Telum Talks To... Jo Scard, Managing Director, Fifty Acres

Can you tell us a little more about setting up Fifty Acres and its virtual workplace approach?

I wrote a book about 10 years ago with Melissa Doyle from Seven called The Working Mother’s Survival Guide, and as a result of that book the key thing we found was that women didn’t have flexible work. It was an illusive concept. In reality when they would leave at five to go pick up the kids there would be sideward glances from people in the office. I did have flexible work but I also had the sideward glances occasionally from people in the office who didn’t have kids and didn’t get the fact you would go home and get back on email.

As a consequence of that, I thought to myself that if I ever got into a position where I was able to employ people that I would start a business that would be flexible, and that would be one of the key principles of it. When I had the opportunity of starting an agency, I was working as a ministerial adviser for the Rudd Government, I had little kids and my husband was also working in Parliament House as a Journalist and the hours were pretty insane. So I decided to leave and start my own business. I created a work place that I wanted to work in, which was flexible and virtual. I work from where I live. When I started I had four foundation clients - SBS, Kellogg’s, Diversity Council Australia and the Black Dog Institute - and the very moment that I employed someone that led to growth and so on. I vowed to keep true to my principles and continue to have a flexible virtual model because I thought if that’s the way I want to work then I thought that everyone who works with me should be able to work like that if they chose.

What are the benefits and negatives of that kind of approach?

The benefits are low overheads, because we don’t have any offices. We all work from where we live so we don’t need to have a bricks and mortar office. That’s a considerable saving. We work mainly for not-for-profits and organisations who do a lot of for-purpose and for-good work. So for those clients who we do that work for, we’re able to produce and have a pretty low not-for-profit rate which enables us to do that work at scale for them at a very good price. Being holistic, there are many agencies out there who are doing similar work who might charge 10-15,000 AUD retainers a month and we’re doing a similar amount of work for 6,000 AUD. I might be shooting myself in the foot but I’m paying my staff well and they’re enjoying their work and I’m not going under as a company, I’m expanding. So there’s obviously some logic to it.

The negatives, if there are any, is that we’re not all in the same room all the time. You do lose some of the immediacy, though we do a lot of contact with one another online, over the phone and on Skype. We just spent eight days together in Byron Bay a couple of weeks ago. We have an awful lot of time where we can get together but we don’t do it day in and day out.

You’ve also had a lot of previous experience in government adviser roles and in the media. How has that impacted the work you now do with Fifty Acres?

I’ve worked in politics and media all my life. And it’s just something that I’ve done. I joined a political party when I was 15 and I’ve been fascinated with media and politics for as long as I can remember. I worked as a ministerial adviser and then got into journalism in the UK for 10 years and then came back and was a journalist here. I suppose all those skills translate really well to consultancy, particularly my time in government. The skills are minute by minute, things change, the goal posts move constantly so you must be very adept at adjusting to some new stress or something that’s come in front of you, but also being able to see what’s coming. It’s also being able to advise the client well and get them in front of the right people, and helping them know what’s realistic to ask for. I’ve worked in journalism and it means you can imagine what the journalist might want or need.

Do you think government relations has changed, particularly in our current political climate?

I think it has changed. Politics is moving faster and results are more unpredictable. So where you used to be talking to a certain ‘team’ in government and you’d get relationships really well established, now you have to really understand all the 'teams' in the competition and understand all the players. So you need to know more and understand the combination of how all those people might combine together. You need to be more able to read the game more than you used to. It’s more complicated and you need to understand that all those crossbenchers, they all have a vote. And you have to tell the client that, but they don’t always get that even though Malcolm Turnbull is Prime Minister, they only have a one seat majority, and if the High Court all of a sudden rules against them then they’re in trouble. So, you have to read that and deliver that intelligence to the client. Government engagement has always been about being honest and direct and I think now more so.

What is your favourite PR moment?

I think my best moment was when I got a large bunch of beautiful flowers delivered to Madonna in a London hotel, and then she agreed to do a shout-out interview, a little radio grab for a campaign I was doing for the national UK Shelter homelessness campaign.

How do you get your news?

I’m just constantly online. I don’t read any hard print newspapers really, magazines yes but I’m constantly looking at news sites and getting alerts to my phone. I also have ABC Radio National on all day, from the moment I get up to when I got to bed. Unless I’m watching the Bachelorette or The Project.