Jessica Hope: I’m happier telling my clients’ stories
Described as the woman who tells African start-ups’ stories, Jessica Hope is the Founder and Managing Director of Wimbart, a boutique public relations company with a heavy emphasis on Africa and emerging markets. Her clients include iROKO, CcHub, Konga, Ringier, She Leads Africa and Paystack.
Jessica graduated from the University of Manchester with a BA in History and MA in Religion & Politics and worked as a journalist and editor for a number of years before she moved into public relations. Prior to starting her own PR Company, she worked at the Natural History Museum, the Jewish Museum and was Head of Communications for African entertainment brand iROKO. In this exclusive chat with GuardianWoman, she explains how her company has carved a niche for itself through narrating the stories of African start-ups
How will you describe your affinity for the African tech space? Accidental or a deliberate cultivated relationship?
Accidental entry but very much now a deliberate and cultivated relationship. I first started working for irokotv five years ago - it was a chance occurrence after I was asked by Jason Njoku to lead on the PR for the (what was then) a small Nollywood start-up. I quit my job as Head of Press at the Jewish Museum in London and jumped on board. It was an extremely fortuitous accidental entry - I loved start-up life and also the opportunity to work on building Iroko’s brand and narrative from day one. He won’t thank me for saying this, but Jason Njoku was a dream ‘entrepreneur’ to work with - he always left a lasting impression on every journalist he met because of his openness to discuss challenges and solutions and his exuberant personality, so it soon became a task of having to manage how much time he could actually dedicate to PR, rather than working hard to get journalists to feature him. When I started out on my own, after 3.5 brilliant years at Iroko, I was inundated with other start-ups that wanted to collaborate, and I’ve been cultivating these relationships ever since.
What attracts you to African businesses?
I think it’s the can-do approach to solving challenges that face African commerce. I especially admire businesses that actually build / develop products for Africa, rather than those who just take a Western blueprint and try and apply it force-feed it to an African audience. In my experience, this model doesn’t work. I also admire the vision and resilience African companies, especially the tech companies, have. Whilst there’s a lot of hype swirling around the sector, those actually working on and building these companies know that this isn’t a get-rich-quick pathway. Tech companies in Africa can’t IPO in a few years like they can in the West - they have to build slower and think 7 to10 years down the line, which requires a lot of patience. I admire that and like starting the journey with these types of African companies.
In taking up your clients, some of which are African tech business/entrepreneurs, what are the specifics that you look for?
For me, it’s essential to work with people who have a good, authentic and compelling ‘story’, who have a genuinely interesting product that stands out from the crowd and, really importantly, someone who has time to dedicate to doing press activity. I’m very much a personality-led type of person, and I like to have a strong emotional connection to the people and products I work with, so this is really important for me too when I take on new clients for Wimbart.
Apart from limited investments in African technologies, what major problems do you think tech innovators in this part of the world need to solve in order to become more viable?
In terms of PR, a stumbling block that continues to raise its ugly head is data. Journalists love data and numbers because it helps provide context to a story. Reliable data in Africa is a rarity, and entrepreneurs willing to share their company or sector data is even more rare, so on a number of occasions, stories have fallen at the last hurdle because there aren’t enough numbers to complete a story.
In creating PR narratives for your clients, what are the things you prioritise?
I try and find a unique angle - something that really elevates my client’s story above anyone else’s. I mostly deal with international press outlets, many of whom don’t write about Africa or African products that often, so if someone at Wimbart pitches a story to them, it has to be strong, by which I mean a unique or genuinely innovative product, or a considerable fundraise announcement.
You once described yourself as a ‘failed journalist’?
I worked as a journalist when I was fresh out of university and then moved on to be the editor of two different lifestyle magazines - and both times I wasn’t paid properly and the relationships with the proprietors soured and I completely lost my confidence. Instead of pushing through and carrying on with my chosen career path, at the time I took the easier route and went into PR, where I found steady work that paid well. Because of all the upheaval and bad experiences, I had lost my passion for journalism and joined the ‘rat race’. I regretted it at the time, but had totally lost my mojo, and there were lots of aspects of PR that I really enjoyed - especially the writing. So I forged a new career for myself, building on some of the skills I’d learned as a journalist. It’s been a long journey since then, but it has turned out for the best - I’ve worked really hard to develop a niche career for myself and I love my job.
You create platforms for stories of businesses to be told. Who tells your story?
PR people are the worst at doing their own PR - that’s a well known fact, and for the last 12 months I have been so busy with work and building my company, I haven’t been able to accept that many offers to talk about my own story. And really, I’m not the story - but I think that what my company has, and is achieving, is a story. We are a very small Africa-focused PR agency, and we work with some of the continent’s most exciting start-ups, our clients are consistently featured in the world’s most reputable news outlets and I think we continue to surpass expectations and punch above our weight.
However, I’m generally happier telling my clients’ stories than my own - that’s what I’m used to. I still take great delight in being the behind-the-scenes person and seeing my clients on the BBC or CNN. I still get an almost teenage giddiness from that. When we manage to get our clients a big scoop, Maria, Ernestina and I do a little team dance and do lots of high fives, because we’re so excited.
Is Wimbart looking to leverage on the successes it has enjoyed with its Nigerian clients by opening shop here?
I would definitely consider this for the future, if I found the right people to work with. As I’ve mentioned already, I’m a personality-driven person. Some people are surprised that I run my business from London, rather than Nigeria, but my clients and contacts are spread across the world, and I keep up with people via email and social media, so it’s easy to stay in the loop. That being said, it’s important to keep up face-to-face relationships, which is why I’m in Lagos at the moment. It’s been amazing catching up with my clients and some journalists based here, as well as making new connections for the future.