I met Jackie Cooper for the first time in November 2003 in the inauspicious surroundings of the bar of the Sofitel St James’ Hotel at the insistence of my then brand new boss Richard Edelman. “Talk to her about acquring her business” was his succinct brief. This felt to me a little like asking for marriage on a first date, but bizarely (in business terms at least) that is pretty much what happened. Four months later Edelman’s UK business and JCPR marched up the aisle to the shock of both sets of employees and a cacophony of abuse from a host of industry pundits foretelling our certain mutual doom and divorce. In May this year, both businesses move in to the same premises together at last and both are more than double the size they were that day we joined forces.
Working with Jackie for the last four years has been a privilege and a pleasure. She has a rare combination of gravitas that holds the respect of the most grizzled CEO or Marketing Director and reverence for (and ability to generate) ideas that really change companies and brands. So I wasn’t surprised she was featured in a new book Inspiring Women by Michelle Rosenberg and available from Amazon and all good bookshops. And here’s the chapter on her:
‘ Being an entrepreneur is a mindset. Either your mind works in that way and you will see fresh opportunities and fresh territory to be exploited or you won’t. That’s definitely how I work and it’s still what excites me. When that stops, you’ll have to put me out to pasture.’
So says 45-year-old Jackie Cooper, co-founder of Jackie Cooper PR (JCPR), the public relations agency behind some of the most memorable consumer campaigns of the last two decades, including Wonderbra and PlayStation.
JCPR celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2007, together with a fee income turnover of £6m plus, profit of just under half a million and a staff of 72. And let’s not forget major clients such as Mars, Shell and Motorola. Not bad for someone who admits that PR was something she fell into by mistake rather than design.
‘None of this was particularly strategic or decisive which probably doesn’t sound very impressive but it was something that grew on me’, she says.
Jackie’s father, himself an entrepreneur, was a huge influence and suggested that PR was the right fit for his daughter, who says she was never academically strong. The seeds of JCPR grew from a career mistake which also reinforced her opinion that ‘although money was important to me it wasn’t the be-all and end-all of what I was doing.’ Realising six weeks into a new job for a ‘dreadful PR agency which massaged the client rather than delivered’, she happened upon news of an innovative partnership between Greenpeace and edgy 1980’s advertising agency, Yellowhammer.
Intrigued by the pairing, she impulsively called the environmental group, and ended up working there for £45 a week.
I did decide that it wasn’t PR that I hated but the way PR had been done. I
started to love the job again being at Greenpeace; I launched the Anti-Fur
Trade campaign which was a seminal campaign of its time and realised that this was still magic. I loved the potential that was achievable with reaching consumers and portraying messaging partly through media, and got a tremendous buzz out of it.
Calls from clients from her former agency led to further freelance projects.
Jackie Cooper PR was a natural progression ‘born out of discovering that
I liked to do the job and didn’t really want to get back into the situation
where my freedom was curtailed. And freedom of choice has been of huge
importance to me ever since.’
Jackie had literally been working off her dining room table before renting an office in Bond Street from PR legend Max Clifford (a turn of events which she laughingly refers to as ‘very bizarre.’) The business was growing and she was making money.
A copy job for a magazine required an interview with an expert on bridal wear, and portentously she was advised to meet with Robert Phillips, whose route to his own circumstances was as bizarre as her own.
‘He was a class academic at university; his father ran an agency selling
Italian bridal wear and died very suddenly. Being an Italian company,
these guys descended upon his doorstep and said “you are the son of your
father, you will carry on.” Being Robert and always one for an opportunity,
he said “ok.” And unknown to them, he was managing to continue to study
at university whilst trying to market this bridal wear company’, she says.
Following their meeting, Robert informed Jackie with utter candour that they were destined to work together for the rest of their lives.
‘I thought he was completely nuts and said “lovely to see you, do give me
a call if anything comes up”, which of course is the great PR line to exit
all awkward situations’, she recalls. However, Robert did call the next day,
with an opportunity to pitch together for the then-giant of the British high
street, Sears. Fast forward and the two found themselves on a train making
a pitch for the huge retail business and ultimately walking away with their
first joint piece of business, ‘without a business card between us.’
Still protective of her freedom, the two worked together for a year on
various projects whilst still running their own businesses. ‘But’, says Jackie,
‘after a year it seemed to make sense to join up. We believed that we could
really make a difference and that there was so much more to be done with
PR than was being done by any of our competitors. We wanted to do class
work, simplify the way it was being delivered and trail blaze where we were
going. And that’s how he became my partner.’
Whilst Jackie admits Robert had more of a natural affinity for numbers,
at the beginning their roles were evenly split. They both ran campaigns,
both spoke to clients, and both came up with the creative delivery for their
It wasn’t all plain sailing, and as Jackie says frankly, ‘these things are
never fairytale stories. I knew how to do PR and this was his first ‘proper’
job out of university. We had lots of vim and vigour and a huge amount of
belief but what is underestimated when you start your own business is that
you have to be skilled at two things: the thing that you are offering as your
business offer and at actually running the business. Neither of us were
particularly skilled at running a business. We were incredibly naïve.’
It was that inexperience which led to several ‘ridiculous mistakes’ very
early on. Their first office contents were almost entirely leased, which
Jackie describes as being ‘just the most ridiculous way of going forward’ as
they were effectively overpaying for office kit.
‘We just didn’t understand the fundamentals about running a business’,
she says. ‘You need to have a business plan that’s bedded down in business
skill and a service skill. You have to get more dough coming in than you
have got going out. That sounds utterly obvious now but we just didn’t have
enough of an overview on it – we just assumed that because we had a good
client base and because we were turning over good money, that it would all
come to be.’
Their first accountant was, by her own admission, terrible. They ended
up cap in hand at the bank, admitting they had a problem and had
overextended themselves, and needed their support whilst they traded out of a £100,000 debt.
‘We had no capital and no funding at the beginning. We had no
investment and we actually started with a debt pretty early on and set
ourselves a target that we not only break even but break a profit, without
getting any funding at all. And that’s what we did.’
They received an incredible amount of support from the people around
them, even in the most unlikely quarters, including the ‘guardian angel’
of a bank manager based in Moorgate (‘it was actually my father’s bank,
otherwise they probably would have arrested us on the spot!’). Her father
was one of her staunchest allies, paying their salary bill during the months
when they could not afford to.
The biggest inspiration in my life was my Dad. He was an entrepreneur all his life. His trailblazing business initiative matched with his ‘never give up’ attitude was a real lesson to me. He was a courteous gentleman, but he also had a wicked black sense of humour which, thankfully, I have inherited. I have been blessed with many relationships in my life that have supported, motivated and inspired me. These include the constant and unwavering presence of my pragmatic and ever-loving, long-suffering, wise husband David; the 20-year
partnership I have enjoyed with my co-founder and co-partner in crime, Robert Phillips, and the solid faith of one of my earliest clients – a guy called John Rowley – who had such belief in my ability that led to the formation of JCPR originally. Without him there would not have been a JCPR and without him I would not have learned how to effectively manage the stresses and strains of clients, banks and staff while still reaching for your dream.
It was very much hand to mouth and incredibly scary, but you learn a lot
of very tough business lessons when you’re put in that position and it makes
you much more fine-tuned to being smarter going forward. The business plan
was very much driven by the bank who asked if we had one. And we suddenly
thought, ‘oh shit, no we haven’t!’ We had to do it from a defensive position
which is the worst place to do a business plan from; having to go to the bank
and make them understand that we had enough insight and vision to assure
them that this was a viable business.
Whilst their passion and zeal ensured they had no problem attracting
new staff to the business, they soon realised that it wasn’t just their own
professional lives they were gambling with;
Putting my own financial future on the line is one thing; other people’s
financial future on the line was another. Robert and I took that very seriously.
We thought, ‘bloody hell, we’re responsible for the well-being of these people,
we really ought to know what we’re doing because they’re relying on us
for their rent and their food.’
For the first few years, Jackie and Robert poured everything back into
the business. Their innovative campaigns formed the backbone of their
marketing efforts. They moved offices twice before settling at their current
home in the West End’s New Cavendish Street.
Our new business drive has very much been fuelled by people seeing our work,
liking the campaigns that we deliver and coming to us. We had and we still do
have a very clear view of who we were pitching against, what their offer was
and why we were different. That was supported by the fact that when we
won business, the feedback we got was that ‘we employed you because
you were so different.’
Advice to other Entrepreneurs
Be passionate about what you’re doing, speak to as many people as you can and surround yourself with people who are great at the things you find difficult.
When considering if there has ever been a point when she’s realised she’s
‘made it’, Jackie is thoughtful: ‘that’, she says, ‘is a conversation we’ve
probably had a hundred times over the last 20 years; when we paid the
bank off and didn’t owe them anything and got our guarantees back we
asked “have we made it?” Each time we moved into a new building we asked
“have we made it?” When we sold the company to Edelman, it didn’t really
seem like it then, and when Robert was made CEO of the Edelman Group
of Companies and I was made vice chair and creative director, it still hasn’t
felt like we’ve made it. I think there’s something about the need for progress
that drives us still, God knows why, but that means we can never really feel
we can put a stake in the ground and say “that’s it.”’
For someone who has made their living promoting brands in the global media arena, Jackie surprisingly admits to being shy. Although she says that, she is quite different when it comes to talking about brands or the work that they do:
The passion takes over. I look at some of the people who’ve promoted themselves really well, in terms of really using their personality to get their brand story across and I don’t think that’s something that I’ve done because I’ve not been comfortable in the past doing it. I am more comfortable doing it now, but it’s not the way we’ve built the business or built the profile of the agency.
She advises anyone looking to start their own business to be prepared for
the manifold challenges it presents:
You’ve got to make it happen for you in an area that you love and know. You
have to have the conviction and the desire. If you are not astute at running
a business yourself, make sure you have somebody in the business or as a
consultant to give you that advice. I’d also recommend my dad’s advice:
‘speak to everybody’ because you never know who leads to what, and what
that can trigger.
She also advises against trying to be something you are not:
I love being a woman in business. I’m not one of these women who tries to be
a man; I think it’s quite exhausting if you think you have to fight sex battles
or demographic battles. I’m not a university graduate. I am what I am and
I can only be what I can be and I think you have to take control of what you
can do and not feel bad about the stuff you can’t do. There are far more things
that I can’t do than I can. But I’ve been very lucky and probably quite smart in being able to say ‘I’m good at this, but I’m absolutely shit at all of the other things so I need to make sure I surround myself with people who are great at things I’m not good at.’
By the time she’d had her eldest daughter at 33, Jackie had broken the
back of building the business. She doesn’t think she could have done it any
I pointedly haven’t taken part in any articles that are headlined ‘women who
have it all’ because I think that’s complete bullshit. I don’t think women can
have it all. I think I probably muck something up every day whether it’s at
home or at work. I have no idea whether I am doing this work–life-balance
thing well. If both my kids end up in therapy, you’ll know that I’ve screwed up!
It’s a battle and I see women battling all the time. On the other hand, I look
at my daughters and they see me work and I think it’s a good thing. There is
nothing wrong with a work ethic.
In 2004, Jackie and Robert sold the business to Daniel J Edelman, the
world’s largest independent PR firm. The two companies formally merged
in April 2007. Whilst clearly a successful move for Jackie, she insists
establishing JCPR was never the route to riches.
I’m very well off. I don’t mean financially, I mean lucky in where we got to
from a start of a £100,000 bank debt to being worth anything at all. But we
continue to work. If I knew then what I know now, we’d have had a much
easier life in terms of enjoying the work more rather than being driven by fear
of failure – which we were too much in the early days.
With Edelman’s backing and on the understanding that she still needs to
be entrepreneurial, she is setting up a separate business offer, providing
consultative advice between India and the rest of the world.
With all she has accomplished professionally, Jackie is still most proud
of her marriage and two daughters, Megan and Zara. ‘The home thing
gives me the bedrock to go in and fight and then go home and be recharged.
Without them, I am not sure I would be able to continue to drive
it with the passion that I have.’
[tags] Jackie Cooper, JCPR, Edelman, Inspiring Women, Michelle Rosenberg [/tags]