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So you want to be in…Public relations

NO STOPPING: Vannessa Amadi

Top London-based PR, Vanessa Amadi, talks to The Voice about working with Whitney Houston, beating cancer and achieving international success

Can you explain what is it that you do?
My job is public relations. As a PR or public relations officer my job is to be the medium between a brand and the public, by way of the media. I have to translate both the messaging and the image of that brand through TV, radio and print. That’s effectively the role looks like on paper, but there’s a whole lot more.

What is a typical day like?
A typical day begins with me waking up at 7am. The first thing I do is check my emails and look through messages that may have come through overnight. I simmer through what is important and what I can leave until later on in the day. I then try, because I need my mind to be clear, to do some sort of activity in the morning. Whether it’s a run or some time in the gym. I’m lucky enough to have a very good trainer who trains with me so I can’t get away from working out. By 9am it’s straight into the office and looking through the agendas of my clients. That’s an average day, but then of course what happens 90 per cent of the time is that different curveballs come in; there’s some sort of crisis, a problem or something that has to be solved or requiring urgent attention. That’s an average day.

When did you decide that PR was the career for you?
For me, I definitely fell into PR. I was going to university to study computer science. That was my plan. It was the ‘dot com’ era and I was going to be a millionaire, that’s what I thought anyway. But while I was doing my A-Levels in order to do this degree course, I had to do a communications course. We had an opportunity to work with the BBC under a mentoring scheme specifically for black people. I applied and was granted a position to be on this course. From there I ended up doing some work experience for the [90s TV show] O Zone, and that’s where I met [MOBO awards founder] Kanya King. She had come into the building to have a meeting. The O Zone used to share offices with [Popular music show] Top of The Pops. She came in to see Top of The Pops people and I stopped her because I remember reading up about her in The Voice or in New Nation. I read this piece about this black awards show that was in its second year and I wanted to see if I could get some more work experience there. I was 16 or 17 at the time and she was like, ‘yeah, come’.

I did some work experience and ended up doing really well with them. Kanya said she thought I’d do great in the press department as a PR. I went there and shadowed the PR manager for a couple of months and a year of two later, I started running the department. I then became the PR manager for MOBO and had that role for six years. I loved being able to shape brands and being responsible for that brand’s image. I loved it. I’m still here 14 years later.

How valuable is work experience in this field?
To be honest with you, I found my work experience much more valuable than my actual degree. For me, it was completely invaluable to be able to sit in a real life situation, in front of real people working and be able to experience a working day. I had my first work experience at 14, which, funnily enough was at The Guardian. At the time I was like, ‘why am I here?’ but looking back, I can tell you that the experience was invaluable. I worked for free until I was 18 or 19, but luckily enough, I had a weekend job, so I was still able to make an income. I go back to my secondary school and speak to some of the young people there and I tell them, ‘If you can get [work experience], take it. It’s an investment into your life. You might not get money for it now, but later on, if you stick to ethic of trying to get better, the rewards will be numerous.’ I definitely encourage people to get work experience where they can.

How did you go from working with MOBO into launching your own PR company, VA: PR?
After working with MOBO I was picked up by a really great PR company called The Outside Organisation. I worked there for many, many years on different projects and it was great, but it got to a point where I was doing too much. I was working six to seven accounts alone and I got snowed under, stressed and very, very tired. Unfortunately for me, all of that stress resulted in me becoming sick and in 2006, I was diagnosed with having Hodgkin Lymphoma, which is a cancer. I thought it was hereditary or was a result of a crazy lifestyle, which included drinking and smoking, but I didn’t do any of those things. The doctor told me that it was stress related. She told me stress and stress can do a lot of really bad things to people and I realised that my working environment had probably caused me the stress that I was under, so that day that I was diagnosed was the same day I decided I was going to work for myself. I know that I’m not going to ever stop working, I love being active, I‘m not going to give that up, but if I am going to continue in this field, it has to be on my terms and in my way and that’s why I decided to start my own company.


GOOD FRIEND: Estelle

What has the journey been like since going alone?
It’s been a total rollercoaster. You get amazing times and you get awful times. It’s been tough because I’ve not only had to become a better PR or a better organiser, I’ve had to become a businesswoman and look after the other aspects of running a business. It’s now not only the creative side, it involves taxes and paying stuff. It’s been difficult, but a journey that I would do again. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching VA:PR grow and I’ve ben blessed to have worked with a phenomenal array of fantastic people. Client-wise, staff-wise, it’s been really, really good, but not easy.

Who makes up your client list?
Across the years, we’ve worked with a number of people, some we’re still working with now. [UK singer] Estelle is a prime example; she’s a client and a friend and has been for many years. We do work for a number of American acts too, which include [singer] Ne-Yo, we started working with [rapper] Eve, which is fantastic, Keisha Buchannan formerly of [UK group] the Sugababes and [Nigerian singing sensation] D’Banj who I also manage. I’ve been managing D’Banj for a year now and it’s just been great to see his growth and to see where he has gone. It’s gotten to the point where I’m doing more managing and less PR, so I’ve had to outsource it, which is crazy! Another lady we look after in Nigeria is actress Genevieve Nnaji, who is very big out there. We opened up a branch of VA:PR in Nigeria in 2010, which has just been phenomenal. And more recently, we opened up in the capital of Ghana, Accra. It’s not a PR agency, it’s a live company making TV programs, so there’s a VA:PR Live out there. We’ve been doing some other really exciting things there too. I now represent a girl group called the CEO dancers. We’re putting together, we hope, the first, Afrobeat workout DVD, which I’ve been producing and getting everything together. It has been really, really good.


MEMORIES: Vannessa worked with Whitney Houston from 2007 right up until her passing

What is your biggest achievement to date?
It changes all the time. Representing some like Whitney Houston was phenomenal. I wouldn’t say it was an achievement, even now I still can’t get over the experience that I had with that great woman. I represented her from 2007, right up until her passing last. But in terms of work achievement, I would probably say it has to be the work done with D’Banj. Being a Nigerian myself, I know that we’re not always represented in the best light in the media, so to be able to work a project with someone so talented and to show the world that this is the great stuff that Nigerians and Africans are doing was great. To see him on that mainstream platform made me feel fantastic.

You’re London-based. How did you transatlantic crossover come about?
I think with the US clients, again, a lot of things came through me being recommended. I would get calls or emails from someone at a record label in America saying, ‘We heard that you can help us with this and that…’ I did a lot of work with Usher when I was at The Outside Organisation and I guess the things we did with him were noticed overseas. I never actively planned to go out there or have meetings and pitched myself to people it literally just happened.


BIGGEST ACHIEVEMENT: D'Banj

For young people wanting to get into the industry, what qualities will they need to have?
You need to be hardworking and organised. If you don’t have those two qualities about you, it’s just never going to work and if it does work, it’s only going to work to a very superficial level. If you have the hunger and you’re ready to roll your sleeves up and work hard, whether it’s paid or whether it’s free, you’ll make it in this industry. I think also it’s important for someone to be able to think outside of the box as well. When you get a project, you can’t run every campaign the same way. When you are a bit creative and you’re able to think outside of the box, I think you get stronger campaigns. Essentially, hard work and be organised. And can I add, you need to know your market and your product/service and its value. Do your research, see what other people are charging for the service you’re offering and stick to it. Don’t be afraid of talking about money, that’s why you’re in business.

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