So, the second in my series of blog posts about how PR has changed in the UK in the past few decades and what we can learn for the future.
Lots of positive comments, memories and sarcastic jibes followed the first one. Bring it on.
To the 1990s then.
I’ve quizzed another true rock star PR and all-round industry troubleshooter: Jonathan Simnett, next-to 30 years in the business and now imparting his wit and wisdom in developing The Reptile Group amongst other projects. The many people who’ve worked for and with Jonathan through his time at notable organisations including A Plus, Brodeur A Plus, Brodeur Worldwide, Fleishman Hillard and all those other Omnicom bits, Ariadne Capital, SpinVox and now Reptile and in clients from IBM and BT to two men in a shed and their robotic dog will know he is rarely short of an opinion. In fact, never.
During the 90s he was heart and soul of a team that built a technology PR firm from one of the best in its field in the UK to an international leader, taking on new talent, new clients, new challenges and an onslaught of new gadgets along the way. All that success, despite me being there for a couple of years.
Without further ado, here is the world of 1990s PR in the inimitable words of Jonathan Simnett. Sit down, grab a cuppa and put the phone on mute. You’re going to enjoy this.
What things for you marked out PR in the 1990s as different to when you started in the mid-80s?
Well, the fashion sense had got a bit better ten years in, but when I started in PR PCs had been on the market for less than two years and cost thousands a piece so were pretty rare and exotic beasts. Ethernet LANs hadn’t really staggered out of the labs at Xerox and even the fax was not yet in regular use – they were simply too expensive. But its precursor – the Telex – lurked in the corner, constantly demanding fuelling with more coal (I may have made that up – the coal bit, not the Telex).
In the 80s most outreach was done on the (landline) phone and motorbike courier companies made a fortune ferrying bits of paper around to and from news distribution houses. I actually licked stamps, stuffed envelopes and sent people letters too. And I had a very big brown analogue phone with lots of buttons and the numbers of an ever-changed roster of journalists listed against them. These I punched a lot (the buttons, not the journalists, although I did have a colleague and friend to this day who once did, but that’s another story). My desk was otherwise a mass of notepads, address books and Post-It Notes surrounding a temperamental (it was Italian after all) Olivetti typewriter-come-word-processor running God-knows-what operating system and connected somehow to an asthmatic daisy wheel printer. Oh yes and a Filofax…
What did your desk look like in 1990?
By the mid 1990s a four-grand black IBM Thinkpad laptop – probably with less computing power than my current Blackberry – hooked up to a Novell LAN took pride of place on my desk, not least because both were clients by that time and email and electronic diaries were starting to rule our lives.
My desk phone had become less creaky and more of a designer object. But thanks also to the – still very expensive – wonder of cellular telephony, my car had also become my mobile office, as I actually seemed to spend most of my time not at my desk but in traffic jams – the phone was still fixed in the car, though, just behind the hand brake – which sometimes led to confusion when parking.
Despite ideas of `the paperless office` current at the time, my desk was still covered in endless bits of A4 though but the view out of the office had improved as we’d moved a couple of times as our firm grew. But ever-innovative and ahead-of-the-curve my colleague Andrew Smith (@andismit as he is now known) had got stuck into the Compuserve (a form of primitive ISP) account and become fascinated with a thing called Mosaic which he described to my disbelieving face as a `web browser`. Little did I know… Later on he tried to get me off my Alta Vista addiction and turned on to an upstart beta search engine called, of all things, `Google`.
A Palm PDA, its unreliable docking station and laughable synchronisation routine came and went its place taken by a brilliant electronic device called a `Revenger` which I stuck to my desk with Velcro. This would make the noise of a rocket launcher, grenade or, my favourite, a ray gun, if I needed to let off steam (which I did a lot at the time – hence my native North American-esque nick name of `Little Dark Cloud`). The Velcro was wizard wheeze as the Revenger could be quickly demounted and placed in my car for clearing – in my head at least – the aforementioned inevitable M4 and M25 jams encountered on the way to client sites and journalist meetings.
And what was a ‘typical’ day like back then?
They appeared to be nearly 14 hours long and come in blocks of six or seven at a time and had way too much Slough in them. This was because we were still two-thirds of the way through building what became the world’s biggest technology and business-to-business communications agency and that takes your life away.
The constant challenge was trying to strike the balance between client consultancy and running a business (and on very little sleep as the first – and, to those that know me, unsurprisingly noisy and demanding – little Simnett had recently arrived). We were growing steadily at 20 per cent plus a year so recruitment was a constant activity as so few people of the `experienced candidates` who came through the door of New Tithe Court met our, by then, exacting standards.
Frustrated as ever, I decided we needed to `grow our own` and we put in place all the systems that would give us the best team in the industry. That resulted in the then A Plus Group becoming one of the first tranche of companies to be awarded `Investor in People` accreditation and the rigorous development and evaluation system that was put in place eventually allowed us to take on the whole of IBM’s PR world-wide in pretty much one big gulp.
When I wasn’t sucked up in endless business management meetings in the UK, I was travelling working on building our European and US business as the race to serve the dot.com boom heated up. During that time, the production of press releases was still the primary news vehicle but email rather than paper became the preferred method of dissemination. We still got through a huge amount of fax paper though as, thanks to the grip of Luddite unions and weedy management, many of the publishing houses were lagging in their adoption of office automation.
There were lots of face-to-face interviews because magazines still had plenty of journalists on the staff and a fair smattering of `round table lunches` although the press conference was already becoming an endangered species. Clients too were taking a more holistic approach to that marketing communications so we started staffing up with analyst relations, speaking opportunity, design, marketing strategy
and a host of other money-making activities that complemented the core media relations offering.
How did the skills that an account manager needed changed over the course of the 1990s?
The key thing was the arrival of their own PC and knowing how to work and take advantage of all the applications available. Also, as the tech industry grew to become the worlds largest, PR was becoming more internationalised, so we started to develop a cadre of specific multi-lingual international account managers. The idea that agencies should actually be run to make a decent profit – a revolutionary idea at the time – also started to take hold so business management skills started to become as appreciated as much as the creative craft skills of communications. As the work got harder and more intense starting with the Far East in the morning and ending with the West Coast in the evening, the cultural climate of business started to get more informal – team-oriented rather than hierarchical and work started to become `what you do where you are` rather than `a place you went to.`
Was there a point in the 1990s, during the growth years, when you thought ‘this is actually becoming a serious industry now’?
You are assuming that is actually is one now?! In order to keep our sanity at times we used to joke that `PR was not a job for grown ups` but it was quite clear to us that despite often wondering like the Talking Heads `Once in a Lifetime` lyric `how did we get here? ` in the second half of the 90s that we were running a network of 650 people with a combined fee income approaching $100 million. So, despite the fact that my parents still had no idea what I did for a living or whether I was any good at it – despite my personal `key indicator` of ever more outlandish be-spoilered pieces of German engineering appearing at regular intervals outside their houses – the good news was effective communication had become a prerequisite for commercial success in the fastest-moving business the world had ever seen.
How has PR in the technology sector in particular changed over the past 20 years?
Hugely, as the technology sector is always the first to adopt new communications technologies. The game changers have been email, the World Wide Web, ubiquitous mobility, search engines and now digital and social media platforms. What hasn’t changed lamentably is the impression that somehow you need to be a geek to work in it but thankfully plentiful beer is still the favourite lubricant for journalistic discourse. And content still is king.
Do you remember the first time you went to a client meeting without a tie?
Clearly. It was at Silicon Graphics in California in 1988 – on a press trip in a freak heatwave in March. Apart from the unexpected spring sunburn everything was fine because, being the 1980s, a snappy pair of Ray Ban Wayfarers was de rigueur – 24/7. Which was just as well as because of a family crisis affecting one of my colleagues I’d been dragged out of my sick bed with `flu (not the `man` sort by the way, the proper `my legs feel like pieces of string` sort) to lead it and was looking and feeling more than a little bit grey, so as well as protecting my eyes from the u.v. those faux-tortoiseshell rims disguised my malaise nicely and left my coolness intact. I just had to work out how to stop sleeping in them…
Do you remember when you first used the internet to do something for a client?
Yeah we wrote `Rough Guide to the Internet` for IBM which was published by – you’ve guessed it – `Rough Guides` on the basis that it was `a guide to travelling in cyberspace`. Sadly, I still think that was a pretty neat bit of horizontal thinking.
What stories do you have about 90s PR that not many people know about?
How sometimes life has a strange synchronicity. You work in tech PR, your car gets stolen, it’s used in a ram raid on a computer
warehouse, after a police chase it’s crashed in the IT Mecca of Bracknell and ends up as a bit of coverage in PR Week. The embroidered story is still on the Web – look here – http://bit.ly/kQynfw Come to think of it, didn’t The Police actually produce an album called `Synchronicity`…spooky…
Of course the 90s too were full of great examples of the result of executives and journalists getting tired and emotional at company parties and on press trips. Our own spectacularly bacchanalian company events served as a great safety valve for relief from the day-to-day grind. I never ceased to wonder when presented with the bill quite how we had managed to consume so much. I blame the tequila…
Anyway, though, I wish I’d recorded some of the content of some of the Kafka-esque meetings with overwrought and over-invested smart-arses who thought they were going to be the next dot.com millionaires. The nuclear meltdown, for instance, when a hotel could not supply one of these brats with Pepsi during an interview. `I only drink Pepsi, so get me f****** Pepsi!!!!` one teenage moron shrieked as a poor Coke-holding waitress backed out of the room propelled by his pompous, oafish ranting. Or the constant clicking of keyboards as countless limited-attention-span jerks disinterestedly `multi-tasked` during presentations demanded at the last minute - high on their own arrogance, caffeine and jet lag.
One particular moment of tragicomedy involved me being backed into corner by a furious pint-sized control freak American chief executive screaming `I’m the boss don’t tell me my f****** business` when it was again mentioned after his 13th interview (he had 18 in total – how times have changed) that his sleepwalking `Rolodex presentation` was making the journalists lose the will to live and reducing his chances of coverage to zero (I didn’t exactly use those words, but you get the drift). Luckily I was able to hand over duties that day on that account to someone whose tact and diplomacy meant that he ultimately swapped being a PR for being an MP.
And then there was the chronically insecure MD who disagreed with our choice of photograph of him and clearly irked by the fact that it had been used very successfully in campaign he, in some weird passive-aggressive manoeuvre, secretly got another shot from the session contacts sheets (we had those in the 90s before digital photography) blown up to poster size and then pinned to the outside of his office door to make some sort of rather pointless point.
And there were the shows. Particularly those held in Las Vegas, like the behemoth named Comdex. Putting the IT industry into Vegas is like letting a bunch of delinquent teenagers with a sugar fixation loose on the confectionary counter. One particular event stands out.
The very young and very talented founder of a British cyber security company – which had been recently acquired by an investment of one of our VC clients – went to Vegas to man the stand at a big security show. He promptly disappeared. 48 hours later despite our frantic efforts to locate him and full crisis comms plans having been implemented, he was apprehended by the police and was found to have punished his company credit card on a two-day bender of drink, drugs, gambling and women of ill-repute. When the local sheriff called the apoplectic new CEO to inform him that the errant and now dishevelled employee had been found, the somewhat relieved CEO’s first question was `Is he alive?` `Yes sir,` said the sheriff `You’ll be glad to know he is`. `Good, ` said the CEO, rediscovering his ire, `because when I get to him I’m going to f****** kill him! `
Strange and sweary times, I guarantee you, it’s all true. And then there was the endless `toys out of the pram` episodes as one salesperson or regional head got a Porsche or a Rolex or holiday or a bigger office or some tastele
ss gewgaw at a company ra ra event, (always it seemed held in Hawaii presented by a Z-list American celeb or executive who thought they were one who’d turned the cheese up to the full Monterey Jack) and the others didn’t. Or the unalloyed joy of having to stop a dealer race day as the last four sales directors standing looked bent on committing motoring murder on the track. They had the weapons in the form of designed-by-three-people-who-clearly-weren’t-speaking-to-eachother but then aspirational Jaguar XJSs and they were clearly going to use them.
Nevertheless, through all of these mad times there were (and are) some great clients – grownups who were (and are) a delight to deal with. I won’t embarrass them by listing their names but, of course, those that get PR inevitably get to the top of the tree and remain great mates to this day. After all, great marketing trumps great technology every time and you simply can’t beat having drinks after a successful day with someone whose self-made talent has allowed them to own one of the ten biggest yachts in the world and is a really nice guy to boot.
You, Blur, Oasis and (naturally) New Order are down the pub and they all ask about PR. What do you tell them?
`Some Might Say` if you don’t `Acquiesce` you can make the sort of money that’ll get you a nice `Country House` although with very little `Leisure` time to spend in it. Nevertheless, a career in PR is something you won’t `Regret` because you’ll never have a week that’s the same or a `Blue Monday`.
So there we have it. Memory lane, and then some.
More conclusions to follow in the wrap-up post. And next: The Naughties.
But one quick thought on the 1990s: it was a transitional period, during which the pace of change in PR accelerated like never before. We went from basic computers to powerful computers – and, some might say (Oasis hat-tip again there), from basic PRs to some pretty sophisticated ones. And along the way, madness, mayhem and a lot of maturity. Well, relatively-speaking for PR anyway.