Posted: April 10, 2015, 5:40 p.m.
by Kaitlin Goins.
Anna Ruth Williams is a rising star in the public relations industry. After ditching the usual infrastructure of a traditional agency and starting her own with just a small family loan and one client, Williams is turning the public relations business on its head.
Williams claims to be an obsessed dog mom who loves to drive her new convertible with the top down and, as a kid, wanted to own a stationery store. After graduating from The University of Alabama in 2006, she honed her crisis communications chops working in political communications across the country. In 2011, Williams went to work at an old-school agency in Atlanta where she was “miserable.” However, she doesn’t regret the experience. “I had the opportunity to lead the agencies’ global B2B technology accounts, and found my niche in tech PR.” Now, Williams is founder and chief executive officer of AR|PR and is #Mak[ing]News.
Making the Leap
At her first agency job, Williams became frustrated with traditional communications agency processes and procedures. She thought billable goals, inflexible work hours and meticulously tracked paid-time-off hindered creativity, lowered team morale and ultimately hurt business development.
So, she quit. She gave her mom a call and asked for her wedding fund (promising that if she were ever to get married, she would pay for it herself). With a meager budget and one client, Williams started AR|PR in August 2012.
“The transition was aggressive and super scary, but it was a breath of fresh air. I was at an agency with a bad culture. Being able to build something and make up the rules was fun . . . It was challenging, but there is nothing else I’d rather do,” Williams said.
One thing that stands out about AR|PR is its “Army of Awesome” page on its website. Everyone on the staff looks to be younger than 35, which Williams said is a double-edged sword.
“We call our culture very millennial-centric. . . Some prospects may perceive that we lack experience because we don’t have people on our team that have 20 years in the sector,” Williams said.
Without the years of experience, the need for six-figure salaries and the ego that goes along with those, AR|PR is able to be more flexible with its employees and clients. Its energetic team also truly understands the changing media landscape and integration of social media because they’re all digital natives.
“Tech companies are looking for a different kind of agency,” Williams said. “The tactics that used to work 10 years ago don’t work today because of the evolution of media. While brands might not understand what we’re doing, they know they need a young agency that approaches PR differently.”
Putting Agency Culture First
One thing Williams is very proud of is AR|PR’s company culture. The firm has been called the “new darling” of Atlanta’s PR, according to Williams. With a “jungle-gym” infrastructure, employees can move from job title to job title without getting stuck in one particular niche. By abandoning the vertical ladder, Williams was able to avoid the typical corporate promotion hierarchy and simply do work.
With an “anti-policy policy,” AR|PR is breaking the rules of the old 9-to-5 jobs. With no dress code and unlimited vacation, AR|PR employees make their own schedules. Employees are given a health benefit allowance that allows them to create a health plan that works for them as individuals. AR|PR also provides professional development within and outside the agency. It hosts monthly team lunch-and-learns and provides employees with a $100 stipend each quarter for professional development. The agency also encourages individualized professional development. For example, one employee recently passed Google’s AdWords certification while another completed a nationally-recognized cyber security certification, paid for by AR|PR.
When hiring new employees, Williams looks for employees not just with real world experience, but ones who have “a hunger and a desire to be the best.” However, the most important thing Williams looks for in an employee is a good cultural fit.
“Because agencies are collective and team-oriented, if you bring someone in that isn’t a good cultural fit, it’s going to hurt everyone’s performance,” Williams said.
Advice for Rising PR Pros
AR|PR prides itself a lot on its ability to #MakeNews for its clients. Williams coaches newbies that media pitching is just like sales, but instead of selling a product, you are selling an idea.
“The buyer is the journalist. It can’t be just a one-time relationship or they’re not going to buy from you again. . . . The best media pitchers have a natural instinct — they know how to build relationships, and they know how to make an instant connection on the phone.”
Williams’ advice to students and young professionals is to personalize their career to fit them. While you should love your job and it should “invigorate you” and “help you build a career,” Williams said she hopes PR isn’t your sole purpose on this earth.
“It took me a while, personally, to find that balance,” Williams said. “But outside of the office, my advice is to pick two causes you care about. Everyone’s passions are different . . . I think it’s important to be personal. Make it personal for you.”
Williams said if she could go back to the 22-year-old student preparing for graduation, she would tell herself three things:
- Relationships matter. “Your Rolodex matters,” Williams said. “The relationships you build along the way require cultivation, so treat them all really valuably.”
- Enjoy your 20s. Williams encourages graduates to move to the city they’ve always wanted to live in and enjoy those years of being broke and living in a closet.
“Go do the things you’ve wanted to do,” Williams said. “Because, believe it or not, you do have an expiration on when you can live all that stuff out.”
- Be goal-oriented. Find the balance early on between work and your personal life. Williams said by aligning your life’s mission with what you want for yourself in both your professional life and home life, you can be goal-oriented.
Williams’ unorthodox strategy for her firm seems to be working as AR|PR now has 13 employees, a second office in New Orleans, and was named Small Agency of the Year in 2014. Milliennials are expected to comprise 75% of the workforce by 2025, so perhaps her “millennial-centric” approach is a model for success. What’s next for the young entrepreneur? Williams is focused on creating more jobs and continuing to attract the South’s most promising technology companies. “Our firm is like a rocket ship, I just strap myself in every morning and see what uncharted territory we can get to next,” she said.