Jenn Lake of Zapwater Communications
If the fictional Samantha Jones from Sex and the City reigns over public relations in New York City, then Jenn Lake is Chicago’s very own PR queen. But don’t be fooled by SATC. Public relations is a demanding field, perfectly suited for someone who works tirelessly, loves communicating with different kinds of people, and moves quickly on her feet. Luckily, Jenn embodies all three of those qualities, and on her feet is a pair of sky-high heels.
Jenn began her love affair with the competitive industry at Murphy Knott Public Relations, progressing from a collegiette summer intern to a full-time account executive. From there, Jenn transitioned to Skirt PR, another of Chicago’s finest PR agencies. But they say that good things come in threes, so it only makes sense that Jenn’s third agency happened to lead to her dream job: Vice President of Zapwater Communications, an award-winning boutique agency.
Today, Jenn shares how she found balance in a job that transcends the typical 9 to 5 time frame and learned the importance of being both tenacious and humble. What’s more, Jenn offers advice for anyone who wants to land her very own job in the PR industry.
Full name: Jenn Lake
Current title/company: Vice President, Zapwater Communications
Educational background: Valparaiso University, Major: Public Relations, Minor: English
What was your first job out of college?
After interning at Murphy Knott Public Relations for two summers in college, they offered me a full-time position as an Account Executive. It was a blessing to have an offer on the table before graduating. The agency immediately placed me on the perfect mix of accounts – fashion, corporate and lifestyle. The President of the agency, Lynda Knott, is the definition of sophistication. The lessons I learned under her leadership continue to inspire me today.
When and how did you discover your passion for Public Relations?
Growing up, my parents placed a strong emphasis on goal-setting. As a teenager, I knew my Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator and took countless career interest exams. Even though it came with the typical teenage resistance and eye-rolling, everything pointed me towards a communications-focused career. It wasn’t until my older brother landed a position in PR with the Chicago Fire soccer team that I discovered my interest in the industry. PR is the perfect mix of everything I adore - working with people, writing, and coming up with creative concepts.
Tell us a little about your internship experiences. How do you feel that interning helped you move forward in your professional career?
The PR industry is known to have a revolving door; I was determined to be an exception to that rule. Therefore, I interned solely at Murphy Knott Public Relations as an undergrad. While many people diversify their resumes, I wanted to find the right agency and remain loyal to them throughout college. Depth over breadth is essential to me. Even as an intern I was pitching, corresponding with clients, and developing strategies. The classroom taught me theory but Murphy Knott allowed me to put theory into practice.
What advice can you give Everygirls seeking employment in PR?
The best advice I can give is to be open to receiving advice! Lessons come in different forms and from
the most unlikely sources. Be a sponge and soak in everything you can.
1. Never be too good for any task.
PR is hard work and you must be willing to get your hands dirty. From clipping hundreds of
media placements to stuffing thousands of gift bags, there are many arduous to-do’s that must be
completed. To this day, I still make post office runs in five inch heels!
2. Put in the hours at work and make them count.
The people we hire are those who stand out from the crowd and deliver results day-in and day-out. Every morning is a clean slate and every minute counts. Even if you’re the first person in the office and the last one to leave, it doesn’t mean much if you’re not creating meaningful work.
3. Everything around you is an inspiration. Pay attention. Be open to the world around you. Some of the best ideas come from the most unlikely places.
4. Network, network, network.
The best publicists’ work days don’t end at 5:00 pm. It’s important to schedule lunches, dinners, attend events, and put yourself out there and meet people. You are only as good as your “internal rolodex,” as I like to call it. PR is all about who you know; be quick to learn how your city operates, who the major players are, and where your clients fit in the big picture.
What obstacles have you faced during your career and how were you able to overcome them?
One major obstacle is rejection. The word “no” is said to me at least a dozen times each day - media declines a story idea, budgets get cut, and event spaces are unavailable. I’ve learned that accepting rejection not only requires thick skin but grace and humility. The best publicists pick their battles and know when rejection is not an option – tenacity is a must!
In the two years that you’ve been employed at Zapwater, you’ve gone from Creative Director to Vice President. What enabled you to move to such a prestigious position in a relatively short period of time?
Ultimately, the promotion came down to results for both our clients and the agency. I started at Zapwater with clear goals and a distinct vision of what I could bring to the table. While certain objectives have been attained, I remain hungry for the success of our team and will stop at nothing to attain it. Zapwater won 19 industry awards in 2011 and experienced exponential growth in revenue. As the head of new business development, it has been an amazing experience to help foster an incredible list of clients. Most importantly, I’m fortunate to work with the most brilliant publicists in the city: their talent inspires me and they consistently deliver outstanding work.
Before landing at Zapwater, you worked for Skirt PR and Murphy Knott Public Relations. What was it like to transition from each company? What has prompted each change?
Chicago is home to many wonderful boutique PR agencies, and it is an honor to have worked at three of the very best. Murphy Knott laid the foundation of my career. It was a supportive environment where I was able to get up to speed on client work and the media world as a whole. I was lucky to have colleagues who took an interest in mentoring me and teaching me everything they knew.
I moved to Skirt PR in order to gain more experience at a niche firm and hone my talents. The lessons learned at Murphy Knott were put to great use at Skirt, where I lead numerous accounts as well as many aspects of new business development. As the agency's first full-time employee, it was a joy to see this small firm take shape during my tenure. I was entrusted to manage some of Skirt’s largest accounts and had been Vice President there for several years.
When Zapwater Communications offered me a position, I knew that it was something I couldn’t pass up. Zapwater is the Midwest’s go-to agency for fashion, beauty, lifestyle, hospitality, travel, and corporate brands looking to move the needles of their businesses. It has been a joy to work at a full-service firm that has the talent and resources to deliver award-winning work for brands. It’s also one of the best places to work and a change-agent in the industry. I’ve loved coming to work every day and am fortunate to work with my colleagues under the leadership of David Zapata.
Recently, two of the campaigns you led were named finalists for the prestigious Gold Sabre Award, which is the largest public relations awards competition in the world. What do you attribute to setting your work apart from others? How do you deal with the pressure to live up such high expectations?
Winning the 2012 Sabre Award for the Best Fashion/Beauty campaign in North America was one of the highlights of my career. As a boutique agency based in Chicago, Zapwater beat out many of the largest agencies in the country for this prestigious award.
Our success rests in our ability to show clients a return on their investment. When submitting our work for awards, we are able to clearly articulate the strategy that we develop to provide the best campaign possible and identify measurements of success.
You also serve on the Governing Council of the Joffrey Board’s Auxiliary Board, the Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum, and are a member of Fashion Group International (FGI) and an Evening Associate at the Art Institute of Chicago. How do you manage to balance it all with such a demanding career?
Mastering the balancing act is like walking in Louboutins - it takes time to set your stride but, when you do, it becomes a heightened experience. Prioritizing commitments is key to my sanity and success. I'm extremely selective about where and how I spend my time at work and with extracurricular activities. Instead of overextending myself, I've chosen organizations that I'm passionate about that relate to the preservation of fashion and the arts.
Describe your typical work schedule. What’s does a day look like in the life of Jenn Lake?
PR is a 24-7 job and my team and I embrace that fact whole-heartedly. My email gently wakes me in the morning and puts me to bed at night! Days are filled with client meetings, conference calls, photo shoots, brainstorming sessions with my team, strategic planning, fulfilling sample requests for clients, media relations, and event planning. There’s never a predictable end time to a work day, as I attend numerous events each week from restaurant and store openings to media-sponsored parties and, of course, client engagements. While networking is important in this industry, I do my best to keep everything balanced in order to dedicate time to family and close friends.
What is your favorite part of your job? What is the most challenging part?
Managing expectations is an essential part of my job but it can also be challenging. David Zapata, the president of Zapwater encourages transparent communication with clients and media. We're not a "yes" agency. As strategic advisors, our duty is to offer candid feedback at all times. Zapwater's strongest partnerships are with those who value our opinion and viewpoint.
The best part of working at Zapwater Communications is helping global brands increase their presence in the Midwest and at national levels. We’ve had the privilege of representing TOPSHOP/TOPMAN, Ted Baker London, Scoop NYC, Kiehl’s Since 1861, and Swarovski, among others. I’m blessed to work with an incredibly talented office of PR professionals. While we have a thriving group of fashion, beauty and lifestyle clients, we also have one of the most reputable hospitality and travel rosters, which is led by Zapwater’s other Vice President, Annie Block. She has been at Zapwater since the beginning, and her knowledge and perspective are invaluable. Annie has led a pristine list of clients, including Lyfe Kitchen, Kendall College, Blue Plate Catering, theWit Hotel, the dana hotel & spa, and RA Sushi, to name a few.
Best moment of your career so far?
Seeing former assistants land their dream jobs. One is with Virgin America’s PR team and another is at Ketchum Inc. in New York. Being a small piece of someone’s professional trajectory has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Create the iPad and invest in Chipotle. Trust me.