Gem Anderson is an entertainment publicist who has handled celebrity clients including Kim Kardashian & Naomi Campbell. She also hails from rural Yorkshire and grew up in a resolutely non-starry environment. Here she explains how polite pushiness has been the route to her success and why appearances always matter.
My husband says my defining skill is my ability to pester and I can’t argue with him. I’ve always been pushy when it comes to my career. I remember I got promoted to Senior Account manager at my first agency. But I just decided that on my signature I wanted to be called Head of Entertainment. So I just wrote that instead. I remember my boss being like, ‘Gem, that’s not actually your title,’ and I think I just said, ‘It sounds better—I think it has a better ring to it.’ To be honest, I’d already ordered my business cards. I always remember there was a colleague, an older guy who probably wasn’t my biggest fan. He kept saying to me, ‘you just can’t do that’. And I’d always ask him, ‘Who’s going to stop me?’ It is true that from that perspective I’m totally, totally unmanageable.
I think I get it from my dad. He is really punchy and he’s had a really successful career in his own right. My dad is the guy who’ll show up to the most famous restaurant in town and claim to have a reservation at 8pm on a Saturday night. Even if he doesn’t. Mum is the total opposite, literally dying and begging to just go to Pizza Express. Dad is so ambitious and so ballsy and he’s taught me that there’s no such word as no or can’t. You just sort it out. Especially if you work for high profile people—try saying no to them. It’s just not a word in their dictionary. I really do live my life that way, but of course you have to do it in a totally charming way.
“My mum’s not a supermodel, my dad wasn’t a famous film director. I’m not from London and I don’t have a southern accent. Entering the world of entertainment PR—a world full of southern, privileged girls, who have often had that foot up—you’ve just got to work that bit harder.”
Our industry is so small. The minute that you start to act like a diva, people aren’t your friend any more. And really most media businesses are built on friendships—friendships with journalists, friendships with the clients. If you’re not polite and friendly with people, you’re going to have a pretty short career. I grew up in a really normal environment. My mum’s not a supermodel, my dad wasn’t a famous film director. I’m not from London. I think the fact that I’m from the North East and I don’t have a southern accent, has definitely impacted my career. Entering the world of entertainment PR—a world that is full of southern, privileged girls, who have often had that foot up into their role— you’ve just got to work that bit harder if you come from the outside of it all.
I never think my background has counted against me though. People see that I’m really not afraid of hard work. In PR you have the show ponies and the work horses, but if you can be a mix of both—so when you need to look fabulous at a party and host clients or media you do, but then you’re also not shy of the work—you’re on your way to success. It’s not all fun and glamour. If you’re not prepared to graft, you won’t do well.
“There’s no such word as no or can’t. You just sort it out. Especially if you work for high profile people—try saying no to them. It’s just not a word in their dictionary.”
I hate rules and work hours and all that stuff—I’m naturally quite rebellious. But you have to be very focused and self-motivated to get the work done when you work for yourself. Because when you’re on your own, you could just go to Westfield every day if you wanted. No-one’s going to stop you. There’s no boss telling you what to do—but obviously you’re going to lose your clients if you don’t deliver.
I suppose another lesson I’ve learnt from being ‘pushy’ is around talking about money. When I first started the business I’d have a meeting and the client would say let’s talk about fees. And I’d just smooth the conversation under the table. I’d always say I’d email them. Which of course lead to misunderstandings. Very quickly—about month six when I had zero cash in the business account and was waiting for 10 people to pay me—I suddenly got really, really confident about talking about money. Now it’s something I have no qualms about. Talking about fees and about when they are going to be paid is not an awkward conversation. People forget that when you’re a small business, you might be only running one or two accounts at any one time. If they happen to forget to pay you because they’re a massive multinational, that impacts your financial situation hugely. You have to be ok about talking about money, you can’t beat about the bush, You just need to be very straight, very direct and of course polite. If your expectations don’t suit your client’s set up, you work to meet in the middle. Or they can find somebody else.
It’s also about not wavering. I have fees that I work with—a day rate and a project rate—and I try not to move away from them too much. Everyone is looking for a bargain, but you’ve got to know your self worth. The minute you start to know that, that’s when you start to build your confidence.
Lessons on Being a Boss for the First Time
I didn’t initially find being a boss straightforward. I know I’m a great encourager, a good motivator and I bring out the best in people. I always let people know they shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes and I think I empower people to do well. So many bosses seem not to have an understanding of life admin. I remember when I was a full time employee—things like getting your pill or sorting your car permit at the Post Office, especially in London, became such a nightmare. I found I was working, working, working and probably burning out every three months just because I didn’t have any time to get stuff sorted. I’d have worn every item in my wardrobe and run out of clean underwear. So as an employer, I’m clear that while the work has to get done, I’m never going to force my staff to be in an office 9-6. People sitting at their desks when they’re not busy is literally the biggest waste of time for everyone involved—it’s my ultimate bugbear. If I see people sat in office looking at DailyMail online, I think what’s the point? You could be out doing something fabulous.
In saying that I probably did make some mistakes at the beginning. I think at times I was too easy-going. One of the hardest challenges about being a boss is that line between boss and friend. If you work in a very small environment, or in a home office, naturally these people become your friends. You go to lunch everyday, you talk about personal lives. What becomes really hard is when you need to pull them up on something. It can suddenly feel quite awkward. At the start of my business there definitely weren’t enough lines drawn.
“If I see people sat in office looking at DailyMail online, I think what’s the point? You could be out doing something fabulous.”
I remember a situation where I was running a press junket for a music label. An artist was in town and I had an assistant working with me on the day. I remember distinctly noticing that she was sitting with the client eating a club sandwich and having a glass of wine while I was raggedly running journalists up and down the lifts to the room for the interviews. I just kind of thought, this balance is wrong. Why am I running around like a lunatic, if she isn’t as well? I think when you’re running your own small business you have to be able to do the scanning, but you also may have to be the founder on the same day. I’ve never been afraid to get my hands dirty and maybe some people took advantage of that.
“I just kind of thought, this balance is wrong. Why am I running around like a lunatic, if she isn’t as well?”
I’m not employing anyone at the moment due to the nature of how my projects have evolved. I started doing some in-house consultancy on the side of the business and just realized how much I loved it. I get to go in and work with teams of people which is so amazing—because it’s really easy to get lonely on your own. Suddenly I had all of these lovely people around me and these incredible shared ideas again. I realised how much I missed that camaraderie and started to take on more and more consultancy until it became the majority of what I do. It’s taken me the best part of four years to work out exactly what it is I want from my career, but I’m so happy with what I’m doing now.
There is a reason that I haven’t grown a big agency—it would have definitely have been possible by now. But I love the diversity of consultancy. One day I could be working at Manolo Blahnik, the next day I’ll be at record label and the day after I’ll be doing a pop-up with Meredith. The diversity is what I crave. At the moment I’m consulting for RED in New York which has been a fantastic experience to work with the team out there. Ultimately I just don’t like two days to be the same. I can’t do a commute to an office, picking up the same coffee and the same lunch day in, day out.
Appearances Matter, in all Instances
I think appearance in any industry is very important. I’ve grown up with a super-glam mum and every single day she does her hair and makeup, puts on nice clothes and gets cracking. I think it’s so important for both women and men to get up and take pride in their appearance. If I’ve rushed to go to the gym and I haven’t had time to wash my hair, or get my makeup right and I have to go to a meeting, my confidence level is so different than if I were to arrive feeling great. I am glamorous, but for me having good nails, hair and shoes should just be standard. I know it sounds like I’m being old school about it, but having pride in your appearance suggests you have pride in your work. It show respect for your client too—to a certain extent it comes back to manners and being polite. I see so many people in a professional environment looking like they’ve just rolled out of bed. I just think if you look sloppy, maybe your work is sloppy.
When I say smart clothes, I don’t mean overly formal or corporate. I mean a silk blouse, great jewellery, jeans with boots or a nice, well-cut skirt. It’s not rocket-science. Yes, what we talk about in a meeting is very important. But appearance is the thing that people remember you by. I’m six foot and I’m always glamorous, so I’m memorable and when you run your own thing, that’s part of the battle. It’s also about the appropriate-ness of what people wear. I think I dress well for my size and body shape and I would never wear particularly revealing clothing, for example. I had a situation where someone working for me wore an outfit that might have worked at a beach club in Mykynos, but wasn’t so great for a new business meeting. Look, everyone has personal style and I think that’s a fabulous thing. You have to have an understanding the of situation and what’s appropriate.
I grew up in a small town up in the North East of England close to Middlesborough in the North Yorkshire moors. My whole family is from there. I always knew that I wanted to go to University and I was the first person in my family to try. It wasn’t because I was particularly academically gifted, but I knew it would be my stepping stone to leave. I just knew I wanted something different, something bigger.
When I was about 17 I selected for the Television and Young People scheme. I went to Edinburgh for the film festival and met a lot of different people including a woman called Sam Mortimer, who at the time worked for Taylor Herring in entertainment and publicity. I always remember she was wearing a pussy-bow blouse, wide-leg trousers and had incredible blow dried hair. I went to a talk during which she described what an entertainment publicist was then at the end I went up to ask for her card—you’ve got to be ballsy. I told her I was only just finishing my A-levels, but I wanted to move to London after my degree. Then I always just kept in touch with her.
“You just have to keep faith that you will ultimately find your path and accept that it might be exactly what you thought it was going to be when you started out. You can’t predict everything—least of all how going out on your own will change your own perspective and priorities.”
Four years later I ended up doing work experience at Taylor Herring. They didn’t have a job for me at the end of my placement, but they did introduce me to the Outside Organisation. Celena Aponte, probably my first mentor offered me an internship. I was finishing university and the prospect of moving back to the North East was just not what I wanted. So I just said, I can’t come and live in London, I don’t have a rich aunt who lives in Richmond—I need money if I’m going to move. They ended up offering me a job. I think I started on £15k, which was the most money I’d ever had. I though I was a baller, going out every night, living the life.
I studied PR as my degree and its been a very natural progression into what I’m doing now. I didn’t have any angst about what I wanted to do with my life and I was immediately a fish in water. Even while I was studying PR at Uni—I know people think it’s a bit of a Mickey Mouse course–but I was still so interested in what I was doing. I worked two days a week for free in an agency in Leeds, and I took a year out and worked for Breast Cancer Haven as a press officer.
Outside was an amazing learning curve. Celena employed me as her assistant to start with so I was connecting her phone calls and helping her with logistics. After a year of working together, she left and I took over her roster which included Naomi Campbell—the learning curve of my career—music artists like Debby Harry, Carrie Underwood and P-Diddy as well as big events like the Mobos and the Cosmo Awards. My time at Outside was amazing, I was in the middle of my twenties and I gave it everything. I think it’s so important that you do that at that time of your life, because it sets you up for everything else. If you’re not prepared to work hard in your twenties, then you’re probably not going to be much of a success in your thirties. I was going out till 5am, going straight into the office and functioning, I don’t know how looking back, but I loved it.
“I just said, I can’t come and live in London, I don’t have a rich aunt who lives in Richmond—I need money if I’m going to move. They ended up offering me a job.”
As much as I’ve had some incredible mentors, I’ve always wanted to be my own boss and always felt my energy and enthusiasm for things would help make me a success. If you chip at something for long enough, you’re always going to get somewhere—it’s that pester power again. After four years at Outside I was ready to do my own thing. The timing was crucial—I’d just moved in with my now husband and I felt very secure. Not that my parents hadn’t always supported me, but suddenly I had this other thing in James. He just said you me, ‘you have literally nothing to lose. You’re great at networking, you know loads of people. You’ll make it work.’ Also it helps that I’m not a snob. I knew that really I’d do any job if it made me happy and paid the rent. You can’t be too fussy when you’re just starting out.
I just went freelance at the beginning and took a couple of clients with me— a small roster of talent. I then probably a bit ill-advisedly took four months off and went traveling around South East Asia. It was also one of the best experiences of my life, but in retrospect it wasn’t an ideal decision to make when you’re just starting off your own thing. When I came back I basically had to start it all from scratch again, but soon everything started to go from strength to strength. Suddenly when you’re on your own every opportunity is an opportunity. You do have to be prepared that eight out of ten meetings won’t really result in much more than making a nice contact and having a nice cup of coffee. But it’s those two meetings which happen and suddenly something amazing comes out of it which make it all worth it.
When I look back to when I first started it, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. At all. I was based out of my lounge, or if it was a hot day, out of my garden. At the time it was me plus a young assistant and my friend Emily who is now a yoga teacher. It was completely self-taught through Googling things and muddling through—if you’re passionate enough about what you’re doing, you fathom it out. You just have to keep faith that you will ultimately find your path and accept that it might be exactly what you thought it was going to be when you started out. You can’t predict everything—least of all how going out on your own will change your own perspective and priorities.