Even the longest, most colourful careers can be reduced to a few decisions, which, in the moment, could’ve gone either way. The seemingly big things can often be traced back to an unlikely conversation, a serendipitous observation or a calamitous situation. There’s always a finger at the end of the line of dominoes.
For StopPress and Idealog founder Vincent Heeringa, the first of these pivotal moments in his career came back in 1998 while he was in the journalism trenches at The Independent. After two years of churning out business stories at the publication, he knew he needed change but he wasn’t sure what that might entail.
As is often the case for restless journalists, Heeringa initially thought that the next destination on his career would involve PR so arranged a meeting with Jane Sweeney to discuss the potential of working for her.
“I realised I really didn’t want to do that,” he says, reflecting on that early conversation.
An entrepreneur at heart, Heeringa didn’t want to work for anyone else and came up with an idea to start a publication from scratch.
The only problem was that he didn’t have enough to do it himself, so he approached IDG Communications with the blueprint that would eventually become Unlimited magazine, his first major venture.
Over the next six years as Unlimited covered the startup scene, the entrepreneurial itch returned and became an annoyance he couldn’t ignore.
With this came another big moment in Heeringa’s career: an observation.
“I realised that working for The Man would never make me rich,” he says.
With that he quit his job at Unlimited in 2004 and went on to start Idealog magazine with HB Media co-founder Martin Bell and David MacGregor.
“Martin had print and production experience and more financial acumen. He was the straight guy and I was the funny guy.”
It was a dynamic that worked and over the next five years, Bell and Heeringa would go on to start Good magazine, purchase and relaunch NZ Marketing, create the StopPress brand and grow HB media into a business employing around 20 people. Bell and Heeringa had established themselves as a pair of publishing pied pipers, attracting both consumers and commercial partners wherever they went.
But in publishing, even the sweetest song can’t go on forever, and in 2008 HB Media was struck by the global financial crisis.
The GFC came quietly, almost inconspicuously, announcing its arrival by the absence of sound.
“I remember this very clearly,” Heeringa recounts. “In September 2008, we rang our IT provider to find out what was wrong with our phones and there was nothing wrong with our phones. It was just that nobody was ringing. Business had hit a brick wall.”
There was no escaping the GFC. And it presented Heeringa with another big decision in his career: continue weathering the silence or band together with another indie fighter in the industry.
They went for the latter, selling HB Media into ICG-owned Tangible Media in 2010, a move Heeringa now attributes to the longevity of many of the brands previously in the HB stable.
“I feel incredibly chuffed that all the things I’ve started bar one have continued,” says Heeringa.
The one exception to that is The Briefing, a membership-style magazine- and events-based initiative targeting the C-suite, launched in late 2013. The Briefing started with promise, but it simply didn’t garner enough support to justify its continuation.
In the latter stages of his career at ICG, Heeringa moved from publishing toward the agency side of the business, taking on the position of content director and focusing on content marketing for clients of the business.
It was during this stint that Heeringa’s life came full circle and he again found himself discussing the next step in his career with Sweeney.
This time, however, he was ready to accept the job and finally crossed over to what he had always seen as the dark side: PR (his thoughts on PR were perhaps best captured in his satirical review of Learn to Spin by Anne Field).
Asked about this transition, Heeringa is pragmatic, saying he isn’t quite as fundamentalist as he was while working as a journalist.
“When you start your own business, you immediately become commercial anyway and so you stop being a journalist. You have to become entrepreneurial and commercial. I’ve sold advertising and content. I’ve been commercial since 2004. In some ways there’s no real change. Perhaps it’s more grey than dark.”
Another influential factor in Heeringa’s decision to join Anthem is that PR has evolved substantially over the last few years.
“I don’t really think PR exists anymore,” he says.
“Traditionally, PR has meant controlling the media. The media is much smaller now than it’s ever been and there are so many channels to market. It used to be about the owned space. Rather than using the media, you are now creating your own media.”
By way of example, he points to the video work Anthem recently developed for Visa, saying that this isn’t the kind of project you’d expect to see coming from a PR agency.
Heeringa expects this trend to become even more pronounced as the lines between agencies continue to blur. Of course, Anthem doesn’t have the in-house facilities or staff to produce high quality video in-house, but he doesn’t see this as a disadvantage.
“They’re not hooked to a particular solution. When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when you have a huge production facility, it’s very hard not to sell people into that.”
Instead, Anthem consists of a team of 12 account managers and directors who work with external partners to bring the work to life.
“The thing I probably miss about publishing the least is that I don’t have to feed the beast,“ Heeringa says. But, as many others who have jumped the fence can attest, the emotional connection to that beast makes it special.
As he settles into what is a very different part of his career, his focus has also shifted from the startup scene to helping established small- to medium-sized businesses grow.
“There’s a really interesting group of companies, often fast growing and really important to New Zealand, that often don’t have a New Zealand agency or media spend and they have communications problems,” he says.
“There’s a real job to be done in growing SMEs in MEs and MEs into multinationals. About a year ago, I helped KPMG put together a report called the Enterprise Report. And it identified that even if you push the dial a little bit, by as little as ten percent, it will make a material difference to the economy. So on a NZ Inc basis, there’s actually God’s work to do here in terms of making these New Zealand-owned businesses bigger.”
And in that, perhaps there’s a bit of light on the dark side, after all.
Disclosure of interest: Vincent Heeringa hired me at Tangible Media nearly four years ago. He taught me the dictum ‘No one is not irreplaceable.’