How I Made It: Gary Wheeldon and Steve Strickland

Hanson Search steps inside the world of Talker Tailor Trouble Maker to interview co-founders Gary Wheeldon and Steve Strickland for its inspiring career series. Gary and Steve share their thoughts on diversity in the workplace, the challenges the industry will face in future years and what keeps them sane on those crazy days.

How did you get into the communications industry?

Steve: I started out as a PA when I left college and ended up working for a guy called Jason Gallucci who was in charge of an agency called PiranhaKid – I slowly worked my way up from there. I never knew what PR was until then, I just knew that I wanted to work in Soho!

Gary: I finished uni and had a choice to either to go into work or return to Norwich – and I didn’t want to move back home, so I got a job. Someone said to me that I’d potentially be good in PR so I thought I’d give it a go, and it was amazing - my first client was Disney and had a great time working in entertainment PR.

What keeps you sane on those crazy days?

Steve: Having a business partner keeps me sane. There are moments when you really want to cry, and you can’t do that in front of people you employ, but you can do it in front of your business partner – for both good and bad reasons! I couldn’t have done this on my own. 

Gary: As best friends and business partners you’re experiencing the same thing at the same time, whereas if you’re on your own you have no one to go to and no outlet. We also motivate each other and that has really helped, especially with starting our own business.

Do you have a mentor or someone who inspires you to succeed?

Gary: I’ve worked with some great people, one being Alastair Gornall who started Consolidated Communications. I was very junior when I first started working there and he was always supportive. We’ve since stayed in touch and he’s given us some good advice and offered to help us and our business when we’ve needed it.

I also worked with a start-up agency called Launch and I learnt a lot about business and what it takes to run a business from Johnny Pitt. It was invaluable to be able to get that exposure at such a young age.

What are the three words that best describe you as a communicator or a leader?

Steve: Gary is smart, emotional and empowering

Gary: Steve is emotional, super creative and inspirational

We’re both emotionally driven and feel we have a responsibility to the people who have chosen to work for us; it’s our responsibility as employers to make them proud of what they do and who they work for.

What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?

Steve: Stand up for yourself and believe in yourself. There is no wrong or right in our industry – having conviction in your thoughts and ideas is really important. And don’t be afraid to ask for money and progress your career yourself, don’t wait for someone else to do it for you. 

Gary: My advice would be to do exactly what you’re doing. My career and my job are some of the things I love the most.

What challenges do you think the industry will face over the next few years?

Steve and Gary: Convincing people that PR is worth it. In an industry that is filled with soft measures, it is a constant challenge to be taken seriously and not being seen as a choice rather than a necessity. There’s also a danger in the industry that it devalues itself in undercutting other agencies, which results in a race to the bottom.

Awards are starting to look out of touch – we’re meant to be an industry of innovation, and our awards ceremonies don’t reflect that. It should be more about being recognised by the industry and your peers rather than entering for multiple awards at vast expense.

What do you love about the industry?

Steve: I like the variation of consumer communications and I enjoy finding out as much information about a subject as I can. I love my job and the creativity and product that results in the end, but I don’t love the industry. It’s the job and career that I love rather than the industry.

Gary: I think that the PR industry affords people opportunities that they might never otherwise get and it has given me a more rounded view of the world.

What are the top three things that businesses should do to improve diversity in the workplace?

1)    Stop talking about diversity and start talking about fairness and representation.

2)    Challenge recruiters. Recruiters and agencies need to widen the net of who they speak to in order to make PR an attractive industry to the broadest and most diverse group of people as possible. If businesses ask more of recruiters then recruiters have to work harder to go out and attract talent. A willingness to look outside of the sector is really important.

3)    Ask which brands are going to be representative of the world you want to be in and then speak to them and work with them.

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