View from the Top: Kirsty Birks, Propaganda

Kirsty Birks is a Director at creative and strategic brand consultancy, Propaganda and a Vice-President of the MCA. Kirsty talks to us about her career to date, her views on the consulting industry, trends in the retail sector and challenges ahead.
Where did your career start?
After completing my Bachelor’s Degree in Economic History and Geography at Glasgow University I was awarded a scholarship from The Rotary Foundation. I went on to a Master’s Degree in Advertising at Michigan State University. My career started off in Diageo in Belfast where I worked in the consumer planning department for Guinness Ireland.
How did you decide to work for Propaganda?
I joined in 2001 when we made the shift from being an agency to a consultancy. Propaganda had started its life in design and advertising but the founder decided it needed a consultant’s approach to brand building. I joined to build the model.
What makes you see Propaganda as a management consultancy firm?
Very often marketing departments sit on their own and don’t have a voice at the boardroom table. We believe that your brand is your business and your business is your brand; not just your logo and imagery but your behaviour, culture and values. We work with our clients to align their brand to business strategy.
You operate a ‘no pitch’ policy. How do you win work instead?
We come from a background where pitching is the norm but we believe that is not the right approach for our client’s businesses. Our brand approach is all about putting knowledge before assumption and understanding our client’s situation before we start making any recommendations on what their brand strategy should be.
Propaganda recently launched its own very successful health and beauty brand. From this experience have you changed the way you consult clients?
It gave us a strong first hand understanding of how dynamic and challenging retail is, particularly in the hugely competitive make-up sector. In particular we learnt about the immediate impact of social media, changing retail dynamics and the importance of e-commerce.
What are you feelings on consultants using Twitter under their professional profile?
I do think Twitter is here to stay. I see it as a business portal where I can follow business leaders and fellow consultants. I don’t tweet often but when I do it is primarily for professional purposes.
What is your greatest business achievement?
I take pride when our clients start to see tangible results from their brand strategy. It’s great to see a satisfied boardroom and particularly from the ones who are traditionally a bit more sceptical of brand and marketing. I have seen an FD in tears of joy with the work we have helped them achieve.
I also think one of my proudest moments was when I was named the MCA Marketing Consultant of the Year in 2007. It really elevated the MCA membership for us with our clients.
What was your worst mistake and (what did you learn?)
I think my worst mistakes were quite early on when I would make a lot of assumptions about organisations before I stepped through their door. It’s Consulting 101, but it’s very to easy to build up opinions about somewhere and actually miss out on some of the magic in the business. What I have learnt is not to judge a book by its cover but go in with an open mind
What ambitions do you have?
For the business we want to continue to help brands transform and unlock potential. It’s not necessarily about working with the most famous brands; it’s about working with businesses to deliver really significant growth through a successful brand strategy.
For me I want to continue to evolve our proposition while getting closer to digital. I also aim to help develop talent in Propaganda and bring some more people into the consultancy industry.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Keep doing stuff that scares and challenges you. If you get too comfortable you are not necessarily developing yourself.
If you could change one thing in consultancy what would it be?
It would be the perception that it is a narrow industry. Consulting is incredibly diverse, rich and dynamic.
You’ve recently started supporting the University of Huddersfield with a £10,000 bursary for students. How did this come about?
We originally started life as a business there. A lot of us live in the area and some of our first clients are based there, so we have a lot of strong links with the area. Huddersfield University is a leading centre of design and brand development that is something we wanted to be aligned with. We aim to work closely with the students but also in the long term bring people into the business.
Can the UK be a great place for start-ups and SMEs? How can consulting create this sort of economy?
We have seen first-hand that the UK is brilliant for start-ups and SMEs. We have a very fertile market and there is a real need for those organisations to help fuel growth in the economy.
Consultancies can help out at the early stages with guiding strategy and direction, helping define the market place and positioning.
What upcoming projects is Propaganda focusing on?
We are doing quite a lot of proposition and product development work across our clients. For one of our clients we have a first-to-market B2B service that will address a broader target audience, for another we’ve developed an entirely new consumer product that will be launching in October.
Tell us something about Propaganda that we don’t know…
We started life with a £500 business loan and we also developed the current MCA brand proposition of ‘a positive force for the economy’.