You wait all day for a bus…
…and then two come along at once.
It’s a cliché, and an old one at that (but then I suppose they all are). It’s not one of my favourites. It’s usually delivered by some old curmudgeon and almost always headlined with the pessimist’s favourite one-word sentence: “Typical” (fragment, consider revising…please).
I hate “typical” more than I hate the cliché, truth be told. “Typical” is the word used by those old (or old before their time) who believe that the world is full of shit and that most of it falls on them. “Typical” means that something else has come along to reinforce their view that nothing good will ever come of it (“it” being everything). I wish some old crooner would release a cover version of Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” but replace every “ironic” with a “typical”.
“A free ride when you’ve already paid?”
The thing about clichés, however, is that every now and then they turn out to be accurate. Though (and I realise now that I’m digressing from my original digression, which is new ground even for me) the PR team for Transport for London might actually tell you that they’ve done some research to disprove the cliché and that, in reality, you wait 16.8 minutes for a bus and then an average of 1.34 turn up at once.
Anyway, you’d no doubt been waiting months for one of the outstanding TWL Q&As with a power-broker from the UK PR industry and, guess what? Two have come along at once. Well, within a week or so of each other.
Yes, that’s right. After our “chat” with the boys from GolinHarris, we’ve had another one with big-wig Mark Jackson, head of Hill and Knowlton’s tech practice in the UK. We say big-wig but, of course, if you read Jackson’s new blog that we pointed out the other week, you’ll know that he’s a man in no need of any sort of toupée. In fact, it sounds like he's got more hair than he wants...
Jackson’s been part of the UK tech PR scene for years, having had stints of varying lengths at a selection of tech outfits before landing at monster Hill & Knowlton. As usual, we emailed him a bunch of questions and he answered them. Here’s the chat. It's quite long but, hell, it's a Friday...
TWL: Just how big a penis do you need to run the UK corporate technologies practice at H&K?
MJ: Apparently it’s not just about size; it seems experience is quite important too. Which is where I think I can add some value given I’ve been doing technology PR for coming up 16 years. That makes me a reasonably old hand and also means that there’s not much I haven’t seen, from the boom years of the dotcom bubble to the trauma that followed.
TWL: And just how much does the UK corporate technologies practice have to practice? Surely you’ve mastered it by now?
MJ: The global technology practice is the largest single practice in H&K. It represents a huge part of our business so, to some extent, we must have done something right. However, as readers of your esteemed pages will acknowledge, we have to continue to learn or risk being stuck in the time warp that disciplines such as direct mail (or even, arguably, advertising) face. One such area is social media. I don’t mind admitting that I’ve been a cynic of using blogs in a business to business context because until recently I hadn’t seen any evidence to suggest they had the slightest impact on clients’ businesses. However, we recently carried out a study of what really influences technology purchasers and it shows that 38% of those we surveyed in the US, 40% in Canada, 48% in China and 22% in the UK think that blogs are a credible source of information about which products or services to buy. While the UK is the lowest by a long way, I was still surprised at the extent to which business people are relying on blogs.
TWL: Who are you team’s major clients?
MJ: The list currently includes HP, Sony, Verizon, Samsung, HCL, NASSCOM, GN, GSMA, Yahoo!, Business Objects, Fox Mobile, TomTom Work, Mamut, Factiva and a couple we’re not allowed to mention.
TWL: Which client causes the most needless stress?
MJ: It would be indelicate to name names but there is little doubt that clients whose expectations are vastly in excess of what is achievable or in excess of the available resources (it’s not just about budgets) cause untold stress. They are the clients who never say thank you; never acknowledge progress; do not stop to consider the impact their actions and words have on the team; and who move their accounts continually as they burn out one team after another in the UK IT PR industry.
TWL: Your intro page on the website says “A fresh and optimistic tech sector is finding its feet after the turmoil of the dot.com and telecoms crashes.” Yet we’re expecting another significant tech slowdown in the next 12 months. Are we wrong or does your website need an update?
MJ: There is little doubt that we’re in the middle of another boom period for our industry but the part of me that witnessed the carnage of the dotcom implosion is a half empty glass, rather than half full. For example, news from the US last week on its sub-prime housing market shows that the economy is slowing rapidly. If that spills over into high-street spending, then it will not take long before retailers (which are some of the largest firms in the US) start to limit strategic spending on items such as technology. That has a direct impact on our clients and then we start to face the challenges we experienced in 2001.
But yes, you’re right. The website does need updating and you should see something by the turn of the year. Assuming the market hasn’t crashed!
TWL: You do Satyam and Nasscom – cosy. Which came first, and did the second come because of it?
MJ: NASSCOM has been a client for many years. As a consequence of our work with the organisation – including a good deal of success – some of its members wanted to draw on our experience, knowledge and skills.
TWL: Given that the PR Weak league tables are of only marginal more use than a fireguard crafted from Swiss chocolate, where do you feel H&K corporate technologies comes (in revenue terms) in the true rankings of UK tech PR outfits?
MJ: To be honest, we pay as much attention to them as TWL. That’s partly because we can’t enter because of SOX restrictions but also because I’ve witnessed a lot of massaging in the past to ensure numbers appeared higher than they might otherwise have been.
All in all, I don’t think they’re a good indicator of the health of a business but do seem to pander to the egos of CEOs who frame the tables and place them garishly around their receptions.
TWL: And is that higher or lower than when you joined?
MJ: Of course I’d say higher but in reality I’m not sure where we would have come two years ago so it’s difficult to say that with any accuracy. I can say we’ve got more clients from a broader range of sectors so something seems to have gone reasonably well over the last two years. And frankly, that seems a more accurate measure of how a business is doing than a league table.
TWL: I always get you and Mark Hampton mixed up. Which one are you?
MJ: I’m not surprised. We’re both called Mark, work in IT PR and been known to like a pie or two. The main difference is that I have a London accent while Mark’s is more akin to Lloyd Grossman, he having spent some time in San Francisco.
TWL: Blogs are wank. Discuss.
MJ: When it comes to business blogs, I would have been the first to agree. After all, who on earth is going to believe what the CEO of ‘HardAsNails, the world’s leading server security provider for the knitting industry’ writes in a blog?
Personal blogs are a slightly different issue. If you want to tell the world about your personal foibles then feel free. After all, who in their right mind would want to write about body hair, for example?
TWL: What’s your advice to a new graduate moving into tech PR in the UK?
MJ: I got into PR almost by chance in 1991. However, it’s been the best thing that happened to me because, almost without fail, I look forward to going to work everyday and I can’t really imagine doing anything else. Sad? Probably. But it does mean that when people ask, I always say that it’s a good career. The one piece of advice I’d give, though, is that people should feel happy learning about technology. You really do need at least a working knowledge or else you’ll struggle to convince clients you know what you’re talking about or journalists that they should write about your clients’ products or services.
You don’t have to have a technical background but a propensity and desire to understand how things work is really important.
TWL: Who are your work-related heroes and villains?
MJ: Villains: Journalists that slag off PR and then use the stories anyway; journalists that spend their entire careers slagging off PR people and then take jobs in agencies; ‘publicists’ who claim to be PR people but only bring shame and disrepute on our industry; PR people who only got into PR because they didn’t make it as a journalist
Heroes: PR people prepared to stand up and be proud of what they do; people who have successful careers in PR and manage to have happy families
TWL: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your career?
MJ: Forgetting about timezones and sending out an earnings release at 8.00am GMT instead of 8.00am EST. It’s the kind of thing you only do once and it wasn’t pretty…
TWL: And what’s been your biggest success?
MJ: Managing to stay sane in an industry which chews people up and spits then out with alarming regularity. I guess that’s partly because I really do love my job but it’s also helped by having a bit of a balance in life (learned because of the previous question). I try never to work at the weekends now and have built up an unhealthy obsession for rugby which takes up a lot of time these days.