When I meet Nichole Culverwell, owner of public relations and events agency Black Vanilla, she is about to go on holiday. "In my natural state, I'd be in absolute overdrive now, working even longer hours than normal trying to get everything done," she says.
But a bad bout of covid the week before has intervened. She has only just returned to the office. She looks great but doesn't sound it. Reluctantly, she is having to concede to the post-viral tiredness common to covid.
In a recent interview for CONNECT - now reproduced in Express - Nichole told me she has recently been thinking much more about work-life balance, and covid has thrown it into even sharper relief.
Pictured: Nichole says she is "trying to do better" to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
"I'm consciously trying to take it easy. I'm really bad at that but I'm trying to learn how to get better." Nichole says she has always struggled "to give in to the need for rest" and that her response to work challenges has been "to work harder…resist rest and resist taking time out because of a belief system that working harder will produce success".
"If you're quite a driven person and you've worked that way in the past, changing is really hard, but any change of habit is really hard. It's a change I believe in, but can I do it? There are many evenings when I'm in the kitchen trying to cook but also have my laptop on the work surface still trying to solve something on email. I've done that for years. I don't work every weekend, but more often than not there is work I want to get done at the weekend. It's not healthy. It's hugely about self-discipline.
"I think it comes down to your personality and habits. I'm 51. I've been working like this for 30 years. That's a long time to build up habits. I'm quite driven; I care; I want to make sure the job gets done; I don't want to let anyone down. If you hold that responsibility quite tightly, you're going to be the one emailing while you're trying to cook and working at the weekend when you should be resting. You can't appear not to be doing it…that would press all my buttons about letting someone down."
Pictured: Nichole has lived in Guernsey for the past 11 years and has owned Black Vanilla outright for three years.
Nichole worked in public relations in London before relocating to Guernsey with her husband and two children in 2011. She thinks it can be harder to strike a healthy work-life balance in the island. "I think this problem is hugely compounded living in Guernsey. I can run into a client in Waitrose. I can come into Town and drive past the office. You never quite leave. The distinction between work and home is very blurred. In London, my office was in Farringdon, and I lived in Stoke Newington, and it felt like there was much more of a physical separation."
Of course, there's another side to Nichole's dedication to work, which is that it helped her prosper in an industry famous for its 'work hard, play hard' culture, initially with agencies in London and Sydney, and then running her own successful business in London before buying into Black Vanilla, which she has owned outright since 2019.
"We've grown through difficult times. In 2019, there were three of us. There are seven of us now. That first year was about consolidation. Then we went into a pandemic, but during 2020 we did what I wanted to do. We changed our brand. We refreshed our purpose and vision and values. That laid the foundations for growth and that's where we are now – we're in growth. Black Vanilla is the only agency in the Channel Islands which provides events services fully integrated with public relations services."
Pictured: Nichole owned her first business while living in London immediately before relocating to Guernsey.
Nichole, who describes her team at Black Vanilla as "amazing", sees opportunities for further growth in the Channel Islands, but the business is also growing its portfolio of clients in the UK and Europe.
"We're very pro-active. That's our culture. We love to collaborate. I'm very passionate about the public relations profession. Public relations is a profession that should be taken as seriously as accountancy or law. We offer a much-needed service which adds tremendous value to a business. We know how much a reputation is worth to a business, never more so than now. We work on everything from strategic thinking to social media posts and everything in between, like working with stakeholders and brand stories and we're great copywriters – we craft great stories. We're really blessed to work with a lot of great clients. Our purpose is to help our clients tell their story. We also love doing stuff for the community."
Nichole was born in Australia – "in Sale in Victoria, in the middle of nowhere" – and she has dual nationality. By the time she reached school age, her parents had moved to the United States. "We lived in Alabama for a couple of years in the mid-1970s." This was the Alabama of George Wallace, who was then in his second spell as Governor, having previously declared that he stood for "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever". Nichole recalls it as "the very divided deep south" and says she remembers "being very white" as well as "eating pineapple rings out of a can and my mother running over a rattlesnake in torrential rain". Then the family lived in the Netherlands for a while, where Nichole went to an international school, before they moved to the UK, where she went to school in Surrey. By the time Nichole left university, her parents were living halfway around the world again, "there was a recession and I needed to pay rent".
Pictured: Nichole has spent the whole of her working life in press and public relations and communications.
"I originally wanted to go into advertising. Then, one summer, I got a job at a publishing house, Pavilion Books, doing a bit in the editorial office and a bit in the press office. I worked for a really lovely lady in the press office and something clicked for me. I got my first piece of coverage, which I think was in Woman and Home about Antonio Carluccio's book on mushrooms, and I thought that was just the best thing ever."
Nichole's second job, in the press office at Puffin Books, was less successful – "I left by mutual agreement". She took a short-term job in the press office at ITV – "that was fabulous; really good experience" – to save up the money to relocate to Australia. "I bought a one-way ticket to Sydney and arrived with about £150 in my pocket, nothing else, and a burning need to get a job.
"I crashed on someone's sofa who I knew vaguely and started calling around public relations agencies from a phone box because I didn't have a mobile phone. I ended up working for two agencies, predominantly for fashion and beauty clients. I had a brilliant time and worked for some brilliant clients, like helping to launch Tony and Guy in Australia, G-shock watches and working on the first Australian Fashion Week. It was a balance between public relations and events. I had a job in a pub as well. I lived in Paddington in Sydney, a party town. I had a blast and got really good experience.
"I saved and went travelling for a year and a bit. Then I came home to London and got a job in the press office at Clinique. That was the only time I've worked in-house. That's where you really hone your brand experience. You are living the brand, bleeding the brand, in a way you don't when you are in an agency working with different clients. I loved that. I found it very good experience."
Pictured: Born in Australia, Nichole later spent time working in Sydney.
Even then, in her mid-20s, Nichole knew that one day she wanted to work for herself. She plotted a route to that destination and set about gaining experience and expertise in parts of the industry where she had not worked previously.
"I had good, broad experience of agencies and in-house doing events, public relations, new brands and brand rejuvenation, but after Clinique I knew I needed to work for a big agency on blue chip accounts. I needed to be in an environment where I was learning from the best in the business. I went to Hill and Knowlton, which at the time was the largest marketing-communications agency in the UK. It was strategic advisory work and campaign work.
"I did a lot of work for Boots. I worked for Procter and Gamble and Pfizer. Accounts with big budgets. I was there a couple of years and worked my way up the ranks. I was also doing financials, which I knew I needed. When you work for a big agency, you need to deliver. You are set a fee and you’ve got to get there by the end of the month. You're working 15-hour days. There's lots of pressure – unbelievable pressure. I grew into it and became good with pressure, but after a while it gets to you. At this point, I'm around 30 and single, and there's no way I can do this job unless I’m single."
Pictured: Nichole has experienced significant differences in her working life and lifestyle since relocating to Guernsey.
Nichole struck out on her own as a freelancer and around the same time met the man who would later become her husband. "I built up a portfolio of my own clients. All of a sudden, I've got too much work, so I hired someone and then someone else, and that's how my first business grew." Nichole had two children while running her agency in London. "There was no maternity leave at all in my world, for either of my children. You know, the kids go to nursery as small babies – you drop them off at 07:30 and try to make sure you're there to pick them up at 18:00 or you get fined. I did that until we moved here in 2011."
Nichole has never considered another career. "I've always really loved the industry. I love the variety and the challenge. I think it's an amazing profession." Nichole also loved working in London, but she and her husband felt that Guernsey would be a better place to bring up young children. It was, but their move was not without difficulty.
"I really struggled at first. I was 21 years in London. It was a huge cultural change to come to Guernsey. It wasn't helped by a couple of things. I was still going to London because my clients were there. My husband was also going to London because he had clients there and then subsequently in Barcelona. We were like ships passing in the night. One week he'd be away and one week I'd be away…great. I was also working from home, in my shed, so I felt quite isolated. It took me a good couple of years to adjust." Gradually, Nichole replaced her London clients with local clients.
Pictured: By her mid-20s - 25 years ago - Nichole knew she wanted to run her own business in PR and communications and set out a career path to build up the necessary experience.
"I was freelancing. I built up a portfolio of clients. I met Jade, who had started Black Vanilla. It used to be a media buying agency and she wanted to diversify. I bought into the business, bringing my public relations clients with me. The public relations side of the business grew and, ultimately, I bought her out of the business and took sole ownership in 2019, and I have transformed it into a very different business.
"I’ve had to massively shift my focus, from consumers to business to business. At first, I didn't want to do that, but actually I've loved it, and I find it far more intellectually stimulating. We have to know our clients’ industries."
I ask Nichole about the biggest frustrations of running a business in her industry in Guernsey. "I think not everybody stays in their lane. That can be frustrating. I also think there is an old boys' network here and it can be quite hard to break into that. And the talent pool is small obviously and so we have to train our own people."
Pictured: Nichole has always enjoyed swimming and since relocating to Guernsey she has become a regular sea swimmer.
One lifestyle advantage of Guernsey has been easy access to the sea. "I’ve always loved swimming and felt at home in the water. I became a sea swimmer when I moved to Guernsey. I swim all year round, before work at least two or three times a week, and at the weekend. It's really important to me mentally and physically and I don’t like it if I can't get in the sea. It’s a bit of a go-to for me."
Nichole knows she needs to give herself more time to swim and to relax and recuperate in other ways. She says she’s "trying to change – it's a massive shift and let's say it's a work in progress".
Credit for pictures of Nichole: Paul Chambers
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