Working in a public relations agency is a fast-paced, often challenging experience that is highly rewarding. Its high-energy client work, constant multi-tasking and unpredictability makes it an adventurous line of work that is coveted by many.
For Lauren Nowak, who leads and mentors the team at WE Buchan’s Melbourne office, fast-paced client work is just a regular part of the job. During my internship at WE Buchan, I managed to catch up with Lauren over coffee and have a chat about her career, life in agency, and the future.
Hi Lauren, I’ll start by asking how long have you been at WE Buchan?
I’ve been here since August 2014. So just over two years.
Can you tell us about your career and how you came to work at WE Buchan?
I started as an intern at Victoria Police. [The internship] was part of uni, so most uni students had to do it. I was in their media production unit, so we were making safety DVDs with a team of students from Victoria University. From there I went onto another internship at Ambulance Victoria, where I did three solid weeks on my mid-semester break. Basically I tried really hard and just did whatever they said – I showed up early, I left late, and just did absolutely everything I could. I used to have to clip media clippings by physically cutting them out of the newspaper, or even recording them off the TV. And after those three weeks, they offered me a job. So you can do a lot in three weeks!
I would work there during the day, and I’d go to uni at night. Then I’d [also] work a part-time job on the weekends as well, because I was already living out of home.
I was there [at ambulance Victoria] for five years and I absolutely loved it. I worked with some of the greatest people such as the ex-Chief of News at Channel Ten, and somebody else who had been at 3AW.. Another had written Mick Gatto’s biography and was now our specialist writer. I had really great people to learn from, but after about five years I started to get itchy.
So I left and went to a couple of other in-house jobs, but after seven years I realised that being a senior media relations professional might be all I was ever going to be, and I really wanted to do more than that. I really wanted to work in financial services public relations…which no-one ever wants to do…but that’s what I loved.
My lecturer, Dr Tom Clarke at VU said “you’ve got to work for Buchan”, which I had heard from many people before.This was my third attempt at getting a job at Buchan. The first time was as an intern. They said “Sorry, you don’t have any experience, so we can’t hire you”. I was upset, thinking “how am I supposed to get experience if nobody will give me experience!?”. After three or four years at Ambulance I tried again and said “look I really want to come into an agency”, but I actually didn’t hear back from HR at the time. Then I emailed Kellie, our current HR person, and said “look I still have no experience. This is my third attempt. I’m not giving up. I’ve been told I have to work here, so please give me a chance.”
My cover letter was really different to any other cover letter that I’ve ever written for a job. It said “please I’m being really honest here. I need agency experience. What ever challenge you’ve got, I want to be a part of it. I know I don’t have experience, but I’m willing to give it a go”. She called me, and here I am!
In order to get the job, I had to prepare a full proposal document for a client and then come in and present it, just to prove that even though I’d never done a proposal because I’d been in-house my whole life, I still had the critical thinking capability.
So you’ve done the opposite of what many people in the field do and have gone from in-house to agency. That’s very interesting!
It is. And a lot of people were saying “you’re mad going into agency”. But I just found that I was having to chase in-house jobs. I was the one having to go out and apply for them and go to job interviews where I was one of twenty candidates, and they were asking for experience that I simply didn’t have, because I’d purely been doing media relations the whole time.
I also wanted to do a lot more than just be one piece of the pie; I wanted to control the pie. I wanted to understand how business management worked. I wanted to understand incomings and outgoings, ensuring the business was profitable, that salaries were getting paid. I wanted to have a role in impacting the culture as well, and agency allows you to do that.
There was also a pay difference. I was 26 or 27 and I took a very significant pay cut – I’m talking 20% of my pay I gave up to switch from in-house, but what it’s given me in return is far greater than money, because I now have experience in how to operate a communication strategy from start to finish. To understand the financials of a business, how PR adds to the bottom line, and how to manage the team are very valuable skills.
Going back to your role at Buchan, what kind of responsibilities does your position require?
It really depends on the day. Some days you can think to yourself, “I’m gonna come in and I’m gonna get all of this done”, and then you have one client issue and your whole day goes out the door.
My job is mostly to ensure that the work that my teams are doing is actually part of what we propose, and is contributing to the overall strategy. Before we take on any client, we go to them with a proposal, we agree on a strategy, deliverables, KPI’s etc, and my job is to ensure that we’re meeting those. If we have a top-level client that’s got a huge deal out, then I’ll still be creating the media release, writing the pitch, and organising interviews with mainstream journalists. You’re never above that stuff – that never really goes away.
What’s the most rewarding thing about working in PR?
What I value most is that public relations is exactly where I wanted to be since high school. And of course the people I work with. They’re fun, they’re creative, they’re smart, they’re compassionate, they’re empathetic, they’re the sort of people I want to work with. I also love having an impact on other people’s careers – watching them progress through the ranks. Watching them grow is what’s rewarding to me.
My final question: Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to get into PR?
I have so much. At the very start of your career, when you’re doing your internships, do them really well. Really well. Even if you hate the place, and you’re like “this is so not me”, public relations, media, marketing, comms it is such a small industry in Australia – everybody knows everybody. So if you do a great job, A: they’ll either hire you, or B: they’ll find you somewhere through their own networks. So if you’re willing to put in the hard yards in your internship, you will find a job relatively quickly compared to your peers.
The other piece of advice would be – and this is a mistake that I’ve made – is chasing money. Obviously having enough to cover your bills is important, but if you’re working in a place with a terrible culture, hating the work you do, with really awful people in your team, money won’t keep you warm at night. It won’t make you happy, it won’t fill the hole. You might dread going to work every day and no amount of money is ever going to fix that. I know it can be really tempting, but make sure it’s a place that you want to work at, and that it is going to help your career in some way. Money isn’t everything! Your happiness, your work-life balance, and your wellbeing should be number one.
Thanks for your time Lauren, and all the best with your career.
Lauren Nowak on Twitter
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