn’t a reality yet. With sustainability, it's all about how you sell people the belief their electricity bill will be cheaper, and they won’t need a car, even if it’s not there yet. 

Because you do want to believe in what you’re doing, does that also help narrow down who you want to work with as clients? 

Absolutely, but it doesn’t mean you don’t get to work with corporate clients. One of our biggest clients is a challenger bank who wants to shake up the banking industry. They pay you 0.9% below the base rate on all your money which goes against what most banks are doing. Banking is one of those industries that needs shaking up, so that’s what I love about them and their social conscience. Yes, they plant a couple of trees for each new customer, but their social conscience is “I'm going to pay interest on your money which is what you deserve.” 

Most of our clients are challenging established markets and tough issues. From learning disabilities to ageism, and how we ensure food security. Ultimately, we choose clients on whether we believe in what they're doing and whether they're going to do right. 

What are the key challenges you face in your role as a leader in this space? 

Competition. Everyone wants to be known for sustainability and purpose, so it means every agency is moving into this space. As well as competition for clients, we are all looking for the same people. You find good people and hopefully get them to stay but it’s not guaranteed. We go through periods where you find someone great and then they get poached by someone else. 

I think mainly it’s competition and differentiation, which are the two hardest things. They’re obviously connected: not only is it hard to stand out, but there's a million other people saying that they do what you're doing. 

How do you see the field evolving over the next five to ten years, especially as public awareness of environmental and social issues continues to grow? 

I think optimistically it’s becoming mainstream. I want to get to a point where it's not separated out. We should really be in a world where it's taken a standard that you want to operate in a way where you are not damaging the environment or people. I think that's where I want to get to so that you don't have to ask, “Are you a sustainability expert?” It should be in the DNA of everything we do. 

And my optimism is being encouraged. It is on more and more people’s consciences. My worry is with so many other issues happening in the world, the sustainability agenda just gets pushed down. There are more important things, like wars and poverty, and that's where I'm quite a pragmatic, purpose-driven person. To get people to care about it, you've got to care about what they are worrying about. People are only really going to consider clean energy when it makes their bills cheaper. 

What advice do you have for someone looking to pivot from traditional comms into sustainability or purpose driven work? 

Be encouraged that so many of the skills are transferable. I don't think you have to be an expert in sustainability. The clients you talk to are the experts and your challenge is to make what they're saying understandable and believable. Your job is just to put it in perspective. 

Anyone that wants to make the pivot needs focus on the common soft skills, rather than what you don't know, because you will be surrounded by people that know too much and can't communicate it in a way that is understandable. The best comms professionals listen to it all, and then say “Ah, so the relevant point is…” or “what's going to make someone feel differently?” or “what's going to make someone engage with this?” 

But most importantly, you do need optimism. Don’t come to work in this field if you don’t actually believe we're going to achieve Net Zero because it’s your job to ensure everyone else believes that. 

Posted on 26.03.2024

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