Armand has degrees from Cambridge and UCL in Natural Sciences and Philosophy, despite applying originally to study computer science, which he discovered – on completing the pre-course reading material – that he had no talent for. He joined Brands2Life in 2004.
In 2011 he joined Brands2Life’s board, and over his 15+ years at the company has campaigned for data innovation investment in the NHS with Dell EMC, for the cloud with Google, advocated for wireless broadband with Cisco, and to drive behaviour change around internet safety amongst children and parents for Nominet. He’s helped start-ups with brand positioning and marketing strategy, advised CEOs defending their employers’ reputation on Newsnight, and written thousands of words in other people’s names. Best of all, he has worked alongside and led teams of people he continues to be incredibly proud of as they reach for new heights, at Brands2Life and beyond.
At the agency today, his team works on technology driven brands. Having completed the Marketing Week Mini MBA in Marketing, his expertise spans a broad spectrum of marketing and PR disciplines. Alongside his as client and team responsibilities, Armand’s role spans client experience and client services, data and analytics, B2B influencer marketing and he doubles up as the company’s CTO. He co-chairs the company’s diversity committee and led a critically acclaimed pro-bono campaign for our local school partner to celebrate its 10th anniversary.
● Describe yourself/your background in 5 words max?
Malaysian Indian in Hampshire. Geek.
● How did you get into PR/communications?
Essentially by accident. With my heavily analytical degrees, but a childhood spent reading science fiction and fantasy and playing story-rich role-playing and real-time-strategy video games, I had a burning desire to do something creative with a bit of -analytical thinking built in too.
So naturally, having empirically established I had no talent for designing video games, I applied for jobs in publishing.
When I found out that the chap whose job I wanted at the time (the editor of a sci-fi imprint at a major publisher) got his job when the previous incumbent literally retired (he’s still in the role today), I changed tack.
The advertising milkround beckoned (after one particularly disastrous interview in the city). I enjoyed the heck out of the experience but never quite made it through.
Whilst still on this track, a recruiter said to me “you said you liked technology, how about work experience at a tech PR firm?” I said, “What’s PR?” She said, “You’ll love it.”
So I went to Cohn & Wolfe for a two week work experience placement, working on brands like Sky and O 2 . I was one of the geekiest members of the team in terms of my interest of and understanding of consumer electronics, so LOVED explaining and describing everything to everyone, journalist and colleague alike. Towards the end of it, one of my colleagues went off for a month’s extended vacation in Australia. Would I be interested in temping for another month? For actual money?
YES PLEASE. £7 an hour. Bring it on.
At the end of that month, C&W didn’t have any roles going so, now convinced this was a career path I wanted to explore, I went through an intensive set of interviews with about seven agencies. I still remember meeting folk at Nelson Bostock, Kinross & Render, Whiteoaks, Axicom and others. And I remember my interviews at Brands2Life distinctly, in our (then) grotty office in West Brompton.
I ended up with four job offers after 11 interviews, and was completely sick of talking about myself by the end of it. I never expected that to happen. People still don’t believe it when I tell them.
Anyway, long story short, I had so little experience in the industry I had no real basis for choosing. I asked the guys at C&W and they said, go with Brands2Life, so – after a drink at the – wonderful – Atlas pub with a few of the team, I was sold. And the rest, as they say, is history.
● What do you love about your job?
I love learning. I love teaching. And I love helping others be better at what they do. And that’s basically life in consultancy. You learn as MUCH as possible about both the disciplines of PR and marketing and the dynamics, issues and concerns of an industry and the stakeholders within it. You then connect the dots in your head and with your teams and orchestrate wonderful stories that drive some kind of material impact for the companies you’re working for. You guide your clients and colleagues on executing strategies and tactics accordingly.
And if you happen to like the people around you (spoiler: I do), winner winner chicken dinner.
● What are you most proud of?
I’m afraid it’s probably not surprising, but the thing I’m proudest of was persuading my wife Amanda that I was someone worth marrying and having a family with. Her presence in my life has been a source of such phenomenal happiness, strength, support and yes, occasionally fierce challenge – that everything else – academic, professional – really pales in comparison.
● What’s been the hardest lesson to learn?
Genuinely one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn – and I’m still re-learning most days is that the journey is as important as the destination.
It’s so easy – in a fast moving, fast growing industry – to get fixated on what comes next. The next promotion, project, client, pay rise, job title, house, car, watch, OBE, whatever, that you can lose track of the opportunities and satisfaction you can get from each moment, each engagement as it comes.
At various points, I’ve found myself – as I’m sure we all have – growing frustrated and pushing for the next thing, regardless of whether I’d thought about if it was something I really wanted or not. Pausing to reflect in the context of this lesson has been invaluable in helping me regain a sense of perspective. It’s a lesson I hope my three daughters learn a little quicker than Dad did.
● Who are your favourite people in PR and why?
There are so many people I love in our industry any effort to list them would turn this into an unreadably long post. So I’m going to just pick one. And I’m going to exclude everyone I currently work with from the selection criteria, and pick someone that no-one could possibly argue with as my fave.
So, my favourite person in PR is just PR adjacent these days. Adele McIntosh was my colleague at Brands2Life for many years, and now works in Internal Comms, Community & Inclusion at Arm. She’s one of the most profoundly compassionate and empathetic people I’ve ever encountered and I wish I had an ounce of her emotional intelligence and general radar. It would make my job – probably my life – a lot easier.
Certainly both when we worked together, and indeed even now, she is a source of incredible perspective and has helped me reshape my view of a wide range of circumstances, be they boardroom discussions, client debates, personal crises or anything in between.
● What skill do you think every PR has to nail?
Just one? I nearly wrote ‘storytelling’ and became a massive stereotype. And whilst that’s on some level true, I’m beginning to think that the real skill is empathy (it’s possible I’ve been reading too much Seth Godin). Understanding others is the core job of a PR, because understanding is the root of communication.
What does this person want, from this communication? What does my employer want? How do I tell a story that will align one with the other?
It’s definitely not my strongest skill. But I work at it. And I think it’s the key one people need in order to tell stories on behalf of brands for an audience they may or may not have a strong basis for understanding.
● What is your favourite social network and why?
Disclaimer – it’s an agency client. But honestly, this in no way influences my answer. LinkedIn is absolutely my favourite social network. It’s constantly filled with richness and purpose in a way that many social networks are not; it has the highest signal to noise ratio of them all. I learn and contribute to it in some way every day.
I made a map of my social media usage, if people were wondering where it was worth following me.
● What’s your favourite podcast and why?
Oh, here it is, I’m going to sound old and out of touch. The truth is, I’m not massively into podcasts. I listen to them whenever a colleague, friend or a sibling is on one. So I’ve enjoyed the Holmes Report and PRmoment podcasts recently, as well as the Brands2Life Purpose podcast, and Hollywood Uncorked which my brother guest-hosted for a few episodes (wine and Hollywood combined – amazing).
● Who is your favourite journalist and why?
Chris Mason, political correspondent at the BBC, worked with my friend Damian and I when we ran the student paper at Cambridge decades ago (not Varsity, the other one). He was a lovely man then, and he’s a lovely man now.
His coverage of Brexit is simultaneously humble, insightful and incredulous (I love it when he’s incredulous, it’s brilliant). It’s profoundly funny without being partisan, its educational without being patronising. His whole approach is marvellous and it’s a glimmer of brightness in what is otherwise a profoundly dark and depressing moment in the saga of British political history.
● What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I hated this advice at the time but I still remember when I was promoted to Account Director, my then-colleague Robin Grainger said to me [paraphrased]: “You’ll mess up at some point mate, and then it’ll be on you. Brace for it.” I kind of wish I’d understood at the time that this wasn’t fatalistic doomsaying, but rather a sage perspective on the need to cope with adversity and failure with good grace. And that the more we extend ourselves, the more inevitable failure is. As someone else sage and wise said, if you haven’t failed recently, you’re not trying hard enough. Sorry, Robin, if I didn’t hear you at the time!
For me, many of the failures I dwell on haven’t tended to be obvious technical ones, but subtle interpersonal ones. Failing to navigate personality and emotion to get the outcomes I want or need on behalf of myself, the agency or my clients; occasionally falling on the sword of my own ego or insecurity. I suspect I’ll be making these mistakes in some shape or form for the rest of my career, but am slowly reaching the point where I can reflect on them and learn from them at least somewhat dispassionately. Sometimes. And hopefully be the better for it.
● Biggest PR campaign fail and yay of 2019?
Hated – the Conservative JFC shtick. It was just a terrible, terrible campaign, mean-spirited and poorly judged and executed. And I’m not particularly a fan of either party embroiled in that story.
Love – the current Virgin Atlantic “second flag carrier” campaign. It’s such a brilliant combination of stakeholder engagement, creative execution in its use of language, and system two thinking as well. After all, the logic of its argument is powerful and well stated, backed by good data. Plus it fulfils a really powerful positioning function (Virgin has 40 aircraft vs. BA’s 280+, the campaign puts them on more or less equal footing) and meets the strategic growth ambitions of the business.
● Finally, on the D’ word… What can the sector do to encourage diversity?
We need to make talking about difference normal.
It’s hard in a majority-anything society to talk about difference. Because no-one feels qualified or comfortable talking about it. And, because we’re British, it falls in with sex, religion and politics as a ‘no-go’ area we tiptoe around. Even referring to someone as Black or Indian, or gay, or whatever, makes people cringe out of anxiety that we are in politically incorrect territory. So much so it’s become a trope in American sitcoms.
Everyone that has grown up as a minority of any kind has had to come to terms with who they are in a context where most people around them look, sound, act or believe differently. We’d mostly rather not go through the process of coming to terms with ourselves again and again with different people, and neither do most of us enjoy pretending to be someone else.
But we often can’t talk about these things. We find it hard to ask someone if they’re gay or straight, or how they want their community – their identity – to be referred to. Or even what their identity is (I half-joke, as British-Malaysian comedian Phil Wang does, that when people assume I’m originally from somewhere else I take offence… even though they’re right and it’s a reasonable question. He calls it ‘racist suspicion’ and is hilarious about it).
Tragically, we’re in a society where reactionism to people making choices around their identity can be ferocious and extreme. Look at Sam Smith.
So step one for me, I guess, is learning to talk about it. Things like cultural sensitivity training can help with this (when delivered well) as workshopping interaction in a safe space, and giving a platform for the conversation is the first part in enabling it. But finding a way for those of us from different cultural, racial, economic, disability, gender and sexuality contexts to talk about our identity in an open and positive way is an important part of the journey. It’s one of the reasons I’m a fan of the BME PR Pros initiative.
And of course, we all have to learn to hear people’s answers without judgement. Communication leads to empathy and understanding. And understanding leads to inclusion. And inclusive communities attract diverse peoples. Simply being from a “diverse” background doesn’t automatically make us inclusive people. Solved? Maybe not. But it’d be a step in the right direction.
Armand is one of 18 mentors for the 2020 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 14 February 2020.