Martin Bostock - Mr Nice Guy gets tough

The incoming chairman of the PRCA's PR Council plans to use his time in office to ask some hard questions, reports Lynsey Barber.

Global force: Martin Bostock
Global force: Martin Bostock

It is 25 years since Martin Bostock co-founded Nelson Bostock, yet this is the first time he had told his own story to PRWeek. Bostock readily admits his focus has always been on his agency, rather than his own profile, and even appears slightly uncomfortable at being the focus of attention for the first time during his 35-year career.

However, it is possible his discomfort could be more related to the Movember moustache he is sporting: 'It's not a look I usually go for,' he is keen to point out.

As incoming chairman of the PRCA's PR Council, Bostock has made an active decision to take a step into the limelight.

As vice-chairman, he is already involved in creating the PRCA's partnership charter with outgoing chairman Lis Lewis-Jones, and has clear plans for his own tenure.

'I would like to use next year to take a step back and ask what should the council be doing, what are the issues? There may be other important issues we are not dealing with,' says Bostock.

'I have my own views but want to include all members and have a hard look at what the council is here for - what success for it looks like. It's a good time to ask some tough questions.'

With a wry grin, he suggests his fellow council members were happy he landed the role only because it meant they would not have to take it on themselves.

Cirkle CEO Caroline Kinsey, who knows Bostock through the PRCA, describes him as a stalwart of the profession, embodying values such as credibility and authenticity. 'He's one of life's good guys and a beacon in the industry,' she says.

Nelson Bostock is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and yet its chairman still shows huge enthusiasm for the work the agency does and the industry that has been so good to him.

'I have a great time. I love working with the people and clients. It (the agency) was my baby and I still love it. I like being here and I learn new things every day. About PR, about people and about business.'

He is animated and enthusiastic, whether talking about how social media have brought more direct engagement with consumers, or about his baptism of fire as the head of press and publicity for Labour-run Hackney Council at the height of Margaret Thatcher's reign during the 1980s. In fact, if anything might have jaded him, it would be this.

He recalls taking a call from a reporter at The Sun, asking if the nursery rhyme Baa, Baa, Black Sheep had been banned in local nurseries. 'While there was no ban, the council leader said that a ban would be supported if any nursery intended to impose one,' explains Bostock.

'It was an interesting demonstration at first hand of how a politician, even a local one, can walk straight into a trap and not listen to advice,' he says. Uncomfortable sheep-related headlines went global, appearing as far afield as Australia and Canada.

'I felt like a radical socialist at the time,' says Bostock. 'It was one of the most fascinating times in modern British political history. There we were in Hackney committed to bringing down the Government. Which, of course, we didn't.'

Having failed to topple the Conservatives, he reconnected with Roger Nelson, the man who had helped to give him his start in the industry at Extel in 1977.

Things did not begin smoothly. Their nascent start-up lost its sole client, on Christmas Eve, but six months later they had turned things around and picked up Toshiba - an account the agency still retains.

Toshiba took the agency, somewhat unintentionally, down a consumer tech path, but it was a path that enabled the agency to steadily grow, culminating in 2011, a year that Bostock claims as his collective best time in PR.

'We created new agencies Fever PR and Things With Wings and brought in fresh management. To still be around 25 years later, winning awards, pushing boundaries and doing new things, made last year a great year,' he says proudly.

The self-deprecating Bostock is keen to spread the credit around for these achievements. 'Hire people who are better than you,' he says. 'I'm surrounded by people like that and this is the most important thing for anyone trying to build a business. Hire people who are a bit scary, who want your job.'

It is obviously now second nature for him to deflect attention away from himself in this unassuming way, but it speaks volumes about how he has built a successful agency, with client relationships lasting decades.

Behind this is what PRCA director-general Francis Ingham describes as 'a steely determination that people underestimate at their cost'.

This enthusiasm makes Bostock appear younger than his 59 years. Nelson Bostock group MD Lee Nugent, who has worked with him for 16 years, observes that Bostock likes to keep up with 'young things', particularly music, a lifelong passion. Early in the morning, with the office still empty, Bostock can often be found playing the latest bands on Spotify at full blast.

'I'd be a rock 'n' roll god playing base guitar in a globally famous band,' he jokes, for once less than modestly, when asked what he would be doing if not working in PR.

The music industry's loss, however, has been PRs' gain - and he shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.

CV

2013 Chairman, PRCA PR Council

2008 Non-executive director, Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust

2007 Trustee, The Citizenship Foundation

2007  Chairman, Nelson Bostock Group

2005 Executive board member, Creston

1987 Managing director, Nelson Bostock

1984 Head of press and publicity, London Borough of Hackney

1982 Group account director, Good Relations

1981 Account director, Abel Hadden Associates

1977 Account director, Extel advertising and PR

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

In 1977, I was working in a wine bar in Fleet Street when an annoying American bloke in a seersucker jacket and Panama hat walked in. He demanded a Manhattan. I had no idea what that was (the bar only sold wine and spirits). It was Roger Nelson, who was having a great time with some PR people. We became friends and I blagged my way into a job at the agency where he worked. Ten years later, Nelson Bostock opened for business.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Sue Batcheler, my wife of 24 years. She has shared the highs and lows, and has been involved in every major business decision I've taken.

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

Question everything. Listen more than you speak. Never assume.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Curiosity, ambition, commitment, self-belief, humility and humour.

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