Hotwire founder: "PRCA a waste of money..."
OK, OK...that's a little out of context. But you'll be pleased to hear that it's time again for another of our Q&A sessions with the great and the good of the UK tech PR scene. This time, the lady in the hotseat is Kristin Syltevik, co-founder alongside Anthony Wilson of Hotwire PR. I've always thought of Hotwire as a funny sort of company; it seems to fly under the radar of the tech PR industry a bit, keeping a low profile. For instance, Hotwire - despite running an event about blogging last year - only actually established its own blog last month.
The company was launched in 2000; a time which many might suggest was anything but the right moment to start a new tech PR outfit. Mind you, if anyone would've understood the financial implications it was Anthony Wilson...he'd been top bean counter at Shandwick plc before deciding to start Hotwire with Kristin (who was also at Shandwick, but in a PR role).
It seems to have been a decent enough decision, enjoying - as Hotwire has done - steady growth in fee income since its launch and now enjoying a turnover of somewhere around £4m (and which may well see an increase in this year's PRWeak league tables). Of course, we don't know how profitable the company is, and opening a bunch of subsidiary offices across Europe can certainly soak up the cash.
Anyway, here's the Q&A with Kristin...for me there's a certain (over)eagerness about the answers...she's obviously desperate to impress. Or perhaps just desperate to finish the Q&A...answering it, as she did, after having departed on maternity leave! So thanks for that. Best of luck with the baby.
See what you think...
What's the essence of the Hotwire brand?
Kristin Syltevik: Hotwire is about great work for the client and great opportunities for the team. When Anthony and I launched the company back in 2000 we had three things we wanted to achieve - we wanted to provide public relations that is measurable, insightful and international. We have created an approach to PR that is as measurable as the other marketing services, built industry specific teams that are so knowledgeable about their industry they are peers with their clients. The ambition to build an international PR agency organically has been really important to us. A lot of us came from large agencies built through an acquisition strategy and we wanted to create a team that we had hired, that know each other, that go to the same training and social events.
TWL: Since being formed in 2000, Hotwire seems like a company that's quietly got its head down, worked hard and suddenly found itself with a nice four million pound PR business without making too much of a ripple on the surface of the UK tech PR industry. Has that been a specific strategy?
KS: Well, we're heads down, quiet kind of people :-). The most important stakeholders for us are the team members and our clients. Maybe we haven't been that focused on blowing our own trumpet but in my view recognition of the fantastic team we have assembled comes from doing brilliant work for our clients. When we started out we had a really specific business plan, including the differentiators talked about above. The last six years have been about fulfilling the ambitions we had in the plan. We're now working on a project which looks at the development of the company until 2010. Everyone in the company has been involved, from our country managing directors through to the receptionists. I am really excited about the next stage of development for Hotwire.
TWL: You're an independent agency, which we always feel must be a nice place to be. Having said that, we hear that you were up for sale last year! Why didn't you succeed in finding a buyer?
KS: Over the years we have had a lot of suitors, I guess that comes with being a successful agency and it very flattering of course. We did consider some of the offers carefully but decided that independence is frankly fantastic. No doubt as long as we continue to be successful this speculation will follow us around.
TWL: Are you still for sale?
KS: We now have a roadmap for the next four years and a lot to achieve. It is really exciting and we're all really motivated. Launching Skywrite and restructuring the group is part of that. So, to answer your question, no, we're not up for sale.
TWL: We've obviously talked to a few peers in industry. There seems to be a view that Hotwire is happy to undercut its competition in order to win business, thereby driving down industry fees to an unsustainable level. Is that a fair accusation?
KS: No way! I think some people misinterpret the fact that we are quite black and white with clients about what we can deliver with what they see as undercutting. We actually say no to a lot of leads because the budgets are too low and lose a bit due to our pricing so that is totally wrong. If some peers are threatened by a competitor that does what is said it would do and is totally transparent about time and deliverables that's great news!
To be serious, the 'view' may come from our approach to measurement, which at its most basic level extends to the tactical level of a campaign. We build strategic programmes that aim to solve the specific issues we are hired to solve. These campaigns are underpinned with a series of PR tactics which we promise we will execute (just like our peers in the rest of the marketing services industry). If we don't execute the tactics (say a specific creative campaign, or an analyst tour) we can't charge the client. This makes us really transparent and accountable - the client and the team love it and as a result we have very few unhappy clients. We do an annual client survey and our client satisfaction last autumn was fantastic at 81%.
TWL: You've rushed to open a whole bunch of European offices. Are they all profitable and do you have any plans to expand beyond Europe...to the US , for instance?
KS: Being totally European was a massive driver for us and opening our own operations in the five major PR markets in Europe has been part of a strategic plan. Last year all the offices but one were profitable (and the odd one out - in its first year - lost £7,000 - not bad going!). We're now thinking about the next step and we will make sure TWL is the first to know what our plans are, if any :-)
TWL: With a couple of notable exceptions, you're client list reads like a who's who of technology companies we've never heard of. Do you find that specialising in 'no name' niche clients leaves you open to the vagaries of technology industry M&A turmoil?
KS: If you get really deep into specific technology sectors, like we do with our practice structure, then it means you get to work with a lot of extremely innovative specialist companies as well as big name players. We want to work with real innovators in the tech space, and it shouldn't matter if they are large, mid-sized or sizeable start-ups, they should all get brilliant service. BUT, to focus on some giants of the industry, have you heard about Duracell, Atari, TDK, Samsung, Mitel, BlackBerry, Sage, Tiscali...and I could go on? We work for a lot of massive, blue chip brand names across Europe.
TWL: We notice from the PR Week league tables - which otherwise reflect a healthy performance in terms of fee income growth - that you're no longer a member of the PRCA. Why not?
KS: Because we thought that for us it was a waste of money! The PRCA is probably really good for agencies that are starting out or who haven't got an operations structure. But we run our own gigantic training scheme, we didn't seem to get any new business leads from them etc etc, so we decided that it would be better to invest the membership fee on our team.
TWL: Although he always wears highly polished shoes, why does Anthony Wilson always have something of the crazed lunatic about him? Is it because he's a bit of a crazed lunatic? Or has he just been a bean counter in the PR industry for too long?
KS: Anthony and I co-founded Hotwire together and for me it's the best decision I have ever made in my career. I just showed this piece to a colleague in the London office and she asked me to tell you that Anthony is right at the heart of the business and well loved (ask anyone at Hotwire she said). Anthony is ex-KPMG and he was head of finance at Shandwick in Europe - an incredibly powerful combination for his role heading up Hotwire's operations. I asked him about the shoe thing and he just told me he is really pleased you have noticed his polished shoes (and the rest of his amazing dress sense no doubt) :-)
TWL - thank you for asking us to participate!
No, no...thank you.