Kirsty O'Connor | The Innovator 25 EMEA 2023

Kirsty O'Connor

Regional Director of Innovation, METIA
Hill+Knowlton Strategies



“Investing time and budget in experimenting should be top of the agenda, from piloting new technology to allowing young talent to pitch new ideas and services.” 

Kirsty O’Connor started building H+K’s regional Innovation + Creative Hub in Dubai in 2019, and has grown it from a team of 12 to 120 creators, designers, social media strategists, data analysts, digital media buyers and innovators across UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and India. O’Connor specialises in digital communications and data technology, sitting across H+K’s sector teams to optimise client work and support the continuous evolution of communications. Over the last 12 months, her work has included bringing together a traditional PR and digital team for Dubai Holding Asset Management to foster a culture of integration and innovation outside of the standard retainer model. Since joining H+K seven years ago, O’Connor has built and delivered integrated communications across major global events including World Athletics, World Gymnastics, AFC Asian Cup and F1s in three countries, as well as digital planning and data strategies for global brands. O’Connor previously held digital transformation roles in PR agencies in the UK, taking organic social and SEO teams and transitioning them into earned media specialists.

How do you define innovation?
It’s an open brief, and more of a feeling to me than a definition. It can be understood and tested by asking yourself the same starting question in any situation: “Imagine if we…”

What is the most innovative PR or marketing initiative you've seen over the past 12 months?
Samsung – Flipvertising. The way they challenged Gen Z to search for keywords in social to be targeted by ads was super clever. Although Gen Z were hunting for prizes in the ads, in the process they were searching key features of the handset and have now made their algorithms think they want to see more Samsung content. Genius.

In your opinion, which brands and/or agencies are most innovative in their approach to PR and marketing?
It starts with the people. Agencies investing in training talent or exposing them to new tech will be the ones that win longer term, because it fosters an innovation culture. I think WPP has worked hard in the past few years to secure partnerships and promote adoption of new skills in data and AI specifically amongst its talent.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider to be innovative.
The birth of our H+K Innovation + Creative Hub in Dubai was a pivotal moment in my career. Four years ago, we launched the hub model to innovate the future of public relations, with 10 key cities being picked to be the home of these hubs of exploration across the H+K Global network. Dubai was our regional hub for MENA. Over the past four years, I’ve led the implementation of new services including Content + Publishing Strategy, Data + Analytics, Digital Planning + Optimisation and more. As of today, 120+ of our people in MENA now work in our hub specialties and challenge communications briefs every day.

Who do you admire for his/her approach to innovation? 
Ryan Reynolds. The way he’s evolved his skill of filmmaking to wider storytelling – marketing products and now sports teams – is really inspiring. He’s a fantastic example of finding new ways to innovate yourself and your career. I just wish he’d buy Scunthorpe United.

How do you get out of a creativity rut?
Headphones in, music on usually puts me back into the zone. I have a playlist of 400 songs I like, a whole mix of genres, and I just hit shuffle. Recently though, I’ve found inspiration with my niece and nephew. As very small children, they think freely and create the way they feel is right, not by what they’ve learnt is deemed the correct way yet. It’s a great reset on why we do things the way we do, and why maybe we should try another route to create.

What advice would you give to the PR industry around embracing innovation?
Each generation communicates differently to the next, so innovation isn’t a choice, it’s something that PR has always had to do. Investing time and budget in experimenting should be the top of any C-suite agenda, from piloting new technology to allowing young talent to pitch new ideas and services. It will motivate and inspire, while driving new revenue streams in time.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing your current job?
When I was young, the answer was always a teacher. But now I’d probably say I’d love to be a writer or a lyricist. I hope to write a book or a song at some point, although the topic is to be determined.

Which book/movie/TV show/podcast/playlist/other cultural source has provided inspiration over the past year?
A book recommended by one of my team – ‘The Range’ by David Epstein. It talks about the power of a generalist over specialists and shows examples of where broader training and development generates better individuals, whether that be athletes or leaders. For example, Roger Federer was a multi-sports star until he was a teenager. His tennis coach parents encouraged him not to focus on tennis. This broader thinking led to his success, as his mentality and physicality were shaped to be more agile by a multitude of sports. This matches my belief in the world of communications. I believe in a broader foundation for junior talent to expose them to as many skills as possible, so they become the Roger Federers of communications.

How can the PR and communications industry harness innovation to make more progress on diversity, equity and inclusion?
You cannot innovate if you’re not diverse and inclusive internally. The industry needs to be truly representative of the audiences it speaks to. Innovation starts with DE+I in the workplace.