The Future of the Office: 30 Minutes with The PR Network’s Nicky Regazzoni

Setting an agency up on your own, without a partner or mentor can be tough. In the absence of someone to bounce ideas off you are constantly second guessing yourself, often making no decision for fear of it being the wrong one. It was during this process, almost a year ago when formulating the early plans for BF media that I became aware of Nicky Regazzoni, co-founder of virtual agency The PR Network. So many of the articles, opinions pieces and personal thoughts she shared on remote working and work life balance resonated with me and it was that, coupled with the success and growth of The PR Network, which helped give me conviction that the decisions I was making were the correct ones for both me and my family.  

One of those decisions was to set the business up as a virtual entity, which recently gave me the opportunity to move my young family to Spain for 6 weeks over the summer. It was during this time that Nicky was generous enough to give up some of her time and talk to me about what she’s learnt from running a successful virtual agency.  

With summer now officially over and the calls for staff to return to offices getting louder and louder in the media, many comms professionals are facing up to the possibility of their work/life balance returning to pre pandemic form. I therefore thought it would be as good a time as any to post some of the key takeaways from our chat, where we spoke about everything from creativity, culture, and renegotiating contracts. 

Did you ever have an inkling that someday the virtual agency would become the norm? 

This way of working always just seemed very obvious to us. We always thought someone would come along and nip at our tails because to us it makes good commercial sense, but even a couple of years ago it wasn’t very common. Then of course the pandemic came along and it’s proven our business case once and for all.  

When agency heads make the case for getting everyone back in the office as soon as possible you often hear the creative process being put forward as the driving factor. “We’re more creative when we’re together” Do you agree with that or do you think you can be equally creative as a virtual agency? 

I think regarding creativity and the act of a brainstorming session or meeting, ideally it’s better to have people together. 

However, you only have to look at the work that has been produced over the last 18 months. I’ve been on the judging panel for the SABRES and the PRCA National Awards. People have done some amazing work without being in the same room. And I don’t believe the agencies have been telling their clients. “Sorry, we can’t do any creative work for you because we’re not all together” 

Even though we run a virtual agency, we still believe people need to be together some of the time for certain parts of our work and the trick is working out when that is. I think creativity is something that I would say ideally, yes. But then if you mandate this, you also run the risk of limiting your access to the best people. It might be that the best ECD for that brief is in Cornwall and can’t come to London, so you just need to find a way to make it work. 

Do you think one of the biggest barriers to more agencies in the past adopting a virtual set up has been down to a lack of trust, faith in recruitment or workplace culture? 

We’ve only grown the network by asking people we know to recommend people that are working at a similar level and a bit like us, not that we want everyone to be the same, but with similar standards when it comes to attention to detail, attitude to client service and so on. 

So I think that helps with the culture because already we’re working with like-minded people. We’ve only had one person ever leave the permanent PRN team, everyone else has been with us since 2010 and haven’t left because they like the culture. We offer freedom, flexibility and opportunities to do good work with good clients. 

I think the trust you have in your employees should be the same whether you are running a virtual agency or a traditional one. When you hire somebody, ideally you feel you can trust them to do a good job for you, and you have to make sure that they have the tools that they need in order to do that job in terms of your time, the knowledge, the information you’re giving them. 

People talked about this a lot as one of the main reasons why this model hasn’t worked to date en masse and why people are still resistant to it. I think employers want to see what people are doing and many managers find it hard to let go and trust people to get a job done well in their own time. Personally, I disagree with that, but then I’m also working with people who are senior. All of our core team had already worked for several years before coming to join us, so we knew that they were competent. They could work without direction. I really don’t mindwhat people are doing every hour of the day, as long as they get their job done and they know what they’re supposed to be doing. 

But I think that’s quite controversial because contracts are still all based on hours, but really it’s about what they’re supposed to be doing to do the job, isn’t it? So I don’t have a problem with trusting people to do that. 

Do you suspect if things go back to pre-pandemic ways of working there will be a talent drain from agencies? 

I think at a senior level, definitely, because we’ve been seeing this for years with people just getting really fed up of how it works for them – or doesn’t work at that! The more senior you get, the more demands there are on your time. And then that just makes it really hard to manage with a small family. 

And it’s not only for parents, flexible working. I didn’t actually have any children when we set up the company but I think that our model certainly has been very appealing to people that want to be able to carry on working on exciting brands but at their own pace and in their own time. 

So I think unless traditional agencies adopt that same mindset while asking people to come in when they need to, which I think is totally reasonable, then I think that they’re going to struggle because at the moment in terms of recruitment, it’s very much a seller’s market. 

It’s really hard to find good people and any agency that just expects people to fall back into the old ways of “you have to come into the office all the time or most of the time” is going to really struggle.  

Of course to some extent, you need to do what your employer asks of you. I don’t think it’s right to suggest that work culture should be completely employee-based and they should just dictate everything. But if there’s an opportunity to renegotiate the terms of your contract, I think this is the time to say “This is what I want. This is how I can do my job. I’ve been doing it a hundred percent from home”. 

I’ve never missed a sports day and I’ve never missed a play. In the whole time my kids have been at school (12 years and counting), I’ve only missed one event. 

When setting up BF media I wanted to try and do things a bit differently, whether it was encouraging personal development by giving team members the time during the week to do that, working pro bono for a different charity each year or setting up a virtual team so we could keep costs down and pass them onto our clients. However, from time to time I’ve worried that we missed out on briefs because a potential client couldn’t get their head around us not using a physical studio to conduct interviews from and went with a safer more established option. Do you think you ever lost out on a brief because you are a virtual agency? 

Yes – even recently! There’ll be lots of occasions where clients just don’t get our model; or they like it, but they just think “we’re just going to go with the safe option”. And that’s fine because there are plenty of clients out there for everybody. We’d rather have the clients that don’t want to come and meet us in an office – because then we don’t have to travel to them all the time and can invest that time constructively in building a better agency 

At the moment being a virtual team isn’t a huge differentiator as everybody’s working like this for now, but in the past we have pushed the fact that it’s a USP and that clients are getting much more experienced people working on their account all of the time than they would when working with a traditional agency. But we try not to have those conversations unless somebody asks, because in trying to justify it you already seed a bit of doubt.  

We prefer to let our clients lead by example as if our model is good enough for Snapchat, Soundcloud, Dropbox, Toyota, Purplebricks…that’s enough to persuade others of its value. Our longest standing client is Zipcar who hired us in 2012 to handle UK PR and we’ve since taken on all its UK public affairs, plus supported in other European markets. It proves the model works.