In late 2019 an unusual business approached us for space, one which it’s safe to say, was completely different to anything we’d had before. Since then, a community of puppies and puppy-owners has blossomed in one corridor of Digital House, in part thanks to animal-lover and CEO of Urban Paws – Layla Flaherty.
Urban Paws is an animal talent and casting agency, founded in 2015. Originally from Ireland, CEO Layla used her connections and experience as a model to establish herself as an animal agent and has since expanded the award-winning company into the field of pet influencers. We spoke to Layla about what inspired her in the beginning and how she dealt with negativity. We also found out some of her campaign highlights, including finding a chicken for Gucci and Harry Styles!
Tell us about yourself and your background?
I had a background in modelling and I’d done some TV, but I reached a crossroads where I really wanted to quit and work with animals. That’s when I came up with the idea for an animal talent casting agency. I spent a year researching and everything I found was in London. I saw a gap in the market to start something up North, so I took a gamble and ran with it. Everyone thought I’d lost the plot but here I am 7 years later!
Did you have experience of working with animals?
No but I love animals! I grew up with dogs and, being Irish, we lived closely to farm animals. But I had no hands-on experience until I started Urban Paws. Since then, I’ve done a degree in animal psychology, a canine therapy course and a dog grooming course.
What campaigns have really stood out to you as highlights?
I have a few! A stand out moment was when we worked on a Gucci campaign with Harry Styles. We always have to sign NDAs when it’s a big campaign, so we had no idea it would be him. They wanted a cat, a chicken and a dog which didn’t make any sense at all! On the day we found out it was him and we were made up! He had to walk down a road holding the chicken with a dog following, then the cat was in a fish and chip shop. He walks in, puts the chicken on the counter and orders fish and chips. It looked cool in the end! Another stand out moment was when Cruella (2021) came out, we had a call from a PR agency asking for 101 Dalmatians.
I take it you didn’t have them signed already?
No, I’d never take on that many! We’d have 10 maximum of one breed. Another stand out moment was when we got a snail and a worm booked for a B&Q advert. You’d think you could just get one from your garden but actually, if you touch a snail, they retreat into their shell so they needed one which was used to being handled. That was new to me so I’m still learning!
Did you think the requests would be this varied when you started?
No, I first started with dogs because that was where my main knowledge was. But then clients would ask for cats, so I took on a member of staff who I nicknamed the ‘cat lady.’ Then we started getting asked for other animals – worms, snails, alpacas, snakes, all sorts! It was a progression over time. Like the influencer side of things, it happened naturally.
Yes! Tell us about Urban Paws influencers.
It’s an agency to manage social media pet influencers. That’s any pet with a large following on TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, or wherever! Most of our clients are launching new services and they enlist us to help give them a push on social media. 9 times out of 10 it’s a human product but they want an animal to help sell it. There’s an emotional connection that appeals to people.
Definitely. Do you ever get a negative reaction in this business?
Everyday! There’s that saying ‘never work with animals or children.’ People have a low opinion and the perception is that it’ll be difficult. But then they’re blown away when they see the talent and how easy they are to work with. People are always shocked at how easy it is to train animals!
International Women’s Day is coming up and this year is all about #BreakTheBias. Did you face any obstacles starting a business as a woman?
In the beginning it was a battle. Especially coming from a modelling background. People would be like “what do you know?” And there was a perception that I was just using my reputation. I set my standards high and it took a while to establish a name. This is a niche industry and most people come from a veterinary background.
Well, I think you proved them wrong! What would your advice be to someone wanting to start their own business who’s maybe not being taken seriously?
Believe in yourself and never give up. Everybody thought I’d lost the plot but the more people who said it, the more it spurred me on.
Do you have any exciting plans for this year you want to share?
We have a number of car adverts, fashion editorials and films coming out in cinemas; and we’ll be on the BBC One Show this week so make sure to catch it.
We’re also launching a new project – the Urban Paws dog walk! We’re going to set up a community of dog lovers who can meet, have a walk and catch up. You don’t have to have a dog to join, it’s really a chance to meet up and get out.
Sounds great. There are plenty of dog lovers here at Baltic Creative that I’m sure would be up for it. One last question before you go, what animal do you want to work with that you haven’t yet?
Anything exotic or dangerous. We’ve worked with everything small, even squirrels and hedgehogs.
Urban Paws is based in Digital House, 44 Simpson Street. You can find them at their website and on social media at the links below!