In the latest instalment of our ‘Spotlight on…’ series, we caught up with Luke Budka who graduated in 2006, and offered us an insight into the industry of digital marketing and public relations.

Hi Luke, can you tell us a bit about why you decided to study at Essex and your time here?

I decided on Essex because of the university’s reputation for English language expertise, in particular Andrew Radford’s work, and the communal feel of the campus. Many of my friends had to travel across cities to access different parts of their university but I liked the fact that everything is in one place. I studied English Language and Literature, and lived on South Courts in my first year and the Quays in my third year. I really enjoyed my time at Essex – particularly the access to sports facilities and the infamous ‘The End’ parties. I keep in touch with friends from my time at Essex, we all have families now but still like to catch up and reminisce.  

Luke and friends playing football at Essex

Luke with Essex friends at a reunion in Warsaw, Poland

Can you talk us through your journey since graduation?

I was determined to get into the PR industry after university. I enjoyed writing, language and storytelling. I couldn’t afford an unpaid internship so worked in a betting shop while searching for an opportunity. After 18 months of failed applications and repeated rejections, I secured a six month position as a PR and media training assistant in March 2008. So many people during this time told me to look at different career options so my advice is to not give up! I worked hard and turned it into a permanent role. One month later the agency I was working for decided to disband its small three-person PR team and my boss at the time decided to go it alone and start her own agency – she invited me to come onboard. We were made redundant on the Friday and started TopLine Comms on the Monday. Since that day, we’ve built it into a 25 person PR, SEO and content agency and also launched a sister video production brand, TopLine Film. In June this year both TopLine Comms and TopLine Film were acquired by Definition.  

Did you feel prepared after graduating for your career? 

My time at Essex gave me confidence and self-study skills. To be honest with you, I didn’t properly apply myself at school and I was lucky to make it on to my degree course of choice. Once I started, I really began to enjoy learning. I liked figuring things out for myself and the format of higher education. I became more confident in my abilities and I realised if I wanted something, I had as much of a chance as anyone else at getting it so long as I applied myself.

It was the self-belief and love of learning I developed at Essex that helped prepare me for a career which requires a lot of self-confidence and independent learning. In a funny way, the right and left brained disciplines of linguistics and literature mirror my job – PR is often instinct led and requires a creative right brained approach, whereas SEO requires a lot of quantitative analysis combined with creativity. 

Tell us a bit more about your role

My current role involves the day to day duties associated with remotely running an agency and advising on client PR and SEO briefs. I dedicate three hour-long slots a week to continuous development. It's absolutely essential I know what's going on in the worlds of PR and SEO and can review examples of best practice. Google continually changes the way companies can be perceived online. I also have to PR myself on behalf of my agency – clients want to work with thought leaders so it’s important that I’m seen discussing the latest industry/discipline trends and developments. Profile building allows me to experiment with new platforms, such as my fledgling TikTok account! 

What has been the biggest challenge in your career?

This is tough because running an agency comes with daily challenges related to the work, the client base and the fact you’re a small business owner always balancing client service on the one hand with staff retention and new business development on the other. We also started the business during a global banking crisis and recession, which was… fun! Subsequently everything else seemed fairly trivial. When I started, I assumed all new employees would be as passionate as me and they’d all be in it for the long haul, but in reality it’s quite a transient industry and staff turnover is common. We put a lot of effort into employee training, retention and mental health support as a result.  

The other big challenge has been balancing family and career. When I started I had no responsibilities to anyone other than myself but when my two kids came along I had to refocus my priorities. This is challenging because everyone balances their careers and families differently. We focussed a lot on developing systems and processes that meant we could work as efficiently as possible, flexibly and remotely. We also focussed heavily on our inbound lead generation strategy removing the need for out of hours networking and frequent travel away from home.  

And what has been your proudest moment?

It has to be the recent acquisition. When I look back on what me and my business partners have built over the last 13 years, how far we’ve come from a team of three, and all the amazing people who have passed through the agency at various stages of their careers, I feel very proud.  We always had strong ethics at TopLine and got good enough at organic lead generation to be able to turn down business that didn’t sit comfortably with us - a privileged position that not all agencies enjoy.

What advice would you share with current students hoping to get into your industry?

Start your learning before you get a job – identify the websites and blogs where you can learn from thought leaders and make it a weekly activity to read everything that’s written. Also tailor your applications. I’ve received thousands of CVs over the last ten years and only a handful have ever been tailored to the role and the job – it really makes a  big difference to your chances of being invited to interview. If you can combine your recent industry learnings with your application then even better! Once you've got a job, start to specialise and hone your skills. Are you going to use social media to influence hearts and minds? Are you going to become an expert in podcasts and newsletters? Think about that you enjoy doing and go from there.

What’s next for you?

I’m now part of one of the biggest B2B agencies in the country and am beginning to explore the new opportunities afforded to me: principally building a bigger team of talented professionals covering more digital PR disciplines and looking at how to continue to expand the group. In the longer term, the only thing I can be sure of is industry change and therefore the continued learning I’ll have the opportunity to do, using the skills I developed at Essex all those years ago!