5 minutes with… Jane O’Hara, Head of Marketing, Cirrus

This month I’m delighted to be speaking to Jane O’Hara, head of marketing, at Cirrus, a global leadership consulting business. Jane was one of the founding members of Cirrus in 2010 and has helped to drive its award-winning success with clients including RB, Standard Chartered and Tesco Bank.

Here’s her 5 minutes with…

What is your marketing background?

In my early 20s I ran a small business making and decorating mirror frames. I loved being a craftsperson but had to throw myself into sales and marketing in order to sell my work, which I found quite daunting. However, pretty quickly I discovered that I was quite good at it – putting brochures together, attending trade fairs, approaching buyers (this was all before the dawn of the internet!). I started to do more marketing work for others which eventually led me to move into the corporate world and leave the craft behind.

What does your role at Cirrus involve?

As head of marketing I’m part of the Cirrus senior leadership team. We’re are a very ambitious business and we do great work with major clients all over the world. Marketing is a critical part of our success. We have built a strong reputation as a leader in our marketplace. I’m very proud to lead a very innovative and talented marketing team who are brilliant at understanding what clients want, communicating our solutions, and helping to open up new business opportunities.

You’ve worked in professional services for many years what have been some of the biggest changes for you in marketing, good and bad?

I’ve worked in marketing for 30 years so the biggest change for me has been the rise of digital marketing. I am old enough to remember the introduction of email in the workplace and – a few years later – the first corporate websites appearing.

Today of course we leverage digital channels as much as we can, and we invest a great deal of resource into our website, webinars, email campaigns and social media. The advantages of microtargeting, analytics and measuring ROI are invaluable to us.

The bad side of digital marketing is the ease with which so many companies can now bombard us with spammy, irrelevant emails. GDPR regulations have helped to curb this but our inboxes still fill up with ‘unmissable’ offers every day.

How have you seen your own approach evolve over the years?

I’ve always loved building brands and growing the reputation of a business, and I’ve always worked for businesses that I believe in and want others to believe in too. Your company’s purpose and values are really important. You need to communicate with credibility and authenticity. Ultimately you want to build trust.

I have always been a big believer in relationship marketing. I want to help build long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships with clients. I want marketing to offer them things they find genuinely useful.

Fundamentally, I have always been a big believer in relationship marketing. I want to help build long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships with clients. I want marketing to offer them things they find genuinely useful. How I do this has certainly changed over the years. For example, Cirrus is quite renowned for our face-to-face events. We bring groups of clients together to network and learn over breakfast or drinks and many people have told us that our events are the best in the business. Over the years, technology has enabled us to bring people together in different ways. So now we hold quite frequent virtual masterclasses where clients can join together to learn about a specific topic and interact online. And we’re told that our virtual masterclasses are the best in the business too. We’re very proud of that because we’re all about forging those valuable connections.

You’ve rolled out many campaigns throughout your career, what has been the best one you have delivered and why?

The best was the launch campaign for our CEO Dr Simon Hayward’s second book, The Agile Leader. His first book, Connected Leadership, had been well received, so he had already built a reputation as an author, media commentator and conference speaker. The Agile Leader was published at a time when many organisations were aiming to become increasingly agile in our age of digital disruption. Our client Standard Chartered Bank hosted launch events for the book in London and Singapore and we held additional events with ScottishPower, Alliance Manchester Business School and the University of Melbourne. We also ran a very successful media campaign which resulted in lots of coverage and book reviews. The book was a WHSmith Business Book of the Month. Simon spoke at some high-profile conferences and guested on several podcasts. All of this led to impressive and sustained sales. It also helped to build the reputation of Cirrus as a thought leader.

If you could offer advice to a marketer who is trying to encourage their CEO to get a strong social presence, what would it be?

Encourage your CEO to post regularly and encourage interaction and comment on other people’s posts – if all they do is broadcast, people will stop engaging. Share relevant content from your own organisation but also share valuable content from others. This will boost your CEO’s credibility.

Use examples and highlight the benefits. If any of your competitors’ CEOs have a strong social media presence, share that with your own CEO. Look at where your clients are most active. Not many Cirrus clients are active on Twitter, but many of them are very active on LinkedIn, so that’s where we focus most attention. Encourage your CEO to post regularly and encourage interaction and comment on other people’s posts – if all they do is broadcast, people will stop engaging. Share relevant content from your own organisation but also share valuable content from others. This will boost your CEO’s credibility. Finally, be authentic. It’s fine for marketing to suggest some updates but encourage your CEO to share personal views too. Even on LinkedIn, which is a very corporate platform, our CEO has posted on a diverse range of topics from Brexit to Bowie.

Cirrus are very strong in the media, what advice could you offer your marketing and communications peers when it comes to dealing with journalists and trying to secure placements?

Identify the high-profile media your clients most engage with and seek out the journalists whose areas of expertise are most relevant to you.

Make sure your approach is highly targeted. I very rarely send out the same news release to multiple journalists. In fact, I rarely send out news releases at all. Identify the high-profile media your clients most engage with and seek out the journalists whose areas of expertise are most relevant to you. Only offer journalists ideas that you believe will genuinely interest them. If you’re submitting a comment or a column for consideration, make sure you write it in the style of the publication or website you are targeting. Be very, very careful about how you position your own products or services. None of the media I target would be interested in an article describing a Cirrus leadership development programme. However, most of them would leap on a leadership development case study from one of our global clients. If you can supply well-written, relevant, interesting content then journalists will see you as a valuable contact and are more likely to use you regularly.

What’s the best piece of marketing advice you’ve ever been given?

Well, there are a few pieces of advice that I think of often. They’re not marketing-specific but they’ve all helped me to become better at what I do.

Early in my career, a colleague pointed out that I didn’t have to know all the answers. I know this sounds obvious, but it was quite a revelation to me at the time. I was young and I felt I had to prove myself by knowing everything. I especially felt that if a client asked me something about my business I should be able to respond. But I learned that it’s okay to ask other people to help. The best solutions come from collaboration. There is a very diverse range of talent at Cirrus and we all learn a lot from each other.

A few years ago we held a lunch for some Cirrus clients with the rower Sir Matthew Pinsent, who won four consecutive Olympic gold medals. He is one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met. His dedication and focus are off the scale. He is a big believer in incremental gains and how they all add up to significant improvements. He talked about how some athletes turn up at Olympic events and worry how imperfect the conditions are. He said he simply didn’t worry about factors like that because he had trained for four years and he was completely centred on achieving his goal. I’ve always had quite a lot of dogged determination, but I’ve got better at ruthless prioritisation and not getting distracted by things around me that I can’t control.

The final piece of advice is from our Cirrus CEO Dr Simon Hayward, who is a big believer in ‘fail fast and learn’ – the concept of trying out new ideas in a safe environment without fear of failure. We’re all operating in a fast-moving, unpredictable world. Our ways of working need to be constantly adapted. It’s okay to try new things without always knowing how they’ll turn out – by experimenting, testing and tweaking our ideas we can spark real innovation. If our ideas don’t always work out, that’s fine – learn from the experience and move on.