The world of automotive media is as macho as it gets, right? It is essentially about men and their motors. But Mercedes-Benz is trying to change all, or at least some, of that.
On the afternoon PRWeek meets Mercedes' UK comms chief Andrew Roberts, he is about to head off to the Top Gear Awards. One can imagine the format. Black tie, a few beers with the other motor industry lads, everyone back to Jeremy Clarkson's place for a knees-up ...
So it is refreshing to hear about Roberts' new strategy for Mercedes, whose sponsorship of this week's London Fashion Week (LFW) is a move in a completely different direction.
Hence we find ourselves chatting in the offices of the car brand's fashion PR consultants, in the heart of Bond Street, surrounded by some very nice clothes indeed.
Mercedes' work with fashion has so far involved sponsoring GQ's best-dressed men awards, selecting new 'brand ambassadors' for the car firm - unfortunately Roberts will not reveal who they are yet - and, from today, providing a special concierge service for some of the key movers and shakers at LFW.
But why haute couture? Surely Mercedes drivers are principally 50-something company bosses with a penchant for golf?
Roberts, who is 40, is strenuous to point out that Mercedes is 'very happy' with its core audience but wants to broaden the demographic. 'We're preparing to launch a new range of small cars,' he explains. 'We'd like more customers in the 35 to 45 age range and more executive fleet customers.'
Is he also saying Mercedes wants more female customers? 'That's not the main reason,' he responds. 'But we do want to re-establish ourselves as the number one luxury car brand, and we have cars in lots of different segments.'
In the luxury car world Mercedes' main rivals are Audi and BMW, and it is keen to compete in every segment of the market. New, smaller vehicles for 2011 will prove crucial in this respect.
The next phase of Mercedes launches includes the CLS-Class, which goes on sale next month, claiming 'low emissions but high performance'.
And this summer will see the debut of the C-Class Coupe - a performance-oriented model that Roberts believes will 'appeal to customers new to the brand' - and the SLK-Class, with its bucket-load of new technology.
But how will fashion sponsorship actually help sell these impressive new lumps of metal? 'The sponsorships give us great content,' explains Roberts. 'We are not a fashion brand but our aim is to give people the inside track on fashion. Entertainment creates energy behind our brands.'
The German car maker clearly has the right man in place. Roberts is a sharp, well-dressed operator, brimming with the necessary energy and drive. One can see him thriving in the fashion, or sports, sector as much as in the automotive field.
Stuart Dyble, Roberts' former boss at Land Rover, and now director of specialist marketing and comms agency Influence, says of his former colleague: 'Andrew has an outstanding feel for the brand and how to translate that into a 360 degree journalist experience. This is why his global car launches are always both memorable and effective. He is also the sort of operator who delivers on his promises, which is reassuring in a world where there are still far too many flaky PR types.'
Like many 'PR types', Roberts began his career as a hack. He was a graduate trainee at Autocar, a title still owned by PRWeek's publisher Haymarket. His colleagues there included James May, now of Top Gear fame.
'I left uni and couldn't believe you could get paid to write about cars,' recalls Roberts. 'But I soon realised that I wanted to be generating content rather than reporting it and when I was 25 a PR opportunity came up at Ford.'
As well as the motoring hacks, Roberts has since added to his list of friends such luminaries as GQ editor Dylan Jones. He is clearly motivated by developing fresh media ideas and shaping outcomes, something that has served him well in the fiercely competitive, quick-fire launch environment of the car industry.
So has his new-found passion for fashion made him a London luvvie yet? Roberts, whose family home is in Milton Keynes, just laughs: 'No, I don't believe in networking for networking's sake. I also have two young sons at home. So these days I need to choose carefully who I spend my time with.'
- 2009 Comms director, Mercedes-Benz UK
- 2007 Director, global product & brand comms and experiential
marketing, Land Rover
- 2004 Director, global product & brand comms, Land Rover
- 2001 Manager, global product comms, Land Rover
- 1999 UK PR manager, Nissan Motor GB
- 1996 Senior press officer, product affairs, Ford of Britain
- 1993 Staff writer, Fast Lane magazine
ANDREW ROBERTS' TURNING POINTS
What was your biggest career break?
Getting work experience at Autocar magazine shaped my entire career. I still count some of my best contacts from that time. Then Ford unbelievably took a chance on me, which was an excellent opportunity to learn about PR in the automotive industry.
Have you had a notable mentor?
John Blauth gave me my first job in journalism and we still keep in regular contact. Stuart Dyble, then my new boss at Ford, gave me the chance to develop both as an individual and PRO. He made it clear that the right attitude made anything possible, even in a corporation as large as Ford and later at Jaguar Land Rover. At Land Rover I was lucky enough to work with the then MD, Matthew Taylor. He was an inspirational leader.
What advice would you give anyone climbing the career ladder?
Always deliver what you promise. That is critical - no matter how good you are at internal politics. And it's amazing how persuasive energy and belief in what you do can be.
What do you prize in new recruits?
The people who stand out are the ones able to operate at a level beyond what is expected of them.