What I've Learnt: Karen Winterhalter, Managing Director, Onyx Health

Charlie Spargo's picture
by Charlie Spargo

Newcastle healthcare communications agency Onyx Health was founded by Karen Winterhalter, and supports clients in life sciences, pharmaceutical and medtech.

2021 marks 10 years since the agency was launched in the North East, after locally born Karen returned from London to set it up. With more than 30 years of experience in healthcare communications, she's passionate about making a difference to the growth of healthcare businesses.

Previous roles she's held include European Director of Weber Shandwick, and EMEA Chairman of Burson-Marsteller (now BCW).

We found out what lessons Karen has learnt in her career.

 

Which single daily habit or practice could you not do without?

Going running first thing in the morning. I get some of my best creative ideas when I go out for my early morning run. It's a great way to blow off the cobwebs, clear my head and get my creative juices flowing.

I can often be found jumping on client calls still in my running gear, with a fantastic new creative concept to help my clients stand out from the crowd. 

What's been your luckiest break?

One of the biggest breaks in my career was landing the role of Associate Director with top London agency Ketchum - ever since then I've never looked back. 

After leaving Ketchum, I held senior leadership roles with some of the biggest names in the PR business, as European Director for Weber Shandwick, and EMEA Chair for Burson-Marsteller. I was lucky enough to work with international clients in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry, helping launch blockbuster drugs across Europe and the Middle East. 

What's your best failure?

My original career as an NHS nurse didn't give me the stimulation or satisfaction I thought it would. After leaving nursing, I worked as a sales rep for a drug company and ultimately made the move into PR. However, the medical training and expertise I gained as a nurse have benefited me throughout my future career. Once a nurse, always a nurse.

Being a qualified medical professional certainly gave me a competitive edge in the fast-paced world of London PR. It also gave me a first-hand insight into healthcare PR from a clinical perspective.

What is the best investment you've ever made, either financial or time?

My holiday home in Bamburgh is without a doubt one of the best investments I have ever made. I love the Northumberland coastline and have spent many a happy hour enjoying long walks on the seafront with my husband.

Our apartment overlooks the seafront and the castle; it’s an amazing location. It's a great place to get away from it all when I need a break from work. 

Which book would you recommend others to read and why?

One of my favourite books is 'This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor' by Adam Kay. It is a must-read for anyone working in the healthcare sector. 

It provides a fascinating insight into the life of a junior doctor that is funny, sad, thought-provoking and uplifting. I would strongly urge anyone who has not read it already to go out and buy a copy. I'm also reading 'That One Patient', which is very moving as it is written by doctors who have memories of one patient who left a lasting impact on them.

What one piece of advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

That's an easy one: Believe in yourself. Be bold, be confident and do not be afraid to go it alone. One of the bravest decisions I ever made was moving back up to the North East to start my own PR agency 10 years ago this year. I love being my own boss and working with my team to help them grow by learning new skills and pushing them to the next level.

Who or what has had the single biggest influence on your working life?

Early in my career, I met Angela Heylin in a PR agency in London. She taught me to be supportive, encouraging and open.

I will always remember the lessons I learned from her maternity policies. She encouraged her female Account Managers and Directors to return to work after maternity leave by tasking their teams to run the accounts in their absence, and surrounding them in support when they returned. Angela’s approach was incredibly successful, and I've never forgotten that.

I hold on to her values and focus on people. Supporting my team is hugely important to me, and I will continue to be people-focused as the agency grows.

Tell us something about you that would surprise people.

I used to be a bass drummer in a jazz band - similar to marching bands, but with kazoos - the Spennymoor Tigers. Every weekend we would head out to different places in the North East to take part in a parade through the town to compete against other bands.

I used to come home with a stack of medals, as I was pretty good at banging that drum. My party piece was to spin the drum round, without choking myself, while the majorettes did a routine, throwing their batons over my head.

How will the COVID crisis change work for the better?

We have increasingly diversified the strategic focus of our agency into digital communications in the wake of the pandemic. While this had always been a core part of our service offer, the pandemic has turbocharged our clients’ need for digital communications solutions to bridge the communication gap. 

It has encouraged us to be more creative, developing eye-catching visuals, gifs and infographics to help our clients stand out online. We also launched our interactive learning environment to host medical education event. Now clients want to use this at virtual congresses and even as an internal employer learning environment.

What does success look like to you?

Starting a business from scratch and watching it grow and flourish over the years. Onyx Health started life as a North East start-up business that I ran from my home office in Durham. In 10 years, we've grown into a thriving business employing over 20 people and working with international clients from New Zealand to North America.  

One of the key drivers behind our growth has been our international PR partnership with US-based agency Jeff Winton Associates, who we work collaboratively with to help their clients break into the European market.  

We were recognised as a “one to watch” company by the Sunday Times in 2020, testament to the hard work, dedication and talent of our creative team.

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