Mark joined Was ECD in 2017 after a five-year spell at MHP. He’s spent over 20 years in the PR industry from humble beginnings doing in-house PR for delivery company P&H. In the past decade he has won almost 100 major industry awards, including six PR Week awards, three Cannes Lions and PRCA Campaign of the Year in 2014 and 2016. His work includes Missing Type for NHS blood donation, Christmas Tinner for retailer GAME and he most recently made a digital ad for PG Tips, ‘Craig Revel Horwood, Head of Taste’.
His approach to work is ‘Keep it simple. You can create something hugely disruptive by adding something, taking something away or by bringing two opposites together’.
Mark lives in West Byfleet in Surrey with his wife, cat, dog and QPR season ticket. All of them make him very happy, except for the latter.
Describe your background in 5 words max
Pale, Surrey, grammar-school, QPR
How did you get into PR and/communications?
By mistake. After graduating in American Studies and Film, I wanted to be a journalist. My dad put me in touch with a former journalist who worked freelance in grocery trade PR. He explained to me what PR was, showed me how to write a press release and took me on to work with him in a grubby, pokey rented office in Croydon. I’ll be honest, there were problems there and it felt like a dead end. Yet, within a year of learning the basics I got an entry-level job at The Red Consultancy working with clients such as Microsoft, Guinness and B&Q. And I never looked back.
What do you love about your job?
When I started in 1997 I was thrilled to get my first piece of coverage in Retail Newsagent. The buzz and thrill is still the same, especially as I have the responsibility to come up with big campaign ideas and deliver them. Ultimately, it’s problem solving. I love that a thought or vision I scribbled down on a piece of paper on the way into work can be worked up into something discussed on the news and social media in a short matter of time.
What are you most proud of?
Christmas Tinner: Christmas dinner in a tin for the retailer GAME. It was a social content prank. The client backed it but GAME’s head of social disliked it so much he refused to share it on the brand feed. Even some of my own team thought it was a bad idea. So I thought ‘Fuck ‘em’, tweeted it from my own personal feed and then things went crazy. People weren’t sure if it was a real or a stunt but they liked it, shared it and it snowballed.
Tinner took on a life of its own and became a meme, spawning huge amounts of global coverage and comment as a result. It drove a flood of traffic to the GAME website, even became a sketch on Saturday Night Live in the U.S, was a finalist at the Cannes Lions and won PR Week awards and the PRCA Campaign of the Year. The proudest part was when the Smithsonian Institute featured it on their website declaring it ‘not a commercial product, more a piece of pop art’.
It cost £3,000 to make.
What’s been the hardest lesson to learn?
People are going to say no to something you really believe in. Sometimes an idea you had rejected will be done by someone else and be immensely successful. In my earlier days bins would get kicked across the room, now I accept its part of the job.
Who are your favourite people in PR/communications and why?
Sian Morgan, the founder of Cow PR where I spent a decade becoming a creative. Sian recognised that I wasn’t a person who could do process, budgets or anything to do with organisation. At a time before there were dedicated creatives, when lacking aptitude for account handling meant you were out, she said that I could focus on ideas and was a huge support. It was a very maverick, happy environment, we did some amazing work and she still runs her own agency her own way almost 20 years on.
What skill do you think every PR has to nail?
You need to combine hard work and imagination. Neither are much use without the other.
What is your favourite social network and why?
LinkedIn as a means to sharing creative work we’ve done or admire and chatting with people in the industry. Twitter is becoming poisonous, like the lead in the water pipes that slowly killed the Romans.
Who is your favourite journalist and why?
I don’t have day to day contact with journalists. The one who I always read is Matt Taibi of Rolling Stone, who has been covering the horror and absurdity of Trump, hilariously and despairingly, ever since he first stood for the Republican nomination
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Don’t go up ladders.
What’s your ‘yay’ and ‘nay’ campaign of the year so far?
They may not win awards because they ‘strategic’ or ‘imbedded with purpose’ but I loved two which cost next to nothing to activate and topped the news agenda. When Madame Donald Trump declared reversed his decision to visit the UK Tussaud’s planted its Trump waxwork outside the new American Embassy when The Donald refused to come over and open it. The other was the cease and desist letter for impersonating Walter from The Beano to Jacob Rees-Mogg. Good fun.
At the other end of the spectrum The Mastercard’s World Cup Goals for Meals campaign was an abomination, a real-life Hunger Games. In doing so they gamified the issue of poverty and hunger in order to amplify its World Cup commercial partnership. Thoughtless, crass and cynical, it brought marcomms into disrepute.
“PR agencies only talk about diversity to win big awards and look good. But it’s just tokenistic”. Discuss.
Not long ago, in a previous role, I sat in a big all-agency meeting with a dozen others to discuss a government health brief targeting young BME adults. We were all white, middle-class and, tragically, inevitably people ran out of ideas after ‘Shall we do something with Stormzy?’.
Why were there no BME people in the room? Well, obviously the agencies didn’t have anyone to put forward. Why don’t they recruit from BME? I’m told because they are not coming up through the pipeline. So then we have to change the pipeline.
I can’t speak for anyone else but this has to change for the benefit of everyone. Not only for equality opportunity, but in order to be culturally relevant and commercially viable agencies and brands have to reflect the diversity of the audiences they serve, not only in ethnicity but also in social mobility in general.
I’m the only person in my extended family to have gone to university and a degree now comes with a huge debt. Lots of kids don’t even entertain PR as a possibility as a result – it’s a vocation for those whose families can afford it.
What advice would you give a talented BME PR Pro starting to think this sector will never give them the opportunities they deserve and are close to jacking it in to retrain as a doctor (which would make their African parents very happy)?
Be persistent and tenacious and be yourself. That job at Red, I completely screwed up the interview. I turned up in a three-piece suit because I was told that’s how they dressed for business (cheers for the advice, Dad). Everyone was in jeans and trainers and it went downhill from there. Complete car crash. They turned me down on the grounds I ‘wouldn’t fit in’. They were being polite.
So, I wrote a letter to the MD who interviewed me. It was an appraisal of my interview performance that was brutal, damning and completely accurate. It was also funny but also showed I could write and manage a (personal) crisis. The y called me up and said ‘Ok, you got the job’.
If I hadn’t taken that course of action, rather than do grocery trade PR in Croydon, it’s highly probable I would have dropped out of the industry altogether.
If anyone wants to ask me more in depth they can contact me on LinkedIn or Twitter
Finally, on a lighter note… Gutted to hear you can’t make the BME PR Pros Summer Party…. Out of curiosity, what tune would have had you hitting the dancefloor?
1999 by Prince