Founder Friday: Abandoning a One-Size-Fits-All Approach, with AZIONE PR Founders
As a #ByWomenForWomen company, we love celebrating brands that are led by fellow female founders. Our new series, Founder Friday, is a chance to get to know some of these standout women, including our very own Heidi Zak!
Remaking an old industry can be daunting, to say the least. So when Leland Drummond and Michele Thomas set out to build an entirely new model with their public relations agency, AZIONE, they were up against some stiff competition. We caught up with these amazing women to learn more about their groundbreaking firm, which will be celebrating its ninth anniversary next year.
Why did you start your company?
Leland: We started AZIONE because we had an instinct that there was a real need for a new agency format. Michele and I shared a truly mutual and expanded vision of what PR had the potential to become. It was more collaborative, intuitive, and creatively all-encompassing. There wasn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that made sense to us. To see our vision through, we had to create our own brand and give it a shot. We wanted to do something greater than what was out there — create something that felt authentic to who we were.
Tell us about yourselves.
Michele: I’m a daughter, a sister, a mother, and a BOSS! My father is pure Italian. So, I blame him for being called, “the loudest in the room” more times than not. However, it’s the loud ones who get heard!
I grew up in Orange County, CA alongside my identical twin sister. I went to a few colleges — one even on a scholarship to play tennis before graduating with a public relations degree and working full-time in PR. I have two beautiful (and wild) little ones and currently live in Huntington Beach, CA with my husband Chet Thomas.
Leland: I was born in New York City and grew up in Connecticut through high school, then followed my love of the mountains and snowboarding to Colorado for college and then bounced between LA and New York before (happily) settling down in Huntington Beach with my husband and son. I am an only child, so my friends are really like my extended family. I love anything related to an active life and wellness is definitely an obsession of mine — I'm always trying new things and working to improve my wellbeing.
What was one challenge you overcame during the early days of your company?
Michele: The most challenging aspects of the journey, especially early, involved the back end of the business. We were well versed in PR and creative brand building. When it came to the nuts and bolts of building a business — from accounting to hiring, scaling a business smartly, and everything in between — that was all new to us. Another early struggle as a small business is that you’re relatively unknown, so you have to fight for your seat at the table amongst established companies. You have to get people to take that leap of faith with you in order to come on board and know there’s longevity.
Was there anyone who helped pave the way for your business or your path as an entrepreneur?
Leland: My parents were independently inspiring for me in my journey. While they had very different careers, both had home offices when I was a child, and I always saw how much they valued and found pride in their work — separate from their identities as "Mom" and "Dad.” They really encouraged and reinforced a tireless work ethic in me from a pretty young age, but also underscored a sense of honesty and integrity in the way in which I worked and built relationships which I will always deeply value.
What are some of the ways entrepreneurs today can help raise and inspire the next generation of women entrepreneurs?
Michele: Any marketplace or vertical thrives on the transference of wisdom. Nobody is innately born with the knowledge of how to launch a successful business. It’s earned through trial and error, success and failure, and many long talks with mentors, colleagues, and friends. By taking the time to support and encourage the next generation, we invite a ripple effect. We’re all in this together. Longevity depends on this investment in the future.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Michele: Loyal, outgoing, and entrepreneurial.
Leland: Kind, honest, entrepreneurial.
What quality do you love most about yourself?
Michele: Honesty and integrity are paramount to me. Honesty is a cornerstone of my approach as an executive. I’ll tell you exactly what I think, because it saves everyone precious time. Integrity is another pillar. We take pride in what we do, and we deliver at the highest level possible. We handle business with a staunch adherence to ethics as our reputation precedes us, and that’s why. That’s how we build trust.
When and where are you happiest?
Michele: Definitely, it’s when I’m with my kids celebrating a new experience or milestone. If you would have asked me this question four years ago, I would have said with Azione celebrating a new experience or milestone. [Laughs] Azione is truly my first baby!
Leland: With my family, phones away / no distractions, experiencing something together and seeing my son feel true joy.
If you could give your younger self advice, what would you tell her?
Leland: Try to keep your business and personal selves separate — it's easy to take things personally, but in business, you have to learn to isolate.
What is your motto?
Leland: I surround myself with "gonnabes not wannabes." In other words, I like people that are doing things, not just talking about them.
What did success mean to you when you first started your company? How has your definition of success changed since then?
Michele: My definition of success has definitely evolved as the business has progressed and I’ve progressed as a business owner. For the first few years of AZIONE, we worked quietly. We would put our heads down and wholeheartedly focus on what we had initially set out to accomplish. During the genesis of the company, success was just steady growth. Victories were small, but measurable. Those encompassed benchmarks such as hiring another employee, signing a new client, or opening another office.
Fast forward nine years later, those seemingly small victories still hold the same weight. Looking back, we recognize and appreciate the fact that AZIONE is so much bigger than Leland and myself. Every team member brings something to the table. It’s gratifying that our collective team shares the same energy and ascribes to the same philosophy. That moment of realization was big. It became about the collective, not its founders. The agency name took precedence. It’s really special, and I’m beyond grateful for it.
Thinking about your time as an entrepreneur, what do you believe is one of the most challenging hurdles women entrepreneurs have to overcome?
Michele: Preconceived notions come in all shapes and sizes. Regardless of perception or such amorphous notions, it comes down to proving that you’re worthy of someone’s business. This is something that all entrepreneurs face in one form or another. Sometimes, these may regard gender, social strata, or age. If anything, this adversity gives you the opportunity to rise to the occasion and let the work speak for itself. It’s a challenge I’ll always welcome. Success takes on another meaning when it comes after exceeding such expectations and smashing those notions.
What are your favorite ways to practice self-care?
Leland: Gratitude: Every day, make a mental list or write it down. Meditation: even if it's five or 10 minutes, close your eyes and just try and be — it's a game changer. Move: Any kind of exercise really recharges me — I find that when I don't want to do it the most, it's when I most need it.
What’s the most fulfilling part of your job?
Michele: The most fulfilling part of the job is making a difference. That’s twofold. Abetting the growth of a client’s brand is really incredible. You have a small part in someone’s dream coming to life. That is awesome! At the same time, maybe what we do inspires a new employee to dedicate a life to public relations. Making a small difference in someone’s life and teaching is the ultimate goal.