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To celebrate Women’s History Month this March, we sat down to chat with our trailblazing MD and Co-Founder, Emma Heley.

She shared what she’s learnt throughout her (rather unexpected) PR career and how she’s passing these learnings on to the other fabulous women at Thinking Hat.

Hi, Emma! Firstly, how did you get started in your PR career?

Believe it or not, I never intended to get into PR.  I’d always wanted to be a journalist — a foreign aid correspondent, specifically — because I loved the media and felt passionate about third-world issues. Somehow, after securing a journalism degree, my career took a different direction.

After graduating, I got a job at a fashion house working on reception and in the press office, and I was really interested in the dynamics between the client and the media.

Then I saw that Phil Hall, former editor of News of The World and HELLO! magazine, was hiring, so I took my chances and applied to work with him. I’d admired Phil for years, so it was a dream come true when after three interviews, I landed the job!

Despite not being hugely qualified, I think my passion for the media and entertainment really shone through, plus the fact I’d done a reccy of their office the day before to ensure I wouldn’t be late for the interview, which went down well with management.

People can develop a certain perception of you, but I’ve learnt to rise above it – or sometimes even leverage it to my advantage

What led you to set up Thinking Hat?

A big part of my early career was spent working alongside Phil and his amazing agency and it was an incredibly exciting and fast-paced environment to be part of. I was representing lots of high-profile talent and often dealing with crisis situations, working 12-hour days, never wanting to take time off and feeling quite burnt out at times. When I was ‘in it’, I loved it, but going on mat leave made me realise I needed a better work-life balance.

My little boy was just six weeks old when I set up my own PR agency. Never in a million years did I think I’d run my own business (let alone grow it to the size it is today), but I had a good reputation in the industry, I loved what I did, and I wanted the freedom to work from home — it just felt like the right decision.

I managed to land a couple of local clients and started making some money, then I found out that Brooky (David Brookes, my co-founder) had also just set up his own agency too. Three months into starting our own businesses, we decided to join forces — and the rest as they say, is history!

It’s funny, because I’d never thought about working in PR, let alone running my own agency, with a former colleague!

How would you say being a woman has impacted your career?

I feel lucky that I can say I honestly don’t think being a woman has held me back in my career at all. If anything, being a confident, empathetic woman has helped me get to where I am today. I’ve also worked with some incredible men and I’m in business with two of them today (Brooky and Nic Forster).

But on the flip side, regardless of what sector or industry you’re in, every woman is going to come up against challenges. I’m very aware that as a busty blonde from Essex, it’s easy not to be taken seriously or to be underestimated. People can develop a certain perception of you, but I’ve learnt to rise above it or sometimes even leverage it to my advantage — you’ve got to pick your battles sometimes.

One of my biggest strengths is that I’ve learnt to be adaptable. PR and business are all about building strong relationships and I’m naturally quite good at that. I’m also a bit of a social chameleon, and I can find common ground with just about anyone. I love people and I love finding ways to connect and give good energy!

Emma (middle) with Karen Holden (L) at the Female Founders Growth Programme event in March 2024.

What are some of the best traits that make women great leaders?

I think empathy goes a long way, and it’s something most women have in abundance. Being able to listen is a really important quality, as well as being nurturing — whether that’s your relationships with your clients, with yourself, or with your colleagues.

We all have to be our own number-one fans and biggest cheerleaders, but you need some spunkiness too. Women often doubt themselves, but we all need more confidence as we’re bloody brilliant!

I wouldn’t change anything about how I’ve approached my career, but I do wish I could have instilled more confidence in myself from a younger age.

Have you had any mentorship throughout your career?

I’ve had lots of mentors on a professional and personal level over the years, and I think mentorship is so important.

It should be a safe space to grow and ask questions, but to also make mistakes and try out new ideas. It’s great to see someone you admire doing what you want to do in the future and hearing their advice on how you can get there too.

I’ve been really lucky with my mentors, but on the other hand, you’ve got to know what you want to achieve and show a willingness to work hard to get there.

I’m also a subscriber to Masterclass, so I’ve got a lot of people mentoring me who don’t even realise it — like Anna Wintour!

How do you uplift other women at Thinking Hat?

I champion all talent, but I particularly love seeing my girls win. I want to provide opportunities for women to thrive and reach senior positions, but I also love it when women come to me and are honest about what they want so I can help them get there. I never want to be in a position where people don’t see me as approachable, because I think that having access to people in more senior positions than you is so important.

Outside of Thinking Hat, I’m proud to be a partner of the Female Founders Growth Programme, which was launched by the amazing A City Law Firm founder, Karen Holden. The programme aims to support women to grow and scale their business, which is something I’m hugely passionate about, particularly from a PR perspective.  There are some incredible female-founded businesses out there, which deserve the media spotlight as well as wider consumer and industry recognition.

Why is having an inclusive culture at Thinking Hat so important to you?

One of the most beautiful things about running an agency is that cultural piece, which is so close to my heart. Going back to my journey and the agency that I started in, it was amazing on so many levels, but I always felt inferior and insecure because my background wasn’t the same as anyone else’s.

I was from quite a poor family, my dad was in and out of prison and I was the first one in my family to go to university.

I never believed I was good enough, even though I was smashing it, so Thinking Hat was a chance for me to create the type of culture I wish I could have worked in back then.

Diversity, whether cultural, gender-based or socio-economic, is incredibly important because I don’t think it works to be surrounded by replicas of ourselves. If you’re all cut from the same cloth, you’re going to approach things from the same perspective, and then how are you supposed to innovate or foster change and grow?

Thinking Hat, February 2024

I want everybody in this agency to feel confident enough to bring their authentic selves to work every single day because that’s how they’ll do their best work and thrive.

I’ve always believed that diversity is a superpower and women — more than anyone else — really need to understand this. Be confident in your own skin and know that you are special and valued.

Read more about how Emma sees diversity as a superpower.

Author

Liv Cox

Content Writer