Posted on November 09 2016
Today's Wednesday Woman is the awesome PR guru Omer-li Cohen. Omer-li is a seasoned broadcaster, marketing communications advisor/consultant and non-executive director specialising in branding and marketing.
Omer-li set her business up over 25 years ago and has carried our PR campaigns for a myriad of clients in different sectors. Omer-li is also a staunch feminist and has successfully campaigned (both PR and raising funds) for several charities including The Dying Rooms Trust. Omer-li was so moved by a documentary on the plight of young female Chinese orphans that she approached the Trust and offered to set up a pro bono campaign enlisting the support of high profile figures such as Paul McCartney and Elton John. The campaign helped spur the change needed to make necessary change.
Newnham: What were you like growing up? And what led you to PR?
Omer-li Cohen: I come from a loud and noisy family. My father was an academic and my mother, a ballet dancer turned business woman. So the influences were a mixture of creative, commercial and educational. Looking back, this is a banging combo for a career in PR. Whilst suburban London children in the 60s and 70s had mothers who stayed dutifully at home in twinsets, pinnies and blue rinses, my mother started various businesses, some of which still run to this day. Flamboyant and non-conformist, she would turn up to my school in mini-skirts and crazy hats speaking disarmingly to my teachers when questioned as to why she had felt it necessary for us to skip school in favour of museums, galleries and sometimes even pop concerts.
I was always into clothes and making things. I used to go to leather factories, buy sacks of off-cuts cheaply and make them into scraggly handbags and waistcoats, which I then sold on market stalls. This gave me a taste for work and financial independence. I always earned my own money. In hairdressers, babysitting, as a Saturday girl from age 12 in the tights department of Marks and Spencer and during A-levels at a part time job in Jaeger, where via my uniform and generous staff discounts and while my contemporaries rubbed cigarette smoke into their torn ‘loon’ pants, I was clad in cashmere and tweed.
Later on, I got into PR almost inadvertently. I did a course in marketing, PR and advertising and then joined the UK’s first ever telemarketing company. They had a pretty radical training and promotional policy starting all recruits at the bottom, selling on the phones. They believed in on-the-job training, promotion from within and driving staff hard. A propos of nothing, I was offered a post doing the PR for a subsidiary they had just acquired in the music business. I had no experience at all in the practicalities of running PR campaigns, except for my college notes, my telemarketing training, a head for organisation and a lot of drive. As luck would have it, I landed my first client, the legendary music producer Tony Visconti and his recording studio. I reinvented the wheel in terms of the practice of planning and executing his PR, but I loved every minute and I never looked back.
Newnham: What led to you starting your own agency and what were some of the earlier obstacles you faced/how did you overcome them?
Cohen: Hubris! I honestly thought I was utterly invincible. While that is undoubtedly arrogant, it is not as much as it might sound now. It really wasn’t so difficult then to be better than the competition. The whole business of PR had been steeped in the worst kind of 80’s macho excesses. By way of illustration, agencies had names like “Gin and Tonic PR” and protagonists like Max Clifford. In many business categories, PR departments attracted the flimsiest of characters and louchest of behaviour. The men tended to be pompous stuffed shirts and the women, decorative, underpaid and undertrained. I was young and a redundancy payment had left me just enough money to keep going for about 6 months.
So, I took a corner in a friend’s office and I got on the phone looking for new clients. I also massively over serviced my first clients to keep them loyal and to get them to recommend my agency. If I had known then what I know now, I might have done the whole thing more strategically. Most agency startups work by networking and poaching clients from employers but I couldn’t do that and so needed bags of energy and a commitment to making things happen. I built up my client base from the ground and developed the company organically. In the mid-90’s we had a spate of client losses as recession swallowed up half our business. It was hairy, I had half a dozen salaries to pay. I talked openly and honestly to the rest of the team and we all rolled our sleeves up, contacted everyone we knew, mailed and cold-called potential clients, pressed the flesh, pitched and pitched for bigger budgets and more interesting projects.
Newnham: What advice do you have for other women looking to start their own business? What are some of the more important lessons you have learned in your career?
Cohen: I would advise women to sort their cash flow out carefully before they start and work out exactly their break even point at each stage of development. I think my biggest mistake was that I left paid employment too early, had a lot of my learning curve at my own expense rather than working my way up the greasy pole in other companies. I would advise young women to watch and learn how and how not to do things as they progress through their careers before they branch out on their own, to seek out mentors and watch others operate.
I would advise people to start their businesses only when they sense they can really add something of value to the sector they are operating in. Clarify why their offer is better than anything else on the market, encourage clients (and staff) to give negative as well as positive feedback, which can be unnerving but helps to address any shortcomings and improve your proposition. Women tend to doubt and short-change themselves more easily than men, they also charge less. Remember why you are great at what you do and don’t be afraid to ask for what you are worth. A large part of success is the tenacity to stick to your guns and be ready to keep going even when things look bleak.
That is true of clients too. I used to compromise with clients and do what they asked even when I wasn’t sure it would get them the right result. I trust myself now, and am more prepared to challenge them (tactfully and sometimes not so tactfully) when I know they are wrong. Conversely, maturity has taught me that making gentle suggestions can often work better than going in, hot-headed and all guns blazing. And don’t hold difficult conversations by email. Don’t be a coward in your communication. Pick up the phone or meet instead.
Newnham: What are some of your favourite projects you have worked on and why?
Cohen: My most rewarding projects were not always the best remunerated….. My all-time favourite was just after I had my baby daughter and watched a documentary on Channel 4 called ‘the Dying Rooms’ about the one million baby girls who are abandoned and left to die in orphanages in China as a result of the collision between the one child policy and traditional preference for boys. We put together a fund raising campaign involving direct mail, cinema, outdoor advertising, media coverage, events and political lobbying. It resulted in raising £150,000 and a decision by the World Bank to invest several million into alleviating this problem followed shortly afterwards by the relaxation of the one-child policy on China’s part. I like to think the work we did went some way to changing lives for millions of girls in China.
I will always appreciate the time I spent working with the charismatic and talented Tony Visconti, a PR’s dream. Another excellent opportunity was training Anita Roddick’s in-house PR department, devising, training and implementing plans for her personal PR, businesses and political campaigns. I really enjoy communications challenges, and to that end have PR’d sex-aids, mobile lavatory seats, incontinence pants and hearing aids. We have promoted bizarre foods, like yoghurt flavoured margarine, ethnic beers and carried out crisis PR activity for a well-known baked bean brand. We have partnered with construction companies that transformed properties into surreal maritime vessels and giant murals and hyped bureaucracy-ridden trade association. We have done masses of work publicising, marketing and ad campaigns, thereby inventing an entire new genre: “adlicity" after which one journalist called us rather unflatteringly “the pimple on the pimple on the camel’s bottom”.
I loved getting Mad Frankie Fraser on the Today programme talking about why he loves Campari, biting my nails over a controversial direct marketing company's appearance on Newsnight, getting Gordon Brown to comment on News at Ten for 15 minutes on survey results we gained for a market research client, not to mention generating ways of keeping some high profile corporates out of the public eye. I don’t like easy PR jobs, or brands that are already famous. I relish challenges, and am stretched by creating a compelling and newsworthy story from scratch. Having started from the bottom myself in business, I get a lot of satisfaction from finding, developing and training young PR’s and teams to operate, learn skills and achieve results beyond their expectations. Recently we have done a lot of “in-house agency” work, setting up in-house PR departments from the foundations, getting them going and running them remotely.
Newnham: As a staunch feminist, what more do you think can/should be done to improve the situation for women/mothers at work?
Cohen: I feel very strongly that much more effort needs to take place to encourage change. For a start, if men were mandated or at least expected to do at least 50% of childcare, the world would become a different place. Women would be freed in the public sphere without having double the workload and responsibility. Crèches would be introduced naturally into many more work environments as men struggle with the multiple demands of childcare, work and domestic organisation. At every level, women should be taking 50% of positions, on boards, in government, in business, not-for-profit and the arts. It is utterly unacceptable that women still earn 81 pence for every £1 a man does.
Caring and teaching professions should employ more men so that children start to experience different models of masculinity in their own workplace. Childcare should be tax deductible and its status raised. It would be fantastic if particularly men in the workplace were more prepared to speak out against casual sexism and misogyny and this should be supported by better trained HR departments and the law. Porn culture would be tolerated far less and buying sex would be a criminal offence as it is in Norway. This would result in the cultural backdrop of misogyny in our lives leading to to lower expectations from both men and women, in different ways, would start to be strangled.
Schools would teach children about the pernicious nature of sexist indoctrination via rap music, fashion, pop videos, the pressure of sexist social media bullying, slut shaming, issues around rape culture and consent and so on…. I could go on, but this would be a great start.
Newnham: Who/what is your inspiration?
Cohen: That’s an interesting question. I am inspired by people and particularly women who get an idea and work to realise it. Ever since I read the Female Eunuch, it was Germaine Greer, and I still have extraordinary respect for her ability to build compelling arguments often that go against the grain, although these days I just cannot support her stance in defence of FGM which she has justified on multicultural grounds. Anita Roddick was an extraordinary influence on women of my generation, who shamed and ultimately changed the face of British business, single handledly introducing the concept of corporate social responsibility, promoting a particular kind of politicised and benevolent capitalism, and publicising important yet often unfashionable issues affecting women.
Latterly, it is thinkers such as Lynne Segal who made me see that we can’t change the world for women until we realise that men and masculinity have escaped our critical attention, Helena Kennedy who continues to draw attention to the many ways in which the law operates unjustly against women and Sophie Walker who with good humour intelligence and energy drives the Women’s Equality Party. But in the main these days my inspiration is the millions of ordinary, unlauded and unglamorous women of all ages that quietly form the backbone of the planet, keep the state and business going as well as their families, homes and social lives. The ones who get on with it on a fraction of the amount of sleep they would like, who regardless of the content, responsibility, salary or status of their day jobs, are still expected to get up in the night, take time off when their children are sick and regardless of their feminist credentials are the ones who end up getting dinner on the table. These are the people I take my hat off to.
Newnham: If you could back in time to the start of your business, what advice would you give a younger Omer-li?
Cohen: I would reassure myself that I know what I am talking about and not allow myself to be talked out of or dissuaded from saying or doing the right thing, I would interrupt more, swallow less, answer back more, interrupt bloviating men more, placate arrogance less, be bolshier, compromise less, charge more, pandered less, aim higher, and push myself forward more. I would trust my hunches and instincts more, end unhealthy business relationships more quickly, communicate more vehemently… and as Shakespeare said “...and this above all else, to thine own self be true.”
Omer-li on LinkedIn