15 Years of Nellie PR – an Interview Ellen Carroll19th May 2022 / All, Blog, Nellie News
April 2022 marks Nellie PR’s 15th anniversary. It’s a momentous achievement and we couldn’t be prouder, and what better way to celebrate than to look back on everything we’ve learned over the last decade and a half of our beloved virtual PR agency! We spoke to our founder and director, Ellen Carroll, who told us about how the idea of Nellie PR was first conceived, the process of starting up the business, and all the challenges and achievements she’s seen along the way.
Without further ado, let’s hear what she has to say…
How did Nellie PR first begin?
I’d been working in PR and comms for years, and I’d always had it in the back of my mind to set up my own business. At the time, I was feeling like I wanted to be challenged more and to be more in control of learning new things. I was working in the PR team at Experian at the time and found out about The Hive at Nottingham Trent University. It had a scheme that supports entrepreneurs looking to set up a business. I used my holiday time to go and do this course, which took me through the process of setting up a business, including the financials etc. When I decided to go for it and leave my job to pursue Nellie PR, my employer didn’t want me to go, so Experian became our first ever client.
What was the idea behind this virtual PR agency?
Before setting up Nellie PR, I’d managed a lot of PR agencies as a client, and so I’d experienced things from the client’s perspective – where they’d send their best people to win the brief but when it actually came to doing the work, they’d introduce a junior PR person who would be left doing all the work.
I wanted a create better kind of agency, one that was more client-focused, where businesses would be supported by senior PR people, like myself. And I didn’t want to grow the business to become a big agency. I wanted to keep it small so we could really value the clients we had and be focused on making a massive difference to the small number of businesses we wanted to work with.
The other thing I wanted to do was draw on my own skills and experience. I was used to working in quite complex businesses and was attuned to asking the right questions. I wanted to focus on businesses that had a distinct challenge, ones where I could put my skills to use by interpreting complex information.
Done well, PR and comms can be transformational for a business, in terms of its reputation, its credibility, and even its impact on the bottom line. The idea was that Nellie PR would be a new kind of agency, one that did PR, but also content, and one that could grow as a virtual PR agency.
It seems bizarre now, but 15 years ago, being a virtual PR agency was its own thing entirely. Along with myself, the plan was to have a freelance and associate team work alongside me on various projects. And the benefit of having 20-plus years in the industry was that I already knew and had worked with most of them before.
To this day I still work with many of our original early clients such as Experian and we have really expanded since those early days. We’ve never done anything fluffy. Everything we do is very much focused on organisations that have a really distinct challenge. Whatever work they do, we always take a strategic approach and understand the story behind the business.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned from starting your own business?
Among other things, I’ve learned is how incredibly important your network is. Looking back now, 15 years on, I’m still working with people that I worked with 15, 20, 30-odd years ago.
When you do go down this kind of journey, you’re always going to have people that are trying to put you off. But there are so many more people that support and encourage and offer you opportunities, and they do that because of the trust you’ve built up with them, and because of the reputation you’ve built for yourself.
Never underestimate the value of your network. There are so many people that I have to thank that have been so supportive to me over the years, be it recommending me as they move between companies, putting work my way, or simply championing me.
Were there any unforeseen challenges along the way?
Yes, most definitely. When I first started off, I think I misjudged the admin side of the business, as well as the time it would take to sort out things like finances. I made loads of mistakes, especially early on. Things would be really busy and we’d be doing loads of great work, and then I’d realised I’d forgotten to invoice someone.
You learn quickly, and maybe that means realising you can’t do it all on your own. Particularly when you’re building a virtual PR agency, like Nellie PR, there’s a lot of hidden support you’ll need, in terms of admin, accountancy, finances etc. It can also be quite lonely at times. You still need that network of people to bounce ideas off, which has always been the one big thing I’ve missed from working in a larger organisation.
You’ve got to seek out ways to counterbalance that. For example, part of the reason I incorporated mentoring and training into the business was that I love talking to people one-to-one and getting that human connection, just as I love going and seeing clients.
It’s also about making sure that you’ve got the right support network. One of the things I’ve found most helpful is talking to a business coach. They’re someone that I can speak to in a confidential way about the business, someone that will pep me up or just remind me how well I’ve done, which is an easy thing to forget.
That’s the other thing I’ll say: it’s important to define your own success.
When I started down this road, I kept being pushed towards what other companies were doing – big agencies with loads of people and clients. I even started making steps towards becoming that style of company, but I just did not enjoy the process. Having a much smaller core team is better for me. It’s flexible, we can work wherever we want, we choose who we work with. So, while our ambitions may not match those of a larger company, we’ve defined our own success. We’re 15 years on now. We’ve lived through a recession and now COVID, and we’re still surviving – still flourishing, still growing, and still ambitious.
What is your greatest achievement to date?
It’s taken me a bit of time to really find our ideal customers, but now we have, it has to be the work we do with clients. We work with the hidden gems. The best kept secrets – and that doesn’t mean small businesses. Very often they’re very profitable and well-established companies that just sort of fly under the radar for whatever reason or find it difficult to communicate.
What I’m most happy about is actually going in and working with those kinds of organisations, asking them difficult questions, challenging them, really getting into the heart of what it is that they need to achieve, and then making that happen. It’s wonderful to see the results, in terms of their growth and their confidence and their success. There’s nothing better than that.
I’ve probably been a bit guilty of loving my clients’ businesses a little more than my own over the years. I’ve realised that it’s important to find a balance. You can still love those businesses, but it’s also crucial that you keep a close eye on your own, and don’t neglect it while you’re growing and supporting everybody else’s.
Working virtually as we do, it’s been so important for us to have a core team, one that includes someone whose job it is to keep us consistent with our own PR and marketing, as well as the content we produce. It truly does have an impact in terms of attracting the right customers to us.
What are your hopes for the next 15 years to come?
In the short term, there are a few things I’d love to build on.
For instance, where we’re growing the B2B content side of things, I think it would be great to expand the core team – not massively, but to bring on more skilled people to support and grow the content, as well as our content strategy. Developing white papers and commissioning research for clients is always incredibly interesting, and we love to get into that data and pick out the impactful story angles.
We’ve been doing a lot more in terms of video as well, such as storytelling for ourselves as well as our clients. We’re also planning to relaunch the PR that Pays programme, which helps people to build a strategic PR plan, and to offer more training and mentorship opportunities.
Looking more long-term, our hopes are the same as they’ve always been. A lot of agencies out there are very tactical with a focus on their short-term approach, whereas we’ve always been strategic in our thinking. It’s something we do with our clients – developing a strategy that helps determine the big-picture stuff they want to achieve and what the steps are that will help them get there.
That strategy also keeps things flexible and adaptable. People often talk about sticking to a niche, but you’ve got to counterbalance that with what makes you energised – what defines you as an agency and what sets you apart. Doing a variety of things really works for us. It keeps that excitement going and makes sure that we stay on our toes, delivering really good work and remaining ambitious in everything we do.
For us, our ambition is to work with good people, develop a great team, and to be valued for our reputation. Those things are really important to us, and they are what we hope to maintain and grow over the next several years.
Get in touch with Ellen Carroll
At Nellie, we have years of experience in B2B communications in many different industries. If you would like to find out how we could help your business, please drop us a line at email@example.com.
Alternatively, contact Ellen Carroll for a free consultation call and experience how our virtual PR agency can help you and your business to step out of the shadows and grow.