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“People’s buying habits and the ways we used to reach audiences have changed… we’ve got an uncertain future ahead.”

Welcome Laura Brooks

PR Manager

Tessian

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Laura Brooks is an experienced PR professional, specialising in the B2B cyber technology space. Listen now, as she discusses her current role as PR manager at Tessian, and explains why the Covid-19 pandemic has forced them to shift their business and marketing focuses. 

Transcript:

Nathan Anibaba:

Laura Brooks is the PR manager for Tessian, a technology company that protects businesses from insider and external threats on email, like data exfiltration and spear phishing. She is an experienced PR professional specializing in B2B and technology, skilled in strategic planning, content creation, media relations, and accountant management. She graduated with a first class honors degree in English language and media, culture, and society from the University of Birmingham.

Nathan Anibaba:

Laura Brooks, welcome to ClientSide.

 

Laura Brooks:

Thank you very much, I’m very pleased to be here.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

You’ve got a really interesting history and background. You graduated with a first class honors degree from Birmingham University in English language, media, culture, and society, it’s a bit of a mouthful, in 2012. Did you always see yourself having a career in PR from the beginning?

 

Laura Brooks:

Not really, I always really liked English at school, and I liked writing, so I always thought I’d get into journalism when I finished my degree. I’d done some work experience on radio station, for example, and I really enjoyed that. But after graduating, I didn’t really have any opportunities to get any internships or work experience in that space. [inaudible 00:01:25] you get to start earning a salary right away and move up to London. So with a bit of luck, a family friend said he was looking for a communications coordinator to support his comms team, at this company called Thales. Which I didn’t really realize at the time was, and is, one of the biggest tech and defence companies in the world.

 

Laura Brooks:

So, I actually got my first taste of working in comms there, so the first few months I was supporting internal comms, and our social media channels. Then, the role progressed to supporting our external messaging activity and brand awareness campaigns, which I really enjoyed. Yeah, it was a really great platform to start a comms career in, and it went from there.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

You joined Hotwire PR in 2014. What did you learn about the world of PR from that experience?

 

Laura Brooks:

Yeah, a lot. I joined Hotwire with zero PR experience, so it was a huge learning curve. I pretty much learned all the foundational skills of a PR professional during those years at Hotwire.

 

Laura Brooks:

I remember, I think it must have been the first week, I was being asked to write bylines, and I had absolutely no idea what a byline was. I had to ask one of our senior account managers on the team, to explain what on Earth I’m being asked to do. But from there, once I knew it was just an opinion article, problem solved, and I’ve been writing them since then. I started as a senior account executive at Hotwire, and then progressed up to senior account manager. So I basically got to experience everything from pitching, to campaign creation, to then being more of a strategic planner during that time, so that was really, really good.

 

Laura Brooks:

I was also fortunate to join the B2B tech team at Hotwire, around the same time that Hotwire’s new cohort grads had joined.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Right.

 

Laura Brooks:

So I was very fortunate in the fact that the team that we were in were led by amazing people, who really put the time into train us, teach us the skills to, I guess, communicate and build relationships with the clients, and also how to manage difficult situations.

 

Laura Brooks:

I think once you’ve learned how to difficult clients that are shouting at you, or you want to advise them that an approach they’ve suggested isn’t quite right way to go about things, those sort of skills are invaluable to learn, throughout your career, whether you’re watching senior people do it brilliantly, or you’re experiencing it for yourself.

 

Laura Brooks:

Also, the B2B team had some incredibly creative people, so we’d regularly have brainstorms to come up with new pitch ideas or campaign ideas that we wanted to wow our clients, so that obviously taught me how to think creatively, how to keep clients happy. I guess, at Hotwire, I also got to learn the world of journalism, and their relationships with PR. I was terrified, and hated cold calling in the first few months, but after a few months of doing it, building up confidence, pitching to journalists, you start building those relationships with journalists, and those are relationships I still have today.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure, super interesting. Fast forward a few years, and you joined Flagship Consulting in 2017. They were a smaller communications consultancy, specializing in financial services, professional services, and travel sectors. What did you take away from that experience?

 

Laura Brooks:

Yeah, Flagship was a lot smaller than Hotwire, so I came in as an account director, and joined as a quite senior member of the agency. Suddenly, my responsibilities were around winning more new business for the agency, as well as running the accounts, and making sure my team were okay. But also, as a more senior member of the agency, I got to learn more about the financials of running an agency, so budgeting and forecasting, for example. And I also took on my responsibilities of managing more junior members, just to help them progress their careers, which I really enjoyed.

 

Laura Brooks:

One thing I particularly took from that experience at Flagship is the senior team, the MD there, was very passionate about understanding people’s personality types to set up teams, to understand what motivates each person, what their strengths are, what their stresses are, for example. So it’s really interesting to not only understand how you personally like to work, but also how your team members work, and these are observations I apply in my role now because I think it’s so important.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Let’s talk a little bit about Tessian. You joined the company in February 2019. The company is a technology organization that protects businesses from insider and external threats on email, like data exfiltration and spear phishing. That prompts the question, what is data exfiltration and spear phishing?

 

Laura Brooks:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I never thought I’d end up in the world of cybersecurity when I was studying at Birmingham, and now I’m talking about data exfiltration and spear phishing.

 

Laura Brooks:

So very simply, data exfiltration is when someone takes company data from an organization, whether that’s maliciously or otherwise. So for example, people might take data from a company when they leave, for example, we see that happens quite a lot. One trend we’re seeing at the moment during lockdown is that more people are sending documents to personal computers at home so they can print it off, for example. While it’s well intentioned, data is still being taken from an organization, and that puts it at risk so that’s something we protect against.

 

Laura Brooks:

spear phishing is, again, simply a targeted email attack designed to get people to carry out a request by a malicious actor. So whether that’s wiring money to a fraudulent account, or clicking on a link that could then download Malware onto a device, or sharing sensitive data. I mean, you’ve probably seen in the news, this is everywhere. Especially during COVID, these attacks are just becoming more and more targeted. As opposed to phishing, spear phishing is very personalized so it’s really hard to spot that you’re being targeted because they usually impersonate positions of authority or trust, and they tailor their messages to make them as believable as possible, so that you’ll carry out their request.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

So at the moment, a lot of that is going on with COVID-19, a lot of small businesses are getting emails from, supposedly, HMRC asking them to reply with their account details, and sort code. Is that the sort of thing that you’re talking about? And, how does Tessian protect or help their customers?

 

Laura Brooks:

Yeah. I mean, the problem with emails from HMRC is something we’re definitely seeing. And in the US as well, we’re seeing a lot of scams around the payment schemes that the government has put in place there as well, with hackers impersonating small business authorities, and HMRC for example. The problem is small businesses, for example, really want to find out information and get guidance from these authoritative voices, which is perfect for a hacker because they can just impersonate, and try and get this information from them.

 

Laura Brooks:

So what Tessian does is we look at historical email data using machine learning, so we understand trends of each individual person and their behaviors on email, so that we can then determine what looks normal. Then, if something doesn’t look quite right, we can alert the user that hey, this email doesn’t look quite right, you don’t normally receive emails from this particular address, so please just approach with caution.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Okay, interesting.

Laura Brooks:

It may be a threat.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Super interesting. So could you give us an idea as to what the company looks like today? Size, clients, regions, an overview of Tessian would be great.

 

Laura Brooks:

Yeah, definitely. The company was founded in 2013, by three co-founders. Since then, we’ve raised about $60 million from investors like Sequoia and Excel, which is really amazing.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure.

 

Laura Brooks:

We have around 140 employees in our San Francisco and London offices. Our customer base tends to operate in financial services, legal, tech, and healthcare because, as you can imagine, they’ve got very sensitive data that they need to protect, especially with customers and clients that they work with. But basically, any organization that has employees on email, as you can imagine everyone does, we protect them from making these costly cybersecurity mistakes that they could make on email.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Really interesting. What are the biggest business issues that you’re facing right now, as an organization? I assume a lot of that would have to be dealing with the COVID-19 situation, and the influx of customers that are being affected by scammers. But, talk a little bit about some of the biggest business as usual facing now, and how you’re overcoming them?

 

Laura Brooks:

Yeah. I mean, we can’t really avoid talking about COVID-19, can we? I think it’s the biggest business challenge for all companies, at the moment.

 

Laura Brooks:

I guess, from a PR and marketing perspective at Tessian, all our plans had to change as a result of what happened. All our events were cancelled, moved to a digital platform. So you suddenly have to pivot, and change your strategy very quickly. And then, we also had to completely change and come up with newsworthy stories that help explain the risks associated with remote working, and COVID-19 phishing scams. This was all journalists were, and still are talking about.

 

Laura Brooks:

But then, you’ve also got to balance that with the danger of looking like an ambulance chaser, which was something that I was really conscious about. You’ve got to get that balance right, and understand that our target audience is also worried and stressed about the situation. You know, cybersecurity probably isn’t at the top of their mind, it especially wasn’t maybe at the beginning of lockdown. So we had to be really mindful that the stories that we were telling were useful, and providing advice and guidance to these people, rather than looking, like I said, like an ambulance chaser, so that’s one thing.

 

Laura Brooks:

Then, there was the shift to remote working, of course. Tessian has a very good culture of encouraging people to work from home, we’ve always had that. But, when it comes to everyday, the business has been very conscious about the fact that this will impact people’s mental health, especially not being around your colleagues every day, not being able to just go to the kitchen for a quick tea break with your friends in the office. Suddenly, having to structure your days differently and find ways to collaborate differently. So our people team has done a really great job of setting up Zoom sessions where we can have happy hour, or virtual speakers with suggested topics to discuss, and meditation sessions, just to keep people motivated and connected. I think that’s been, definitely, one of the challenges around COVID-19 that we’ve had to overcome.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

How do you strike that balance, then, between being an ambulance chaser, and really communicating? Because at this point, your services and businesses like you have a need to actually communicate to their audience, because you provide a very valuable role in their lives and in society. On one hand, there are businesses, their products and services aren’t relevant at all, so they actually shouldn’t be communicating with their audience. But on one hand, there are businesses like yourselves, that do provide a valuable service, and you should be communicating, or potentially over-communicating.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

But, I guess the balance is you don’t want to be seen as opportunistic, or tone deaf.

Laura Brooks:

Yeah.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

How do you strike that balance?

 

Laura Brooks:

Yeah, that’s exactly it, and we have had a lot of calls and discussions within our marketing team about that. Like you say, we’re in a position where, actually, the services that we could provide, and the intelligence that we can provide about what’s happening, not just from the phishing side but also from employee behavior when working from home as well, on email, we have that valuable insight that we can actually provide to IT and security teams during this time. I think it is just about being as useful as possible, so providing insight but then also providing tips, and advice, and guidance, that was really our angle.

 

Laura Brooks:

And also, being empathetic to the fact that you know what, it’s going to be tough, and you’re having to change your entire infrastructure and the way that you work right now. You know, you’re doing a great job, but what you’re doing, we’re just going to help you better secure your organization from these threats that we’re seeing, on top of everything else.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Super interesting. So talk a little bit about your agency set up, what sort of agencies are you working with at the moment, to support you in your communications and your strategic efforts, when it comes to communicating with your customers and target audience? And, how are they helping you navigate these choppy waters that we’re all in?

 

Laura Brooks:

Yeah, we have a PR agency in the US, who play a critical role in helping us create our brand presence there. We didn’t have PR in the US until they came on board at the start of this year, so they’ve been responsible for making connections, telling stories that are going to resonate with the US media, and just getting our name out there, really. And with COVID-19, they’ve played a really critical role in making sure that we get our advice about what to do when you receive a COVID phishing scam in the US media.

 

Laura Brooks:

And then, we also have a UK agency, who just help us stay consistently in the tech and business press, just so we can maintain that drumbeat of coverage, and keep those relationships with those journalists there.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Super interesting. Let’s talk a little bit about choosing and appointing agencies. In your opinion, what are the most important factors, capabilities, or characteristics that you look for when you’re hiring a new PR agency, or any sort of agency?

 

Laura Brooks:

I think, first thing’s first, is always do they come with a recommendation from someone that I trust or respect? I think that’s really important.

 

Laura Brooks:

Another factor is knowledge. Can they show me that they know and understand my industry? Do they know the journalists in the space, and what those journalists want to talk about? I think that’s really important to show that you have that level of understanding and knowledge.

 

Laura Brooks:

Another characteristic I think that’s really important is that honesty, and almost consultative skill. You know, tell me how it is even if it isn’t pretty. It’s that idea of if they turn around and say, “Your company is completely unknown in this space, this is an incredibly noisy space. If you want to get Y, we need X,” for example. I think that’s really important.

 

Laura Brooks:

I think, also, a clear plan of what the agency is going to do for you, and how they’re going to do it. I think a lot of agencies create these beautiful pitch decks and presentations, with these huge ideas but sometimes it can feel a bit smoke and mirrors. You know, big ideas are great, but you need to see how they can be realistically pulled off within the budget we have, and sometimes a simple presentation might make it a bit easier for me, or the person you’re pitching, to see exactly what they’re going to get.

 

Laura Brooks:

I think another very important factor is am I going to enjoy working with these people? Are they fun, do they have a bit of personality? These people are going to be an extension of your team, which I know is a very cliché thing to say but it’s true. When you’re the only person in the organization doing PR, you rely on these as an extension of your team, and you’ve got to make sure you enjoy working with them.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Really interesting. Then, just related to that, I would assume that your agency experience gives you a huge amount of insight when agencies are pitching. When you are looking or evaluating an agency, what perspective has that given you, in your current role, when you were agency side?

 

Laura Brooks:

Yeah, it’s definitely interesting being on the other side, I have to admit.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Some would say the dark side.

 

Laura Brooks:

The dark side, I know. But then when you go back the other way, is that also the dark side? I’m not sure.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Is that also the dark side?

 

Laura Brooks:

Yeah.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

You can’t win.

 

Laura Brooks:

No, you can’t win. It is interesting. I know I don’t want to be too negative, but you can actually see when the pitches have been very rushed. I’ve been in situations in agency where you’ve got a client, a potential client, and you put the pitch deck together in a very short amount of time because everything else is just piled up on your to-do list, and you have to just get it out to meet the deadline.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Been there.

 

Laura Brooks:

Yeah, I have received a couple of responses to our brief with that, and they’ve got typos in them, the ideas aren’t related to what the company does, and you can tell it’s been rushed. Having been in that situation, I know exactly what had happened, and our brief had obviously just got pushed to the bottom of the to-do list. You know, you don’t really want to work with an agency that’s going to do that, you want to feel like you’re getting value from working with them. Yeah, that’s definitely something I’ve learned from having been agency side, to then reviewing pitch decks in front of me.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Let’s talk a little bit about successes and failures, and especially about managing pressure which is a topic quite topical at the moment, in the midst of this global pandemic that we’re all in. How do you control your own emotions? Especially when things aren’t going according to plan, as it relates to maybe an agency engagement that you’re working with. You know, not lashing out on those people around you, maintaining your poise, because I’m sure your own emotions have been on a rollercoaster, as all of ours have, over the last five or six weeks. How do you maintain your own control of your emotions at this time?

 

Laura Brooks:

I mean, it also depends how badly the situation has gone. But I think, when I actually look back to stressful situations when we’re in an office environment, I think the best thing for me to do when I’ve had a frustrating meeting, or a campaign didn’t land the way it was supposed to, or suddenly we have to change our entire PR strategy because of what’s happened externally, I think the most immediate thing I have to do is get out of that stressful environment. I have to go for a walk, I have to get some fresh air, and just focus on breathing.

 

Laura Brooks:

I actually started doing yoga a couple years ago, and never thought it was really for me. But, the breathing techniques they teach you-

 

Nathan Anibaba:

That’s great.

 

Laura Brooks:

Honestly, do help you calm down.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

It really does.

 

Laura Brooks:

It’s incredible. As soon as you just start breathing in for seven, and breathing back out, suddenly you’re so much calmer.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Definitely.

 

Laura Brooks:

So that is definitely something I’ve learned over the last year or so.

 

Laura Brooks:

But, I also solve problems better when I talk to people about them. So I’ll tend to bring one or two of my closest colleagues together, and we’ll just brainstorm together how we’re going to resolve this problem. Whiteboards are usually involved, when we used to have them. Now, we have to do it over Zoom. But, we think about how we’re going to move forward with plan B, and then what the steps are, communicating that to the stakeholders and anyone else that needs to be involved in the new plan.

 

Laura Brooks:

It’s almost take a moment to breath, bring in some people that you trust, come up with plan B, and then take it from there, really. This always sticks in my head, I always got told that PR is not ER, so that does help put things into perspective.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure.

 

Laura Brooks:

At the end of the day, plan A didn’t go right, no one got hurt. So we’re just going to put plan B into place, and try and focus our energy on getting that up and running. I do think it’s not always easy, but having that plan in place … Also, having outlets, I guess, for your anger, like doing some exercise, or speaking to family, I think really helps.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Super interesting. Laura, let’s get into our favorite questions now, these are our speed round questions. So I’ll fire some questions at you, and if you can fire some back, that’ll be greatly appreciated.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

What CMO, in your opinion, has the most difficult job in marketing right now?

 

Laura Brooks:

Oh, I think all CMOs have a really difficult job right now, against this backdrop.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure.

 

Laura Brooks:

I read an article in Marketing Week that showed marketing budgets are being scaled back, and nearly half of marketers are concerned about their job security right now, so I think it’s a very difficult time for all marketing teams and CMOs.

 

Laura Brooks:

I also think people’s buying habits are changing, so the ways we used to reach audiences have changed, and the content they’re consuming is changing, and we’ve got an uncertain future ahead. So how do you pivot quickly and effectively, to ensure your brand is still relevant during this shift? I think it’s a huge challenge.

 

Laura Brooks:

I think specifically retailers are going to have a really tough time, during and after this pandemic’s over.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Do you think, when this is over, we’ll go back to business as usual, as it was just three or four months ago? Or, will things forever be very different? And we’ll look back on this time and really think oh, isn’t it amazing what life was like before COVID?

 

Laura Brooks:

Yeah, it’s so interesting. My opinion shifts daily on this. I think business won’t go back to usual, in the sense that I don’t think we’ll be in an office five days a week. I really think businesses will be looking at whether that is a necessary thing for employees to do.

 

Laura Brooks:

But then, I also think that we’ll look back on this moment and think, God, how great it was that we weren’t so tired, and having to commute every day, and having to do loads of meetings, and having meeting room wars all the time. So, I don’t know, I’d like to think that we’ll go back to some sort of normality, but I also think that it will be very difficult, now that people have had a taste of what it’s like to work remotely, that it will be hard to go back.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

What do you love most about working with agencies, and what do you dislike? I don’t want to say hate, hate’s a strong word. But, what do you dislike about working with agencies?

 

Laura Brooks:

So the thing I love about working … As I’ve mentioned, I’m the only PR person in our company so I love working with other PR professionals in agencies because it gives me a chance to brainstorm, and come up with ideas with them. With people that understand PR, if that makes sense? It can feel like you’re the only person that really gets it sometimes, so having people to bounce ideas off, or even challenge your ideas as well. And say, “Hey Laura, I’m not actually sure that is quite the right way to do it,” and you’re like, “Okay good, I’ve got someone keeping me in check as well.”

 

Laura Brooks:

The thing that annoys me about working with agencies is you’re giving a lot of budget to these agencies, and as a result your function is very visible internally. So you’re constantly having to prove ROI internally, which can sometimes be quite difficult especially if there’s a reason why you’re not getting the coverage. Because if you think about it, internally they’re just seeing the numbers, they aren’t seeing all the other effort that your agency’s putting in place. So it’s having to balance agency, your role, and internal stakeholders, I think that can be quite frustrating sometimes.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

What excites you most about your current role and position?

 

Laura Brooks:

I think that, particularly in this role, it excites me that I’m working for a startup that has the potential to grow into a company that everyone knows about and uses, and I think PR is just going to play a huge role in that.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Super exciting. If you weren’t doing your current role, or you didn’t have a career in B2B marketing, what would you be doing?

 

Laura Brooks:

Do you know, I’d love to go back and try the journalism thing out, I think I’d really enjoy that. Just writing stories and speaking to people, I just find people fascinating, so writing up their stories would be cool.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

If you could live anywhere in the world, probably really relevant right now, where would it be and why?

 

Laura Brooks:

Anywhere hot with a beach would be great.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah, take me with you.

 

Laura Brooks:

Yeah, I know. I visited Lisbon a few years ago, and I think that would be perfect for me. It’s hot, the food’s amazing, you’re close to the beach, and there’s a big tech scene there as well. So that’d be cool, I just have to brush up on my Portuguese, I think.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure. My final question, Laura, what’s the single biggest thing that you have yet to achieve, that you’d like to achieve in your career?

 

Laura Brooks:

I think I’d like to achieve something that actually goes viral, I’ve never quite managed that. So I think it’s quite difficult in B2B marketing, but that would be quite cool to have my name attached to something like that.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Definitely, it’s quite a challenge there. How viral are we talking, are we talking Kylie Jenner viral, hundreds of millions? Or, are we talking two or three million? Because I’ve been viral, I think, 10,000.

 

Laura Brooks:

I don’t know if we’re quite Kylie Jenner level, I don’t know if the world of cybersecurity could be that big. Maybe just yeah, a couple of million would be great. Yeah.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

Great stuff, great stuff. Laura, thanks for being on ClientSide.

 

Laura Brooks:

Thank you so much.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

If you’d like to share any comments on this episode or any episode of ClientSide, then find us online at fox.agency. If you’d like to appear on the show, please email Milly@fox.agency.

 

Nathan Anibaba:

The people that make this show possible are Milly Bell and Natasha Roesch, our booker/researcher, David Clare who’s our head of content, Ben Fox is our executive producer. I’m Nathan Anibaba, you’ve been listening to ClientSide from Fox Agency.

 

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