What I've Learnt: Colette Ballou, Founder & Chairman at Ballou PR

Charlie Spargo's picture
by Charlie Spargo

Entrepreneur and PR leader Colette Ballou has been at the head of her own European agency for nearly 20 years.

She founded the organisation in 2002, working with high-growth technology and technology-enabled companies, as well as tech investors. Its offices can now be found in Paris, London and Berlin, and Colette has founded her own investment arm - Ballou Capital.

Ballou has been named one of Europe’s Most Influential Women in the Startup and VC Space by EU Startups, and one of the 50 Most Inspiring Women in European Technology by InspiringFifty. She mentors many other founders and CEOs, and is a regular speaker on investing and culture.

We sat down with Colette to learn more about her motivations and experiences.

Which single daily habit or practice could you not do without?

Civility. I know that sounds a bit dull, but look at the flipside: toxic workplaces do great damage. Incivility - and by that, I mean aggressive behavior and negativity - is ignored in some, or worse, they make it standard management practice.

I think incivility is even more insidious than overt bullying, because it leaves the victim wondering if it’s them, if they are the problem. It’s less obvious, and isn’t overtly forbidden in codes of conduct. Yet unchecked, incivility adds up, eroding engagement and morale - and people take it home with them, so it ruins personal lives, too.

Companies are communities, and a toxic environment - that lack of feeling safe - takes its toll on people. So I practice civility. 

What's been your luckiest break?

In 2008, when Ballou consisted of only the French office, we were approached by two US companies that were bitter rivals - Facebook and MySpace - and we had to decide which we would take as a client.  

We deliberated and chose Facebook, and I can trace a direct line from being Facebook’s agency of record to the extreme growth we had, to our ability to open up the UK and German offices, to many of the wonderful clients we attracted due to the great references we had - companies like WhatsApp, Cloudflare, Trivago, Mozilla, Pinterest, Shopify, Duolingo, Eventbrite, Stack Overflow, Stripe, TransferWise, Twilio, Waze and Zendesk. 

What's your best failure?

Getting fired all the time for speaking my mind, following my conscience, doing what’s best for the client and not for the agency I was working for at the time. Let me be clear: I was full of good intention, but I often handled these situations in a ham-handed manner. I think I could have possibly won over a few of my employers had I been more tactful in presenting my concerns. 

The lessons benefit Ballou, though: one thing we work very hard at is making sure that colleagues are made as comfortable having those tough conversations, soliciting and listening to dissent, and that the conversations are conducted in a respectful way.

What is the best investment you've ever made, either financial or time?

Selling most of my stuff for the capital to start Ballou and getting on that plane from San Francisco to Paris in May 2002. 

It’s the best thing I ever did, the best investment I ever made - the life lessons, the change in my outlook from American navel-gazing to seeing many points of view, the languages I’ve learned, and most of all, the friends I’ve made. 

How would you describe your work/life balance?

Work/life balance is something I have struggled with and now feel I have mastered. I am powerfully aware that I have sent mixed signals to my colleagues in the past - telling them to take time, strike a balance, and then clearly not doing the same myself sent a signal that what is really expected is to be available and working all the time.  

So I’ve changed, and we’re up-front the day you join - the agency’s hours really are 9am to 5:30pm and you are not expected to answer emails late at night or on weekends. If there is a client emergency, our Ballou staff will be alerted by a call.

WhatsApp communication with clients is banned because Ballou managers noticed that it fostered an unhealthy dynamic where colleagues felt they had to respond instantly to every request.   

And guess what? That means I have a wonderful work-life balance, as I’m not responding to my colleagues until all hours.

Which book would you recommend others to read and why?

I understand the thoughtfulness behind this question, but every time I read an interview, I find myself either buying the book expecting great wisdom or I feel guilty for not buying it. So I would just recommend that people read - follow your curiosity and read. It gives such great perspective.

What one piece of advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

Most of the management styles you will encounter are dysfunctional.  

Use them as an example of who you don’t want to be as a manager.  

Who or what has had the single biggest influence on your working life?

Simply trusting my management style would work. There were so many people who told me I would fail with my approach to company culture.

Tell us something about you that would surprise people.

My unofficial motto is “bring your weird to work.” Come to think of it, that would not surprise my colleagues at all.

What does success look like to you?

Success is how many lives you have touched for the better. At its very best, it's how many people’s dreams you have helped come true; even being the smallest part of something like that is the stuff a good life is made of.