Special PR: From start-up to sensation

One rainy Monday afternoon in Auckland, NZ Marketing paid a visit to Special’s Freeman’s Bay office to meet with the Special PR team, hoping to glean some insight into how the agency operates and what’s driving its remarkable success in a relatively short amount of time.

Posing a prominent figure on Drake Street, Special’s New Zealand headquarters are hard to miss. Pushing open the substantial and heavy front door, it is clear those in charge of the design wanted visitors to know they were stepping into something…well… special.

While those outside the realms of adland may not know what lies behind this formidable door, informed individuals will be acutely aware this office is an incubator of unparalleled creativity, and the birthplace of some of the nation’s, and even world’s, most groundbreaking campaigns.

Only just over two years old, Special PR was founded in April 2021 by General Manager Kelly Grindle and has already received a steady stream of international and national recognition.

From humble beginnings tucked away under the stairs of Special’s grand office, “much akin to Harry Potter”, Kelly worked a different sort of magic, building Special PR from the ground up. Beginning as a company with no clients, no systems or templates and as a team of one, he grew the business into a fully-fledged award-winning PR company with a team of 10 and an impressive client list.

“PR is sometimes just seen as beautiful firework moments, but criticised as having a lack of strategic thinking guiding those moments, or is lacking in trackable effectiveness results,” CEO and Co-Founder Tony Bradbourne says.

“And that’s one of the big differences with Special PR, and the way Kelly and the team think. They are incredibly strategic, and incredibly results focused. And I think that’s one of the reasons they have been so successful, as I think there has been a real gap in that area in the New Zealand market.”

Its relationship with the wider agency is symbiotic. Special PR does about two-thirds standalone PR work with standalone clients and the rest is working with the main agency “making their creative comms and ideas more rounded and maybe more impactful”, Kelly says.

Over these two years, Special PR has made a name for itself, winning Best PR Agency at the 2023 PRINZ Awards, a PR Lion at Cannes Lion Festival of Creativity in 2022, and a bronze at the 2022 Campaign Asia Agency of the Year awards.

Part of what drives this unique creative work is the belief that the New Zealand industry is ready for a different type of PR approach. “And also anxiety,” Kelly laughs.

“It makes me really excited when we do things that are different to the status quo or different to what you’ve already seen in the market.”

While breaking new ground can sometimes come with some nervousness from clients, this sort of work can be addictive, he says.

“Once you’ve got those new executions out there that are impactful and are working, it gives me a massive thrill. It gives the whole team a massive thrill, and it gives the clients a huge thrill as well.”

Kat Day, Special PR’s Creative Lead, says the ability to do this sort of work comes down to the bravery of their clients as well.

“When Kelly started, he drew a line in the sand with the work he did at the very beginning. But more and more, we get clients coming to us who say, ‘we’ve seen the exciting stuff you do, we want you to do something bold and exciting for us’. Bold clients coming to us and asking for bold work is exactly what we want.”

And it’s no surprise that exciting work attracts exciting people wanting to work there.

Natasha D’Souza, Special PR’s Senior PR Director, is only four months into the role but she speaks from experience when she says she was drawn to working at Special PR because of the agency’s different way of looking at work and “being so bold with it”.

“I think that’s why we all want to work here and why it’s grown so quickly,” she says.

This growth was also motivated by being acutely aware of the wider agency’s success and reputation.

“This means we really have to keep our ideas sharp and our campaigns fresh, because we are attached to one of the most creative effective shops in the world. That’s pressure.”

Working under the Special umbrella with a strong reputation in the local and global industry, allows Special PR to ask clients to invest up front in the process.

“We’re not embarrassed or ashamed about that,” says Kat. “If you get the idea right, then the flow-on is a fantastic campaign. So, we ask them to invest in that and we ask them to really buy into the creative process, and I think that’s something that PR hasn’t done so much of before, but we are all about strategy and ideas, which is the engine for good work.”

And of course, winning loads of awards helps clients to put their faith in them to produce bold work as well.

“Awards are how we benchmark. We enter awards because we want our work to be scrutinised and we want our work to be benchmarked against the rest of the work that’s coming out of our industry. The more we benchmark, the harder we push ourselves,” Kat explains.

Awards also demonstrate the effectiveness of this PR work in a way that is sometimes hard to quantify, Kelly adds.

“The reason why we’ve been able to win Agency of the Year awards is because we’ve been able to demonstrate that this is not just a media ROI, but we can link it back to commercial returns. That is something we’re really big on with that award process, to show that creativity, and PR, leads to effectiveness in business outcomes.”

As with any good PR or advertising, having a deep understanding of the audience is part of the challenge. So, what makes a Kiwi audience unique, we ask? And how does this shape Special’s PR work?

“We’ve got a really good sense of humour,” says Kelly without hesitation.

“Whether it was for Charlie’s Orange Juice sponsorship where we renamed the juice ‘Henry’s’ in honour of Sir Graham Henry. Or whether it was when Ashley Bloomfield resigned from his job and we created a funny video of him being able to take a booster of happiness in Fiji. I think that New Zealanders and New Zealand media actually all have a really good sense of humour.”

From Natasha’s experience, “journalists are looking for the light and the shade”.

“There’s lots of real news and that’s really important, but you can’t have a whole newspaper or a whole website that’s all bad stories about cost of living or whatever. You’ve got to have some fun stories to get you through the day as well. PR has a real opportunity for brands to create some of the light to go amongst the shade.”

Having a good relationship with media is also important, and the team regularly take advice and bounce ideas off their media friends.

“Just because we’ve pitched an idea to a client, it doesn’t mean that as we go along, it’s not going to be shaped and moulded more to make sure that it’s calibrated well for when it actually is going to land,” Kat says.

Another challenge in this varied landscape is working across a wide and varied range of industries, which all require different deep knowledge and understanding of which is achieved “with lack of sleep”, jokes Kelly.

But really it’s achieved by dividing the team into three pillars; consumer, business and lifestyle.

“It goes back to PRs have to be connected. I will still make time to get home early and watch the 6pm news, and I will always read the newspaper. I read international sites, like The Guardian. I check out consumer press, like Vice. I actively change the radio stations that I listen to. I think as long as you’re open to absorbing all of that, you pick a lot up through osmosis.”

In other words, the Special PR folks would be great in on a quiz team.

Looking towards the future, Special PR recognise that rapid growth comes at the risk of becoming too big and losing that agility a smaller team has.

Special PR teamed up with TradeMe to create a break up starter pack.

“I don’t think we will ever want to be the biggest PR agency in the country,’ Kelly says.

“As we grow, we’ve got to grow responsibly, which is both for our clients, so they still get the same level of service that they’ve always got, but then also for our team who have worked really hard across the last 12 months to get us where we’ve got to, but that’s not always sustainable for the next 12 months either.

“It’s balancing that because I think we use that fun, fame and fortune model of people having fun at work. Are we producing work that gets talked about, and do we all make enough money to enjoy a good life? If we hit those metrics, then we are good.”

As for New Zealand’s PR industry, Kelly believes it is in a state of evolution. With traditional media still being important, but there being less of it, the audience has consolidated around more of the key mastheads.

“I think influencer marketing, dare I say it, is probably ripe for a lot of disruption. I think you can see advertising agencies are more advanced in this space than what PR agencies are, but it’s finding earned ideas or a way that a news or a concept will travel through different channels unpaid.”

He says the line between an ad agency and a PR agency is more blurred than it’s ever been, and believes it will continue to be this way.

“You see that through the likes of Motion Sickness. Those are very new age agencies, which are probably not accurately defined as an advertising agency, but they’re not defined as a PR agency either.”

And this change also comes with more misconceptions around the profession than ever before. As Kelly eloquently puts it: “The easiest summation of it is that classic saying which is advertising is paying other people to say good things about you while PR is getting other people to say good things about you for free.”

But with these changes, come exciting challenges, and Natasha says she thrives off the idea that no day is ever the same.

“Like Kelly said, the PR industry is just changing so dynamically at the moment that it keeps us on our toes, and we’re forced to adapt and change and think of new ways to innovate and grow.”

One thing that’s clear is that amidst this evolution, Special PR will continue to be bold and push boundaries, setting a standard for what can be achieved when you dare to be different.

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About Bernadette Basagre

Bernadette is a content writer across SCG Business titles, The Register and Idealog. To get in touch with her, email [email protected].

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