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Meet the MD: Judith O'Leary of Represent

"It can be scary and sometimes lonely leading a business, but I wouldn’t swap it for anything", says Judith O'Leary, on running her digital communications agency, Represent, which she founded in Edinburgh in 2001.

What is it the company does?

Represent is a digital communications agency based in Edinburgh. Our role is to design and implement strategies that help businesses grow through PR, SEO and digital marketing. 

Describe your role in no more than 100 words

My role is a mix of hands-on client work which includes developing strategies, advising on issues management and planning campaigns as well as directing Represent’s own business strategy to achieve profitable growth. My greatest pleasure comes from building a committed and talented team of people at Represent who are 100% invested in our clients’ success.

Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?

After graduation, I left Ireland to work for Cambridge University before finding my niche in PR. For the next five years, I worked in various in-house roles in publishing and tech before moving to Scotland and beginning my career agency-side for Euro RSCG (then GTPR). I moved up the ranks from account manager to director of Scotland for the international comms agency before setting up my own agency in 2001.

What do you believe makes a great leader?

Knowing that people are the key to business success is the sign of a great leader. I respond well to managers that lead by example, have great vision and can communicate effectively with the team. It is important to me that they are authentic and serve a greater cause than themselves. This is something we do at Represent through our pro bono work - having your own business allows you to do this without compromise. 

What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?

My business is built around people, either the team I employ or the clients I work with. I have learnt through the years that relationships are important but delivering value is even more so. You can be good fun and a nice person to work with but if you’re not delivering the goods, either as an employee or a service provider, then you cannot expect to be retained. Business is business after all!

Anticipating change and being ready to adapt is also a challenge both in terms of keeping abreast of innovations in our sector, but also navigating the uncertainty around Brexit and Scottish Independence. I have seen a dip in business confidence over the last 12-18 months, and this impacts clients’ spending. How we’ve adapted at Represent is to offer more value and wider services so clients can benefit from cost savings associated with using one agency for more of their marketing requirements including PPC, SEO and digital content, as well as traditional PR.

How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?

Represent’s office is in a great location just minutes from Holyrood Park so a brisk walk usually reduces the stress levels. Also, I do yoga – not enough – but I am picking it up again.

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A nurse like my mum but I don’t think I would have had the patience. I do think however, there are some transferrable skills such as remaining calm and clear-headed when under pressure and working at a pace – I have never seen a nurse walk slowly!

Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?

I hate people being late – it shows disrespect for colleagues and clients. I make it pretty clear that this is not acceptable, and it doesn’t seem to reoccur! 

Where do you see the company in five years’ time?

More of the same – great clients and a talented team but perhaps more offices. I would really like to have a base in Dublin. I am from Ireland, have lots of connections there and am currently on the board of Causeway which promotes collaborations between businesses in Scotland and Ireland. I see first-hand the huge potential for operating on both sides of the Irish Sea and there is lots of support to make this happen.

What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?

Always remain respectful. Scotland is a small country and reputations are everything so remain professional at all times and you’ll not go wrong.

I think it is important to always be curious - it is only by keeping an open mind that you learn, and I am lucky to be in a sector where there is so much innovation – standing still is not an option. 

What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?

That you need so much resilience. Some days are really tough and the responsibility to motivate the team, service the clients and win enough business to pay the wages lies with you. It can be scary and sometimes lonely leading a business, but I wouldn’t swap it for anything.

Neina Sheldon
Article by Neina Sheldon
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