Pros We Love: Adrian Ma, founder, Fanclub

Adrian Ma is the founder of Fanclub, an agency set up to make PR more valuable and seek out like-minded, curious people who want to do the same. He’s been working in PR in London for over 17 years, and in that time has worked at various agencies, across most PR disciplines and with every manner of client.

Adrian tells us what he’s learnt from American author Al Reis and why he’s pretty much given up on Twitter.

How did you get into PR?

I was a failed music journalist who decided that the people on the other end of the phone were having more fun than I was. So I applied for an in-house job as an assistant press officer at what was the Blue Note nightclub (home to drum and bass nights like Metalheads and Swaraj). Unfortunately, the Blue Note got shut down, so I ended up heading into agency-land, initially working with consumer lifestyle brands. But I’ve been working across corporate, public affairs, and plenty of tech ever since.

 What do you love about your job?

This changes at every career stage. Initially, I loved the glamour of working with celebrities, going to events, and going on shoots. In the early 00s, the job really did live up to the stereotype from Ab Fab, but of course that all changed. As I’ve grown in my career, I’ve come to love different things, like the strategic, and creative challenge. Now I love the days when I see my colleagues doing really well – landing a piece of great coverage, winning a pitch or a project. Just seeing the every day buzz in the office makes me feel really proud.

 What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of what we’re able to achieve as an industry now. Today, algorithms are the new editors. And PR is in a privileged position to have had a head start in understanding how to create discoverable content that gets coverage, shares, likes and links. I’m proud to be part of the marketing mix that is really disrupting the industry, and if we end up picking up a piece of work that would have normally gone to a traditional ad or digital agency, that reinforces my view of where we are now, and where PR is headed.

 What’s been the hardest lesson to learn?

To let go. But I’ve learned that colleagues are more engaged when they’re driving their own ideas. This leads them to be more committed and ultimately, achieve greater results. They may have gone about things differently to how I’d approach a problem, but the results speak for themselves.

 Who are your favourite people in PR?

I actually think that PR people are pretty poorly trained. From the top to the bottom. The people I admire are those who really love their craft and take the time to share their learnings; most of those worth seeking out are from the advertising or academic world, because there’s a richer heritage in that industry. So David Ogilvy is worth reading to get an understanding of how to create work that makes an impact. Paul Arden is good at framing complex problems in a simple way. The American author Al Reis has been really influential in sharpening my strategic skills. I’d recommend checking out Yuval Noah Harari, on his work about the importance of story telling for the human race, and Malcolm Gladwell for his work on decoding behaviour.

 What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the sector?

Training. Honestly, if you put the average PR account director in a pitch situation against an account director from a media or advertising industry, they’d get trampled on. I basically had to teach myself the basics of marketing because none of the agencies I worked at really offered it. Quite often, it’s a case of ‘this is how I do it, so you should do it this way, too’, and you end up proceeding with a very blinkered view of what you could, or should be doing. But really, if you understand the fundamentals of the systems and processes that are in place, and more importantly why they work, then you can create better ways of working. Unfortunately, it’s unusual for a PR agency to offer these opportunities to staff.

 What skill do you think every PR has to nail?

Clients often ask me this, and I tell them to check out the fundamentals of how to plan a marketing campaign. I feel that people don’t understand the context of this discipline, and how it differs from other channels. Once this is nailed, then their work can be more valuable. Apart from that, great copywriting, a basic understanding of the various digital tactics, and developing a critical eye for effective visual communications is going to become more key.

 What is your favourite social network and why?

Instagram. Hands down. It’s quick and visual, and I keep who I follow to a limited set of people, which means that a lot of crap is filtered out. I’m disappointed that Facebook hasn’t done enough to tackle fake news, or help people discover (or at least be aware of) content outside of their immediate circle. It means that people’s experiences and views are getting increasingly distorted, and prejudices are reinforced.

 Who is your favourite tweeter and why?

I’ve pretty much stopped using Twitter, because I just don’t enjoy it. I find the information a bit overwhelming and I don’t have time to sift through it all. I’d rather catch up with what my IRL friends are up to on Instagram.

 Best advice you’ve ever been given?

 It pays to be nice. Honestly, being nice gets you half the way. Just turning up and making an effort takes you the rest of the way.

 Finally, on the D’ word… What can the sector do to tackle diversity?

I think that the bias comes from society. Most people from an immigrant background probably had parents like mine, who wanted them to become a doctor or lawyer. I did work experience at a law firm and hated it. It seemed to be about working with people at the most depressing times of their lives, and I’m not strong enough for that. So I think that more needs to be done to promote PR as a career option to the parents who have moved to the UK. That’s only going to come about by having smart people doing great work, which the world can see makes a positive social impact.

Adrian will be speaking at BME PR Pros’ first event ‘How to get ahead in PR‘ on Wednesday 15 March at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Tickets are free but places are limited. Book your place now.