It’s never easy being the new business on the block – not least when you’re walking in to an incredibly tight community and trying to pitch global ideas at a local level – but these are the circumstances Jenna Vernon faced, when she returned to her childhood town in Cumbria from London to launch Collective Comms last year.
It’s Thursday 30th November 2017 and after back to back interviews and too much caffeine, I find myself at Euston station gearing up for my last chat of the day. By this point, my brain is usually frazzled but having chatted briefly to Jenna on the phone a few weeks earlier, I knew I’d find this interview more relatable on a personal level than some.
Before she hopped on the Eurostar for her first long weekend away in a while, the two of us sat down to discuss her successful career in social media leading up to the move; and how she launched a communications agency without city comforts on her doorstep…
Graduating from Chester University in 2010 with a degree in Communications and Creative Writing, Jenna landed a job for a PR agency based in the picturesque city shortly after. Given her age, it wasn’t long before she was handed responsibility for managing all social media but it was a task she embraced fully from the outset.
Jenna Vernon: The first agency I was in was fantastic and just said, “you’re young, you must get social media…” and I absolutely loved it so that’s kind of the route I followed. I just flew through the ranks as quickly as I could because they were so supportive. I was seeing all these opportunities in the industry and all these competitive PR agencies that were really embracing social media and watching them play out hand in hand so I pitched to the Directors that we should do that. Looking back now, I think it was a bit ballsy really!
She can. She did. Definitely ballsy but so impressive!
JV. I was twenty-four; I was in no position to do that! But my personality – which I have to get better at now that I have my own business – is that I’m totally driven by ideas. I’ve always loved having the freedom to try new things and I think they recognised that and just let me run with it. We set up a digital division in the agency and I worked hand in hand with them which was fantastic…
SC.SD. How much responsibility are we talking?
JV. So I wrote the business plan and helped hire the new team. They’d bought a design agency a few years back so they became part of my team and they became digital design – it was fantastic!
After four years in the role, Jenna started to feel restless in Chester so upped and left the city for London taking her experience with her.
JV. It got to the point where I wasn’t quite ready to go home yet, a few of my friends from uni had gone to London and I just thought in the industry I’m in, if you can have a few years of London experience under your belt then that’s fantastic. You have the opportunity to work with the big brands and that’s what this industry is all about – gaining that experience. Anyway I went down to London thinking I’m going to stay for one to two years and then I’ll come home but I ended up staying for three and a half years. I loved it…
Working for a twenty person digital agency which was later brought by a much larger communications group based on Oxford Street, Jenna became Head of Social Media with responsibilities ranging from pitching for clients, hiring staff and heading up campaigns.
SC.SD. So we’re talking some serious experience given your age?!
JV. Yes, it was a fantastic time to join! We spent a lot of time travelling too so to go from growing up in the Lake District to suddenly travelling around the world was incredible. We looked after everything from big alcohol brands to national charities…
SC.SD. A mixed bag then?
JV. Completely different! The vast majority of my time was spent working for travel clients which looking back now made me more comfortable about the move back home because I had the Lake District on my doorstep so that travel/tourism sector worked up there. Anyway, I absolutely loved it but home was always going to call at some point… it was bound to happen!
SC.SD. Because of what? Family? Friends? The countryside?
JV. All of the above really! My entire family live there and it’s not that I’m old – I’m twenty-nine – but you get that urge to be around family a lot more I think and I was reaching a point where I was getting the city ‘thing’ out my system. I still loved it but I didn’t want to stay to the point where I didn’t love it anymore…
SC.SD. I love that you said that because I adore London and love being able to come in for meetings but I’m a country girl through and through when it comes to day to day life…
JV. I know! My boyfriend is actually from Southampton and when I first took him home to meet the parents he instantly said, “we need to live here!” I always wanted to move back but he was constantly like, “when are we leaving?!” When we eventually did leave I knew it was the right thing to do though. I didn’t realise how much I needed that change in lifestyle… it was like a big sigh of relief…
SC.SD. That’s the thing isn’t it? Even when you leave work in a big city, you still have to battle through crowds and traffic to get home and it’s not like you can walk slowly is it?!
JV. That’s it! If I was racing around in my little village at home everyone would be like, “what is she doing!?”
SC.SD. “Calm down love!”
JV. Exactly! It was very much like that for a while!
SC.SD. What prompted you to set up on your own up there? Why not join another agency?
JV. I suppose there were a few reasons. The main reason was that there weren’t the opportunities to work at the level I was in London at home because there’s not as big an industry up there. I was very conscious that I didn’t want to move back home and have it tainted by a feeling that I was settling because everything since uni had been about my career so I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it if I wasn’t happy in my career.
SC.SD. No one’s put it like that before; I can really relate to that!
JV. Good I’m glad! I also knew that eventually I’d want to set up on my own because I felt as though I’d already done that in my previous roles; setting up those departments gave me a taster for it so maybe this is the direction I’m going in… Obviously at first, I thought ideally I’d go home, work for a while, make some contacts (because I’d left there at eighteen so had no contacts) but the right job wasn’t coming up so I just thought why hang around? In a moment of bravery I just made the decision that I was going to go for it!
Knowing that she would be moving back home in February 2017, Jenna used Christmas 2016 as a personal deadline for finalising her plan.
JV. I knew I wanted to go home for Christmas knowing that I could say to people, “this is what I’m doing in February”. Just for my own sanity. There’s only so long that you can be looking for jobs and “um-ing” and “ah-ing”. Once I’d made the decision, I started planning straight away because I’m not very good at just waiting for things to happen!
Working with a designer she knew from Chester, Jenna had her logo, business cards and a creds doc made up; the latter of which explained what Collective Comms was about.
SC.SD. For a special deal I take it?
JV. Definitely ‘mates rates’! I knew as soon as I got home I needed to get out there and meet people and I just wanted something that looked professional to back me up so I wasn’t like, “hi… I kind of know what I’m doing!” I got in touch with my old boss in Chester too who mentored me throughout the whole process. He was fantastic and my team in London were brilliant as well.
SC.SD. That’s amazing! So no animosity?
JV. Not at all. I didn’t want to leave them but it wasn’t feasible for me to work for them up north. They’d been a massive inspiration. They were two women that started their own agency at 24 and they’re doing seriously well. They also loved what they did and that’s infectious so I think they knew when I left it would be to start up on my own so they were excited to see what I was going to do!
SC.SD. So you move home with zero contacts in the area… what are the steps you took to get your first clients on board?
JV. I made a bit of a wish list of clients in the area that I’d love to work for but it became really apparent up there that because it’s a small area, it’s completely about who you know; it’s not often that people go into pitch. It’s more a case of, “I need someone to help with social media…oh my sister’s-daughter’s-friend can help!” My Mum is a Head teacher so through that she knows a lot of people so I started meeting them and just Googling businesses in the area…
Also, it’s interesting up there because you say you’ve just moved back from London and you never know which way it’s going to go. Some people are a big sceptical and others are impressed so I kind of skimmed past the, “this is where I’ve been” and focused on the “I’m from here, my family are here, I love here! I went away for a while, got some great experience and now I’m back and this is what I’m doing!”
SC.SD. So it was a case of ‘work the system’?!
JV. Yes! I felt like I bought half of Cumbria coffee between February and June! I knew I had to meet as many people as possible so it was pretty intense! “It’s on me, let’s just meet!”
SC.SD. Does that come naturally to you?
JV. I was used to meeting people and pitching at my old jobs so I felt more comfortable talking to people and pitching Collective Comms than I did sitting at home with my laptop; that was when the nerves kicked in! I’d rather be out there, speaking about my experience and what I wanted to do. From June onwards it’s been back to back work though! I haven’t had time to network which has just been brilliant but at some point I’ll need to pick that back up…
SC.SD. That’s amazing! Did you have a specific type of client in mind?
JV. I was really strict about what type of clients I want to work with actually. My biggest worry was that the clients you get down here in London are much bigger accounts and the difficult thing selling social media is that everyone thinks they can do it! There’s a big separation between big and small companies up there but I knew that there was that middle ground where the hotels and tourism industry lies. That was the area I wanted my clients to be in because there’s enough to fill my time. I’ve had four clients a month but they’re clients that are paying for me to do a couple days a week for them. It’s more than just “can you do a few Facebook posts?” which is what my worry was!
Working with clients including The Lake District National Park, Visit Monaco and Out of Eden, it’s safe to say Jenna’s had a busy first year…
SC.SD. What is it, do you think, that sets you apart from the competition?
JV. I introduce Collective Comms as “social media first” because that’s what I’m passionate about but when I set up the business I didn’t want to be too restricted as social media has a part to play in all marketing. From content marketing to PR to influencer marketing, there are so many bits that interlink so that’s why I labelled it as a communications agency – so I could be quite broad with my offering if that’s what they need.
Even though cities surrounding the Lake District have agencies, they’re quite traditional PR companies but equally, there are quite a lot of digital agencies popping up. I found that by saying I’m “social first” it’s helped to distinguish me from other competition because clients know social media won’t be an add-on. People might be an expert in a certain area of marketing but they just throw in that they can do social media – there isn’t a strategy to it- so I think that’s my advantage.
SC.SD. Have there been any days in these first few months where you’ve just thought, ‘what the hell have I done?!’
JV. Definitely! What I’ve struggled with a lot more than I thought I would is working on my own because I’m so used to being part of a team; bouncing off people, sharing ideas… that’s what an agency is all about. You read an article about the latest algorithm on Facebook which no one else would find interesting but you brainstorm it together. Going from that to being on my own was really hard. That was the hardest part about motivating myself too because talking about what I’m doing with others reminds me of why I’m doing it and how passionate I am. I really struggled.
SC.SD. How have you combated that… if you have that is?
JV. I definitely have, don’t worry! I think I just needed to remind myself that my aim and long term goal has always been to set up an agency. I don’t want to be on my own forever… I want people working with me but obviously that’s a big jump because you have to pay wages, you have to hire office space…
SC.SD. It all gets very serious!
JV. Yes and I’m more tentative about that than I thought. Initially I thought I’d come up here, get some money and then I’ll get an office but it’s just not that easy! What I’ve tried to do instead is find people that I can collaborate with that work in similar sectors. I came across a guy quite early on – he was the moment when I realised all is not lost – who lives ten minutes away and he’s been working from home for a massive agency in Manchester. His idea was to create an agency collective which just so happens to fit perfectly with my brand… We pitched and did a project together where it was me doing social media, he’s a Creative Director, we had a web developer, someone doing PPC and SEO and no one knew each other but we came together and pitched as one group and it worked so well. I just thought that will be the way I grow.
SC.SD. And you just split the money?
JV. Yes! We pitched the fees on how much time we’d each need to do the project. It was so easy and you felt you had a team so since then I’ve started spending at least one day a week in other digital marketing agencies in the industry. I hot desk and do some work for their clients so I’m making some money while I’m there but it means I’m in different environments and there’s people to bounce ideas off. My contract with The Lake District National Park love that I’m flexible for working in their office too so I’m there two days a week which is brilliant. It’s rare that I’m ever sat twiddling my thumbs at home; I have that structure now. I think that’s what’s helping and I feel like an extension of their teams which has helped keep me sane!
I also think it’s important to have that face time and really get a feel of how the business works; a meeting once a month doesn’t do that.
SC.SD. Absolutely! Given that you’ve had work consistently since June, can you see yourself taking on your first employee any time soon?
JV. When I wrote my original business plan I said eighteen months in but to be honest, it’s really hard because right now I’m full and I’m getting to the point now where I don’t want to turn work away. You can’t wait until you have enough work for two people because there’s no feasible way I could do that myself so I think I’m going to have to just take that leap. I’d love to think by the second half of 2018 I’d be in a position where I could…
SC.SD. How do people react when they see you come in to pitch?
JV. I’ve always felt, more so in myself, that I need to overly prove myself because they’re going to look at me and think, ‘you’re quite young’…
SC.SD. You do look a lot younger than twenty-nine…!
JV. I get that a lot which personally I love! But from a business perspective you want people to have full confidence in you. I like to think I talk confidently about what I do though and have the backing of great brands to support what I say. I think it’s easy to get stuck in your own head and worry and think, ‘oh how are they going to react?’ – particularly walking into a room on my own to pitch. That’s what I’ve worried about more so than being young because at an agency two to three of you go in together so to go in on your own with maybe four people on the opposite side of the table is just a completely different dynamic. My tendency at the beginning was to say, “we do this, we do that” but then I thought it’s just me now; I have to own that in full! To pitch a brand you’ve created yourself is so strange too; it’s so much more comfortable pitching someone else’s idea.
SC.SD. I couldn’t agree more. It’s your pride at stake isn’t it and you don’t want them to think you’re arrogant too…
JV. Definitely and it’s so personal. You’ve built this from scratch. Everything from the logo to how you sell yourself to your ideas… everything is you so I’ve had to try and take that step back and pretend I’m pitching someone else’s brand and go in their confidently. I’ve had enough experience to know if someone says no then it’s not meant to be though.
SC.SD. So you don’t take it personally?
JV. I mean there’s always going to exceptions but I’ve got better at not taking it personally. If it’s not what they’re looking for, it’s not what they’re looking for.
SC.SD. And some people clearly love what you’re doing for them.
JV. Exactly! Now that I have clients I don’t have to worry so much. At first going in and meeting people without any clients is really hard` because you don’t have any backing. You can say “in London I did this” but they can say “yes but what do you have here?!” Because The Lake District National Park got World Heritage status this year, they were just everywhere so getting them on board early in April really helped. Every month, they keep extending and extending and every time they do it’s a confidence boost because it’s one of the biggest companies I could be working with up there.
SC.SD. Is there anything you miss about working in London?
JV. Erm, I miss some of the brands from the sense that they’re willing to try big ideas and the newest idea that no one has ever tried. I came down for a week in September because there’s a social media conference here in London and listening to all these massive brands talking about how they use social media helps me stay motivated…
SC.SD. Do you go to those on your own?
JV. Yeh, it’s just a load of speakers from the social media channels themselves so Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and then companies like ITV, Buzzfeed and Ladbible… I always went to it when I was in London so when I moved up I said to myself I’m definitely going to keep going. I’ll invest the time and money that week because I need to know that I’ve still got a foot in what everyone is talking about, what the new trends are…
SC.SD. Because it would be easy to go up there and, I suppose, just settle with what you already know…
JV. Exactly. If businesses are saying to you, “oh I just want you to do a few posts on Facebook” it’s easy to do just that but that’s not what Collective Comms is all about. In London it was always, “how do we make sure we know the new thing straight away?” and then we go and tell clients before they hear it from anyone else so I wanted to make sure that’s what I was still doing. It worked though because just telling the clients from home, “I’m not available this week because I’m going to this conference in London and these are some of the speakers I’ll be listening to” really helped. They were like, “oooh, come back and tell us what they say!”
So yes, I guess that’s what I’m missing from London; it’s much harder with new businesses convincing them to try new ideas straight away so I’d love to find some more businesses that really want to go for it and be innovative and different.
SC.SD. Have you had any days that stand out where you’ve been really proud of yourself?
JV. I think my first pitch was a challenge because like I said a lot of businesses up there tend to go for people they know so the first time I did it on my own was daunting. When you’re with an agency, there’s a team of people researching, you all bring ideas, you brainstorm them, you get a graphic designer in to make the presentation look fantastic, then a team of you go in and deliver an amazing presentation… Suddenly it was just me in front of a computer thinking, ‘how am I going to come up with these ideas? How can I make it look professional?’ Anyway, I went in, pitched and just felt confident in what I’d pitched. I thought I’d second guessed myself but I didn’t and I won the account! That was the day I thought, ‘I’ve got this. It’s ok. I’m not pretending I know what I’m doing!’
SC.SD. That sounds amazing! Let’s move on to your support network… How have people reacted to the fact that you’ve gone solo?
JV. Everyone’s been really supportive! A lot of people went, “I thought you’d end up doing this eventually!” which was great because I’d never properly thought about it until I moved home. My family were fantastic. When I was trying to decide on the name I came up with a shortlist and sent it to all my friends and family for ideas and everyone sent back their thoughts. Dad started doodling logo ideas; Mum started throwing random ideas into the mix just to confuse things…!
SC.SD. My Mum did that, bless her and I had to say, “no, no Mum, thank you anyway!”
JV. Exactly! It was just great seeing how into it they all were though and that’s the exciting thing about starting a business – designing everything from scratch – so it was lovely that everyone wanted to have a hand in that. A lot of people say if you work in media, your grandparents don’t understand what you do and I think having my own business has made it relatable to my family because we can talk about the actual ‘setting up a business’ process.
My boyfriend has been amazing too because he keeps me calm in the moments where I’m thinking, ‘what is happening!?’ He just says, “it’s fine, you’ve got this. You can do it.” I just put so much pressure on myself to do the best I can do so he’s the voice that says, “look, you’re already doing an amazing job” and he just reminds me what I’m achieving on a daily basis; I’m doing a great job so just stop stressing…
SC.SD. We’re our own worst critics sometimes…
JV. Absolutely! The pressure I put myself under sometimes is ridiculous. I’d have a full week of work and I’d be panicking that there’s nothing in the diary in three months’ time but he’ll say, “you’ve got a full week of work, you’re a new business, you’re not even a year in! Chill!”
SC.SD. Sometimes you’re ploughing away so much in that first year that it’s hard to see that all of the little steps are building to something though isn’t it?
JV. Yes! I feel like I’ve been trying to build up to this weekend away for so long. We cut our holiday in summer in half because I had so much work and when we were there, I was on the beach checking my email. I just didn’t switch off so this weekend I’m determined to fully do just that. We both want to enjoy the fact that we’ve both moved to the other end of the country, we’ve both got new jobs, let’s celebrate where we’ve got to…
I’m sure you all know by now that I’m a hopeless romantic so I’m pleased to say Jenna did just that and got engaged to Ryan on their weekend away too!
SC.SD. Given that the Lakes are quite remote, are there many networking opportunities up there?
JV. I’ve been part of a group that are setting up a new networking group at home… There’s less of that young entrepreneur scene so we’re working on setting that up. It’s been quite interesting though; there’s a mix of opinions on whether it’s needed because you can go to these events and it’s the same people that have been going to them all for years so it can be intimidating going alone and not knowing anyone. This is almost like a new era of networking…. it’s in a pub, just a drink after work so that’ll be something to look forward to…
I also met up with two girls that have set up their own design agency up there and we just went for lunch and then for a walk with the dogs… you wouldn’t do that at a normal networking event but it was so much more comfortable. You’re walking around getting to know each other in the woods… it sounds a bit strange thinking about it now actually but I’ve lived to tell the tale! I just keep an eye out for new businesses and just reach out and go for a drink with them…
SC.SD. I love that you’ve taken the big London ideas up there but you’re doing it in such a different style!
JV. I know! We wear wellies instead of heels..!
SC.SD. I love that! Do you have a favourite quote?
JV. I don’t have a favourite one but anything that’s about remembering why you started in the first place always resonates with me…
SC.SD. It forces you to reflect on all the baby steps doesn’t it?
JV. Definitely and for me, the lifestyle helps me realise why I’m doing it too. When I’m feeling a bit, ‘what the hell am I doing?’ I think back to how I felt – again not that I didn’t love London because I did – but that feeling of walking down Oxford Street in the morning surrounded by people, feeling that heart racing chaos before I’d even got to work. I look out of the window now and see hills and quiet streets and it just calms me; it helps me get back to why I started. We wanted a different way of life and that’s what we’ve got so even if it is a lot of pressure and it’s scary, I absolutely love where we are now so we’re embracing it!
SC.SD. You’ve basically just summarised why I decided to make She can. She did. a UK wide project. I remember when I left London, so many people were like, “you’re seriously leaving?! But why?” But businesses can thrive outside the City…
JV. Exactly! It’s just not for everyone. I don’t think I would have ever wanted that city lifestyle long term because I just don’t know it and there are so many opportunities outside the city too.
SC.SD. Do you have an end goal with this?
V. I think it’ll always be in my nature to look to the next thing but I feel really lucky that I genuinely love what I do at the moment; I’m such a geek about it! I wouldn’t want to be in this business just to think about numbers and making money and not loving it so for me success is making a living out of what I love but also having the time to really enjoy it… It’s easier said than done though but that’s the dream!
It would be lovely to have a team one day to bounce ideas off of too. I’ve always worked for small agencies so I’d never want it to be huge but enough people to keep each other motivated!
SC.SD. If you carry on doing as well as you are, I have a feeling that’ll be a lot sooner than you think!
JV. I hope so! I’ve been working with an agency that spent years and years freelancing on their own but then they took the leap, hired an office space and since then they’ve hired a person every month. It just took off. I think I’m going to have to get brave at some point and just go for it…
Some interviews resonate with me more than others – simply because I can relate to them on a personal level from my own experiences more – and my chat with Jenna is definitely one of them.
As a girl that walked away from the London lifestyle myself (and received a whole lot of “what do you mean you don’t want to live in London!?” in the process), I can relate to Jenna’s feeling of finally being able to breathe once she was out whilst simultaneously refusing flat out to compromise her career for the move.
With a clear idea about what kind of business she wants to build and the type of clients that will allow her to stay one step ahead of the game, Jenna branded herself differently from companies in the surrounding area from the outset and as a result has created a business with innovation at its core.
Yet she’d be the first to admit the launch has come with its fair set of challenges.
From bouts of loneliness and difficulty motivating herself without a team in tow; to adjusting to an area where everyone knows everyone and you’re the new girl in town; the circumstances she’s faced have been far from ideal but she’s refused to cede at any point. Instead, she’s adapted with purpose – as all the great business leaders do –whilst staying respectful to local conduct without sacrificing her ideas.
A lesson to us all about how to apply global ideas at a local level, I will be referring to this chat personally for a long time to come.