Leilani Abels | The Innovator 25 Asia-Pacific 2021

Leilani Abels

Founder & Managing Director



"We are resourceful, nimble and have a competitive edge over many other marketing disciplines in that we don’t need massive budgets to make an impact"

In early 2020, Leilani Abels launched the Bushfire PR Alliance, rallying more than 70 Australian PR agencies to help support businesses and communities wracked by the country’s devastating bushfires — the first unified industry effort of its kind. When Covid hit soon after, Abels harnessed the same vigor pushing Thrive forward through expanded offerings, putting the wellbeing of employees first and convening around purpose. More than 20 years after finding Thrive, Abels fuels clients’ success with a mix of “logic & magic” fostering innovation, which she defines as “creating opportunities that don’t appear to exist.”

How do you define innovation?
Innovation is a commitment to continuous improvement - every day, big and small across every area of your business. It’s future proofing with new initiatives and what you do. Identifying gaps that others can’t see and getting there first. Creating opportunities that don’t appear to exist. Joining the dots with the non-obvious. Trusting your intuition and putting your people and values first when on paper something does not make sense and being brave enough to ignore the naysayers when some think you might be slightly bonkers…!

Yes, innovation can certainly be something entirely new when you identify a problem and unpack solutions and options, but great innovations can also build on solid foundations, making things better and better until the original has been reinvented and transformed.

What is the most innovative comms/marketing initiative you've seen in the last 12 months?
Judging many awards over the past year, the one that stood out to me was No Eye In Justice, a campaign to drive awareness against the abuse of women in Jordan. Delivered by Leo Burnett as part of the Dubai Lynx Festival of Creativity, the campaign brought to life a very clever play on words aligned with real life abuse. It launched with video content, then was supported by outdoor, social media, influencers and media relations. Creatively, it was bold, brave and was amplified through technology using augmented reality so that the issue could simply not be ignored.

In your opinion, what brands and/or agencies are most innovative around PR and marketing?
Lego is certainly one to admire. The company has totally transformed itself over decades. It has a very clear mission to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow and most importantly, it lives by its values of imagination, fun, creativity, caring, learning and quality. We see Lego leading when it comes to its purpose, its impact on the world and its promise to the planet. This year we saw the third iteration of the group’s global Rebuild The World campaign celebrating children as the masters of creative problem solving.

Airbnb’s community support for Afghan refugees this year was certainly no PR campaign, but the genuine intention behind this effort that saw the company pledge to provide temporary housing to 40,000 refugees worldwide is quite simply outstanding and shows how the globe’s most innovative companies are giving back. This is innovative leadership at its best.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider 'innovative.'
There are too many! If we didn’t introduce ongoing milestones Thrive would not be still growing at the pace we are 21 years on. Some innovative moments I point to at Thrive, are the ones that made completely no sense on paper but paid off. In 2010, we launched “thrive360” a content production and events space in Sydney that recognised the changing media landscape and lean resourcing within media outlets and within in-house brand teams. Content production is common practice now, but to offer thrive360 to clients as we launched in Sydney as a Melbourne agency, set us apart and positioned us as a forward-thinking agency who could deliver more value, more quickly. In 2016, we introduced new Parenting Policies. At the time I didn’t think it should have been big news but extending paid parental leave which wasn’t common agency practice at the time, subsidising childcare days and funding onsite car parking for expecting mums, made mainstream headlines. We have continued to nurture the careers of working parents. With more than 80 staff across five locations and ten on maternity leave or taking leave, you could say our policies are working and most importantly, these brilliant consultants are returning to Thrive wiser and very motivated to do great work.

In 2020, Thrive initiated the Bushfire PR Alliance and for the first time united our industry with more than 70 agencies coming together to support businesses and destinations affected by Australia’s rampant bushfires. Agencies delivered their own exceptional pro-bono work. The program was interrupted with Covid and the squeeze that put on agencies yet community work continues by many agencies and I’m looking forward to working again with my peers in 2022 to reshape what we have started.

And in 2021, keep your eyes and ears peeled. We will introduce a global industry first to address a critical skills gap and major opportunity for our industry. I want to see Thrive give back more in 2022 to help other agencies and consultants grow and prosper. Collectively, this is our time.

Who do you admire for his/her approach to innovation?
Of course you can’t go past the greatest innovators of our era Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and local Aussie entrepreneurs like Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar. We have had the privilege of working with Jack Dorsey’s teams at both Twitter and Square and facilitated Jack’s first visit to Australia which was for Square’s market entry, so to hear first hand how great minds reimagine and revolutionise entire industries by seeing a problem and acting on it, is out of this world. In the case of Square, Jack’s mate, a glass blower couldn’t easily accept payments from customers for his products...and then from 2009 to today their mobile payments idea and constant product innovation skyrocketed from zero to a market cap of $110 billion today.

Or you look at Nick Woodman, founder and CEO of GoPro, who came to Australia on a surfing trip in the early 2000’s and struggled like every other surfer to take great photos while catching waves. He borrowed money from his dad and took his mum’s sewing machine to create an action camera prototype and straps...and look now.

And not all leaders who drive innovation are in ‘sexy tech’ as we point to today. You need only follow the story of Australian plumbing company Reece. Harold Joseph Reece sold plumbing products out of the back of his truck before opening his first merchant store in 1920. Today the company has over 600 stores in Australia and New Zealand and in 2018 acquired an American plumbing business MORSCO for just under $2 billion. Reece was one of Thrive’s first ever clients. Through constant innovation and drive they bring out the best in their teams including their agencies and they taught us to commit every day to continuous improvement.

How do you get out of a creativity rut?
I take time out — visit new places, new people, new conversations. At work, I’ll linger in the lunchroom to pick some brains. I ask a zillion non-related work questions when I do my one-on-ones with new team members and our High 5s winners (a rewards program for team members). I pick up the phone to speak to friends in sport, media and industries outside of PR/comms. They are always up to things that I have never heard of. If you stay curious, a creativity rut becomes a boundless stream of things on your list you want to get to.

What advice would you give to the PR industry around embracing innovation?
Own it. Puff out your chest the way that ad agency suits and creatives do. Don’t just think ‘PR and comms’ campaigns, think about the business problem, research and dig into the data, and work on a solution that could include a new product or service idea — remove your limits of thinking! We have a territory at Thrive where we want everyone to know, believe and feel like they are “Limited by Nothing” when they work with us — that not only goes for our team, that goes for clients and supplier partners, interns and others who we consider part of our Thrive community.

Three things for the PR industry to remember…
We are resourceful, nimble and have a competitive edge over many other marketing disciplines in that we don’t need massive budgets to make an impact
We have generations of smart PR people coming through the ranks with brilliant ideas - tap into every level of your talent pool...your youngest and oldest team members have different ideas to offer along with your finance, HR and admin teams
Look beyond the PR industry for inspiration to evolve - dive into and observe the ways of working and transformation of businesses outside of PR/comms/marketing - watch and learn from leaders and businesses in diverse fields.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing your current job?
If I wasn’t leading Thrive, I’d create a role that continues to impact the growth of others, ideally in the health industry helping people to embrace wellness. I’d love to play a bigger role in sport, particularly women’s sport, and one day I may pack my bags and head to Samoa to work with their government to escalate climate change and disaster impact efforts.

Which book/movie/TV show/podcast/playlist/other cultural source has helped you get through this year or provided inspiration?
For inspiration, my go-to is MasterClass. I am inspired by the people and subjects they drop like renowned storyteller Malcolm Gladwell, negotiator Chris Voss and Vogue’s Anna Wintour. They have delivered new learning experiences from the best minds in the world. In recent months, it’s been about switching off and resetting with non-work related fiction by Aussie authors like Craig Silvey’s Honeybee and Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe. I just finished the Sunday Times bestseller Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and the biography that moved me the most that I devoured and cried in one sitting, The Happiest Man on Earth by Eddie Jaku who lived here in Sydney and just this week passed away. He was a Holocaust survivor who at 100 years of age gifted us with his story of how he found gratitude, kindness and hope despite enduring horrific circumstances. In his book he says, “I promised when I came out of the darkest hours of my life that I would be happy for the rest of my life and smile, because if you smile, the world smiles with you. Life is not always happiness. Sometimes, there are many hard days, But you must remember that you are lucky to be alive — we are all lucky in this way. Every breath is a gift. Life is beautiful if you let it be. Happiness is in your hands.”

I believe that if you are fortunate enough to work in public relations, tell incredible stories and can influence change in society through innovative ideas and actions, then you should use that skill for good and with integrity, never taking the gift of being able to deliver influential PR counsel, for granted.

What's your favourite time of day and why?
On weekdays, it’s at 6.20am when my workout session or Bondi to Bronte power walk is done. The Squiz daily news podcast has dropped. The AFR (hard copy - yes, I’m old school) is on my doorstep and my double shot latte is waiting. I love an energetic start to the day with a clear head and having time to map out my day in advance. My best ideas come between 9pm and midnight but my favourite time is with my son and partner at our farm on the weekends — fresh air and no noise.