Is this Auckland's most influential woman?

By Greg Bruce

How did an expat South African PR dynamo become one of Auckland’s most influential women? Greg Bruce meets the force that is Deborah Pead.
Deborah Pead from Pead PR. Photo / Greg Bowker
Deborah Pead from Pead PR. Photo / Greg Bowker

From the moment I first agreed to write about Deborah Pead, even before I spoke to her for the first time, I could feel her taking control of what I said about her. I didn't see any way to prevent it. I decided to not try.

She is Auckland's most influential public relations professional. Her job, her calling, and probably to some extent her reason for being, is to exert influence.

She is friends with my closest colleague, my boss and my boss' boss. It's quite likely that she exerts at least some influence over everybody who might ever employ me. The significance of that fact should not be underestimated.

The public relations agency that bears her name has helped build the reputations of L'Oreal, My Food Bag, Lightbox and Working Style. Her team helped rebuild the broken New Zealand Music Awards into the showbiz behemoth it now is. Last year, her ability to enlist her incredible network of the city's loud and powerful played a huge role in preventing Ports of Auckland from expanding its wharves.

Although she's widely considered one of the city's biggest influencers, she wields this influence so nicely that it is almost unnoticeable, making it all the more effective. Often, we associate influence with strength, in the parliamentary style, but she has no time for, nor interest in, any of that nonsense. Politics will get you only so far. For instance, not long into my first conversation with her, she constructed an elaborate argument as to why Nadia Lim, the nutritionist and co-founder of My Food Bag, and one of her most prominent clients, is more influential than Len Brown.

It was an act of both logical flexibility and overwhelming commitment to the customer but it was also a display of strength. Brown is a lame duck mayor, sure, but still, criticising the city's most powerful elected official is something you should do only if you're either relatively insignificant or really very significant.

She dissed Brown straightforwardly: "Why would you want to be friends with Len Brown?" Then she dissed him more burningly, more frighteningly: "I probably would never be friends with Len Brown, but I would know how to get to the people who can get opinion across his desk." It should be pointed out that her comments were in response to my asking - in an attempt to discover the range of her influence - how I could become friends with the mayor. This is an important point, because it's rare for her to talk about her influence. She's actually quite reticent about showing it off. She exerts control subtly.

In a subsequent meeting, she told me that she wanted to make a distinction between authority and influence. Brown has authority, she said, but he cost himself influence when he was caught in what she described as "his whoopsie". When asked if he was more powerful than Lim, she said it depends on the circumstance.

Pead's phone goes all the time, with calls from clients and from her many, many friends, but also from prominent and powerful people who need her advice or connections, which are the currency in which she trades.

Nadia Lim, the nutritionist and co-founder of My Food Bag, is one of Pead's most prominent clients.
Nadia Lim, the nutritionist and co-founder of My Food Bag, is one of Pead's most prominent clients.

She cites Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, in which Gladwell identifies the importance of people who connect others. Connectors, he calls them. "We bring the right people together," she says. "Two plus two equals 10."

Although Pead and I had never met before I began work on this story, she knew that I had recently been through a long period of horrific baby-induced sleeplessness, and she sympathised, then began talking about one of her clients, who makes beds.

She told me that she knew I didn't write puff pieces. She forwarded me email chains where she had asked clients to speak to me for this story, in which she wrote: "He doesn't do puff pieces" and in which she described to them an "excellent article" I had written recently.

I would like to think that the assertions in these emails were true, but their truth value isn't as significant as their existence. What could be more influential than praise?

She said it was just good manners to find out something about somebody before you met them. "Everybody's got a digital footprint," she said, somewhat chillingly.

She professed to be worried about the whole process of being written about, but she was unexpectedly open through the whole exercise. She was so open that I couldn't help but be suspicious. What was she trying to achieve with this openness? Why wasn't she more guarded?

When asked what she most wanted to talk about, Pead said, "Not me!" I then insisted we spend an hour or so talking about her. She particularly didn't want to talk about being a busy, successful woman. She really wanted to talk about the reputation of the PR industry and her principles.

She is a busy, successful woman. Her agency employs about 30 people and her client list includes many large and prestigious brands. They are loyal too. L'Oreal has been a client for 15 years.

Her success has been driven, in part, by a burning motivation to succeed and a crazed work ethic. She works until 10pm two or three nights a week, although she's not proud of that fact: "I'm not a good role model," she said.

Pead, 56, who immigrated from South Africa in 1995, told the Herald last year that she felt the need to work hard to dispel prejudice and to make up for the ground she lost in having to start a life in a new country: "I think that's the same for most foreigners," she said. "You have to work really hard to re-establish your credentials, your loss of history, to prove yourself, and South Africans have that added baggage of the prejudice, which is particularly acute in New Zealand because people were so vocal during times of apartheid. You always feel you are trying hard to prove yourself."

Her former colleague, Leanne Wilkins, who now has her own agency, tells the story of the time in 2006 when Pead client Progressive Enterprises hit the news after distribution centre staff first went on strike and were then locked out. The media were after Progressive, Wilkins says, painting them as the bad guys. Pead stepped in and together with Wilkins, worked "around the clock, seven days a week for four weeks".

Pead was fielding calls from journalists and reporters demanding interviews, she was providing regular briefings to the managing director, developing key messages, developing answers to questions, gathering the facts, dealing with the unions, and generally just keeping everyone up to date.

"She just had it sussed," Wilkins says. "She had the client in order, she just had it sussed. It was amazing to be a part of."

Pead says that much of her drive to succeed came from wanting to live up to the expectations of her father, a man who was angry and violent during her upbringing and who dealt with conflict by lashing out. He told her, "No one remembers who came second."

Pead is said to be 100 per cent in her field. Photo / Greg Bowker
Pead is said to be 100 per cent in her field. Photo / Greg Bowker

Two years ago, Pead learnt that her father's philandering had given her a half-sister - also called Deborah - who her mother didn't know existed. The two are now in regular contact.

Her parents' divorce led to what she called "total devastation". She and husband Carl have raised their children, Daniel, 28, and Brittany, 25, to know that they will be loved unconditionally, regardless of their achievements.

She describes Carl, a farmer to whom she's been married for 30 years and who lives on their Kaipara farm, as her "rock", her "anchor", a "wonderful man" and a "great father". When asked if it's difficult to live apart from him during the week, she says "It's heaven. I've worked really hard to organise that."

It's generally agreed that Pead is really good at PR. Wilkins says that Pead is "100 per cent" the best in her field. "I think testament to that is that I don't know anyone else in PR that has journalists and editors and producers as some of their best friends. There is a bit of scepticism in your industry about our industry and to break through that barrier and earn the trust and respect of producers of Seven Sharp along with

Kerre McIvor and Wendyl Nissen and those sorts of people - they are genuinely her best friends now, because she is real, she is really good at her job, she's really smart, but it's not all talk."

A nice thing Pead's client Lim said about her, in an interview arranged by Pead, was: "She's very genuine and very trusting. She's got a very good heart. Ironically, a lot of people would think in PR you've got to be hard-nosed and cutthroat to get the word out, but that's not the way she works. She works on relationship-building."

Lim, one of the forces behind local business success of the decade, My Food Bag, can thank Pead for an unspecifiable but probably significant amount of her rapidly accumulating millions. If a case study of the Pead-organised product launch for My Food Bag is not yet taught in PR schools, that is only because everybody already knows about it.

By sending food bags to influential food types and using subtle but forceful cues to get them to talk about it on social media, Pead created what she calls a "Twitternami", a great frothing mass of positive publicity that went on and on until the only way it was possible to have not heard of My Food Bag was if you had your head in a My Food Bag.

Another nice thing Pead's client, Anika Moa, about her, in an interview arranged by Pead, was: "She let me do whatever I wanted. I was the boss. I said, 'I want to do this, this and this, and [Pead PR] made it happen."

Pead helped Moa launch Songs for Bubbas, an album of songs for babies that was critically acclaimed but nevertheless so obviously destined for the bargain bin that its subsequent success would have been a complete shock if not for the fact that Pead helped get it so much press that the only way to have not heard of Songs for Bubbas, if you have babies, is if you've been too distracted by all the publicity for My Food Bag.

Pead said that her company's success is down to some combination of honesty, reputation, expertise and being realistic about what they can deliver. "Now that I think about it," she went on, "Our well-developed media relations network is an important asset to us. For some reason, a lot of communication agencies treat media as the last resource whereas we put media right up there at the top of the influencer chain."

In the days after Jonah Lomu's death, the people helping his wife Nadene turned to Pead for support and she provided it free of charge.
In the days after Jonah Lomu's death, the people helping his wife Nadene turned to Pead for support and she provided it free of charge.

All types of people come to her for advice: celebrities, semi-celebrities, non-entities, the out-of-their-depth, other PR people. In the days after Jonah Lomu's death, the people helping his wife Nadene turned to Pead for support and she provided it free of charge.

She is known as a woman who can arrange things and who can fix things. If you have accidentally shot your reputation in the head, you call Pead and she will come to your metaphorical garage and help clean up the mess.

All those who spoke to me on the record for this story - friends, clients, employees, ex-employees, PR practitioners, journalists, academics - understood what they said would be read by one of Auckland's most influential people, a person whose influence could one day be extended to help or hinder them in their endeavours. As such, it's possible their comments should be completely ignored.

People said she was "gracious", "kind", "generous", "fun". Many said "fun".

People, sometimes the same people, said she's "well known for saying what she thinks and not sugar-coating it", called her "a hard ass", said that if people wronged her they could be "dead to her". Still, in a game in which enemies are easily accumulated, she seems to have accumulated few.

Her colleague, Becky Erwood, one of the most senior employees at Pead PR, says that Pead is such a great connector because connecting is her natural state. She will happily go to events on her own and if there are people in the room she doesn't know, by the end of the night there won't be.

"I'm a very confident person," Erwood says, "but I find it difficult sometimes to walk up to people and let them know why they should be talking to me. She doesn't have that safety net."

If you have accidentally shot your reputation in the head, you call Pead and she will come to your metaphorical garage and help clean up the mess.

Pead spends most of the week at her home in Mt Eden and joins Carl at the farm on Thursday night, for the weekend. A huge number of people get invited to the farm: clients, friends, strangers. Before I'd even spoken with Pead - after just a single, brief, email in fact - I got an invitation to the farm.

Part of PR is about creating positive relationships with people who may one day be able to give you and your clients what they need.

"People want to work hard for her," Erwood says, "because they appreciate what she does for them."

In 2006, Pead PR launched a contest for journalists. By publishing or broadcasting the non-word "starkish", an adjective that had been invented, possibly by Pead, to suggest a sense of proportion and good taste, they could win a trip to New York.

Obviously, this process was a huge success. How many journalists could remain unaffected by such a small compromise in the face of a possible trip to New York?

Mark Sainsbury said "starkish" on Close Up and Jaquie Brown said it on Campbell Live. It was used by journalists in the Herald on Sunday and the Sunday Star-Times. The Herald reported on the outrage over the whole shambles, and in doing so cleverly used the word twice, while remaining morally unimpeachable. The eventual winner was World designer Francis Hooper, who used it on a radio show.

Journalism teachers and commentators railed against the campaign, saying it created a conflict of interest for journalists and was trying to attack the integrity of the news.

It sparked current AUT journalism curriculum leader Helen Sissons to write her PhD on the nature of the relationship between PR and journalism.

Sissons, who thinks that PR practitioners are generally good people, says that the relationship between journalists and PR practitioners is fraught.

"Both of you have totally different jobs and you're both trying to do your jobs well, but you're not good for each other. It's the line between parasitic and symbiotic. Neither can do the job without the other but you both make each other a bit sick."

Sissons told me it was important I not write a sycophantic article about Pead. I asked her why not. She said: "Because Deborah Pead is very, very, very influential in this city. People know when they read a puff piece and I think the public respect it more when there's a little bit more shade."

Deborah Pead and Kerre McIvor at an event in 2008. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Deborah Pead and Kerre McIvor at an event in 2008. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

The first time I met Pead, we didn't leave her office. She didn't offer to buy me a coffee at the excellent cafe, Olaf's, next door, didn't offer me any of the copious L'Oreal product on display on the shelves behind the beauty team, didn't give me a six pack of the Pilsner Urquell beer on the floor in her storeroom, didn't give me anything. "There must be some chocolate here somewhere," I thought idly, but no, none of that either.

Some things I have received from, or been offered by, PR people in the last few weeks alone: a fair bit of chocolate, a box of cupcakes, free sandwiches (twice), a bottle of wine, artisan soda, selected Body Shop products, a matchbox car, fancy sausages, plum cider, books, episodes of TV shows, movie tickets, theatre tickets, concert tickets.

During our first meeting, Pead offered me insights and personal stories and nothing else. It was such an ostentatious display of non-offering, so untainted by commercial enticement, one of PR's most basic forms of currency, that I wondered whether this non-act was itself a form of control.

Several days passed. We exchanged some emails. Then, almost a week after our first meeting, she left me a voicemail: "I've got an idea I'd like to bounce off you because it would take somebody like you to make it work," she said. She gave her number, although I already had it. "And if you're into experiences," she said, "I think this one will get your attention."

Am I into experiences? You bet. Did she already know that when she posed that question? Everybody leaves a digital footprint. Some experiences I've written about in recent years: a morning at Topshop, a visit to Coca-Cola's worldwide headquarters, five days in the press box at a cricket test match, my summer of internet dating, 12 hours in the kitchen of Auckland's best restaurant.

Did she have my attention? I called her straight back.

"I wanted to talk to you about an opportunity we're developing," she said. "It needs a special person to make it work." I knew that by calling me "a special person", she was manipulating my feelings, but I'm self-aware enough to know I'm vulnerable to that kind of thing.

She told me that one of her clients - it would be tawdry to name them here, but they make suits - was developing an amazing Anglo-French fabric, for a top-of-the-range, luxury experience.

Wendyl Nissen's Book Launch at The Crib. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Wendyl Nissen's Book Launch at The Crib. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

"Just to backtrack a bit," she said. "The whole concept is what a suit does for you. When you put on a jacket, there's a sense of power, authority, courage. A suit is like modern-day armour."

She invoked the television show Suits, which airs on a video-on-demand service that is one of her clients, which it would be tawdry to name here.

"You may have a wardrobe full of suits, you may not," she said. "But what happens when you do have one of these suits?"

At this point, I could feel a kind of excitement rising at the thought of being fitted for a suit, made from a rare and luxurious Anglo-French fabric, of a value I couldn't possibly imagine. I have colleagues, brilliant and hard-working journalists, who decline all gifts, to avoid ethical taint. I admire them tremendously and it is her job to know that I am unlike them.

She went on, outlining how the story might play: I would go and interview the people behind the suit, talk to lawyers and other high-flying suit-wearers about how their suits make them feel and then I would fly to Paris, to road test a bespoke suit.

I was making notes while she spoke, but after she had uttered the words "fly to Paris" and I had written them down in a vague delirium, I was only able to add the incomprehensible semi-sentence, "Is a suit with ... " before my notes dissolved in a trail of giddy happiness.

The deadline for the story you are now reading was still a few days away.

- Canvas

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