In the bustling world of food and drink communications, AJ Sharp, CEO and Founder of Sharp Relations, stands out as a beacon of strategic excellence.
In an exclusive interview with Business Matters, AJ unveils the secrets of success behind her agency, boldly claiming the title of the best in the UK. With a laser focus on delivering tangible results and measurable impact, Sharp Relations prides itself on crafting messages that resonate and drive growth for clients across the board.
What is your USP:
I think we’re the best food and drink communications agency in the UK. In terms of ROI and results, there’s not many that come close. So, I guess our USP has to be: Strategically driven, insightfully informed results, which can be measured against the impact it has on the business.
What is the main problem you solve for your customers?
We help our clients to grow faster and more efficiently through improving awareness with whomever will make the biggest impact on the business. This could be food and beverage buyers, to Executive PAs, to consumers in a specific part of the UK, we know exactly how to craft the message and reach the audience.
What made you start your business – did you want to rock the status quo, was it a challenge or a gap in the marketplace that you could fill?
Most people who don’t have direct experience with PR struggle with the concept of measuring and understanding its value. Understandably.
So, when I started my agency I realised that I had to be really very clear about the value we could bring to our clients – and I’m not referring to price – I’m talking about the genuine impact of the work on the businesses we work for.
We measure our worth against our client’s revenue and their routes to market. We measure against actual bums on seats, or heads on beds, or products sold and we take huge joy in being an integral part of that business’s success.
We’ve been producing extraordinary results in the PR space for our clients now for years and have developed an industry-leading reputation.
What are your brand values?
Do your values define your decision-making process?
Yes, they do.
- Accountability, this is about trust, we want the results of our work to have a measurable impact for our clients, and we make sure they do by genuinely understanding what impact they’re hoping to achieve.
- Authenticity, if we think a brand or business is not a good fit, we will politely decline. We invite our team to feel relaxed enough to bring their whole selves to work each day, we find that in such a creative space, it generates the best results.
- Passion, the business was founded on a genuine passion for great sustainable food and drink. But it’s more than just passion for our industry, it’s about humour and kindness for co-creating an environment which we all want to work in.
- Empowerment, magic happens when everyone feels empowered!
Is team culture integral to your business?
Our culture is key to our success, I’m very protective of it. The model was created by using freelancers, so it was founded on a culture of trust and empowerment, and a lot of that culture exists today. We don’t clock watch or ask people where they are every second of the day, as long as they are available for meetings, when necessary, how and where work is completed is up to the individual.
If team culture is integral to your business, what do you do to go the extra mile to show your team you appreciate them?
We create personalised growth plans for everyone on the team. I believe the reason employees leave a company is usually caused by  a lack of progression,  feeling that no one cares about them, or  a change in personal circumstances.
The latter is beyond our control, changing circumstances is a part of life. But we can make sure that we do all that we can to show that we care about our team, that we have a genuine interest in them, which we do. We’re growing fast so progressionary prospects are very exciting here at the moment. And that opportunity is on offer to all that want that, added to this there needs to be stability and kindness across the board for everyone to draw a steadying strength from.
I’m proud of our appraisal process, it was designed by my military partner in work and life, who adapted it from a similar format used by H M Forces. Additionally, I personally do ‘check-ins’ with everyone on my team every month. This helps me to understand the pressures on the company at every level, and I like to know what is going on with everyone, even if it takes me a whole day, I see this as my job as a CEO (even if I still have half a dozen other roles too!).
And finally, we offer everyone group coaching. Not just training but coaching which is about helping us all identify and overcome our own challenges (work related or personal) in our own way.
In terms of your messaging do you think you talk directly to your consumers in a clear fashion?
Hope so! We don’t market directly to consumers; our target market is ambitious food and drinks business owners looking to grow. I think we talk to them well.
What’s your take on inflation and interest rates – are you going to pass that on to your customers or let your margins take a hit and reward customer loyalty in these tougher times?
To be honest, it isn’t really affecting us much, or if it is, we aren’t focusing on it. At our year end we gave the whole team an inflation matching pay rise, and necessarily put our fees up accordingly for new customers. Yes, we always encourage loyalty.
How often do you assess the data you pull in and address your KPIs and why?
We measure everything regularly. The company marketing meeting each week measures how we are doing against KPIS. The client management meeting measures how delivery for clients is being executed against expected KPIs, plus problem solving and ideation. At the end of every month, we capture all the KPIS and revenue in a spreadsheet and then share it with the team at the end of each quarter.
Is tech playing a much larger part in your day-to-day running of your company?
It certainly is. From more obvious things like an improved CRM system and media monitoring services, to upgrading systems and processes to automate as much of what we do as possible.
What is your attitude to your competitors?
Do you have any advice for anyone starting out in business?
Keep going! Listen to your instincts. Follow the paths of least resistance. Don’t waste time and energy trying to push water uphill, if there is an easier way to do something, then do it, unless you feel utterly compelled to do it a new way, then listen to that!!
It can be a lonely and pressured place to be as the lead decision maker of the business. What do you do to relax, recharge and hone your focus?
Nature is usually the best medicine. Even 15 minutes in a park or walking in a nearby woodland will recharge your brain. But don’t take technology with you, turn your phone on silent and just walk and let your brain unpack itself. You’ll know the answers to your biggest questions soon enough, or even if you don’t yet know, you’ll feel more positive that the solution is on its way.
Do you believe in the 12-week work method or do you make much longer planning strategies?
Yes, I think so. I also believe strongly in Pareto’s Law, whereby 20% of your activity affects 80% of your output. Be very clear and honest with yourself about what that 20% looks like for you. For example, emailing five key contacts about potential business is in the 20% zone, changing the font on the website is not.
What is your company’s eco strategy?
Sustainability is at the core of everything we do at Sharp Relations. From the clients we choose to work with, to the way in which we conserve our resources. More than that, we have a moral and ethical spin, not only in the way we approach our clients, but also in the way we engage with our local community.
What three things do you hope to have in place within the next 12 months?
- We’re going to employ another four people in our client delivery team, so we are going to be able to take on twice as much work as we have now.
- I’m going to speak at a number of key industry events and engagements, I’ve already been approached for about three, but I want to hit eight this year, as a target.
- And we’re going to put in for several awards – we generated over 3000 pieces of coverage for an event we ran last year which included 6 TV crews and over 200 pieces of broadcast coverage – we keep forgetting to shout about it!