The past year has been a whirlwind of success for Griffith College MBA alumna and marketing start-up entrepreneur, Orla Veale. Having co-founded the marketing agency Conker only a year ago, Orla has effectively partnered with a variety of businesses to help them ‘CONKER’ the digital landscape and achieve their business goals.
A decisive career change
After working for over 15 years as a financial services professional in the health insurance industry, with the final two years based in Australia, it was Orla’s return to Ireland in 2014 that marked a pivotal moment of change in her career path. As she explained, “Working overseas gave me the perspective to clarify what I wanted to do work wise,” and increasingly she felt working for herself was the ultimate goal. Friends and colleagues suggested that gaining an MBA qualification could give her invaluable skills and the confidence to establish her own business. So within two weeks of returning from Australia, Orla had enrolled on the MBA course at Griffith College, and a year later she left with a first class honours MBA qualification.
“The MBA provided me with the knowledge, skills and confidence to move from a secure 15 year career in Financial Services to the life of an entrepreneur. It has been the best decision of my life and I have never looked back!”
Having the opportunity to work on a real-life project with Unilever as part of her MBA was very inspiring for Orla. She enjoyed herself so much, admitting that, “it didn’t feel like work at all!” From then on she knew that marketing was her passion and strength.
The birth of CONKER
Before she launched her marketing business, Orla wanted to find a business partner whose own skillset complemented her own. Through mutual acquaintances she approached Sinead Gillett, a creative storyteller with a background in media, communications and film, and Sinead accepted Orla’s partnership proposal. According to Orla, in her role as Creative Director, Sinead is “brilliant” at script and content writing, has a wide range of writing skills, plus a unique creative approach that is central to their business. In turn, these skills complement Orla’s role as Commercial Director, where she is responsible for sales, operations and the delivery of technical marketing tools.
First year successes at CONKER
There have been some landmark successes for CONKER over the past year, including launching two new companies from scratch, one of which is the Wellness Crew. This involved building and establishing the brand, deciding on the key business messages and designing the website. Orla says,
“Seeing the whole process through right from start to finish, and how what we’ve contributed has made a real difference, is very satisfying.”
Although Orla and Sinead do not promote CONKER as an events company, they do handle new product or brand launches for their clients. Last year they landed their first multinational client, Enel and its Irish subsidiary, EnerNOC, who gave them just 10 days to organise the launch event of their new EMEA headquarters in Dublin’s “Silicon Docks”. CONKER successfully delivered all aspects of the event, including arranging for the Tánaiste, Frances Fitzgerald TD, to attend and speak at the launch. The event received extensive media coverage and Orla feels proud that as a new small start-up, they were able to work and deliver for one of the largest companies in the world.
Another coup for CONKER was partnering with the Hubspot Agency, a company delivering in-depth analytics through marketing automation software tools. Orla explains that it can be a challenge to prove the money invested in a marketing strategy really does deliver, so these detailed analytics from Hubspot provide Orla with invaluable insight and hard facts to pass onto her clients. The first six weeks of the partnership show promising signs as three new clients in digital health, cyber security and language skills, have signed up with CONKER off the back of the Hubspot relationship.
Growing the CONKER team
Initially Orla and Sinead kept the company model as lean as possible with just the two of them working full-time in the office and using a pool of subcontractors when specialist skills were needed, such as graphic design and video production. Due to CONKER’s success in its first eight months, they were then in a position to hire a multimedia graduate on a full-time basis.
Staying relevant in an evolving digital landscape
When asked about the challenges of running a digital marketing company, Orla remarks:
“We are growing very quickly so a key challenge of my job is to ensure we have the skillsets we need now and into the future to meet our clients’ needs. The industry is evolving and changing so quickly so we have to remain adaptable to stay relevant.“
Orla explains that on a weekly basis there is always something new happening, such as new algorithms, new digital marketing trends or technical developments. Orla attends industry events so she can keep ahead of the game and network with her peers to share knowledge. It is also essential that she knows what is happening on the “frontline” in her clients’ businesses and what challenges are on the horizon. Orla adds, “The key is to consume and digest as much information as possible from a variety of sources,” to provide clients with informed and tailored advice.
Future technological developments
A key area of focus for CONKER is proving ‘return on investment’ for their clients, and technology advancements have made this a much easier goal to achieve:
“The rapid advancements in technology are hugely affecting the digital marketing landscape now and for the foreseeable future. For this reason, forecasting how the landscape will appear in the next few years is almost impossible but we have some insights.”
Orla explains that she is already using some artificial intelligence (AI) robot tools in her work that do the research and give her the answers in lightening quick time. Orla adds:
“The automation of simple tasks is certainly something we’re going to see in the short-term. However, the potential of AI is massive, particularly in customer-facing roles where a robot now has the ability to provide a service that is much faster and more efficient than a human employee. Evidence suggests that customers actually prefer the service they receive from the robot, marking a profound and inevitable change on the horizon.”
Advice for starting an SME
Orla believes that having a mentor is invaluable. If you cannot find a dedicated mentor, then speak to a variety of people whose opinion you value as it is essential to “be challenged on your thinking and assumptions.” Luckily Orla and Sinead found a mentor who they meet every few months and has the wisdom and experience to challenge them when evaluating their long-term vision for the business.
Looking to the future
In CONKER’s second year Orla’s hope is for her business to grow as her client base increases, keep learning and to have some fun along the way!
We wish Orla all the best with her future CONKER successes!
Interview by Lydia Casey