I was thrilled when Mandy Queen agreed to an interview.
In Mandy Queen PR she very rapidly created a very dynamic company able to take on larger agencies and beat them at their own game, which is a story I've always found highly inspiring - espeically as our companies were born in the same year. Mandy brings energy and humour to any interaction and is always a pleasure to speak to.
Here's our conversation:
TF: So you started MQPR in 2010 - just like Ugli! How big is the company now and when the bulk of that growth occur?
We are a team of six but we also use freelancers from project to project including copywriters, photographers, videographers, designers, app developers, production houses etc depending on the needs of the client and the scope of each job so the team expands and contracts over the course of the year.
The first three-four years for MQPR were fantastic - we saw year on year growth of around 50%. We then went through a couple of tough years as we were struggling to get the right talent but the past year has been brilliant. We've also recently put in place a new graduate scheme called Cadets to attract great talent from the universities - we have our first employee starting this month and we have been working on our brand positioning and culture to attract the right people. Last year was our most successful year yet with regards to income and caliber of clients and I have big plans for expansion in 2019.
TF: Wow that's amazing growth in the early years. What do you put it down to?
We kept it simple by focusing on building our reputation as an agency that gets great results for our clients. We produced case studies and gathered testimonials which we showcase on our website and share with prospects.
I'm always learning how to improve the business by reading business and personal development books, professional newsletters, speaking to other professionals and listening to podcasts. I also have a business coach who I see about 4-5 times a year.
TF. You mention a couple of tough years. Can you tell me about the setbacks you faced?
I knew how to do PR but not how to run a business - I previously only worked in large organisations with HR, IT and Finance departments and as we grew I had to learn how to manage these areas myself which took me away from growing the business. I outsourced HR a couple of times but have now brought this in-house and we also moved from our own office which we had had for 3-4 years into a co-working space which allowed me to focus my energies on my clients' growth and our growth instead of having to worry about IT issues and other facilities management.
Another challenge is running a business on my own. My mum passed away in October 2017 and had been ill for a very long time before that and I wasn't able to spend as much time with her as I wanted to as I couldn't afford to take much time off work. Naturally I spent quite a bit of time grieving around this time and I struggled to be my normal enthusiastic and motivated self but most clients were extremely understanding. I also learned to delegate more, empowering and training my team to take on more responsibility to execute our clients' strategies.
TF: What sort of businesses are your core clients? What industry and size are they, and are they mostly in HK?
Our specialty is public relations and we work across different sectors and companies of differing size who are based both in Hong Kong and around the world. We have worked with large local companies such as Kerry Logistics and New World Development, global organisations such as Lindt and The Economist Events and also organisations such as the British Council, Scotland Re:Designed and Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board. Saying that we love working with entrepreneurs and clients have included honestbee, Ambi Labs, foodpanda and the team behind Weave Co-Living because their dynamic spirit is aligned to ours and they really see and experience the value of public relations.
We have also enjoyed working on charitable projects including Asia's premier LGBTQ festival Pink Season, Hong Kong Cancer Fund's Pink Revolution and The Helper Documentary but our favourite campaign was facilitating a partnership between honestbee grocery concierge service and Feeding Hong Kong - together we raised HKD300,000 of food for families in need across Hong Kong in just three months.
TF: What activities do you engage in in order to acquire new clients for CC?
Our main activity is to have a great reputation. So we work hard at delivering creative and impactful campaigns for our clients. We then use client testimonials and case studies to attract new clients. These case studies are showcased on our website and our continually updated social media pages and sent to qualified prospects, clients and past clients. Most of our clients come to us through the website or referrals from clients, journalists or partners and even ex-employees so it's important to do great work that helps our clients reach their goals. We get around two queries a week sometimes more. We also work hard to retain existing clients.
TF: In my experience people outside the industry can be a bit sketchy on what PR and communications actually mean, so can you outline the services you provide for your clients?
That's a really important question as there is a lot of confusion around PR and a lot of people claiming that they offer PR in Hong Kong when they do not. I studied Communications and majored in PR nearly 25 years ago and have been working in the field of communications and marketing since graduating.
The official Chartered Institute of Public Relations definition of PR is "Public Relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics." So what we do, and this is very important in the case of start-ups, is help build our clients' reputation through a planned communications strategy that involves engaging their key stakeholders who may be consumers, customers, communities, suppliers, media, influencers, investors and the government indirectly or directly by using a variety of channels and tactics. Channels and tactics include social media marketing, media relations, blogger engagement, thought leadership, newsletters, participating in conferences etc. We also advise our clients on how to handle issues/crises that may arise and how to turn around a negative impression.
Our services cover strategy, stakeholder engagement, media relations, influencer engagement, social media marketing, events and conference PR, brand partnership, crisis communications.
TF: What's your charging model?
Our clients get the best results on a long-term retainer of six months or more as we have time to really get to know the brand and build relationships with stakeholders. We usually see the results grow month on month as the campaign progresses. We do projects too but clients get a better return for their money on retainers. We mostly tailor our fees to each client's needs as every campaign is different but we do have a minimum charge.
TF: Do you think social media is do-it-yourself PR - and if so has this made it harder to charge for PR services?
It's the content that matters in social media. Done right, social media is a fantastic communications tool for clients to reach, inform and engage their stakeholders as well as drive conversions. It is also increasingly being used as a means for customers to ask questions about products and services, and also complain. Smaller companies are mostly doing it themselves but larger companies are increasingly outsourcing social media services to PR agencies as they have more experience in reputation management and are keeping up to date with new techniques and algorithyms that are preventing your customers from seeing your posts.
If budgets are tight, we tend to suggest that entrepreuners do their own social and we will tackle the other aspects of PR such as media relations and thought leadership. However, the ideal situation is that we handle all aspects of PR as clients sometimes give the work to an intern who is inexperienced and they may say or do something wrong online which could damage the brand.
TF: In your opinion should very small or one-person service businesses devote time a) to blogging and b) to social media?
I would do both. I would suggest creating a blog post for your stakeholders on your website in plain English (top five tips style) that shows your expertise (thought leadership) and then share it along with a great (royalty free or your own) image across your social media channels and other channels such as email newsletter. I would then sponsor this social media post so it is seen by your target stakeholders and drive conversions.
If it's newsworthy enough the blog could even be repurposed and issued as a press release to media read by your target audience. You could then showcase the media coverage achieved on your social media channels and also website e.g. "As seen in Forbes Asia" thus building your credibility even further.
To keep things interesting in the future you could run a survey online which would form your blog content and then this could be turned into an infographic which could be shared again across multiple channels.
These sort of tactics would also help with SEO.
TF: Would you say small businesses in HK need to hire a PR company and if so, why?
Absolutely. People are more likely to buy from people they trust so having a good reputation is super important. It is hard to create a good reputation on your own when you are a new business and a PR agency will help you identify the right stakeholders and the right approach to take. Media relations is one aspect of PR and when you first start out you have something new to share which the media love to hear about - it's a great opportunity to create interest in your company, build media contacts and relationships which will be helpful when you want to make smaller announcements - media are more likely to write about you again if they know about you and may even approach you when they are writing about your industry in the future. Many of our entrepreneurial clients are also looking for funding so appearing on Bloomberg or CNBC helps drive awareness among investors actively looking to invest in small businesses.
PR is also cost effective in comparison to advertising.
TF: How do you calculate the cost and benefit of what you do in terms of the value to your clients?
First of all we sit down with the client to find out what their goals are. This is vitally important. Then we produce a tailored communications strategy. Every week we provide our clients with a report based on this strategy that outlines both output and outcome, adjusting our strategy according to results. In a media relations heavy campaign we will look at readership of publication, whether the article contains the clients key messages, name, photography, spokespeople quotes, size of article, tone of article, prominence of article on page/publication, conversions, whether the article is shared across social - engagement/comments on article in social media etc. Every campaign goal is different and we have seen our campaigns make a big impact - this includes store footfall quadrupling, 400,000 app downloads and even getting clients to number one on trip advisor. Our costs are related to the time we dedicate to each project.
TF: What's would you say are the hardest and easiest thing about doing business in HK?
Hardest - is clients thinking that we should just hire a celebrity to front a campaign and that's the job done - this is so frustrating. Easiest - there are massive opportunities for the PR industry to grow here as it's such a vibrant city and the gateway to Asia.
TF: What do you think are the best ways of growing a business in the HK market?
First of all creating a service/product that people want/need. Tailoring your product to the local market helps too or at least adapting part of it.... Pandora does a great job at this with its Hong Kong charms. Listen to and engage stakeholders - don't just speak at them. Ensure that you have excellent corporate social responsibility and customer service in place. Community engagement is also very important - Pizza Express are excellent at this as they involve themselves in multiple local charities. Read books and listen to podcasts about growing a business and becoming a better business leader. Manage your work/life balance so that you have the energy to drive the business forward. Hire a PR agency to help you continually develop strong campaigns so that you have a great reputation and remain at the front of your target audience's mind.
TF: Thank you very much for your time, Mandy this has been very interesting.