Jon Lonsdale, CEO of Octopus Group, on honesty and rebranding PR
We continue our #PRProSeries, exploring the careers of the most powerful communications pros around the world today, with Jon Lonsdale of Octopus Group. Sarah Hadj, Senior Consultant at Hanson Search, sits down with Jon to find out how he made it in the industry.
Why did you get into communications?
The honest answer is I wanted to be a TV producer and that’s what I went to university to learn. However, when I realised I’d be a runner for 10 years before I got my big Spielberg moment, I thought I might need a plan B. So, I went to a uni careers library and asked what you could do if you were interested in both the media and business, and they said “PR”. It was real ‘pin on a map’ stuff, but I thought ‘that sounds like a cool thing to do’. It appealed because it was both creative and commercial. I got a graduate job in Nottingham and started from there. I think I must be the only example of someone working today who’s actually been helped by a careers library!
What personal attribute has most helped you succeed in your career?
Being a PR person means you need to be an all-rounder. To be really good, you need to be able to put your hand to anything, doing many different jobs and spinning many plates at the same time. Not everyone can do it, and sometimes being a specialist is valuable, but I’d back an all-rounder any day. Also a work ethic is vital to succeed. PR is an amazing career, but it’s a hard job which can be really stressful. When I look back on all of the great people I’ve hired, the best ones have always had a stand-out work ethic. They’ve been first in every morning and last out at night.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge that you’ve overcome?
Most of my working life has been spent growing an agency, as well as advising clients, and that’s been a constant balancing act. In 2001 everyone told us we were crazy to set up a business when the tech market was on its knees, but we did it anyway. 15 years on, we’re still going and growing, and that’s something I am proud of. It’s taken a lot of hard work and I’ve lots of grey hairs as a result.
Who would you say has been the most inspiring person you’ve worked with?
Honestly, I think the people who inspire and motivate me are the people who are growing Octopus Group with me. Together we’re working hard to do something different with our agency in the industry and that is very much a team sport. If I was to think about clients who inspire me, it’s the entrepreneurs and founders I work with who give me the biggest buzz. Working with them is massively rewarding and I learn things all the time. Working in the tech business means I get access to entrepreneurs far more than in other industries, which is why I love it. What is the best piece of career advice you’ve been given? It was from someone I worked with in my first agency job. They told me that if you’re always yourself, honest, and authentic, then that will serve you well, and it has. It’s about using your common sense and not pretending to know something if you don’t. Clients value that kind of honesty.
In ten years’ time, what do you think will be the biggest change in the global communications industry?
I think that the PR sector as we know it won’t exist in 10 years’ time. To some that might be a bit controversial and doom-mongering, but to me it’s a brilliant opportunity. The reason it won’t exist isn’t because it’s not important, it’s because the industry and the economics are changing around us. The discipline of PR in 10 years’ time will be much more blended in my opinion and it might even have a different name. You’re starting to see it now with senior comms people moving into chief marketing or chief commercial roles, and this is just the start. As a business, we’ve realised that talking about PR can sometimes limit what we do, so we’ve rebranded as a ‘Brand to Sales Agency’. It’s not just a name change, we’ve changed our whole agency to give clients two main things. Firstly, brilliant reputation management and publicity to get them on the map, and secondly, campaigns with a clear and measurable sales lead generation outcome. I think we are one of the few comms agencies doing true demand generation for clients. So we see ourselves as a full-service marketing agency, with the PR discipline as the core foundation, not as a PR agency per se. However PR evolves in the future, we feel well placed to help our clients with our version of the future.
What would you say are the three words that best describe you as a communicator?
Honest. Excitable. Relaxed.
Apart from your current role, what would be your dream role within communications?
I don’t think I have one in all honesty. My job is brilliant. We have 40 to 50 clients and I get to work with any one of them at any time. Variety is important to me, and I can’t think how I’d get any more variety than I have now. I still want to be a professional footballer, of course, but my time has passed. So my dream job is to keep making Octopus Group bigger and better – it’s cheesy, but it’s true.
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