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Despite having played for the likes of Shamrock Rovers and the Dublin GAA team, Michael O’Keefe doesn’t quite enjoy watching sports like he once did.
Before, he was focused on kicking the shins off the opposition. Now, he’s more worried if one of his client companies’ names was spelled right in the pre-match programme.
“One of the least enjoyable parts of the job is the games, because when you are at them you feel like you are working,” he tells Fora. “The game can have an impact on a client or an idea that you have. What I get a kick out of is negotiating deals.”
And as the head of PSG Group, O’Keefe, 40, has overseen some of the largest sports sponsorship deals in Ireland in recent years, such as the naming rights of the Aviva Stadium and Dublin GAA’s kit agreement with AIG.
O’Keefe’s move from the pitch to the boardroom was a fairly rapid one, once he set his mind to it. As a teenager, he mostly focused on playing soccer and had trials for some of England’s most well-known clubs, such as Middlesbrough FC, before switching his attention to gaelic football.
Although some success came, such as three Dublin senior football medals with club side Kilmacud Crokes, a twinge of regret enters O’Keefe’s voice when he talks about his playing days.
“When I was growing up things were coming easy and I was making teams and making trials, and I was thinking that everything was going to come easy,” he says.
“I maybe could have put more into my football career. I don’t think I achieved as much as I could have, I could have played more days in Croke Park.
“I wasn’t the best trainer. The principles of sports and business are similar, and I learned that if you don’t work hard then you won’t get ahead of others.”
O’Keefe, who had studied an Arts degree in UCD, pursued a couple of different interests, including teaching, but it was only when he reached his mid-20s that something clicked.
“I had been the sports editor of (UCD student newspaper) the College Tribune and journalism was my passion. I went to Australia to work as a sports writer; it was only when I came back and the Dublin stuff was over that I realised I needed a job,” he says.
Luckily for O’Keefe, legendary broadcaster Bill O’Herlihy, who fronted RTÉ’s soccer coverage for years, gave the young graduate a job at his public relations company and took him under his wing.
“Bill took me in for my sports stuff, he was great and was good at telling and selling stories,” O’Keefe says. “He was all about the content and about relationships with journalists, he was very old school.”
O’Keefe spent several years working for O’Herlihy before moving to rival Pembroke Communications in 2005.
What do you do and how long have you done it for?
Pembroke, set up in 1981, was a small operation for much of its history and had about eight employees when O’Keefe joined in 2005.
However the company grew quickly during the Celtic Tiger era, expanding to about 20 people by 2009, before the full effects of the crash started to sink in.
Pembroke’s CEO departed his role towards the end of that year, leaving O’Keefe, who had served as deputy managing director, to take over. In the middle of the recession and at the age of just 30, O’Keefe admits his new position initially seemed to be a bit of a poisoned chalice.
“It was difficult taking over and the company was coming from a low base,” he says. “I had to learn on the spot; I probably took a lot from sport in the way of teamwork, giving people a goal and trying to win and get better.”
After a lean few years, the company’s finances began to stabilise towards the end of 2011. O’Keefe was considering leading a management buyout of the business, when Lady Luck made an appearance.
“I got married in 2012, and that shifted the goalposts a bit,” he says. “(My wife’s father) Padraig was running Slattery Communications and a conversation started that, seeing as we were in the same family and both running PR firms, we should consider a merger.”
The companies eventually joined forces in mid-2014 to form Pembroke Slattery Group, or PSG. The new company soon attracted the interest of larger players abroad, with Padraig Slattery again having a helping hand.
“Padraig knows Declan Kelly (founder of the influential Teneo Holdings) and conversations started about what we were doing and how Dublin was an interesting market, and things moved quickly,” O’Keffe says.
The end result of those conversations was PSG getting snapped up by Teneo earlier this year.
What are your costs and how do you make money?
Dublin-based PSG handles different services for its clients, but most are essentially focused on one thing – getting a company’s name out there in a positive light so that people will buy more stuff from it.
It has four main areas of focus – corporate, consumer and digital PR, and sponsorship deals. The corporate and consumer sides are reasonably straightforward – PSG liaises with journalists to try to get its clients more press, holds product launch events, map out ways of improving a business’s brand image, and so on.
The digital side, which offers a couple of different services such as producing online content, like video, and social media training, is growing quickly, and the company also offers media training to clients.
The section of the company probably closest to O’Keefe’s heart is the sponsorship side. Although not all of the deals it works on are related to sports, the vast majority are.
“We do advise some companies like the National Concert Hall for sponsorship (but) 80% of the sponsorship market in Ireland is sport, and our client base would reflect that,” he says.
“I enjoy it, I have a passion for sport and I’m learning new stuff all the time,” he says. “When you are at the games where your clients are involved in, you look at them differently. I would be travelling out to Thurles for an under-21 match and I would be worried if they get the sponsor’s name right in the match programme.”
The majority of the company’s costs go on its 55 staff, while much of the rest is made up of standard expenses such as rent and bills. While O’Keefe declines to reveal turnover figures, company accounts reveal the firm made a modest profit of about €73,000 in 2014.
What is your market?
O’Keefe says that the company has a huge range of customers, from some of the country’s biggest multinationals to startups and SMEs.
“We’ve done work for companies like Microsoft, Samsung and Toyota, and we have a big portfolio of Irish companies like Teelings Whiskey and Lifestyle Sports,” he says.
“We also do some government and public affairs work and have some clients like Dublin Zoo – it’s very diverse.
O’Keefe says that while the group works with people on a “32-county remit”, the majority of its business comes from companies based in Dublin.
“It is a symptom of where the market is, most major companies have their EMEA headquarters in Dublin and are based in either Dublin 1, 2 or 4,” he says.
What is the competition?
As any world-weary business journalist can attest to, there are enough corporate PR agencies in Dublin to commandeer and sink a dozen battleships.
Many other Irish companies dabble in several areas, such as social media management, and several of the world’s largest PR agencies, such as FleishmanHillard and Edelman, also have a presence in Dublin.
“Traditionally other PR firms with sports departments would have been our competition for sponsorships. (Now) it is media firms buying companies with sponsorship teams,” O’Keefe says.
Asked how the company looks to differentiate itself from its many rivals in the Irish market, the Dublin native ads: “We specialised before others did so we could cross sell.
“A sponsorship client may become a corporate or a digital one after a while and our culture and teamwork gives an advantage.”
What is your vision?
O’Keefe has set PSG the modest goal of becoming “the best communications firm in Ireland”.
“It sounds lofty, but we are a good size now. When you get to this size you try to streamline, attracting the best people is a priority,” he says.
The deal with Teneo also gives the company an international element. O’Keefe says that he was weighing up a move abroad before the sale, but the company will now work with Teneo’s other, international offices.
“We have some bright people and good opportunities across markets, stuff like crisis management is the same everywhere,” he says.
Despite his PR work, O’Keefe clearly misses the world of sport. As our late evening chat winds down he excuses himself as he is late for a game of five-a-side football in UCD.
However before he goes he does reveal ambitions to be a team manager, albeit ones that he recognises will probably go unfulfilled in the near future.
“I don’t have the time now, I’m busy seven days a week, but I miss sport and I love it. Nothing beats being involved in sport yourself,” he says.
“Playing is better, but one day I think that I would like to manage at a high level, and hopefully I will be able to take what I have learned managing here into a different environment.”
© 2017 FRANCE IRELAND CHAMBER OF COMMERCE