Global PR business founder Jenny Halpern on how she grew her company over 30 years: “We were the original influencer agency”

Posted by Emilie McMeekan in Analysis

1 year ago

It’s been 30 years since Jenny Halpern put her name on the door of her PR business in 1993 and ten years since she merged with The&Partnership and went global. Halpern has seen it all – the transformation of the business of PR that she loves, the ushering in of a new digital era. She has a unique perspective straddling the analogue and digital worlds. I should know because I used to be in charge of fixing the fax machine in her office.

Full disclosure, I worked for Jenny Halpern – who is also known by her married name Halpern Prince – in the early 2000s, as an office PA with absolutely no tech know-how but also as the assistant in a burgeoning new talent department whose mission was to wrangle celebrities and social figures (as in society rather than media) to attend client launches. Halpern understood instinctively that to shift product you needed to get it into hands of people with enviable lifestyles, the ones with social currency, the “It” people. That you could create atmosphere for a brand with the right people turning up to a shop launch – people had been doing it for centuries but Halpern was one of the first to professionalise it. 30 years ago. Then, as now, Halpern was impressive: extremely driven, fiercely commercial, and, at her core, a saleswoman. A really, really good one.

Halpern has always been ambitious – she had a place at university to study history but thought “I don’t understand how I’m going to make money that way”. She wanted to emulate her extremely entrepreneurial father, Ralph Halpern, who founded TopShop and ran the Burton Group in the 1980s. She certainly wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from doing a degree, she adds, but she wanted to get to the real experience, saying: “In this game of communications, you’ve got to be able to know how to communicate.”

I mention her father because his name opened doors for her when she was starting out, something she is refreshingly conscious of and that she has also embraced – her little black book is second to none. Her first job was at luxury fashion brand Joseph at age 19, and on her first day the Daily Mail took a picture of her in the offices and put her on the front of the newspaper, saying: “She’s got her first job.” She was deeply embarrassed because all the sales girls thought she was a “jumped-up daughter of”. So, she spent the next three years just using her first name and saying: “Hi, this is Jenny from Joseph.” She wanted to start from scratch. Make no mistake, Halpern is a hustler.

In those days Joseph was a concept store – there were no standalone Dolce & Gabbanas or McQueens in London, the designers were sold in department stores and Joseph. Halpern’s job was to get press and editorial, but she noticed: “People would come in and ask to be able to hire the clothes for a shoot. And I thought, ‘okay, genius. I’m going to charge them 20% per day, and sometimes they take them for three or four days and you still get to put them back on the shop floor’. I ended up making about £200,000 for Joseph per year on the hiring, as well as sometimes selling the clothes on.”

Industry connections are key

Sales, always sales. As Halpern sees it: “PR is about selling and that’s really what we do.” When she started her own company in 1993, she had a cache of small brands and she knew they were stretching themselves to pay a PR retainer. So, she never let up the hustle – she represented a shirt brand and she would turn up, age 23, at Goldman Sachs HQ with bags of shirts. There would be an announcement “over the tannoy”, she tells me, “we have somebody here with shirts” and Halpern would sell them in the lobby. She would come back with fistfuls of cash, thousands of pounds for her client. And this has underlined her philosophy of “Just F****** Do It”, now shortened to JFDI. It’s her mantra: “We have it on stickers, it is engrained in Halpern.”

Not only that, but as Halpern understood, everything is in the connections. The wife of the shirt brand client, well, she ended up running Hermès. It was Halpern’s first big luxury client in 1994 and she worked with Hermès for five years. “It was all about building up those connections and making sure that people felt as though I was going to go over and above for them,” she says. “And no other agency would come close to what we could actually offer.”

By the early 2000s, Halpern was one of the only “PR agencies that had a celebrity agency and it really had such a point of difference. We were the original influencer agency.” The agency (I had left by then to find fortune in the dotcom boom but that’s another story) worked feverishly to be involved in the conversation when celebrities came to London and the PR transaction was simple. One of those celebrities was Jennifer Lopez. The team would fill her hotel suite with Jo Malone candles and just like that “it was the premise of a story: Jo Malone is the candle of choice of Jennifer Lopez when she comes to London, she doesn’t have anything else in her hotel room apart from that.” Simple.

Things are not so simple now the landscape has changed. “Back then you had publications and if you got something in that publication, it would shift product,” says Halpern. “Now, it does not so much.” She has always wanted the best for her clients, but could see there was no clear pathway anymore. “It is a very different game, and it should be, but from a client perspective, I think you’re always testing and trying to see what actually will get the maximum results – there is no finite rule for that.” To test you need resources and in 2013, Halpern merged with Johnny Hornby at The&Partnership, which is part of the global powerhouse WPP. As a result, she has access to data-driven tools and infrastructure that she could never have sustained “as a solo operator. That is the major difference to what we are now doing.”

TikTokers as ‘storytellers’ for brands

Halpern has adapted for her clients, who include Trinny Woodall’s behemoth beauty brand Trinny London and Atlantis in Dubai (more on this later). In the 2000s they used to create waiting lists for Avon when hero products dropped, by selling stories to the newspapers about the size of the waiting lists, creating longer waiting lists and more stories. Now, TikTokers do it for them. She says: “One creator will say ‘the Trinny BFF is the one’, and you will see kids coming through the stores, going ‘it’s not there anymore. How are we going to get it?’ Because they are storytelling themselves, they become part of the whole process. It’s a fascinating thing.”

We talk about how the humble launch party has changed – in the old days you would show up and be seen, and be in the papers the next day. Now the launches are “their own ecosystem” says Halpern. She cites the success of their recent Beyoncé-ignited Atlantis hotel opening as a game-changing example of the way the global PR landscape has changed. “This is experiential, immersive theatre,” she says. The team also created a campaign for Playboy Fragrances called “Make The Cover”. It was purely a TikTok campaign, and she says: “We reached nine million people and it was heralded by TikTok as being a sensation as well.”

Halpern has extraordinary energy, which alongside her experience has meant she is not content to rest on her laurels. She tells me: “I have a couple of passions that sit alongside the day job, and one of them is ensuring that we are inclusive.” Ten years ago, Halpern founded Access Aspiration, an education charity that provides work placements in London state and academy schools and is part of the Mayor’s Fund. Reflective of the doors that were opened for her, she wanted to open the doors for others.

The other passion is equally close to her heart. “When I was twenty-years-old, I had precancerous cervical cells, and who knows what implications that had for my female health,” she says. “But you know, I had three children later through surrogacy, not out of my own stomach.” The result is The LadyGarden Foundation, which is dedicated to helping others on their gynaecological health journey. It has raised nearly £1 million for gynae cancer research, run multiple challenges and created huge noise: Chloe Delevingne had a smear test live on the BBC Victoria Derbyshire show; Davina McCall is currently ambassadoring – preparing for The LadyGarden Challenge on 22 April 2023. Halpern says they “do not speak the same language as other female health charities, because it felt quite dry. Excuse the pun.” Ever the saleswoman, she adds: “We are always looking to partner with people who think differently.”

I ask her, as we wrap up, what are the biggest things she has learned and brings to the table, alongside her wealth of experience and knowledge, and her enviable little black book? She doesn’t hesitate: “I always had this belief that it’s all about resilience, and being a gladiator. You’ve got to turn up. It’s probably my most important point. Just don’t give up.” A gladiator in a digital landscape. I know who my money is on.

By Emilie McMeekan, CORQ features director. Picture credit: Jenny Halpern