UK boutique B2B PR agency The Digital Voice is celebrating its tenth anniversary this week, marking a decade of huge change and growth in a sector that shows no signs of slowing down.
When industry veteran Julia Linehan set up the company, its specialist area, adtech, was a little known corner of the global advertising market, Brexit was a distant, even unlikely, event and of course the worldwide COVID pandemic and associated lockdowns seemed even less likely.
So we caught up with Linehan to find out how an early-days strategic decision made COVID an operational breeze, how company demands have changed the role of the modern PR agency, and why she places huge importance on championing equality in the workplace.
We started by asking Linehan how it feels to be passing the 10 year milestone…
“It feels good, really good. And I’m immensely proud of all that we’ve achieved over the last 10 years; especially in the last three years, where the business has tripled in size, both in terms of clients and team.
“Lockdown really was the catalyst that made me take a breath and realise it was time to grow and build on what was an incredible business model already.
“It needed more hands, more energy, and more experts So the last three years have seen the company go from a team of one (me), to a team of 20 freelance experts.
“I’m very, very proud of the truly unique, energetic, passionate and loyal team of people that I get the pleasure of working with every day.”
You must have started around the time of the 2012 Olympics, what were the early days like?
“Hugely exciting! I have been in the digital advertising industry for nearly three decades. And I think all of it has been a phenomenal experience.
“Over the last 10 years, the industry has especially seen adtech explode, which is a good thing because The Digital Voice specialises in adtech!
“So, we were sitting pretty in the right space and able to deliver a compelling proposition to companies that wanted something a bit different; an agency full of energy, hugely driven by outputs and who could become more of a team extension to clients.
“We’ve worked with a lot of companies that have joined us as startups and are now heading to IPO. That’s exciting. Challengers, disruptors and entrepreneurs; those are the clients that we want to work with, and we have the pleasure of currently working with 15 companies who are just that.”
What’s behind choosing the name ‘The Digital Voice’?
“Just before I set up The Digital Voice, I worked at a brilliant company in which they decided my job title was to be ‘The Voice’. This might have been because my nickname was the mouth of media!
“I have always had a lot to say and always very much been a mouthpiece for those companies that I worked for; presenting them on stage, through the press and in content and this formed the basis of how The Digital Voice was born and I opened the doors to working with multiple companies.
“We always work with companies that have a lot to say and they just need a strong and knowledgeable mouthpiece. We turn up the volume on what they want to say. That’s The Digital Voice!”
What challenges did you not foresee?
“One of the big challenges in PR has probably been the shift away from earned media over the last five years. That’s been trickier to navigate, but not impossible.
“A lot of challenges are just an opportunity under another name. We see it that way and we support the trade press in creating partnerships that work for both sides; but it has been a challenge.
“The only other challenge might be the rise and fall of ad tech. It’s always hard to watch companies that have reached the heady heights and then some unfortunately haven’t sustained that.
“But what I’m really excited about and we’ve been lucky with, is that our clients are those that have maintained and grown. So we have watched them overcome possible challenges and build, grow and really thrive.”
What’s been the biggest upset and biggest upside over the past 10 years?
“A difficult one as I honestly cannot think of one upset over the last 10 years. It really has been one hell of a ride – and all in a good way!
“There have of course been a few hiccups and false starts on trying things that didn’t potentially work, but we believe in throwing our all at everything we do and you learn far more from what doesn’t work.
“The biggest upside has actually been COVID in a bizarre way, as it allowed a remote working company to become the norm.
“We’ve been remote for all of the 10 years, but it was often expected for me to be visible and sit in clients offices back in the day.
“That could be frustrating because I don’t live in London and adding on an extra three and a half hours commute each way to a client’s office, to sit on a laptop on a hot desk, was a bit of a challenge.
“It’s been a dream really to have 100% remote working companies become both accepted and applauded.
“That’s led us to widen our net of 20 experts globally – none of our team live in London. That’s hugely telling and exciting.
“They live all over the world and we’ve been able to tap into a talent pool that spreads around the globe.”
How have things changed in your sector since 2012?
“In the last few years, I’m pleased to see an emphasis on sustainability, on transparency and authenticity. Those words are bandied around but they really mean something.
“I’m pleased that we’re seeing real steps forward and embracing those; not just having them just as buzzwords but having them baked into companies’ mindsets. That’s been empowering; that’s been the biggest change.”
What do clients want most now and how have their needs changed?
“They want real tangible actions, outputs and deliverables. You can’t just say you’re going to do it, you have to do it and deliver it from day one. We deliver that with bucket loads of energy!
“They need to rely on a company that is an extension of their team and is able to do lots of different things for them. No longer is a PR agency just about press.
“A PR agency has to be all things to its clients, and we’ve ended up spreading our wings and becoming podcast producers, virtual experience producers, event managers, marketing automation specialists, thought leaders, SEO experts, social media managers, website builders and so much more.”
COVID, Brexit, economic upheaval – what’s the key to business survival?
We smile, we laugh, we put our heart and souls into what we do; and we do it together as a team. That’s the way that you survive a lot of things by seeing the positive, the potential and the opportunity in even the most dire of situations.
“It sounds possibly a light touch but we find it works. We’re incredibly close knit and when our team has personal issues, we support them through it and we wrap our whole virtual arms around them.
“We do that when there have been major upheavals. We’ve looked at it in a positive light and see what we can do to make it better and easier. That’s the approach and the only approach I know how to manage challenges.”
How do you support women in business?
“I have had the pleasure over the years of being part of the leadership team behind lots of women networking groups, such as Digital Leading Ladies.
“I’m also now head of PR and impact for the professional women’s network Bloom UK and every day I work hard to support and respond to those who need a little helping hand.
“I also support men in the industry but for women, there are still challenges and I find that frustrating. For example, the gender pay gap just blows my mind.
“I’ve only ever paid people based on their value and their skill sets. I do find it astonishing that there should be any other factors that dictate pay.
“My company is made up of 80% women and that’s not by design, that’s because they were the right people for those roles.
“I wish more companies would approach it that way and then pay based upon their value and expertise.
“I do believe we are making steps forward. It feels like there is a huge drive and commitment from the industry and from networking groups.
“My biggest recommendation to women in the industry is to lean into those networking groups and you will be surrounded by a community, a support network who have an absolute desire to be stronger together.”
Who is your biggest inspiration as a leader?
“This is a tough one. And there isn’t one person I could name.
“I’ve worked with and currently work with incredible leaders such as Neil Thackeray, Pete Wootton, Guy Sneesby, Florian Gramshammer, Janicke Eckbo, James Leaver, Tom Jenen, Cristy Garcia, Erin McCallion and more importantly, I’ve been surrounded by strong female leaders through Digital Leading Ladies – all my co-founders are incredible.
“Plus, the Bloom UK leadership team, led by Caroline Mastoras, shows me every day the importance of community. That’s what makes tough moments never seem quite so tough.
Where do you see The Digital Voice in the next five years?
“This is a really interesting one and I’m probably going to be slightly different to other agencies. I’m far more interested in keeping and nurturing the team and the clients that I have right now.
“We are very blessed that we are full with a waitlist and we believe that the clients we currently work with are 100% right for us.
“They appreciate our energy, they embrace our style and we have become, for many of them, a real extension of their team and part of their companies. I feel very, very proud of that.
“So to grow more clients would not be right for me, because I like to be very hands on and a part of every one of those clients’ PR, marketing, communications and events plans.
“To do that, I need to limit that number and not spread myself, or my team, too thinly.
“So, in five years time, I would be thrilled if the team and the clients are right there alongside me and we are just a bigger, better version of what already is one heck of a uniquely energetic and passionate company.”