'How I made it' featuring Louie St Claire, CEO at Harvard
For our latest inspiring stories series, 'How I made it', we're interviewing the cream of the crop across all facets of communications and marketing. This is where you'll learn about how the best in the industry got to where they are today and hopefully pick up some tips along the way to help your own career progress.
We caught up with Louie, the CEO at Harvard, where he has spent the last 8 years building one of the best full-service specialist technology agencies in the UK. Working with brand that include Salesforce, Facebook and Cisco he has spent-20 years in PR and Communications helping some of the world’s best technology brand to tell their stories. Prior to Harvard he worked in-house at O2 and then Microsoft. Leading a team of 70, St Claire helps to shape the global technology proposition for Harvard’s holding company Chime Communications.
How did you get into the communications industry?
I always wanted to be in communications from a very young age – even writing the school newspaper when I was in primary school.
Originally, I wanted to be a journalist, so I got some work experience at a PR firm in the hope I could make the jump across. However, what I discovered was that I really loved PR. Like many people, I hadn’t really considered it as a career, but I realised that it would allow me to have a role with those journalistic and writing elements.
What personal attribute do you think has most helped you to succeed in your career?
Energy and enthusiasm. You can get a long way in PR with these two qualities. Of course, they can’t take you all the way – you need the right technical skills and a good strategic mind. However, being open to learning and having a lot of energy is a really good starting point.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the course of your career?
Without a doubt, my biggest challenge was coming to Harvard. It was a brand in the doldrums and had been struggling for a long time. Taking on a big turnaround as my first ever MD role kept my hands full for a good few years and gave me more than a few grey hairs.
Have there been any crucial moments that have changed the course of your career?
Probably my second job at AxiCom. It was at the start of the dotcom boom, when tech was just exploding. It was a phenomenal company; everything was new and exciting. It was also where I met my wife. To be there when I was has heavily influenced my career.
The second moment was probably moving to O2. Mobile was just kicking-off and it was such a brilliant place to be, I learned so much. It also gave me a great insight into-in-house which has been invaluable in my agency career.
Moving to Harvard has also been instrumental. There were only 11 people when I joined and it was a last chance saloon for the brand. The company was in a bit of a state – it had had seven MDs in 10 years – and this was my first opportunity to be an MD. We’re 70 people now so you could say it has gone well and has made my career, so I have lots to be thankful for.
Who has been a source of inspiration during your career?
There have been so many. However, I’d have to say Julian Tanner at AxiCom. He is one of a handful of people who helped to shape technology PR back in the day. He just understood it; he’s a great thinker and a brilliant personality.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?
It’s probably a cliché, but the PR world is really small. So be as nice as you can because we all need to get on and you never know when or where you might meet up again.
What do you need to be successful CEO in 2018?
I think empathy is really important. I did a history degree, and that really teaches you to be empathetic, because you need to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to be able to understand them. And if you can be empathetic to your clients you get to really understand their ambitions and can help them to find the right opportunities.
Comms is all about finding out what makes people tick and what keeps them up at night. If you’re able to do this, you’ve got a much better chance of whatever you’re communicating landing with them.
What do you think the greatest challenge in global communications will be in the next 10 years?
In many ways everything changes but nothing changes. When social media came round, everyone said that would be the PR killer, but now we’ve come full circle.
In its very essence, PR is about how you safeguard and enhance reputations. The only thing that changes is the technology we use to distribute the message. It used to be paper press releases, then email and now digital media.
I think the next big one will be around automation. It’s a huge opportunity and very exciting.
How dangerous do you think AI is to PR?
I think AI will give us the ability to crunch through more data more quickly in order to get the insights we need to enable us to do better work. The hard part is cutting through the fog of AI and working out how to integrate it into the business. This will be an iterative process over a period of time and as an agency, I don’t feel like we need to be at the bleeding edge of this. I’m happy to see it play out; we need time to think it through and do it properly.
What three words best describe you as a leader?
Passionate. Edgy. Energetic.
How do you stay motivated?
I’ve always been ambitious, always wanted to try to do well for myself. I came from a working-class background and grew up in the 1980s knowing that I really wanted to provide for my family.
My view is if you have to go to work you may as well give it your all and that has stood me in good stead. We’re all spending eight to 10 hours a day at work for 30 to 40 years, so it is worth putting the time into something you enjoy and giving yourself the chance to get half decent at it.
Tell me more about Harvard…
We’re pure tech specialists, and we work with companies who have a tech story to tell. Not just the vendors, but brands like Lloyds and Sky. We’re about making technology personal and remembering that there is a person at the end of every piece of tech.
We’ve organised the company around depth of expertise in areas such as AI and Big Data, and we understand how to help our clients decipher these issues. Then it’s about the breadth of our offering; when clients come to us we are able to provide expertise across a wide-ranging portfolio of services giving great options and advice for clients.
This year alone we’ve started working with clients like Facebook, Salesforce and and Dropbox, it’s been phenomenal.
If you weren’t in comms, what would be your dream job?
Upfront for Fulham!
What do you think the future of PR agencies is?
At the moment, the market is quite fluid. There are many different types of PR and they all require different types of people. There has always been a low barrier to entry in PR which means you can end up with varying levels of service, it also means it’s a very accessible career.
I think if PR wants to be viewed as a higher value service, then it needs to speak in a different way. It needs to speak the language of the C-suite if it wants a place on the board. That becomes a conversation about data and real-business outcomes. For PR this is about demonstrating the impact that PR had on the intangible assets of a business, which make up more half of most businesses value. Successful PR agencies in the future will really start to make this connection.