Noreen Heron of Heron Agency: “Always operate listening to your own inner integrity”

Always operate listening to your own inner integrity. I have turned down probably 40% of the business through the years that I could have taken, but it didn’t match our principles, vibe, passion, cache or we were just too busy. I don’t want to do a project unless we can get behind it 100% and […]

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Always operate listening to your own inner integrity. I have turned down probably 40% of the business through the years that I could have taken, but it didn’t match our principles, vibe, passion, cache or we were just too busy. I don’t want to do a project unless we can get behind it 100% and do it right.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Noreen Heron.

In 2000, Noreen founded and has built the award-winning Heron Agency into one of the nation’s leading lifestyle communications agencies. As a pioneer of new communication and digital technologies, Noreen ensures that Heron Agency is always on the cutting-edge of the media industry and its trends. Her entrepreneurial mindset has garnered her over a dozen prestigious industry awards, and her reputation of consistently delivering fully integrated marketing campaigns that improve a client’s bottom line and profitability is well known. Throughout her career, she has represented countless lifestyle brands including over 40 hotel brands, more than 1000 theater productions including national tours, 400 restaurants, and countless events including the Taste of Chicago, the Race to Mackinac, the Jeff Awards, the Grand Chefs Gala, the Randolph Street Market, the Highland Games, the Chicago Boat & RV Show, and the One of a Kind Show. She has managed corporate campaigns for Paper Source, Luna Carpet, Smirnoff, Massage Envy and others. Noreen has represented numerous celebrities in Chicago and around the country including Prince, Jerry Seinfeld, Janeane Garafalo, Gabriel Byrne, Dan Aykroyd, the Beach Boys, Celtic Thunder, and Jewel, among others. She has also represented several non-profit organizations including the National Hellenic Museum, Alliance Francaise Chicago, the American Writers Museum, and more. She has grown the scope of the agency over the years in terms of client base, because she believes that creative, solid PR/Social media services in any category are what is needed and what the agency is capable of delivering. Hence, the agency has represented retailers, entertainment venues, CVBs, medical practices, product launches, sports teams, franchises and more.

Never having worked at an agency prior to owning one, Noreen developed what her clients refer to as “the secret sauce.” Team members serve the way in-house publicists do, working in every conceivable fashion to drive business for clients. Wanting to provide service that she would herself hope to receive as a consumer, Noreen’s agency offers bandwidth for clients.

Noreen has served on numerous boards and planned dozens of charitable fundraisers, receiving many awards (listed below). Highly networked, she is a specialist at using her connections to the benefit of her clients and linking them to each other to build productive relationships. Her time on property at Hyatt Regency Chicago serving on the Executive Committee for 5 years gave her a keen understanding of return on investment, and the importance of practicing PR, Social Media, Marketing and Advertising that provides real results.

Prior to Hyatt, Noreen served as the Director of Public Relations for the iconic Candlelight Dinner Playhouse/Forum Theatre, the 1025-seat dinner theater venue where she started as an usher at 14 years old, moving up to House Manager, Season Subscription Manager and eventually managing the theater’s PR. This legendary venue developed her love of live theater and the restaurant business. Hyatt made her fall in love with the electric atmosphere of hotels.

Noreen calls her Heron team “family” and she considers her greatest work achievements the wonderful group of talent that she has assembled; the mentoring that she has done; and the creation of a day-to-day warm culture at the firm. She has taught classes on Communications at Northwestern University, DePaul University, Roosevelt University and Kendall College. Her greatest personal achievements are her two children, Connor, a Sophomore at University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana and Ava, a Junior at St. Ignatius College Prep. Together they love to travel, dine out, and explore the city.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Yes, thank you. I started working for an iconic musical dinner theater as an usher when I was 14 years old, where I continued to work at as a manager in college. The time I spent working there instituted in me a great love of hospitality and live entertainment and taught me a lot about operations. After college, I became the PR Director there. I went to serve as the PR Director at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, Hyatt’s largest property and Chicago’s biggest hotel, housing 2019 rooms, 5 restaurants, and 225,000 sq. ft of meeting space, where I was responsible for also managing some of the city’s largest parties, handling the property’s crisis communications, and day to day public relations. I spent five years on property, serving on the Executive Committee. I left Hyatt to start my own agency, Heron Agency, which is now considered one of the nation’s top lifestyle communications firms.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

One funny one that comes to mind was that we were hired to serve as the Agency of Record for the City of Chicago when Millennium Park opened. It was a pretty grand night with a live orchestra and thousands of people in the band shell, but an equal number of people picnicking along the perimeter in the grass. We had secured every station to cover, along with some national crews, and just as they started filming, the sprinklers went off with people diving to take cover. I begged the camera crews not to have that serve as the coverage for the night. Thankfully, they acquiesced. It goes to show that no matter how much you think things are planned and orchestrated, you have to be prepared for life’s surprises.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started, each of the daily papers in Chicago had powerful social “gossip” columnists: Irv Kupcinet at the Chicago Sun-Times, and Kathy O’Malley at the Chicago Tribune. I was always aggressive in my approach to get as much coverage as I could for my clients, and I gave them both the same item as a “green” publicist. Kup said he would never run anything that I gave him again. I thought my career was over. I sent two dozen roses with a long mea culpa and thankfully, he forgave me, and I never did that again.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My mother has always been my greatest champion and still remains so. She helps behind the scenes in a myriad of ways and there is no greater cheerleader than one’s Mom. Also, any company that is successful for a sustained period has a dynamic team, and over 21 years, I have been blessed with some amazing team members.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Founding a company is easy, but making it successful is an entirely different thing. To run a successful company, you need to pay an inordinate amount of attention to it, have killer drive and ambition, and possess strong organizational skills to not drop any balls. That takes up a lot of “rent” in one’s mind. Therefore, to maintain it, I have absolutely no doubt that it is the juggle of family responsibilities vs. career responsibilities that makes it so challenging for women to keep all the plates spinning. I often think that if I hadn’t had insomnia, I wouldn’t have the company that has been built over the last 21 years. I worked a lot when my kids were sleeping the first 15 years of the company, in addition to the daily 8am to 5pm hours. It takes a lot of dedication.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

The economy has shed 5.4 million jobs since Feb. — 55% of net US jobs lost in that time, while over 2 million have left the labor force entirely. I believe that a large number of these were women who had to take care of their children when they weren’t in school due to Covid. Private employers should both change their internal practices and advocate better public policy, especially around federal paid family leave and media leave, affordable childcare, and pay equity.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

We still have a long way to go in this area. All Raise did a study showing only 15% of venture capital funding is allocated to female founders. Now are less women founding companies which leads to this statistic, or are decisions being made by those in these seats that have implicit bias? Definitely a which came first, the chicken or the egg scenario. Women have some phenomenal innate qualities that make us strong leaders: we are multi-taskers, giving, and sensitive. A lot of day to day business is the psychology of understanding the wants and needs of a client, and women are more intuitive at reading the room on that front.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

Well, the first one would be that the founder’s creativity, output and passion dissipates while he or she is out enjoying their new yacht. I think of the character of Bertram Cooper on “Mad Men” and how they portrayed his diminishing contributions to the firm. I personally am as driven as I ever was, and the pandemic has forced many founders to go back to their roots and start their companies all over again to some degree. That has been my situation. Secondly, that the misperception that the founder is their own boss. You are the slave to many masters when you run your own company. Thirdly, that founders have it all, or lead the glamorous life. A lot of my work is sitting at a desk, trying to scarf down a ten minute lunch, as I listen to a client’s pressing problem that needs attention.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

I have been both, and I don’t think everyone is cut out to be a founder. Not everyone wants to give the time and energy that it takes — and to some degree it takes your physical health too because it is that consuming. If it were that easy, everyone would or could do it. The rejection element that is inevitable can be hard too and it can be challenging not to take that personally. To put up your own shingle takes fortitude but maintaining it once you have been successful takes even more guts. You have farther to fall and you have greater responsibility for stewardship of the livelihoods of more people. Also, founders share credit and not everyone is good at that.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Always operate listening to your own inner integrity. I have turned down probably 40% of the business through the years that I could have taken, but it didn’t match our principles, vibe, passion, cache or we were just too busy. I don’t want to do a project unless we can get behind it 100% and do it right.

2. Resist the urge to “fix” everything for a client just because you know you can, which we tend to do as women. I once had a client who had a vanilla rooftop deck in a desirable area of the city. I didn’t want to send press and influencers in until it looked more attractive, and I knew I could do it far more quickly and affordably than the client. I decided I would design his space for cost. Months later when he couldn’t afford to keep us on, I realized that the colossal amount of effort that I put into that could have gone into my company. So stay in your lane.

3. You need a great team. Not just a great team, but a team where you feel you all share the same vision regarding what the end results look like in terms of customer satisfaction. I think about Nordstrom’s twenty years ago where their service was considered velvet glove. You knew you were going to be treated a certain way by every associate at any Nordstrom’s around the country. Over time, that changed and there is a more mediocre feeling about the experience. That’s when a company loses its razzle dazzle and becomes average. I never want us to be average.

4. Positive outlook. Over Covid, the majority of our clients shut down and I was fielding a battery of calls ending contracts of March of 2020. I decided not to take a salary last year so as to keep my senior team and from there I even had surprises. But remaining focused is huge.

5. Female support. I think as women we need to have people that we trust to review and compare notes with as to our feelings on any given day. I worked to build that kind of culture at the agency and I still feel it’s important. I love the “did you read that the way I did” conversations in the office. It’s one of the reasons to build a company, so that you can listen to the opinions of people you respect day to day.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I think primarily through our internship program, mentoring students that are interested in a career in communications. In my 20s and 30s, I did a lot of fundraising and served on a lot of boards. My 40s went to my kids and volunteering for their schools. Now I believe it’s time to find a new vehicle for giving which I have been thinking a lot about lately. More to come!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

More opportunities for everyone to get a good education. An average person from a high-wealth family is 29 percent more likely to complete at least two years of college than an average person from a low-wealth family. That saddens me and we need to find a way because the course to productivity in life is through learning.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Watching the Olympics, I find myself obsessed with Sydney McLaughlin! She is a super hero. The girl can fly and yet she seems so incredibly humble.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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