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Sara Bonafair

Kick the habit of ignoring advice given by parents and career advisers, just this once, and take it from a peer – internships are worth your time. As a recent grad, I know the feeling of having just barely survived another round of exams and essays. The last thing you may feel like doing is researching, applying for and doing an internship – especially, if you are young and lucky enough to still consider career pressure a distant prospect. Nonetheless, I believe you can never be too young to embark on the trial-and-error process that will lead you to a career in an area you will enjoy in the years ahead.

That’s not to say that we don’t all change between the ages of 17 and 20 something, but if you start the learning process early, it can grow with you. Starting now takes some of the guesswork out of deciding where to direct your focus when you graduate and minimizes some of the stress of committing to your first job. Internships are an integral part of understanding what you want to do, how you want to do it, who you want to do it with – and, crucially, what you don’t want to do.

I took the advice of my career adviser, when pressure and my resume were still pretty non-existent, and ‘playing professional’ seemed almost exciting. From the age of 17, I explored every interest under the sun, from art to financial services, navigating the ocean of opportunities offered to students searching for experience. I worked for small firms, large firms, start-ups, and corporations, making my mantra ‘you never know until you try’. By my last year, a process of elimination allowed me to be able to say with conviction that I wanted to work in the communications industry.

In my last year, I tried advertising in a small firm and while I enjoyed the personal mentorship that was possible in a close-knit team, found advertising wasn’t for me. I tried PR in a large firm, on a B2C team, I enjoyed the type of work, but found the lack of opportunity to slow down and ask questions to understand the bigger picture and strategy frustrating. This learning process was essential to understand what I was looking for – a small PR-firm.

Soon I discovered Gong, which was not only what I was looking for in terms of being a small award-winning corporate communications agency in London, but also what I was looking for in terms of combining my personal and academic interests in my daily work. The supportive and collaborative environment that Gong cultivates had become an important criterion for me. Sitting next to project heads, I was able to really understand everything necessary to produce Gong’s marketing and communications services to its clients, feeling no hesitation in asking how to do things and why. As I developed my skills in the nuts and bolts of PR, I felt I was, at the same time, contributing to impactful work on client briefs that I was proud to be part of.

I can imagine why employers are just as keen as experience-hungry students to offer internships. They give the management team the invaluable opportunity to witness prospective recruits in action rather than relying on intangible words on a CV and an interview.

In short, internships permit you to first realise the industry you want to be a part of, then to envision your ideal role and the environment in which you want to perform it. Internships can also be a ‘getting to know you’ period, for yourself and your future employer. It’s a quick way to learn how to perfectly position yourself after graduation for a rewarding first job to kick off your career. So my advice is, at the end of term, instead of a week of box-sets in bed to take your head off exams –get out there and get an internship!

Collective Genius


Narda Shirley

Challenger brands and innovation often go hand in hand. But how easy is it to break into a mainstream category like yoghurt in the UK when it is dominated by major organisations like Muller and Danone with brands like Muller Corner and Activia?

I have been fascinated by a newcomer called The Collective for a while, not just for its utter deliciousness, but also because it looks so different from everything else on the shelves. And I don’t mean artisan ‘hand knitted’ yoghurt that is only available in a few independent delis, we are talking Waitrose and premium branches of Sainsbury’s here.

I could sense an Innocent-like approach to the brand, not just in its packaging design, web site and tone of voice, but also in its location. Innocent’s invitation to pop into Fruit Towers in west London was always intriguing, as is the location of The Collective brand owner, Epicurean Dairies in Acton – an area not known for its lush pasture!

Buoyed with the confidence of curiosity, I gave them a call and co-founder Mike Hodgson agreed to tell me their story. The web site gives a strong clue as to the origins of The Collective in New Zealand. It turns out that Mike was on the lookout for a brand he could get excited about to launch in the UK, using his considerable experience of working in the yoghurt and fresh desserts category. ‘I hadn’t done a start-up, and it was something I needed to do for myself.’ Unsurprisingly perhaps given the trajectory of The Collective in the UK, it turns out that Mike knows his way around supermarkets and brands. In his career he has worked both for corporates, (like The Greencore Group and St.Ivel) and entrepreneurs (he was a consultant to James Averdieck the founder of fresh desserts company, GÜ).

At Greencore, Mike was MD of the ready meals business, but after his years as a corporate man, he jacked it all in, took his family on a round the world trip and bought a pub in the Lake District. It was during that world trip that he says he ‘fell in love with NZ and admired their ‘go for it’ spirit. Returning to run his gastro pub, he showcased wines from New Zealand, which began his successful connection with the country.

Whilst running the pub, he struck up his relationship with GÜ, initially as a part-time consultant, but after it was successfully sold to Noble Foods in 2010, he took on the role of MD full time for a year. He credits these experiences as the catalyst for The Collective in the UK.

“Running the pub enabled me to really connect with the public again, seeing my customers’ reactions to the specials board every day, talking to them first hand to get immediate feedback on what they liked. The engagement really fuelled my passion for great food and gave me the impetus to do something on a bigger scale.

“The GÜ experience convinced me I could do something similar, but this time for myself. I was actively looking for a business idea UK at the same time as The Collective were thinking about expanding overseas. I only had to taste the product to know we’d found something really special. The challenge was to replicate the unique bio culture that produces the yoghurt’s extraordinary consistency in NZ here in the UK with British milk. We also wanted to tweak some of the flavours to British tastes.”

We discussed the lemon (my favourite) as a case in point. “I’m a Northener and to me the obvious way to go was towards lemon curd. Similarly we gave Russian fudge flavour a taste of Devon toffee.”

Mike enrolled his business partner, Amelia in the venture. They had worked together at GÜ. He credits Amelia and her relationships with, and knowledge of the supermarkets, as being a major factor in their success to date, that and their manufacturing partner in the venture.

“When you are launching a new product, you can go one of two routes – capital intensive (and therefore inherently risky) where you set up your own manufacturing operation or outsource to a specialist manufacturer. We chose the second option so that we could focus all of our efforts on sales and marketing. But even beyond that, we actually convinced a manufacturer to become the third partner. Giving them skin in the game has created stability as well as instant credibility for the integrity and reliability of our supply chain with the supermarkets.”

When I asked Mike what really motivates him about a start-up, he laughs and says that he now appreciates what people mean when they say you have to be a bit mad to be an entrepreneur. He cites the values and the attitude of the business as the way in which they really want to make their mark. “We just want to be easy to do business with, and be really helpful, that’s why I’m happy to talk to you. We don’t court publicity, but if people are interested in what we are doing, that’s great. My wife does all of the customer service and feedback – it’s a hangover from the days of running the gastro-pub, because we really believe in listening to people and taking what they say on board. If we have a loyal customer base who feel valued, we know that they will help get the word out about how good the product is.”

One of the most compelling things for me in hearing this challenger brand story is that Mike is not a groovy young MBA grad with a disruptive idea. He has worked his way around and through the industry and even taken a step back from corporate life before deciding to start-up his own thing. He says of the challenge, “ I think I have a slightly masochistic need to do something that’s hard and that other people think is (to quote some) ‘very brave’ or ‘bloody stupid’ Clearly managing to achieve hard things gives you a strong purpose and achieving that is very satisfying.”

He is proof that a variety of experiences and perspectives can add up to being able to see things in a new light. He is a ‘portfolio man’ who has taken inspiration to launch a company at the point when in a different generation, many people would have hunkered down and waited for retirement. For me, the standout elements of the story are the factors that have set the scene for rapid growth: Sector experience of sales and marketing, distribution and supermarket relationships; manufacturing and supply chain stability and integrity; a tried and tested product with a distinct brand personality that just needed to be localised and a business partnership with Amelia that had been forged in another successful company. And of course, the entrepreneur’s special sauce; relentless desire and self-belief.

The results speak for themselves, turnover is already exceeding £10m and they are on target to be profitable this year. It all adds up to an irresistible recipe for success.

Entrepreneurs: How (not) to get attention with Twitter


Sarah Caddy

Oops. Sir Richard has made another splash in the gossip columns this week with his ever-so-slightly cringe-worthy simile choices:

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The tweet split opinion in the office; some were mortified, others impressed that he clearly writes his own tweets (surely this would never get past a corporate comms professional?!). One thing we all agreed on: busy entrepreneurs can sometimes unwittingly strike the wrong tone. It takes time to consider all of the possible implications for our words (or pictures – Branson’s twitter feed includes the odd twit pic of “students changing their world one app at a time” – all of whom happen to be attractive young female students). Of course, this is why there’s a place for corp comms professionals to take over the grunt work of a social media strategy – one that our business leader clients are generally delighted to pass over. But we keep them focused – what does your overall Twitter stream say about you?

Entrepreneurs are focused on the big picture, and they often stand out by breaking a few rules. Case in point? Mario Gabelli’s FTfm face-to-face interview this week. Asked whether taking Gamco Investors public in 1999 was the best decision he’s ever made, the entrepreneurial CEO investor (startlingly) said, “Being born was the best decision I ever made.” Not what his PR team might want to read in terms of landing key messages, but then it probably won’t affect his investors’ opinions if he continues his solid track record of returns.

The final irony? On further investigation of the Virgin blogsite, we discovered that Branson’s offending simile was in fact a direct quote from that great British hero (renowned for taking action), Winston Churchill. That’s another fact about great entrepreneurs: the media will always delight in having fun with them.


Nutrition and agriculture: bridging the divide


On Monday, I attended the launch of the Global Hunger Index by Concern Worldwide. There was much to be hopeful about, particularly in India and sub-Saharan Africa where hunger and malnourishment has decreased significantly over the past 5 years. However, it quickly became apparent through the speakers’ comments and the audience’s questions that there is still much to be done – more detailed data needs to be gathered, more research needs to be funded, and much jargon needs to be busted in order to make nutrition part of the mainstream agenda.

What I found most telling, and perhaps most surprising, about the evening was the perceived lack of involvement and engagement in the challenges of nutrition by agriculture, to the extent that they are readily spoken of as two separate – and sometimes conflicting – sectors. While Lawrence Haddad of IFPRI spoke of the need for collaboration with the private sector in areas such as fortification of food ingredients and diversification, the references to agriculture were few and far between.

This World Food Day celebrates the role of family farmers in our food systems, and there is a great deal that the agricultural sector can do in supporting farmers in growing healthy, nutritious food both for their own families and catalysing change at the roots of our international supply chains. We can take a lot from the mission of Zambian project RAIN, whose name spells out the challenge we face – ‘Realigning Agriculture to Increase Nutrition’.

What are your thoughts? Join Gong and global agricultural research organisation CABI on 30th October for the first of our Agri-Comms monthly meet-ups, where communicators from NGOs, businesses, policy, media, research and academia will come together for an informal evening of food and agri chat. We’ll be at The Marylebone from 6:30pm – come along and spread the word!