Billie Dee Gianfrancesco is Head of PR at Vardags – an elite, nation-wide law firm catering for high net worth individuals and their businesses – representing celebrities, entrepreneurs and royalty. As part of her role, she acts as publicist to Britain’s top divorce lawyer, the high-profile ‘Diva of Divorce’, Ayesha Vardag.
Billie started her career at top London PR agency The PHA Group, where she worked closely with the CEO – renowned reputation manager and former News of the World, Trinity Mirror and Hello! Magazine editor – Phil Hall. She joined the Business team and rose through the ranks to become Senior Account Executive in under two years.
She was part of the team that won Consultancy Campaign of the Year at the Public Affair Awards 2016 for her work with Living and Dying Well, in which she worked with members of the House of Lords to prevent a change in the law which would have allowed for physician assisted suicide in the UK.
She left PHA to work in-house at the globally-renowned Ministry of Sound – which at the time was the world’s biggest independent music company and London’s most iconic nightclub.
She launched her own PR agency, Matriarch Media, in 2017. As a one-woman band, she managed PR for a range of brands, organisations and individuals, including UN Women UK, online estate agency Yopa, TV personality Trisha Goddard, and Thinking Hat PR, where she delivered high quality employee brand PR for Amazon. She accepted a full-time role with Vardags in October 2018.
Describe your background in 5 words max?
Sydney – Norfolk – London. Mixed. Sagittarius.
How did you get into PR?
It was a long old frustrating slog getting started on my PR career. I studied English Literature at uni – I chose it because I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life, so I just picked my favourite subject. I worked at a newsagents throughout my studies and the job was so mind-blowingly dull, I’d just read all the magazines and papers on our shelves all day (little did I know at that time it was that work experience and knowledge of the press which would help me ace my PR interviews!)
When I graduated I panicked. Unemployment stats dominated the news and there were literally no jobs. I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do. My parents emailed me to inform me that now I was an ‘adult’ with a degree, I wasn’t allowed to move back home. When I told them I couldn’t find work they told me I wasn’t trying hard enough. I panicked. I sold everything I owned at car boot sales and Cash Converters and moved to Thailand to teach English.
I loved Thailand, I loved the kids but I hated teaching. It was so repetitive. I moved back to England after 7 months. I worked as a sales assistant in Mango. I lived with my ex-boyfriend in his grotty, basement student flat. It was so damp and filthy I got whooping cough and serious depression. I was so miserable.
My mum (feeling suitably guilty by this stage I imagine!) kept banging on about me being ‘born for PR’, but I knew nothing about PR except from the TV show Ab Fab. I thought it seemed a bit silly. But, without any other ideas and desperate to find some kind of career, I applied for some PR internships.
They were unpaid internships, which made life pretty difficult. I had to work in the evenings and on weekends while also interning full-time, for nothing. After the first PR agency literally chewed me up and spat me out with nothing to show for almost three months of free labour (my dear grandma would have been turning in her grave to think she’d come to England to give us a better life and there I was working for free aged 23, like a bloody slave!) it made me determined to get a job out of it. I had to make all that stress count for something.
I bagged an amazing internship at London PR agency The PHA Group in the Celebrity team. On my first day I had to babysit a glamour model’s baby while she did a day of interviews and shoots. I wondered what the hell I was getting myself in to… But before my 4-week internship was up, I managed to place a (difficult) story on the front page of The Evening Standard. I was offered a job – but, as a receptionist.
By this stage, I had had so many rejections that I accepted it on the spot – and relished the opportunity to impress the CEO – former News of the World, Trinity Mirror and Hello! Magazine editor, Phil Hall, who trusted me and took me under his wing. I proved myself and after six weeks, I was offered an account exec role in the Entrepreneurs and Business team. It was well worth the wait. The role fit me like a glove and I quickly rose through the ranks to become Senior Account Executive in under two years.
What do you love about your job?
I love telling stories. I find it difficult to even have a basic conversation without telling some kind of story. It really annoys my friends! So, to be able do this day in day out, to be able to take something that seems dull or niche or complicated and spin a story that engages the masses – and makes them feel something – that’s truly thrilling for me.
I love my job even more being in a senior position. I have complete freedom to come up with my own angles, I can choose to focus on the topics I care about which is hugely rewarding.
In the last month alone, I’ve had articles in The Telegraph raising awareness of economic abuse, in City AM arguing that the Met Police’s targeting of young black people who make drill music is discriminatory and problematic, I launched a ‘fighting fund’ in The Sunday Times to help women trapped in unhappy marriages they can’t afford to escape. It’s hugely rewarding to feel that I’m making a positive difference to the world.
What are you most proud of?
I live with mental illness. It can be completely debilitating if I don’t constantly manage it. I live with Borderline Personality Disorder and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’m also in drug and alcohol recovery. I go to therapy and peer-support sessions at least two evenings every week and I’m on medication. I’m recovering and getting stronger every day. I’ve come so far. Honestly, this time last year I didn’t want to be alive.
So to achieve all I have with my career before the age of 30 whilst battling this enormous beast – wow. I’m immensely proud of myself for that, more so than anything else. I also share my experience to help others and to fight the stigma, and have spoken about my mental illness with BBC Three, Women’s Health and Time To Change. If I can help just one person, it’s all been worth it.
What’s been the hardest lesson to learn?
Growing a thick skin. People get very emotional about PR. I’ve been screamed at, cried at, criticised, ostracised, humiliated, abused, made redundant… I’ve learned that it doesn’t reflect me, and not to take it personally.
Also, learning that even if you are the best at what you do, it doesn’t mean you’ll be recognised for it. Sometimes, people want to keep you down. I’ve worked places where I’ve been the top performer but I can’t progress, because the stale pale males in power find me threatening, or they don’t want to give me responsibility, or whatever. I’ve been affected by racial prejudice and sexism, and it’s hard to dust yourself off and carry on after being treated like that a few times. But my solution? Eff them all, start my own business and nick their clients. Revenge is so sweet, and definitely a dish best served very cold.
Who are your favourite people in PR and why?
Eddie from Ab Fab, she’s iconic. And fabulous, dah-ling.
In real life, I have to say David Brookes and Emma Heley, founders of Thinking Hat PR. After I had my breakdown – knowing that I wasn’t very well – they took a big risk and invited me to work with them at my own pace, on my own terms. I started doing just three days a week, then went up to four. They were so kind and flexible, they gave me the space and support to recover whilst doing fun work on an amazing client – Amazon. I will always be grateful to them for their faith in me.
And I must say I’ve been following BME PR Pros founder Elizabeth on LinkedIn for a couple of years now, and I think she’s hugely inspirational.
What skill do you think every PR has to nail?
Empathy. The ability to instinctively know and understand what your client, and your audience are feeling.
What is your favourite social network and why?
LinkedIn. It’s a great platform to showcase all my coverage and I get the best engagement on there.
Who is your favourite journalist and why?
Angella Johnson, feature writer at the Mail On Sunday. I think she might be the only black journalist at that paper – well, she’s certainly the only black journalist who’s actually lasted there. And she’s been there for over a decade. She’s run a couple of hatchet jobs on my clients in the past which has made my life hell (temporarily), but credit to her – she’s a seriously tough, inspiring woman who does her job bloody well. I respect her, hugely.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
My mum always used to say, “There’s no such thing as failure, only feedback.”
Biggest PR campaign fail and yay of 2018?
I loved the Heads Together campaign – which saw members of the Royal family talking honestly about their mental health. I feel like it’s been a long old slog trying to combat the stigma surrounding mental health and opening up conversations about it – but as soon as William, Kate and Harry started sharing their experience, I noticed a massive shift in public understanding and perception. It’s made things infinitely easier for people like me – you know, when I tell my clients/employer I have a mental illness they no longer think the worst and think of the Royals… That’s huge. It’s life changing for so many people.
Biggest fail… Elon Musk letting loose on Twitter with “those” allegations. Will he ever be able to live that down and move on? Who knows…
Finally, on the D’ word… What can the sector do to encourage diversity?
Clients want diversity. If they want to reach a diverse audience, they need a diverse insight. And let’s be honest, there aren’t a whole lot of us in the industry. That’s what makes us incredibly valuable. I think BME people working in PR just need to ‘wake up’ to their worth. Demand more. Settle for less. Shout about the value we bring. Shout about the consequences of not having people like us on board. Just look at H&M, Pepsi…. Major disasters that could have been avoided if just one of us was there, in a position of power, able to say, ‘hold on, that could be interpreted as racist.’
We need to be seen at the top of top companies. And we need to be seen to be treated well. It’s down to us to work to make the industry more diverse, using ourselves as positive examples and role models. We need to be mentors. We need to go above and beyond to support our BME colleagues. We need to push our companies to hire people like us. We need to fight for diversity, not wait for bunch of stale, pale, males to draw up some ineffective lip service company policy, then get wheeled out to pose for the cover of some business/diversity/marketing brochure! How insulting, no way. We need to demand diversity on our terms. We must be the change we want to see.
Billie is one of 18 mentors for the BME PR Pros/PRWeek Mentoring Scheme 2019.