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PR Interview with Mark Houlding, CEO of Rostrum Communications

About the agency

What industry sectors does Rostrum Communications specialise in?

Financial services, professional services and technology – both b2b and b2c.

What’s been happening recently at the agency? 

We’ve expanded the team to 16 people this year. Claire Unwin joined from Hotwire to join our tech team, Sophie Placido came from PHA to our FS team and Sallie Bale joined from H&K to our FS team. Michael Kahn became our full-time head of content and Annabel Banks and Duncan Sparke made the leap from interns to full-time. We’re looking for one or two more people this year if we can find the right candidates.

We’ve launched an in-house research offering,, have committed to paying all interns more than the minimum wage, and have introduced a development programme for all staff called Stepping Up.

In terms of client wins, the pace of new business has been relentless, and we’ve started work with HSBC, RBS, Freshfields and CSC in addition to our ongoing work with Ernst & Young and Legal & General. Plus, we continue to work with lots of other exciting growth brands, mid-market companies and owner-managed businesses.

What is special about the agency’s approach to PR?

Clients tell us that we really get their industries – not just paying lip service, but genuinely understanding the complex business issues driving the sector. We’re getting hired more and more for our creative thinking and “big ideas”. Clients get a lot out of our network – we’re always looking for introductions that will help their business. And people just like working with us – we spend a lot of time on the relationship side of things.

What future plans do you have for the agency?

There’s never been a formal plan, which makes life easier. We’re on track to hit our stretch revenue target for 2012-13, and the target for next year is to bill £2m+ in fees. We want to do more with our new research brand, find more good people to hire and keep doing great work.

In your opinion, what are the main challenges facing the PR industry today?

I actually think the industry is enjoying a really strong time – the opportunities created by social media and the constant demand for good quality content means that we’re well-placed to thrive in the future. In my view, making the most of this opportunity is the main challenge.

About clients

Can you list some of your most well-known, or respected clients?

HSBC, Legal & General, Ernst & Young, RBS, CSC, Zolfo Cooper, NetNames.

Tell us about one of your clients you recently worked with.  What was the company’s brief, your approach and the result?

NetNames, a global brand management company, has hired us in six territories to promote its “Search, Find, Stop” brand campaign.  It’s an exciting project, involving lots of international co-ordination and we’re achieving some fantastic results – NetNames has already featured in The Economist and we’re only two months in.

How do you harness social media for your clients?

To interact with journalists, to talk about issues, to promote thought leadership, to benchmark success, stunts, etc. We see it as essential and integrated, rather than a separate channel. We’ve developed our own models for benchmarking social media capabilities and effectiveness, which lots of clients are now using.

What has been your most outlandish campaign?

I wouldn’t describe any of our work as outlandish.

What advice would you give to recent business start-ups on their PR strategy?

Get the balance between new business and client retention right.  Both are equally vital and success in these areas should be treated, and remunerated, to reflect that. 

About journalists

Which areas of the press do you communicate with the most and which media outlets or journalists do you find you work with the most often?

Nationals, broadcast and trade. We pitch a lot of stories to City AM, the FT, the Economist, The Times, The Telegraph, Today, etc.

What can you offer to journalists seeking a story on one of your clients?

Content they can actually use.

How do you build and maintain strong relationships with journalists?

By having a good story and not wasting their time.

How do you think the PR/journalist dynamic will change in the future?

I think it will remain love/hate and co-dependent. As it should be.

If you could ask a journalist one question out of the ordinary, what would it be?

Did you get my press release? Kidding.

About you

What media do you seek out first thing in the morning?

The Times business section, the FT and The Telegraph’s business pages. Arseblog (a blog about Arsenal). Sky Sports News. 

Are you involved in any other projects?

I’m a business mentor at Broadway, the homelessness charity, and a non-executive director at Erbut, a communications company.

Name three guests you’d invite to a dinner party and why.

Slash for lead guitar tips and tricks, Jimmy Carr for humour and Richard Dawkins because I agree with him.  

Do you attend networking events? If so, which are you attending soon?

We arrange our own networking events at The Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street – the last one was for legal marketing and PR professionals and we had senior marketing people from Magic Circle law firms talking about their challenges. The next one is for marketing professionals in accountancy firms and we’ve got a financial services themed event planned for 2013. We feel that the informality and the quality of the content and speakers at these events reflect our personality as an agency, and we’ll definitely be doing more of these types of events.

Outside of our own stuff, I’ll be at the TISA annual conference later in November, but generally I find that one-to-ones or very small gatherings are more fruitful. Annabel Dunstan of Gain & Retain does one-off networking events and I’ll be at my first one of those next month. We tend to network with marketing/PR buyers rather than attending agency-focused events.

What is the best piece of business advice you’ve ever been given?

Save half of everything you get paid by clients and you’ll always have enough money to pay the taxman.