It’s that time of the week again: #GirlBossMonday!
Leilani Abels is the Managing Director and Founder of Thrive PR and Communications. Leilani has grown her business to four offices across Australia and New Zealand, and shows that with tenacity, dedication and drive, that you can achieve anything you set your mind to.
The reason I conduct these interviews is to inspire you, my readers, and fellow PR students to be successful in your careers and business leaders of the future. I have asked the important questions to gain an insight of how these #GirlBosses made it to where they are today, and how we can emulate their successes.
Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.
OC: Hey Leilani! An easy question to start us off (I hope) – What is your full job title?
LA: Managing Director and Founder of Thrive PR and Communications.
Can you give me a background of your career and education? How did this lead you to be in your current PR position today?
After failing to get into my preferred university course two times running, they finally let me into one of the only PR courses at the time at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia. The course took forty students out of 2000+ applicants from around the country. I wasn’t the smartest, but I was tenacious enough to lobby my local MP to help me get into a course I desperately wanted, and that attitude helped me to go on to start my own agency.
I loved sport and wanted to work in sports marketing so when I completed my degree I worked for a sports talent and marketing agency. I then went on to start my Masters in Sports Marketing which I studied in the evenings while I worked full time.
After my first PR gig, I wasn’t sure if PR was for me. I felt I wanted to pursue something with more purpose and so I started a charity event for a cause that was close to my heart. That event became the biggest celebrity gala in the country and opened doors for me to start my own agency, Thrive, through the networks I created via my charity work.
Seventeen years on, I am still working with many of those people I worked with at that not-for-profit now and I am forever grateful for the opportunities that that experience afforded me.
Little did I know, that that was the springboard for me to be able to work with the biggest global and local brands, have four offices, and deliver some of the best PR campaigns with brands and people I could only ever dream to be associated with.
How and why did you start your business?
Thrive… the definition is ‘to grow vigorously, flourish and be successful’. It means a lot to me and our agency. I wanted this to be the case for my career, the career of others, for our clients and for others who worked with us.
Thrive came from an influx of people wanting to work with me because of my charity involvement. I didn’t set out to ever own my own agency, and asking for money made me uncomfortable however I quickly found in Australia that there was a real opportunity for hard working PR people, who thought differently about PR and who managed relationships well. There was room for an honest agency with people willing to give anything a ‘crack’.
I started Thrive because opportunity came knocking, and I don’t let an opportunity pass me by.
How did you go about securing your first client?
My first major client came from a referral from an Olympian I had befriended through the charity event I started. He was sponsored by TAG Heuer, part of the LVMH Watch & Jewellery Group, and the group PR was out for tender.
We pitched and won the business!
We won because we covered the basics the best, understood their commercial goals and knew how to throw in a little creative thinking to make magic happen for that client.
Three of the executives from LVMH are my friends and current clients today. I think that says a lot about the way we do business at Thrive – do what you say you are going to do, deliver beyond the norm, manage relationships well, and be 100% accountable.
Where are you based? Does your job involve a lot of travelling?
I am based in Sydney, Australia but I call Melbourne home. I started the business in Melbourne before moving to Sydney six years ago to grow that office. Last year we opened Brisbane and Auckland (NZ).
Because we have four offices, I am often travelling, however I have a two year old son which means there is a lot of juggling because we spend a lot of time together. I am fortunate that my partner and my son’s godfathers and my mum enable me to meet the demands of the business.
I am also fortunate that past and current clients like Twitter, Square, Cisco, Nintendo, LVMH and others, have also afforded me the opportunity to travel extensively throughout the US and other countries representing their brands.
What does your morning routine look like?
Rafa, my two year old human alarm clock, wakes me up anytime from 5.30am. While he checks out YouTube kids, I scan Twitter for my real-time news, check my emails for overnight client activity, suss out the lead stories on news.com.au and smh (Australia’s key media mastheads), collect the newspapers from my door, and then I drop him to childcare before exercising and listening to a rotating schedule of AM or FM radio.
I often think my clients would raise their eyebrows to see me flicking through the Australian Financial Review with one hand in the morning, and playing with Rafa’s Play-Doh in the other.
Travelling buggers up my exercise, but it’s the one thing that keeps me sane at really busy and stressful times. Being healthy and advocating positive wellbeing at Thrive, is important to me.
What do you find most rewarding and challenging about your role in PR?
Most rewarding is 100% the ability to choose the people I work with, my Thrive team first and foremost.
I love my team. They are smart, tenacious, hungry to learn, accountable, passionate, honest and damn good fun.
The most challenging aspect of my role is also people-related. Finding the best talent is tough. Working with clients who don’t understand PR is also tricky and it’s our job to educate them and take them on our exciting journey.
How do you find the right work/life balance?
I work odd hours and very long hours but my family and friends come first, and if I’m honest, I love that PR allows my professional and personal worlds to merge. What a sensational place to be when you love both!
I have found balance by also being very honest with those around me about what I can and cannot do.
When you run your own independent agency, and you are not governed by a board and are not solely driven by the bottom-line, you are in a very, very privileged and nimble position.
What do you wish more people understood about PR?
Generally, it’s all about ‘value’. I wish people knew more about best practices around PR campaigns as our worth would be far more appreciated.
I also wish people understood how important it is to sit ‘owned’ conversations and social media storytelling with the PR team, who are rightful custodians and creators of messages. Sometimes I see these comms areas sit in isolation or with separate agencies and the results could be far greater under the PR umbrella.
If you were to hire someone for a PR role, what skills and qualities would your ideal candidate have?
Skills: It’s about the basics. Spelling, grammar and good copywriting count at Thrive. You do need to have the basics down pat. We are keen to see people who love the media, pop culture and current affairs, locally and globally.
Qualities: We look for people with the values that align with Thrive. We also look for a willingness to learn, resourcefulness, team players, positive people… for me, I know when a person walks in the door as to whether they are a ‘Thriver’ or not.
I love people who are willing to challenge me in an effort to improve the agency. I have worked with our general manager Kelly Stambanis in Melbourne for seventeen years and she always questions and challenges me and our team.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the PR industry today?
Ad and other media agencies cottoning onto how important PR is, and them pretending to clients that they do what we do – they don’t.
I think this shows however, that everyone in the media, marketing and brand land, has come to realise the significance of PR and so that’s actually an almighty opportunity.
Who has been your biggest role model in your career so far?
My mentors continue to change and my clients are best in class and are often the ones who I’m most inspired by… most of the time they don’t know it, but it’s the advice they give me and their willingness to share insights and their experiences.
I continue to be inspired by a few key authors who’ve impacted my business positively – Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point), Jim Collins (Good to Great) and Michael Gerber (E-Myth). A former client and friend put me onto these authors and I’m grateful.
Can you give three tips for someone wanting to start their own PR agency?
- Nurture relationships
- Be accountable
What advice would you give to a student like myself that wants to emulate your success and make it in the PR industry?
Be willing to do lots of things for no immediate return – the old saying ‘what goes around comes around’ is true so put yourself out there to help others.
Get as much work experience as you can. Read, read, read. Don’t be afraid to ask and if you get a ‘no’, find a way to get a ‘yes’ – tenacity.
Thank you, Leilani
You can visit Thrive PR’s website at www.thrivepr.com.au
Follow Thrive PR on Twitter : @thrivepr
Follow Leilani on Twitter : @leilaniabels
Like Thrive PR on Facebook : @thriveprcomm
Follow Thrive PR on Instagram : @thrivepr