Had veterinary PR consultant Susan McKay known her job existed when she graduated, she would have wanted to do it then. As things turned out, it was to be another 14 years before she managed to find her niche
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LIKE many graduates of the Edinburgh vet school in 1988, I began work in small animal practice. After working in veterinary hospitals, one- and two-vet practices and for charities, I began to realise I was exhausting all the options and still hadn't found what was right for me. I felt stressed by the long hours, working in parts of the country where I had no social network and the constant feeling that I wasn't good enough. Mental note to self (and others): try not to poke constantly at the memories of the case where you failed, as if it were a bad tooth. I have great admiration for vets who have stayed in practice, but it really wasn't the career for me.
Studying the options
I eventually took some time out to study for a diploma in personnel management – and ended up working for a local practice alongside doing the course. After graduating (again), I found myself back in practice. Several unsuccessful attempts to ‘escape’ into industry followed until fate took a hand when the local Hill's Pet Nutrition rep stimulated my interest in nutrition. I began to dabble in setting up clinics and making the waiting room look more interesting (otherwise known as marketing and merchandising).
In 1996, this led to me taking on a post with Spillers Petfoods. I vividly remember the first day at work there when the majority of the employees started leaving the building at 17.00. Eventually I realised that I could go home. I sat on the doorstep of my house watching the sun go down and wondered what ‘normal’ people did with this vast expanse of time in the evening. A few years ago I read a US study that said that vets are really good at delayed gratification. I think what it meant was that we tend to be very good at working really hard in the belief that one day it will pay off. It's easy to get to the stage where you forget about the payoff.
I stayed in industry for the next six years, and was involved in new product development, marketing and PR. I went on presentations to supermarket buyers and was involved in key launches. For several years I managed the company's careline, with the team there ultimately receiving a top national award for customer service. After some persuasion, the company kindly agreed to fund an MBA through the Open University.
In January 2002, I attended a week-long workshop in creativity. By April that year I was running my own business. The workshop did come with a warning that it might open your mind, but you should try not to go completely mad – one person on the course fulfilled a lifetime ambition and sailed around the world shortly afterwards!
Making it work
I'd noticed when I was in industry that PR agencies charged high fees to generate copy but that it tended to be formulaic and not really based on any deep level of insight or technical knowledge. I thought I could do better. I bought a battered old car and used our home PC to set up the business.
A few months later Companion Consultancy was born, after Pfizer Animal Health invited me to its vast and somewhat daunting offices. The client I met that day gave me my first real project, and is still a client today. In December that year my first daughter was born, followed by her sister two years later. That year proved to be something of a challenge: as well as having a baby and a toddler, I took on Hill's as a client – seven years on it still is – and together with a colleague, we ran the Big Wiggly and canine arthritis awareness campaigns for Pfizer.
My business has developed way beyond the point where I spotted a gap in the market for copywriting, mainly as a result of saying ‘Yes, we can do that’ when clients asked. That's how we started ‘doing’ PR. We also write everything from e-newsletters to advertorials and produce all kinds of point-of-sale materials for clients – everything from the detailers that reps use to explain their products to funky hanging mobiles. We also offer media buying: developing advertising schedules, booking and placing ads for clients.
Planning for success
I am ashamed to admit this after having done an MBA, but I've never had a business plan as I've always been too busy to write one. Luckily, chaos theory, which talks about the unpredictability of the future, gives me a great get-out clause. I love what I do, but even with my febrile mind I don't think I could have imagined owning a business like this a decade ago. It's our 10th birthday in May and we're looking at some modest expansion: any budding writers out there?
It's been a fascinating journey and along the way I have learned a lot of interesting skills: in PR you have to rapidly acquire in-depth knowledge relating to the product or service that the client is providing.
Doing an MBA gave me an interesting perspective on many aspects of work (and life). For instance, I learned that the characteristics you express at work are often influenced by the situation. Now that I work in a creative environment, I find that generating an idea for me is like turning on a tap: I can come up with dozens of novel solutions to a problem off the top of my head – and not all of them are completely crazy. That's not something I ever knew about myself when I worked in practice.