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We continue with our ‘A Woman Belongs’ theme and get to know Keri-Ann Stanton today – who jokingly shared that she belongs in other places as well, but mostly in PR and communications. 

Keri-Ann Stanton is a multi-award-winning PR and Communications strategist and creative. She has worked for reputable agencies such as M&N Brands as Group Communications Director and Head of Communications for Avatar. She built the PR agency ‘Engage Joe Public’ within the brand and communications group of Joe Public United. Stanton has also been a judge on prestigious awards such as the Louries and SABRE EMEA awards. Keri-Ann is now an independent consultant through her own company, KAMuses. 

She had a lot to share about the industry and also gave us a window into her personal life.

Q. The process of successfully crafting narratives is something you learn over time. At what point did you realise the power of your skills?

It was probably a slow realisation after years and years of accumulating skills and experience. This  also changed my thinking about PR. We are usually brought in at the end when a strategy and creative has been decided and our job is to amplify, but when I am crafting a narrative, I am taking all that work and making sense of it against the zeitgeist and mood of the country, meeting people where they are at, and making the product and the service campaign relevant, pitch-able and shareable. The paragraph or sentence becomes the north star that anyone in the communication team (external and internal) can hook into and use to keep us on track and true, as campaigns develop, expand and change.

Q. During your time with M&N Brands, you contributed to building a network of communications and advertising agencies in Africa. Why is this important? 

I am an independent consultant. But I will tell you why an independent network is important and why I admire Zibusiso Mkhwanazi and Veli Ngubane’s dream and ambition so much. Global networks make it hard for independent agencies to win big accounts. Their global buying power, costing models, resources mean they become a powerful option in the pitch room. Their one-stop model is attractive to clients when you are piecing various independent shops together: ATL (above the line), BTL (below the line), events, PR, media buying etc. An independent network of African agencies levels the playing fields and this is why it is so important that networks like M&N Brands continue to grow and thrive.

Q. You approached Joe Public to be a preferred PR supplier, and that worked out well. How important is ‘shooting your shot’ in the corporate space, and is there enough room/opportunity for this? 

They didn’t have a PR agency and I was working for one. I asked Pepe Marais to make us their preferred supplier and he said no, come build a PR agency for us. I was on the fence about it and he told me, in his inimitable Pepe way, that they were starting their PR agency with or without me. It was a massive trajectory into learning and I am grateful for those years of building Engage Joe Public. I don’t know if it was so much about me shooting my shot in this instance. But I have shot many other shots and hope I never stop. 

When you’re young it’s about ‘fake it till you make it’ – and by that I mean get ballsy, secure the opportunity and then MAKE SURE YOU DELIVER. As you get older, shooting your shot in the corporate space is layered with complexity, politics and consequences. You’ve got to suss up the pros and cons before you fire that bullet. In my space, with critical reputation management and deliverables at stake, I don’t have time for games. I have to be 100% honest in my counsel with clients and agencies. If you do this, this is the potential fallout. If you go to market with this, this is how it could be misinterpreted, etc. But at the same time if I believe in an idea or campaign or approach in a room full of doubters or more cautious people – I have offered to lose my fees or take the fall to get the green light. 

PS: I have never had to make good on that  – when I commit to something working, I make it work.

Q. You have shared that your focus at work is on strategy and the creative, and you are not interested in the executive positions. Why is this? 

I do not like the politics, the time in meetings, the amount of time you need to spend defending, selling or protecting! I learned long ago to play to my strengths and not work on my weaknesses. At my very first agency that I built, Kezi Communications, I was introduced to Marcus Buckingham’s “Discover Your Strengths” and I have taken his work into every agency since then. I like getting my hands dirty, I like working alongside teams, I like seeing projects through from start to finish. I don’t need the fancy titles anymore – the truth is that I have the ear of more C-suite executives now that I am in the trenches, than when I was sitting in executive positions. 

I don’t envy my peers and clients that do sit there – it’s a whole other world of stress. In fact, when a client or agency pushes back at me or is sounding super stressed the first thing I ask (to solve) is what is the pain point in the boardroom right now? 

Q. You are a big supporter of transformation in the PR and Communications industry. Is this industry looking more transformed than it was ten years ago?

Definitely! It gives me such joy seeing my babies from over the years doing amazing things in agencies, corporates and even their own businesses. We have to keep going with transformation though – and it’s not about fast-tracking people and setting them up to fail – I have seen too much of that and it is cruel. I also hate the constant push for hustle and entrepreneurship – not everyone has that DNA in them. Many people just want a job that can give them self-worth and their families security. My blood pressure rises when I see this push on social media. Talk job creation not entrepreneurship. 

Job creation comes about with a solid business and solid leadership – which inevitably means that the founder, CEO, MD needs to be teachable. Especially in these times. That’s a narrative I can get behind. Are you teachable? Are you willing to stop and listen to find out why something is repeating in your business? Why do you feel like you are on a hamster wheel or not moving forward in your career?

Q. South Africa is a diverse country, with the dominant racial group being black. Surely this influences the work that you put out to the public? 

Absolutely and that is a big reason why I joined Avatar, SA’s largest black owned agency. I wanted and needed to be in a space where I was the outsider, where I was tested on my unconscious biases, where I was exposed to the double-fight for relevance. It changed my work forever. I could write a whole essay on the learnings from being there. It’s a completely different game and I was humbled over and over again by the grace that Zibusiso and Veli showed people when I wanted to burn things down to the ground and expose the double standards in this industry. I believe the campaigns I have worked on or conceptualised over the last few years have been deeply respectful of this space (they have also won a load of awards and recognition which is a pretty good benchmark).

 

Q. What can the PR and communications agencies in South Africa learn from countries that are doing ground breaking work?

Hmmm… well the last two years have levelled the playing fields on that, haven’t they? Big budgets are no longer there anywhere in the world – which means that the insight (strategy) and the creative idea has come to the rightful forefront again.

The pandemic has also brought the value of good, clear succinct communication and counsel to the fore again. While big budgets shut down for launches, products and services, it moved to communications where money had to be spent internally and externally in communicating about Covid-19, keeping people motivated, navigating the old and the new.

It’s always interesting judging the Loerie awards vs PR awards, because the level of creativity in the Loeries and Cannes space is just unmatched. And yes there are lots of debates about who owns the space in those categories, is the conceptualisation coming from ATL agencies or PR agencies, are we there just to amplify, etc, I don’t really care about where the idea comes from anymore – I just love being exposed to them or even planting them and then helping them come to fruition. I don’t think many people understand just how hard it is to come up with a truly brilliant, disruptive, game changing campaign. There is usually very little money behind them and massive, massive amounts of work to get them off the ground.

Q.  You’ve built a couple of agencies from scratch, and you continue to put out incredible work. This obviously requires a lot of time. How do you find the balance between work, and spending time with self?

I have stripped out the things I don’t love (management) and focused on the things I do (the work, the work, the work) and energy meets energy. I love the work that agencies and clients trust me with to get on and deliver. I also only work at the capacity that I can deliver at – especially in 2021. Last year I brought on a lot more freelancers (allowing me to contract and expand as projects demanded) but people are really struggling this year. 

After watching the Bill Gates documentary about his Think Week – I did my first one in 2020 (still need to schedule my 2021 one), which was an absolute gift. He disappears to a cabin for a week, I did mine at home. You have to commit HARD to only looking at your phone between 5pm-6pm (I started notifying clients a month before). No social media and dedicated time to reading actual books. I managed to get through 8 non-fiction books: from philosophy to statistics to femicide and I can absolutely tell you that it shaped campaigns I did this year. Long form reading takes you into a deeper place versus our A.D.D. jumping from platform to platform skim reading outrage and opinions and misinformation. 

Q. What was the last Beyonce song you listened to, and why do you love it? 

Haha, you have been stalking my Instagram. It was “Run The World ” to remind my G-d daughter that while we do not run it yet, we have got to keep pushing. 

Q. Pandemic fatigue is terribly affecting us all. How have you been taking care of your mental health?

I’m a big believer in Body Talk, which is about shifting things on a cellular level – my practitioner has studied everything from Reiki to Reflexology to Psychology so I get the best of all those worlds. I am also a big fan of Tricia Hersey of the Nap Ministry – rest as resistance, nap and the power of daydreams. It’s amazing that we need permission to do this. I can’t meditate despite numerous attempts, but the joy of giving your mind space to just daydream is life changing!

Q. It is Women’s month, and there has been a stern stance around why there isn’t anything to celebrate due to many horrible issues that women are currently faced with. From a PR perspective, would it be a good idea for an organisation to ‘celebrate’ women?

Women’s month exists because there is disparity and many, many issues. From GBV to representation at board level. Any focus is good focus. But I think what you are referring to is when there are ‘empty’ campaigns celebrating women – there has to be a purpose, a call to action, a why. So for example are you celebrating that you employ the highest number of women in the country? Or that you have the highest number of women on your board? Or that you provide the highest number of ECD centres for communities or that you are lobbying the government for a specific change. That’s what the public wants now.  We don’t need silly, tone deaf things with massive influencer budgets behind it to make you trend. Rolls eyes.

Q. What’s currently on your vision board right now? 

Itchy feet. Always sea. Always big skies. Always clouds.

Amongst her multiple accolades, skills and passion for PR and communications is her humorous gene. She’s capable of breaking the ice with strangers by sharing a goofy joke. Keri-Ann has dug her nails so deep in the industry that her work will for a long time be a point of reference. She sure is a breadwinner.

AoS Shop sells the book “Think Like A Breadwinner” by Jennifer Barret, buy a copy here.