It's rare to see someone's career start and completely blossom all at the same company, especially in the high turnover world of public relations. That's part of what makes Olita Mills' story so interesting: she rose from a mid-level role at LaForce to recently becoming the president of the storied agency. We spoke with her to learn what kept her inspired for the past 15 years, and how she's leading LaForce to continue growing – and shining – amid a competitive landscape. Read on to learn about Olita's career to date, how she navigated becoming president during the pandemic, the DEI initiatives her team champions and more.
How did you get your start in PR?
After college graduation, I had an interest in pursuing a career as a lawyer. In fact, my first job was a legal assistant at a law firm. While I learned a great deal, after a year I realized that may not be the career I wanted to pursue. I always had a strong interest in the media industry and upon reflection, realized that the majority of the internships I held were at broadcast networks. A close friend worked in the PR department at the Smithsonian and later at a NY-based PR agency. She would tell me all about her days and her responsibilities, which I loved, and it inspired me to pursue a search of my own. I started to look for opportunities at PR agencies in Manhattan and landed my first job at a boutique agency that specialized in the home furnishings and interior design sector. During this time, I simultaneously attended graduate school at Fordham University where I earned an MA in Communications. From there, I went on to start my career as a mid-level employee at LaForce.
You’ve been at LaForce for over 15 years. What made you stay the course that eventually led you to be president of the agency?
It’s funny, because I didn’t plan to spend the majority of my career at LaForce. From the start, I told myself that if I began to feel unchallenged or sense that there wouldn’t be a trajectory for me, I would start to pursue other opportunities and that just simply never happened. James LaForce has been an incredible mentor and a key reason why I’ve been at LaForce for the majority of my career.
When I started here fifteen years ago, we were (and still are) a bustling agency with strong notoriety in fashion.However, we were growing to service a range of additional consumer categories at the time. Today we are well-established in this area as well. What I love about LaForce is there is always more to do, amazing brands to work with, teams to partner with and programs to manage. My options were endless in terms of what I could take on, but I also felt that I was constantly learning and supported in trying new things. Each day presented unique challenges that I had to navigate and it felt incredibly rewarding to push through these obstacles and find success or resolve.
Every promotion I received inspired me even more, and ushered in the excitement of starting a new job with a new set of responsibilities, but nothing has compared to being appointed President of the agency. With James’ (LaForce) support and guidance, I found myself having to immediately shift the lens at which I looked at the agency, continuing to focus on our amazing brands and clients on a much broader scale, while expanding my purview to oversight of all practices, employees, operations and more.
You came into the president role early in the pandemic. Were there any specific areas you were tasked with focusing on in July 2020? Has your work changed in any way from then to now?
2020 was filled with competing priorities. I know many were facing tough decisions while navigating the pandemic and working to anticipate a future filled with so many unknowns. We were no different. When James appointed me President, we established a few priority focus areas. The first, chart a path for profitable growth even with the pandemic causing so much uncertainty. The second, make diversity within the agency the ultimate priority. Third, focus on client service and continue to provide the best counsel, strategies and creative thinking to new and existing brands.
There were certainly tough decisions along the way, but they all put us on a clear path to success. I’m proud to say that we had the best year in agency history in 2021, with a topline revenue growth of 54%. We also focused on evolving our DEI programs, resources, and double down on recruiting which resulted in LaForce being over 30% diverse today than at the beginning of my tenure, and we are just getting started. Our expanded digital and social offerings in addition to dynamic leadership across all practices have led us to opportunities and partnerships with some of the best brands in the world. So, while 2020 was challenging, the decisions made during that year paved the way for an amazing 2021 and beyond.
Tell us about the DEI initiatives you work on alongside LaForce’s all-female leadership team.
As a Black woman in PR for over 20 years, I was used to being one of the only, if not the only, person of color in the room and many times the only black person in the room. To see the commitment that many are making to ensure this change is remarkable, and to be in a position to effect change is something that I do not take for granted. We have an amazing leadership team of dynamic women who are focused on making the agency the best that it can possibly be.
We also have a robust DEI Taskforce, which anyone in the agency could join, with two dynamic leaders. I’ve been blown away by the participation and enthusiasm that we’ve received from our employees across the board.
I have recurring meetings with our HR team and Talent Acquisition leaders to ensure DEI is always at the forefront, and the synergy between our DEI Taskforce and these two teams is essential to our success.
Recruiting is the beginning, as it’s also important to create a culture of belonging. We want people who come to work at LaForce to feel like they belong from the minute they walk through the door. We want all employees to feel they can be their authentic selves at all times, that they are supported, heard, and embraced with endless opportunities to grow and rise.
How does the agency differentiate itself in the field?
It all starts with our talented staff. Our employees describe our company culture as a family and I couldn’t agree more. We are a mid-sized agency, which creates this intimate atmosphere that we are bonded by, and it is one of the reasons why we like the size that we are. We work hard, but we also try to foster a collaborative atmosphere of support across the board. I’m really big on a culture of kindness, and feel strongly that you can be direct with others and be kind at the same time. I encourage our employees to work together with that in mind.
From a client service standpoint, our ability to stay connected and move at the speed of culture is something that the brands we work with value. We have the best talent and our workstyle is to ensure all voices are heard and all ideas are considered. We all know the saying, “a good idea can come from anywhere,” but we try to walk that walk at LaForce. This collective thinking is strategically packaged so each client gets customized treatment that works for their brand and meets their objectives and goals.
Did you have any mentors or people who inspired you in your early career?
James LaForce has been and continues to be the most instrumental in terms of my career and success. He has always been very supportive of me, but more importantly he has taught me many valuable lessons and techniques over the years. Anyone who has had the privilege to work with James knows what I’m referring to. There are certain industry do’s and don’ts that are coined by James that you simply never forget. He is a wonderful person and someone who has always inspired me.
I’ve also worked with, and continue to work with, many incredible clients who have also mentored me along the way. A career in PR means you get to meet and work with a range of incredible professionals who are very skilled at their craft. Our clients are incredibly smart and at the top of their game, a true inspiration.
Where do you see the PR industry evolving to and how are you future proofing the business?
The industry has changed substantially since I began my career and will continue to do so. The shift in the importance of digital and social campaigns, integrated into the earned and paid media strategy has become essential. PR people are thinking more holistically than ever and have to be well-versed in various platforms, understanding how to build strategies that reach the consumer from many touchpoints. With this, measurement will evolve as well. We continue to measure success from various angles because the consumer is receiving information in so many different ways.
We are future-proofing in many ways. For example, our investment and substantial growth of our digital team, as well as services offered has increased tremendously. We approach this work in an integrated fashion alongside our PR teams because so much goes hand in hand.
What are some current or upcoming projects you’re excited about?
We are finally starting to include in-person events and experiential activations as part of our strategies again. This part of our job was hit hardest with the pandemic and forced many to find new ways to bring people together and create virtual experiences for brands and launches. In my opinion nothing can replicate an in-person moment and I’m thrilled to say we are back to planning and activating in a big way.
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