“We punch above our weight…”

Photo by David Bartholomew

“We are ‘Sharp Minds Communications – marketing intelligence”. Our logo is worded like this because it reflects the level of intelligent and strategic advice we offer clients which really makes us different from others,” states Siobhan Stirling, founder and director of the aforementioned company.

I’ve just asked the successful entrepreneur and mother-of-three to sum up in a nutshell the essence of what makes Sharp Minds Communications stand out in the rather crowded field of PR and marketing.

“We have the experience and expertise to devise really smart, cost-effective solutions for our clients, but we actually deliver much more than that. We don’t just create campaigns, we also provide informative and effective counsel,” adds Siobhan, who has won countless awards for her business acumen and commercial vision since establishing her business in 2012.

She hasn’t had the chance to tell me about her numerous accolades yet but it’s clearly evident given the framed certificates and shiny plaques (including numerous Times of Tunbridge Wells Business awards) that adorn the walls and shelves of her smart new offices in Southborough, which she and the team of eight moved into at the start of the summer.

It’s all the more impressive when I discover that Siobhan hasn’t worked in this particular commercial sector all of her professional life. In fact, she only migrated here after working as a seasoned journalist and broadcaster, after initially starting in PR.

“I worked for the BBC for 20 years. Firstly as a reporter and presenter, and then latterly at BBC South East as a producer,” she explains. “When I had my children I went part-time but it never felt like a career after that – it was just a job. Essentially the BBC is shift work and there was one shift change too far for me one day that made me want to reconsider my options. That’s why I knew that if I ever started my own business I would afford both myself and any parent I employed the liberty to be available for school consultations or sports days as I thoroughly believe in striking the right work-life balance. And I firmly believe we are doing that at Sharp Minds.”

Whilst Siobhan was still working as a producer at BBC South East, she tells me that she also freelanced as a print journalist, working specifically for parenting titles, which enabled her to build up a highly-successful second career.

“That worked pretty well and took me into freelancing for national newspapers, as well as being asked to write a book. But then the financial crash of 2008 happened and the print industry just seemed to drop off a cliff. Eventually the editors who had originally commissioned me started appearing in PR and communications roles working for specific brands. They’d realised there was still a consumer audience out there – but they had moved online. So that’s how I got involved in becoming a digital content creator. This was around 2009 so pretty early on really.”

Siobhan finally left the BBC in 2012 with the intention of carrying on working for herself.

“All I wanted to do was be a well-respected freelance copywriter, but the big challenge for me was having the confidence to promote myself. I knew I was a talented writer but when you have to put yourself out there and convince others to pay for your work, well that was tricky at first for me. I realised I needed to believe and grow in my own self-confidence.”

Trading as Sterling Words, Siobhan also offered her services through a few agencies that had established clients in need of great content.

“These agencies had great local connections and the confidence and ability to get in front of potential clients, which I had no experience of. But after two years of white-labelling my services through larger agencies, I realised that I wasn’t just a copy and content writer, but was able to offer the whole gamut of marketing services and strategy.”

Around this time she joined a peer-to-peer masterminding accountability group, which helped inform her thinking for her rebrand to Sharp Minds Communications to reflect the agency offering and attract the right staff to help her deliver for clients and grow the business.

“When you’re self-employed you’re effectively accountable to no one – but that can work in both a positive but also negative way. With this type of group, members work as one another’s board, sharing ideas and strategies to help one another accelerate their personal and professional growth.”

Siobhan now runs the Tunbridge Wells group as she says it was ‘seismic’ in helping her expand from a sole trader to a business – even enabling her to work out who her first employee was going to be.

“The masterminding group really has collective wisdom. You’ll have people who are numbers-focused, those who are good on the emotional side of business. Everyone brings something to the table to create something that is really powerful.”

Fast forward a few years and Siobhan has gone from employing one person to a team of eight which is made up of both full- and part-time workers and also apprentices.

When I visited the office on the day of our SO cover shoot the atmosphere was lively yet focused, with people taking calls and working at their desks but still able to spare five minutes to chat. And with Siobhan’s three pet dogs being part of the set-up, the ambience at Sharp Minds is definitely a convivial and collaborative one.

“Every Wednesday we get together in our boardroom and have lunch together,” smiles Siobhan. “It’s a great way of catching up with everyone in an informal way that still allows us to update one another on things but to also ensure that the team is happy.

“I’ve done a lot of work over the years on what Sharp Minds’ role is. This has not only helped me focus on my thinking for clients but has also given me the necessary tools to run my business. In short, I want to create opportunities – for our clients, our staff and our community.”

Some of Sharp Minds’ current clients include local businesses such as Maddisons Residential Estate Agents, Clarity Homes and Commercial, Atelier de Linde Architects and Welham Jones Funerals. But she tells me they are also expanding their national and even global offering too.

“We recently took on a very sophisticated technology firm who are based in Portsmouth but they work on an international level. That’s very exciting for us as a business and the reason we can do that is due to the collective expertise we are able to offer.”

She adds that she believes there is a ‘typical Sharp Minds client’ and that’s the fact they are all leaders in their own right.

“They are doing it their way. Their thinking is ‘I want to create what good looks like in my sector’. You can see that with the way Maddisons markets houses and the way financial planner Amanda Redman is dedicated to educating women about finance. Clarity Homes and Commercial are disrupting the traditional building market by giving you exact quotes for their work – not just an ever-escalating ballpark figure. They are invested in changing the mental health culture within construction, too.”

On that very subject, Siobhan says that it has never been more vital to do this, which is why Sharp Minds are big supporters of West Kent Mind, aiding them financially wherever possible and also doing work pro bono for them.

“We do quite a lot of this type of work for start-ups too,” Siobhan says. “We also have corporate membership of the TN card. To me, it’s an absolute no-brainer to be encouraging Sharp Minds staff to support our local independents. For the cost, it’s a small perk to give, but the benefits for the local economy and our staff are awesome – it’s a win-win-win.”

Siobhan reveals that another USP of her business model is that they are genuinely integrated in their clients’ teams. “We are as hungry for their success as they are. And again, if you look at the level of expertise in our business you will see that we punch way above our weight.

“We’re a small agency in Southborough, but we were up against some of the biggest agencies in Europe at the international Sabre Awards in March. And because we punch above our weight, we help our clients punch above their weight.”

Siobhan says her background in TV also comes into play. “It is a very technical medium, and because of that, there are lots of checks and systems to make sure that you don’t, quite literally, go off-air. I know from my staff who have joined from elsewhere that, in other agencies, everybody has their own notebook, a to-do list and their own system. But that’s a very easy way for things to slip through the net, or for the client experience to be dependent on who’s working on their account.

“It became obvious to me when I was scaling beyond myself that I needed to introduce the same systems, procedures and checks in the way that the BBC operates, to ensure the same quality experience in terms of content and customer relationship management, no matter who is delivering it, so we have really robust project management systems.”

Siobhan’s extensive experience as a journalist also benefits the way she and her team do business.

“Any content that we produce is always edited internally before it goes to the client, with a second and more senior pair of eyes cast over it. We apply the same robust approach when we’re engaging a third-party supplier, such as a graphic designer, videographer, or website design agency. Because we’ve got the insight of our clients and have worked with them very closely on their business goals, vision, mission, brand, tone and voice, we’re able to give a coherent brief and constructive first edit. That means the whole process is much more streamlined and less stressful for our clients.”

Siobhan explains that as well as her personal media and communication credentials, her team also includes former Mail on Sunday and Financial Times journalists and highly qualified experts in the communications sector. Each one of them, whether they’re working full- or part-time, always looks for every possible opportunity for their clients.

“As a result, our clients are getting phenomenal results from their investment. Many are receiving coverage in a number of our national newspapers.

“Our clients are getting access to top-level professionals and strategic support without them having to pay London prices. That’s another crucial USP for Sharp Minds.”

Siobhan says that although she and her team are expanding with national and international clients, helping local entrepreneurs and business leaders reach a bigger stage is something they remain committed to.

“I grew up in Tunbridge Wells from the age of seven. We built our house in my parents’ back garden, which is where I still live. My children went to school here and my first grandchild is about to go to the same primary my kids and I went to.

“It’s a great place to be and it’s great to be able to contribute to Tunbridge Wells’ business success.”

Siobhan tells me that as well as advising clients on new opportunities she and her team also help them to think through the impact on their business structure of pursuing different income streams or scaling in a different way. It’s all about thinking outside the traditional box and putting them first. Something that isn’t always the case in the world of marketing and communication.

“We combine our marketing intelligence with integrity,” she adds. “We will never sell a service to a client, just because it’s something that we offer; we are completely honest at all times. If we suggest to a client that we think they should be adopting a certain strategy, it’s because we believe it will deliver on their business goals.

“Too often I come across companies that are spending time and money on marketing strategies that are just not right for their business.

“What agencies should advise clients is what they need – not what the agency is selling. If you sell strategies that suit you, and not the client, they’ll end up saying that marketing doesn’t work, or PR doesn’t work. It’s not that it doesn’t work; it’s because the strategy that a client was sold was not right for their business.”

Siobhan goes on to say that a lot of what she has learnt has come from networking – whether that’s at her weekly BNI meetings or courtesy of the bi-annual Make It Your Business, that she hosts, which is all about empowering women entrepreneurs.

“Make it Your Business is a fantastic opportunity to meet local female entrepreneurs for the inspiration, ideas, and support to start or grow your business from whatever stage you are at. And BNI is like my business family. I have had so much support from those meetings since I joined eight years ago. You can’t be a taker in that environment, it’s all about giving.”

This she says is why her company, which is currently revamping its website to reflect where the business is now, also opens its doors to apprentices and students who want to gain work experience.

“The first person I employed was an apprentice and since then we have had four. As well as supporting working parents I am a huge believer in helping the young get started, too.

“I do think that as business owners we have a duty, with university fees so high, to provide alternative pathways to a successful career for those who learn best outside the classroom or for whom uni fees are prohibitive. It’s really exciting seeing my apprentices go on and do other things.”

Telling me about her commitment to supporting working parents Siobhan says it stems from her experience as a working mother.

“When I went part-time I was definitely viewed as ‘the mum who sometimes comes to work’. That has really informed the way I do business. When you are a small cog in a big machine you can’t shape the workplace culture, but running my own business and employing people has enabled me to prioritise our culture and how that supports all our team.

“People are giving you their best eight or so hours of the day and that’s a tremendous privilege, so there’s a duty with that to create an environment that is good. That applies to minor things like having a nice place to work, but then on a bigger scale it’s about valuing everyone equally. We can’t compete on London salaries, but we can on work-life balance.”

That’s certainly evident in the positivity Siobhan’s team radiate – in fact I would say it’s palpable. This is an independent agency that really is committed to doing things differently – but it’s also a business that isn’t afraid to have a bit of fun along the way. As I leave, I spy a collage of framed SO covers on the wall, which feature a number of Sharp Minds’ clients. They are clearly proud of what they are achieving courtesy of Siobhan and her team’s vision and expertise. It’s definitely a joint effort…

“We do an awful lot of strategic thinking and due diligence for our clients,” states Siobhan. “They are trusting our advice and strategies, so they have to be right from the start. We excel at making the complex accessible, engaging and compelling and we look forward to doing that in our next decade too.”

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