PR Pioneers: Mark Borkowski

First published in January 2012

Mark Borkowski

In the PR agency world, one of the key moments in 2011 was surely the seemingly sudden announcement in April that veteran communicator Mark Borkowski was leaving the company that had operated under his name for over two decades, and was setting up a brand new streamlined communications agency instead.

The frequently-quoted PR man was frustrated, the rumour machine told us, with the way his profession was still employing an out dated methodology in a radically changing world, and the only way to pursue the bold new approach that was now required was to start over, with Borkowski v.2. Not everyone in the v.1 Borkowski agency agreed though, so he sold his partners his shares and left the building, taking his name, ideas and ambitions with him. v.1 quickly rebranded as Beige.

To those on the outside, it really did feel like a sudden leap. Though, unsurprisingly perhaps, Borkowski himself had been planning the split for sometime. “I’d been working on it all for about a year before the April announcement” he admits, “my vision for a new kind of agency came gradually; as did the realisation that it couldn’t be achieved in the framework of a traditional PR company”.

So, what was it about PR in 2011 that was causing Borkowski such frustration? “I just felt too many people in PR had become slaves to the process”, he explains, “you invest far too much time into the pitching process, even though you know the goalposts will likely move as soon as you’re engaged, and even when you feel the brief you’re working to, which probably has its roots in an ad agency creative, is all wrong to start with”.

Consumer PR people are too often asked to build press campaigns around stories that ad people have conceived during creative brainstorming sessions, Borkowski’s argument seems to goes, but those stories are often removed from reality, and in the social media age a brand’s message needs to be more closely aligned with the truth, because that’s what consumers chattering on the social networks are more interested in. And when it comes to telling true stories, PR people have more expertise than the ad men, but for that expertise to be of use, the PR experts need to be brought in sooner.

When you realise that Borkowski’s new approach may require telling prospective clients they’ve got it all wrong before you even pitch, you can understand why that new approach might not work within the confines of an established agency, and why his business partners were nervous. Borkowski, of course, has always had a reputation for speaking his mind, but perhaps even he hadn’t been so brutally honest to potential customers in the past.

“The Borkowski brand has always stood for excellence and innovation” Mark says, “but when you are carrying big overheads as an agency, it becomes harder and harder to say no to projects, even if you think a client has got some fundamentals wrong. I started to realise that to move forward we needed to radically shake things up, to really change the business model. When it became clear not everyone in the old agency wanted to go that route, we began negotiating the split. It was all relatively amicable in the end”.

It’s not totally out with the old at Borkowski v.2, not least because Mark took the arts and entertainment division of the old company with him. “The entertainment side of the business has always been synonymous with me,” he explains, “and anyway, that wasn’t where my concerns lay. It’s a great team, and is pretty much run by Dee [McCourt, the long-time head of the Borkowski entertainment PR business]. I still support their projects, of course, and take a more hands role in crisis management work. But it’s not my core focus in the new company”.

That core focus is, the consumer brand part of the business where the radical new approach is being honed. The key aim here is to get the right clients, that is to say brands which “get” Borkowski’s new agenda. “We need to be working higher up the food chain” he says, “with people who realise the world is changing around them, and that their current communication strategies are becoming less effective. Communicators and marketers who are brave enough to recognise their weaknesses, and who are interested in forging partnerships with people like us to change the ways they speak to and with their public”.

Cynics might wonder if such communicators and marketers really exist, but given the companies is already working with, some publicly, some behind the scenes, it seems that they do. Though ensuring he was working with those people required Borkoswki to be more choosey when picking potential clients, hence the need to take the company back to basics first.

Of course the desire amongst more entrepreneurial PRs to work “higher up the food chain” in client companies isn’t new, and at the more corporate end of the industry financial agencies have for a while now been utilising their ‘results day relationships’ with CEOs and CFOs to build a new communications counselling role at the highest level. But those on the consumer side of PR have found it harder to extend their influence.

But now’s exactly the time to do it, Borkowski reckons, because “the big ad agencies are starting to tread on our territory, because they are recognising our approach is more effective as consumers become ever more savvy and vocal. But as chief decision makers start to have those kinds of conversations with the ad agencies, they should be bringing the experts from the PR side into the picture sooner as well”.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Borkowski sees the advertising agencies as the enemy in this story, but he’d almost certainly tell you that the ad men – the good ones that is – are future colleagues rather than competitors. And indeed his business partners in the new Borkowski venture, Jonathan Durden and Ivan Clark, both come from advertising backgrounds.

“There’s a tendency for those involved in brand communications to sit within their silos” Borkowski muses, “but that means too often you pick the solution before you’ve really heard the problem, ie whichever method your agency specialises in. But that’s not the right way to do it. Sometimes TV works, sometimes outdoor advertising works, sometimes it’s social media, sometimes digital PR, often you need a combination – you should be able to pick what is required on a project by project basis, and have access to the right talents as and when you need them”.

It’s typically inspiring speak from PR’s self-confessed showman, who adds that public relations has always been at it’s best when it is being restless and curious, and responding to the world. But for those nervous of change, Borkowski stresses that some fundamentals remain. “It’s always been about the story, and taking the story to the people. Technology changes stuff, but the basics remain the same. The way you craft the story, and the way you deliver it, that’s what’s changing. That’s what needs a new more flexible approach, and that’s the driving force behind the new Borkowski”.


Words: Chris Cooke | Photo: Sarah Lee