Where does press relations end and making headlines begin? We meet the London agency that aims to excel at both.
When I asked a fellow journalist who writes about PR for the name of the most creative agency in the UK, he gave me two names. The first was Hope&Glory PR. (Buy me a pint and I’ll tell you the second.) A couple of weeks later, I stepped off the Eurostar in London and walked the short distance to Hope&Glory’s office, not far from King’s Cross.
The reception area felt welcoming, with an expansive coffee table whose most noticeable feature was a large jar filled with chocolate bars (my fingers itched for a Snickers). There were also shelf-loads of awards. I had time to note that the agency was recently voted “A Great Place to Work” before joining co-founders Jo Carr and James Gordon-Macintosh in a meeting room.
The pair were outfitted for their roles: Jo the chief client officer in sharp business attire, James the creative director in a more flamboyant pink sweatshirt. Which is not to say they don’t take their jobs equally seriously. Prior to their current venture, they were managing partners at an agency called 77 PR. “We worked as hard as if it was our own agency,” says Jo. “But of course, it wasn’t our own agency.”
In fact it was owned by Omnicom. After what Jo describes as “an epiphany”, they founded Hope&Glory in 2011. “We felt we could deliver more value for our clients and our team by working for ourselves rather than having to answer to shareholders.”
At the beginning it was just the two of them and an intern. Today 90 people work there, for clients such as Airbnb, Uber, IKEA, NOW TV, Virgin Media O2 and (aha!) Snickers – to name just a few.
Jo says the agency didn’t have a distinct USP at the start. “We just aimed to be faster and more creative than our competitors.” James recalls an early post on their website – “probably the most conceited thing we’ve ever written” – that stated: “We’re not different, we’re just better.”
He adds some context: “At that time, they were very few creative-led consumer PR agencies. Most consumer brand agencies did press offices and product placement. Or they organised parties with celebs. So we were part of a very tiny group of agencies who set out to be creative.”
By creative, they mean devising attention-grabbing stories, but within a consistent brand strategy, underpinned by flawless account management. Jo adds: “I think what we’ve always done well is combine bigger set-piece projects that generate a spike in activity, along with an ongoing drumbeat of news through a creatively-minded press office.”
IKEA is one of the clients that best demonstrates what they do. As well as acting as the brand’s UK press office, they frequently devise headline-making campaigns. You might remember the expensive Balenciaga handbag that happened to resemble IKEA’s blue plastic shopping bag? H&G jumped on that one, provoking a swirl of media coverage and social buzz.
This year, a campaign alongside homeless charity Shelter was inspired by the fact that IKEA bases its in-store rooms on genuine homes. Four IKEA stores across the UK recreated the appalling temporary accommodation homeless people can find themselves in.
Back on a lighter note, for Airbnb they built a recreation of Winnie the Pooh’s home, so fans of the beloved bear could stay there.
Much of what the agency does requires a firm grasp of pop culture and a dose of wit. James confirms that entertaining audiences is a goal. Jo adds: “If we want to create ideas that earn attention, you’re more likely to stop in mid-scroll if you stumble across something that makes you think, ‘Oh, I love that!’.”
We were part of a very tiny group of agencies who set out to be creative.
When you know a journalist, it’s easier to break into their incredibly busy day.
While PR and advertising were once separate worlds, the border between the two is blurring. “There’s far more openness among clients to agencies other than ad agencies having ‘the big idea’,” James asserts. As a result, PR agencies are getting a bigger slice of marketing budgets.
Jo says: “The battleground is over ‘earned media’. Sometimes an ad agency will think, ‘Well, we’ve got an idea that will work editorially.’ It used to be that editorial coverage was PR and paid content was an ad agency. Now we’re all looking for the idea that will cut through.”
Yet there’s a precise craft to PR, she points out. “You can have an idea, but then you have to think about the copy, the visual assets, the video – how will I sell the story in, where will it sit, and which journalist might want to cover it?”
Perhaps the key attribute that separates a PR agency from its adland equivalent is a deep knowledge of how journalists think and work. Hope&Glory staffers are well aware of what a reporter would consider “a good story”. Plus they have WhatsApp access to the journalists most likely to tell it. Today, James observes, that might be the person who runs a newspaper’s TikTok channel.
“Often we find ourselves covering two demographics: we need TikTok to reach Gen Z, but the client is reassured when we get a piece in The Telegraph.”
Personal relationships have always been PR gold. Jo says: “After Covid there’s definitely a renewed appetite to meet in person for an event, a lunch, a coffee. When you know a journalist, it’s easier to break into their incredibly busy day.”
Influencers are the wild card in the media pack. Once they’d gleefully post about a free stay in a posh hotel. Today, says James, not so much. “They’re far more aware of their power, the value of their time and their relevance as a channel for brands. So, yes, they have an important role – but it tends to be on a paid basis these days.”
As an aside, I remark to Jo that PR has always been notable for strong women leaders. The reality, she tells me, is more ambiguous. “While 67% of the industry are women* only about a third of those make it onto the board. They can get blocked by a lack of flexible working options or poor parental policies, and agencies should be doing more to support them.”
However, “without wishing to generalise”, she suggests that women innately possess many of the skills PR requires: relationship-building, empathy, a sensitivity to the way people might react to a story. “We’re doing pretty well, compared to advertising, but I’d still like to see more women at the top.”
Meanwhile, the future looks bright for the consumer PR sector, which is expanding, partly due to the proliferation of media platforms. Jo says: “I think brands are aware that consumers have become more cynical about advertising. People know when they’re being obviously ‘sold’ to. So brands need to reach them in other ways, whether that’s through influencers, editorial, events, experiential and so on. Today, brands need to open a conversation with their customers.”
*Source: Chartered Institute of Public Relations