Larry Franks - Packing a punchline

A background in stand-up comedy first stirred a passion for comms in the Beige MD, reports Matt Cartmell.

No shrinking violet: Beige MD Larry Franks
No shrinking violet: Beige MD Larry Franks

Moments after entering Beige's funky new offices in London's Leicester Square, MD Larry Franks is showing off an antique chamber pot.

The highly tanned Brummie explains that this prop was once used to suss out a prospective client's financial situation. 'The office manager used to bring it out at a given moment, and I'd say, "We've got a pot to piss in - have you?" It was quite funny.'

Welcome to the entertaining world of Franks, who leads the one-year-old creative powerhouse with a mix of outrageous humour, intense passion for brand comms and a searing honesty in his dealings with clients.

'I'm outspoken,' admits Franks, 'but no grey-haired client wants to listen to bull-shit any more.'

University of Westminster visiting professor of PR Trevor Morris attests to Franks' open style: 'Apart from being enormous fun, he's Franks by name and frank by nature.

'He's an honest guy, and he has a real sense of popular culture and how it impacts on brands. He doesn't need to make much effort to imagine how Joe Public thinks.'

Before taking on the nascent London PR scene of the 1990s and helping to turn Japanese electronic toy the Tamagotchi into a British sensation, Franks was making a name for himself as a stand-up comedian in Birmingham.

The proof is provided by a yellowing poster that he unfurls to reveal a smoothly coiffured Franks at the mic.

'Looking back I was good but not that good,' he admits, adding that one of his jokes involved a cup full of ice cubes as part of an impersonation of 'an Eskimo having a piss'.

His punchlines may have lacked a certain sophistication, but the 49-year-old claims his grounding in comedy was the start of his fascination with comms.

'What we do in PR is create brand truth - something real that you can give to the media that they want. It's like writing gags - if the script is good and the execution is good, then the audience will laugh. I find advertising is like canned laughter.'

Franks adds that it is 'the ad money' that he is after. 'We're very creative at promoting a brand message,' he says of his agency. 'PROs who claim great coverage that barely mentions the brand are out of touch and out of date.'

He is also disparaging of agencies that struggle to show their impact on the bottom line, arguing 'the activity has got to put bums on seats'.

Virgin Media head of brand amplification Simon Dornan has been working with Franks for ten years, ever since Franks worked on the Virgin Megastores account. He says that Franks' irreverent and cheeky style of comms is perfectly matched to Virgin. 'Virgin Media is a telecoms company,' he says, 'and we've got to make that interesting. Beige does the job of bringing a lot of that stuff to life.'

Franks launched Beige last April from the ashes of Borkowski PR, the agency that he worked at for 12 years alongside Mark Borkowski. With two big personalities between those four walls, was there ever friction?

'I would argue that I'm as big a character as anyone. There are quite a few big characters around. There are no shrinking violets here.'

When Borkowski left, Franks said it never crossed his mind to up sticks and move on from the team.

'I'm quite an old-fashioned kind of guy,' he says. 'Having a religious mother, you were brought up to believe that loyalty is very important. I was very loyal to Mark.'

The ensuing months have been something of a rollercoaster ride, with high street names such as home electronics company Pioneer joining the roster and one or two others moving on, alongside some staffing changes that mean Franks has been focused on recruitment.

He has an unusual technique for weeding out snobbish candidates, which takes place at Balans restaurant in Old Compton Street. After the interview, he asks the waiter whether the candidate has been courteous. He explains: 'It's down to the waiter, who gives an indication of how they treat normal people.'

He is a man of obsessions - be they motorbikes, British bulldogs or his beloved Aston Villa. 'When I say I'm passionate, I'm passionate. I'm obsessed.'

The passion extends to his agency's work and the comedy that he insists provided the foundations for his insight. As he says: 'The public knows a bad joke when it hears one.' And it might feature an Eskimo ...

CV

2011 Partner/MD, Beige

2006 MD, Borkowski PR

2000 New business manager, Borkowski PR

1997 Account director, The Wright Partnership

 

LARRY FRANKS' TURNING POINTS

What was your biggest career break?

It was in 1997 and thanks to Bandai UK for introducing me to the virtual pet from Japan, the Tamagotchi, and allowing me the artistic freedom to conduct a PR campaign. Never forgotten it.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Too many to mention but anyone who has put a smile on my face in the past 30 years, 'Our Graeme', Arkell, Trevor Morris, Conor Nolan, along with the most talented people I work with who still inspire today: Megan Greenwood, Kathryn McAuley, Natasha Gould and Tom Johnson. As well as some amazing clients who really do want to make a difference to their brand, and my wife and two bulldogs who make it all worthwhile.

What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?

Be different, be brave, be unconventional, and be prepared to face the consequences.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Must have the ability to walk with lords and talk to tramps.

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