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. www.fanclubpr.com
Describe your background in no more than 5 words?
BBC (British Born Chinese)
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.
Biggest PR fail and yay of 2017? (i.e. best and worst)
Biggest fail – Fearless Girl was one of the most overrated pieces of work I’ve seen. It made me mad; I could go on about this for a long time. If you’re in PR and get a piece of coverage that fails to reference the client, it doesn’t count. Nil points. I’ve only come across one person who can name the brand behind Fearless Girl, without looking it up. That includes people who work in PR. For all of the back-slapping at Cannes, this campaign failed to move the needle on brand recall, awareness or messaging. It’s brand marketing without substance. They’ve leapfrogged the basics to create something designed to appeal to judges. These awards have gotten out of hand, and are miles away from the reality of our world, and what we should be measuring – effectiveness. Furthermore, the brand behind it is now under investigation for underpaying female and black execs. Hashtag FAIL all over.
Biggest yay – I’ve got to give props to Taylor Herring here. They’ve smashed it out of the park on two great ideas in the last month alone. The Greggs sausage roll Jesus advent calendar scene split opinion, but the fact that customers were creating their own memes where they replaced Jesus with sausage rolls in other situations of this shows how a great idea can trigger proactive and shareable customer advocacy. Furthermore Greggs reported a sales uplift of sausage rolls afterwards. Secondly, the Samsung washing machine advert, in which a whole advert break was filled with a shot of a washing cycle. Not only was this great because the client let a PR agency take the lead in a TV advert, but it sparked conversations about brand in the press. That’s taking PR to the cleaners.
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 is one of 15 mentors for the BME PR Pros/PRWeek Mentoring Scheme. Applications for mentees are now open – click here to find out more. The closing date for applications is Friday 16 February 2018.