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From bedroom to boardroom: 20 years building a provincial PR agency

The same year that Facebook launched, Shrek the Sheep was rescued from the southern highlands and the final episode of Friends aired, Heather Claycomb launched a PR agency – HMC - from her spare bedroom in Hamilton in 2004. 

Armed with nothing more than a gifted laptop and a miniature Nokia phone that sported the latest in Snake Game technology, Claycomb walked away from her full-time agency role and took the plunge into consulting. 

Two decades later, HMC is the only three-time winner of the PR Institute of NZ’s Agency of the Year Award, small to medium category.  With a raft of other awards under the agency’s belt and more than 80 clients serviced so far, HMC continues on a growth trajectory. 

“Honestly, starting a business was the furthest thing from my mind in 2004.  I had come out of a stressful role and thought I would do some writing while I looked around for a job I could love. 

“I remember my very first project was editing a publication for emerging dairy start-up, Synlait. I simply used my networks from there to find writing, communications planning and media relations work. Twenty years have gone by in a flash,” she says. 

In 2018, Claycomb turned HMC into a social enterprise.  While the agency remains a for-profit business, she donates all profits to her family charity, All Good Ventures. 

“When we tell people we donate all our profits to charity, the message is normally met with a furrowed brow of confusion as they wonder ‘did she really just say ALL profits?’.  Yes, that’s right, one hundred percent! 

“My husband Rod and I made this decision in 2018 and we haven’t regretted it.  These past five years have been HMC’s most profitable yet, and we know that’s no coincidence.  All Good Ventures uses HMC profits to help entrepreneurs around the world build businesses that lift vulnerable people out of deprivation. 

“Donations have helped to build health centers in Uganda, lift artisans out of poverty in Kenya, give clothes-for-a year to foster children in New Zealand who go into care with literally nothing, retrain human trafficking survivors in the UK, build businesses that give disabled people employment in Australia and more. 

“I love that our clients can partner with HMC to not only do great communications work, but they also partner with us to do good things in the world,” she says. 

Claycomb says one particular agency value is the key to retaining clients. 

“From day one, I never wanted to be treated like ‘the agency.’  Instead, HMC focuses on taking a partnership approach.  My staff do all we can to learn our clients’ businesses inside-out, build trusting relationships and simply become one of the team. 

“This has allowed HMC to retain many of our clients long-term.  For instance, King Country Energy has been a client since 2007, Lodge Real Estate since 2012 and CRV since 2014,” she explains. 

Claycomb says one of the most rewarding parts of growing her agency has been working alongside staff who have come and gone over the years. 

“I’ve employed 21 people in 20 years.  It’s been fun watching team members learn new skills, achieve big wins for clients, handle complex crises with skill and go on to do bigger and better things in their careers.  Some have built their own consultancies while others have stepped into big corporate roles. 

“To me, of equal importance to achieving client goals is helping the communications professionals who’ve worked with me to build their skills and expertise.  I want my team members to leave HMC knowing it was a great step on their career ladders,” she says. 

Claycomb reminisces about a few client projects and campaigns that were stand-outs over the years. 

“Buddy Day, a child abuse prevention awareness day idea we had that Child Matters ran for five years, is a huge stand out.  That project won HMC an international PR award in 2016. 

“Helping the Smith Family in Cambridge give away their million-dollar, lakefront Karapiro home in 2009 was another pivotal project.  That earned our agency’s first PR award. 

“Doing the communications for Meridian’s Te Uku Wind Farm in Raglan, launching CTC Aviation into New Zealand’s airline pilot training market in 2005, launching CRV’s LowN Sires in 2017 and Agricom’s Ecotain in 2018, working with Cameron Norrie’s Epiology sponsorship in 2019 and so many more projects come to mind. 

“Plus, we’ve worked on significant crises and issues over the years.  While often stressful, these projects are incredibly rewarding when we can help clients navigate situations and build trust through those tricky circumstances,” explains Claycomb. 

So, what does the next twenty years hold? 

“Well, I suspect I won’t be running a PR agency in twenty years if I’m honest! I hope to be travelling, writing a book or two for fun and generally taking life a bit easier.   

“But in the next few years, we won’t take our foot off the pedal anytime soon.  The PR industry is changing at a pace I’ve not experienced in the last two decades.  The digital tech that is impacting our work is phenomenal. 

“There are days the rapid change is a bit mind-blowing, and I reckon I have two choices.  I can quit because it’s just too hard to keep up.  Or my team and I can get busy adopting new technologies and staying one step ahead of the curve, while we continue to do award-winning work.  I’m choosing the latter and so far, I’m loving it.” 

Claycomb says she would like to grow her governance work over the next few years.  She has served on various boards over the past 20 years and has held two Chair roles, including being the current Chair of the PR Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ).