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Developing a personal brand might feel like an ego trip – maybe you’re used to quietly whittling away at your workload, and the thought of putting yourself front and centre feels a mile away from your comfort zone. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. A personal brand can be subtle but effective, and have a real impact on your new business strategy. Those who convey values and personality through their public persona win more clients, and those clients tend to stick around for longer too. 

We chatted with new biz guru (and AC member) Katy Howell, CEO of Immediate Future and named by The DRUM, as one of 25 women who have made an outstanding contribution to the digital industry. Katy gave us some fantastic advice on establishing a personal brand, building confidence and ultimately how this also helps you to win more business.

What is a personal brand, and why should agency founders build one?

A personal brand is, well, just that – a brand based on your personality, your actions and your thoughts. It isn’t exactly you, but it is a version of you that you share publicly. It is how you promote yourself, not your organisation. It is a way to express your uniqueness and set yourself apart from others. 

Fundamentally it matters because people buy from people. They don’t choose an agency because of a shiny website – it’s because they like us as people.

Of course, our agency brand is the credibility and kudos that gives surety for clients. But ultimately, in agency business, it is relationships that have the most significant impact. 

Whether it’s your client services, your business developers or the founders, your clients want to know you. This is more important than ever right now. Trust in companies is at an all-time low, and when it comes to agencies, it has never been particularly high. 

Agencies, over the years, have combatted this mistrust by ensuring the founders or key staff have strong personal brands. Think back before the internet, when the Saatchi brothers were a household name. Dave Trott, Rory Sutherland and so many more created public personalities that drove client attention and ultimately helped win business. 

What people don’t tell you about developing your personal brand, is there is a certain magic that happens that goes beyond publicity or profile. Something that is not just about what you say, or how you say it. It is influence – and how you wield it is key. 

A personal brand gives you a way to make connections. A way to flaunt your expertise and knowledge. Bind that together with relationships and you begin to influence those around you. You take the lead and are seen centre stage. It is when that happens your personal brand takes off and you reap the rewards for your business. 

What are common ways to build your personal brand?

Start by knowing yourself. Know what your strengths are and what your audience likes in you – it can be a tough exercise! You’ll feel like an imposter, or be filled with doubt. But a good friend or a consultant can often help you to be objective and navigate through these feelings.

Then like any brand, it is all about positioning. Are you going to be the sassy social smarty-pants (my particular self-reference) or the authority, or the great boss, or the clever businessperson?

You need to create that person that you want others to see. The challenge of course is that it does expose you. You need to be vulnerable, unique, have a public personality and opinions. It is hard work and mentally very challenging. 

Let me say this again. It is hard work. You have to invest in yourself a lot. It can feel selfish and take up time you could be working on clients or managing staff. After all, very few of us set up an agency with the purpose to make ourselves famous. 

For example, people throw the word thought leadership around – “Oh, you must be a thought leader,” they say glibly. Have you ever thought what it takes to be a thought leader? Without sounding sarcastic, you need to have a thought if you are to lead the way in your industry. And that requires focused thinking. Thinking that starts with reading and researching and having conversations with others in your field. 

People throw the word thought leadership around - “Oh, you must be a thought leader,” they say glibly. Have you ever thought what it takes to be a thought leader? Without sounding sarcastic, you need to have a thought if you are to lead the way in your industry. And that requires focused thinking. Thinking that starts with reading and researching and having conversations with others in your field.

I get up early every day and read for an hour. Or listen to a podcast. I follow Google News alerts, I read industry press, I talk to journalists, influencers, authorities, clients, and staff. I ask others for their opinions and formulate and re-formulate my own. It is exhausting. (I also write notes all over the place on Evernote, apple notes, iPad notes, and bits of paper all over my desk!).

Only when I have an opinion can I jump in and be a thought leader. I need to be robust and evidential in my thinking – and not just regurgitate one article or source I found interesting. I need to be credible and for others to see that so they also support my thinking. 

And that last part is crucial. A lone voice does not build a brand. You need to focus on awareness, interaction, engagement and connections. So alongside the research comes the need to connect, build relationships and play a part in your industry community. Because beyond personality and thought leadership, you need to gain authority and influence. 

Every day, I connect to new people, have conversations and make connections. I support others and pay it forward. 

What’s particularly tricky is that I need to do this in between running a business. No wonder I am knackered!

So whilst you were maybe hoping for a super easy step by step guide to building your personal brand, you’ll find that a lot of the responsibility is actually down to you. You need to define your public profile, you need to have opinions, know the trends, and say something meaningful. And it is you that needs to create the relationships and network. That way you will build a strong and authentic brand with a genuine voice. 

Booking speaking gigs is a great way to build your profile – but it takes a lot of confidence. Any tips for overcoming nerves and also finding something good to speak about?

Start small. You don’t have to get up on stage in-front of thousands if speaking is not your thing. Look at local meet ups, or join events as a panellist. 

Everyone who ever speaks in public is nervous, I promise you! I talk to a lot of brilliant speakers who are terrified. But there are ways to make it easier. For starters, rehearse and rehearse. I often end up presenting to the dogs (my family has had enough), but I learn what I have to say so I don’t rely on notes. 

I have heard that squeezing your bum cheeks together for 1 minute before going on stage reduces nerves! But it has never worked for me unfortunately (believe me, I’ve tried!). Instead I embrace the nerves as they give me energy – they focus my mind and make sure I perform. 

When it comes to choosing a topic, like all good content you need to think not about what you know, but how you will solve the audience’s problem. Start with their pain, their challenges and you can build back out from there. 

So, building up your profile really does help you to win more business?

Simply, people do buy from people. I recently heard some research that says it takes 1-2 years for a client to appoint an agency. Those leaders who build relationships across that lead time are going to stand a much better chance of being in the right place at the right time.

In addition, the more you are out there building your profile, the more likely you are to fall over a referral, or get an intro or even a direct approach.

Before you dive into building your personal brand, what other cornerstones need to be in place for your biz dev strategy?

If you are the agency owner then it makes sense for your agency to align with your approach. That means creating a content and distribution engine within your agency. You should be sharing knowledge, making connections, writing blogs and opinion pieces and sharing those across social. 

After all, you cannot develop a sales pipeline if no one knows about you!

Katy Howell

Katy is the CEO of social media agency Immediate Future. She speaks at conferences, runs masterclasses, and guest lectures for universities and colleges. Katy’s been named by The DRUM as one of the 25 women who have made an outstanding contribution to the digital industry and also as one of 2020’s PRovoke Innovator 25 EMEA class.