Bunmi Adeoye, the vice president of Natasha Koifman Public Relations (NKPR), is adamant that attitude is everything. The Toronto-based creative professional is the first to tell you that she had to Google ‘how to write a media alert’ when she first landed an intern role in the public relations field. She figured that if Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones could make a living and still live a fabulous life, then so could she. Her Nigerian-Canadian parents instilled a strong work ethic in her at a young age, and although they initially favoured a career in law or medicine, they supported her as she studied English literature and film before embarking on a life-changing trip-turned-move to Europe. After returning home to Toronto, with a new perspective and exuding confidence, Bunmi has certainly proven she’s capable of anything, complementing her skills and achievements with a kind heart, open mind, and palpable gratitude.

Singing opens up something in me;

It is me at my happiest.

I don’t live in the past, but I do constantly draw from it.

Your wins and losses will guide you to your future.

Moving forward, I feel a responsibility

To be less timid with my skills and with my voice.

Travel is a great way to hone your instincts.

It builds confidence, and character. It is the great leveler.

Fear is always chasing me, in all of it’s forms,

But I am determined to outrun it.

Empowerment comes from being able to understand something so well

That you can teach it effectively to someone else.

Indulging in time with myself

Where I can remember where I’ve come from and where I’m going, is the greatest reward I’ve found.

Everyone is just trying to be understood, and understand others.

We need each other.

I feel there are forces beyond what I can see and feel

That are guiding me, pushing me, and reminding me.

My essentials are few, but they are non-negotiable.

To put my best self forward, I have to take care of myself.

Tell me about NKPR, the Public Relations (PR) firm where you’re the vice president.

It’s a traditional PR company in a lot of ways, with divisions in both Toronto and New York, but things have been developing in the industry; for example, digital and social media strategy have both become incredibly important. We recently – about two years ago – opened a talent division as well, because we’re finding that in addition to product needing PR support and strategy, people as brands need help too. Yes, we’re a traditional PR company, but with the media landscape changing, we’ve really worked to diversify.

What does your work looks like on a daily basis?

It honestly varies from day to day; today I did a site visit for an upcoming photo shoot for one of our major clients. A lot of it can just be working at my desk writing and responding to emails and taking phone calls. I guide and provide strategic counsel to the other members of the team just to make sure we’re all on the right track. I also really work to enhance certain parts of the business, looking for efficiencies or ways that we can do things better. As a team we try to discover opportunities for the president of the company, or for our clients.

What’s your academic background?

I graduated with a degree in English literature and film studies; humanities and communications and being able to write and understand what a good story is has served me well.

Did you land in PR right after completing school?

Before I got into PR, I worked at a bank for a while. I did temp work, and then I thought maybe I want to be a journalist, so I did a lot of continuing education courses. Really, landing in PR was accidental for me; it sounded good. I watched Sex and the City and I thought “Sam Jones is in PR; I don’t know what that is but ‘Public Relations,’ sounds really cool.” I had no idea what it was, so I looked it up online. When I got my first internship, one of my assignments was to write a media alert and so I looked up what a media alert was and then I wrote one. I just believed that I could figure out and do anything.

And you just continued in the business from there?

I was doing an internship with a woman – who I still talk with and bounce things off of – and she gave me a chance. She wanted to work with someone who worked hard, had common sense, and could identify what a good story was, to hold people’s attention or tap into things that really excite people – journalists or consumers.

Was your original plan to work in film or literature?

When I finished school, I thought “okay, I’m finished university and I will find a job and it’ll be great and I’m going to start my life.” I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I also had a lot of pressure from my parents, who were immigrants from Nigeria and thought success was being a doctor or a lawyer. Those weren’t a fit for me; I thought languages and film were really cool, and my parents supported me – they thought I could at least be a teacher. But when I couldn’t really find anything, I considered how, growing up, I’d read about ‘finding yourself’ in Europe, and it really appealed to me. I ended up moving to Europe and living there for five years. After some time, I felt I needed to come home and actually try to figure out what I was really going to do.

Do you think taking yourself out of your normal environment by living in Europe helped you figure that out?

In a way, yes. I came back to Toronto with a really big sense of confidence because I thought wow, if I could find a job, work, and develop my career in another country, then imagine what I could do in my home country and in my home city.

Could you tell me more about your family’s Nigerian roots?

It’s really common in Nigerian culture for parents to send their children to other countries to go to university or to get other experiences. We could’ve ended up in Britain or the US, but my parents landed in Canada; in contrast from how some of the world is looking today, there was definitely a sense of open-ended encouragement to get new talent into countries through immigration. My Dad had a great education already, was young and could contribute to the economy right away; my mom followed shortly afterwards and was pregnant with me just a few months after she got here.

I’ve only ever been to Nigeria twice when I was really young; too young to really appreciate it. My dad is retired now and goes there every winter; even though he’s been here for years and years, he can’t handle the Canadian winters It’s funny, I find that immigrants have this attitude of “I’m going to go home one day.” I always tell my mom she’s more Canadian than Nigerian now, but she still feels nostalgic.

You said your parents encouraged you to take some different career paths from what you ultimately chose. Do they respect the field you’re in now?

They have no idea what I do! I try to explain it to them that it’s like marketing, but they don’t understand. While they have no clue what it is, they know that I work hard, that I work a lot, and that I’m OK. Like any parents, they just want me to have a good life and to be happy – and to come see them occasionally too.

What kind of impact do you think your upbringing has had on you professionally?

Growing up I felt so much pressure about what kind of job I was going to have; my parents just had so much concern about what my future was going to be, and they wanted me to be secure. I had to do well in school – that was the deal, that was my only job. There was no room for nonsense with them; they were loving but they wouldn’t entertain any foolishness from me. In terms of the impact, I learned to always work hard and do the best that I can.

What about your background in film and English lit? Does it affect the way you approach your work?

Absolutely. It was strange because I did film studies and I thought,”‘I’m going to be a director.” I was analyzing films, analyzing storylines and analyzing the camera work and the music, and I thought I was going to work technically in the film industry. For years I couldn’t watch a movie without scrutinizing it. But I think it’s served me well because now I’m able to look at so many different angles of a story or a product or a human. I also think studying drama in university gave me confidence. I used to sing quite a bit and that not only gave me an understanding of the creative process, but also definitely gave me a sense from the talent perspective of the kinds of things people struggle with, like stage fright, or feeling discouraged about where things are going career-wise.

Can you talk about the process you follow with a client?

It’s a mix of things; I like to do research, to look into what they’ve done before. Thankfully we have the Internet and I can look up pretty much anything. I like to look at what their competitors are doing, I like to talk with them on a general level.
Before we even work with a client, we do a briefing to get a better understanding of what their objectives are, what they want to achieve, and then we build a plan from there. We explain to them that we want to know everything their business is doing, not just what they identify as the PR part or the branding. We want to know if they’re working with a spokesperson, or if they’re doing an ad campaign, if there have been staffing changes, or if they’re doing an event. We want to understand everything so we can best help tell their stories. Sometimes what happens is a client will just mention something off the cuff, something that’s a nothing, and we’ll be like, “Oh my God, can you tell me more about that?” because it may be interesting from a storytelling perspective. It’s a lot of communication with a client, and a lot of collaboration and trust.

Do you have a favourite product, person or brand that you’ve worked with?

Oh my gosh, it’d be like choosing a favourite child! What I can say is I’ve had the opportunity to learn so much from every account that I’ve touched. I really love the clients who have trust and have faith, who are willing to be creative and jump right in and try something new.

Has there been a story that has stuck with you or one that’s challenged you?

I work with a client called Green Shield Canada, an insurance company with a big philanthropic focus; they give back to health care, specifically through a number of amazing projects and organizations across the country that help marginalized Canadians. Because that part of their work is so complex, with multiple stories, you have to dig deep; the opportunity to change the lives of people who are the most vulnerable is there. I think the biggest challenge is that the stories are interesting, but they’re not connected to a celebrity and it’s not a sexy sort of product. Finding and working with media who really have a solid interest in that kind of story and are dedicated to finding out more about it can be challenging. We live in a culture where we’re really excited about celebrities – and there’s nothing wrong with that, I get really excited about that too – but there’s that other real life side, with real people who we can actually make an impact on and help through our storytelling. I always feel that everything is solvable, that’s for sure, so I embrace the challenge.

I imagine that you work with quite a few clients as well as help lead the team. Does your job involve a lot of pressure and if so, how do you deal with that?

Yes, I think there’s a natural level of pressure and just by nature, by default, I’m quite an anxious person. It takes work to be able to manage it and take the time to take care of myself. I definitely feel that some things in my life took a back seat when I became VP, because I really wanted to focus on the new role and what it meant. I’m working to combat that with boring things like exercise and trying to make sure that I’m eating well, plus making sure that I’m getting inspiration from connecting with friends, traveling and reading. I’m also focussing on having gratitude. What I mean by that is really looking at the scenario I’m in and recognizing how grateful I am that I have the chance to work for this company and with these clients. I really look at every day as an opportunity to learn something new, and there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t.

Have you always been so humble?

When I was younger I was always like, “Oh yah, I got this,” but I could maybe be a bit overconfident at times. I think getting older and having a little bit of perspective has made me more grateful for all the opportunity that I’ve had. Another part of managing the pressure is the ability to look back, take stock and feel that you’re doing OK, that you’re where you need to be and that’s the best that you can do.

You mentioned you enjoy reading; what’s on your bedside table?

Fiction. I love chick lit, and people think that term is a derogatory thing, that genre, but I love that mindless sort of . . . it’s actually almost sexist to even call it mindless, because somebody worked hard to create that body of work. It’s incredible that authors can put together books that can transport you, make you laugh or cry or whatever – I like that. Sophie Kinsella is an author that I’ll buy anything from in a hot minute; I just think she’s hilarious and incredibly smart. I think she’s a feminist and unapologetic about what she writes, and I really appreciate that. On the flip side, I’m currently reading Swing Time by Zadie Smith.

Back to work: Natasha Koifman, president of NKPR has been a mentor to you over the years. What’s it been like to grow with her and the company as you’ve both gained success?

I’ve definitely had a lot of opportunity to learn from Natasha, and really develop my skills as a leader within the company and as a communicator with our clients. Natasha actually often says the business grew in spite of herself. When I walked into the agency 10 years ago, she never said something like, “okay, by this time in three years, we’ll be an agency of 25 people.” That was never the goal; we were always goal-oriented towards doing good work, working hard for our clients, and doing exactly what we said we’d do for them. Integrity and trust are both things that’re really important for her, and those values have really trickled down.

What’s kept you with the same company for a decade?

It sounds so cliché, but I think the one thing that’s been consistent is the people. I really, really love the team that I work with. I’m there probably more hours of the day than I am at home or any other place, so it’s really important for me that I like the people I work with. I’ve been lucky over the years; everyone who has come through NKPR has contributed to my growth and to my desire to stay, learn and develop.

Public relations has been labelled the “dark side” of communications. Is the field just suffering from bad PR? What’s your take on that expression?

It’s funny because when I used to apply for writing and editing jobs in the journalism field, I often included that phrase in my cover letter. I’d cheekily say that my background was in PR “the dark side of the coin of PR and media.” I have so much respect for the industry and the people that work in it now, and I feel that media and PR work hand-in-hand; we both care about good stories. Good PR people care about integrity; they care about connecting with a journalist who is engaged with a story. We sort of start the conversation, but it’s really up to the journalist to develop it in a way that it’s going to be more meaningful for their audience. My role is to push and pull the client to draw something cool, new or truly interesting out of them; if we can give the media a scoop or an exclusive, it’s easier to work together to tell a story that’s actually compelling.

Lastly, what’s it like working in a leadership role as a female?

PR is actually an industry that’s really dominated by females, and I’ve been really lucky in that all industries I’ve been in, I’ve had really strong female leaders. I’ve had great role models who have been kind and patient, and across the board have been incredibly smart. They’ve given me more opportunities than I would have ever given myself, which has ended up serving as a sort of guide for me. On the client side, we work with a lot of marketing teams that are primarily female-driven but report to male bosses. I honestly believe that at the end of the day, we’re going to be judged by the power of our ideas and what we contribute, so while being a female leader is important, being a good leader overall is more important. That’s the goal – people looking at me saying, “she really comes up with great ideas and she has a great team that works with her” – regardless of my gender.