Blinkbox's Ben Ayers is sinking his teeth in to social and PR stunts

Blinkbox's head of PR puts Jaws and Luis Suarez in the shade when it comes to getting stuck into something. Lynsey Barber reports.

Ben Ayers: Blinkbox group head of PR
Ben Ayers: Blinkbox group head of PR

In the hipster hub of east London's Prufrock coffee shop, not far from Blinkbox's offices, Ben Ayers is waxing lyrical about the company's daily news meetings like an old hack.

'Every morning at 9.45 it's a three-line whip. You're on that call, you're looking at what's surfaced,' he enthuses. 'We're scouring all media for what's hot and then we're looking for opportunities either to jump in and exploit and take the story forward, or just curate and reference it and reflect on what's happening there.'

This media obsession could be seen as quaintly old-fashioned for a digital brand such as Blinkbox, but the Tesco-owned entertainment service has put PR-led coverage at the centre of its marketing proposition to compete with better resourced contemporaries.

Going toe-to-toe with Netflix, Amazon's LoveFilm, Sky's Now TV and Spotify, which is reportedly the latest to throw its hat into the ring, Blinkbox is leading Tesco's plans for a digital entertainment empire.

Now group head of PR for the brand and its soon-to-launch digital services Blinkbox Books, Blinkbox Music and Clubcard TV, Ayers has already managed to grab more than a few headlines to stand out in the crowded space.

The most memorable outcome of his fevered news meetings was a viral campaign that gained coverage across the world. The firm offered Ryan Gosling fans a hotline to his voice, abating their devastation over the news he was taking a break from acting. 'The phone still rings,' says Ayers, with a combination of pride and bewilderment.

It comes back to a lesson Ayers learned earlier in his career: a big idea can still be executed in simple ways.

The 36-year-old tells of his efforts to put a shark - or at least a man dressed as a shark - in the Thames as a stunt to promote Shark season on ITV: 'Sometimes those stunts work and sometimes they don't. I thought, "I could have just Photoshopped it". It was funny, but far too much effort for the end result.'

He also deadpans that it was overshadowed when a seven-tonne whale swam past the same spot, making global news. The media, it seems, is a fickle mistress.

It is no surprise to find the self-confessed news junkie has trodden the well-worn path from hack to flack. An avid Radio 4 listener and devourer of online news, he admits to an unfulfilled longing to settle down with an old-fashioned newspaper. 'I read everything online, but at the weekend ...' he trails off wistfully. 'I've got kids, so it's hard.'

After deciding the ambulance-chasing of local news was not for him, he kick-started his comms career with Comic Relief. Despite the ill-fated shark stunt, Ayers' PR role at ITV evolved into managing online communities around TV shows, such as The X Factor and the news team's coverage of the 2010 general election.

'At that time, I didn't really see my role as PR because I'd gone into community. I still don't really see it as PR,' he remarks.

Suddenly, it occurs to him that his job title includes the term 'PR'. 'I've always been involved in comms, but not specifically PR,' he laughs.

It is understandable that he does not see a distinction, having approached comms from a PR, media owner and media agency perspective after also setting up Carat's social division. His former boss at ITV, Sophy Tobias, now head of comms at Facebook, says that despite his background as a traditional publicist he was an early adopter of social media while at ITV and 'platform agnostic'.

He brushes off the 'who owns social' question with an almost dismissive reply. 'It's a bit of a red herring. Social is just a behaviour, something that has been accelerated by new technology that is really tapping into a human instinct to share.'

Ayers pays close attention the weird and wacky depths of the web that he unearths through social. These are the potential sparks for an idea on which to hang a campaign.

It is difficult to argue with Tobias when she says: 'You can tell when he's passionate about something ... and he's definitely a comms person with a point of view.'

It is passion that enables Ayers to turn creative concepts into reality quickly, though he admits that not having to work through layers of sign-off at the largely 'flat structured' firm is a luxury.

'The discipline to have good ideas and the space to tease them out is the thing.

I believe PR is sometimes in danger of chasing its tail, not thinking what do we want people to do, pausing and having the time to think about what to do,' he says.

However, it is more of a necessity than an indulgence, and fortune favours the brave.

'We have to be brave,' Ayers asserts. 'The fact is we're in a very crowded space, we don't have the luxury of being able to talk about movies in really great detail at that moment as we do with cinema (when films are first released). So we have to be creative.'

The approach is paying off, with film studios exploring collaborative partnerships. It is also paying off for Ayers, as the seven-year-old brand accelerates into the mainstream after its acquisition by Tesco.

With parallels to a recent Blinkbox campaign - the Luis Suarez Collection, featuring films such as Jaws and Silence of the Lambs - once Ayers is inspired by a challenge, he cannot wait to sink his teeth into it.

CV

2013 Group head of PR, Blinkbox

2012 Head of PR, Blinkbox

2010 Social strategy director, Carat

2009 Head of social media and community, ITV

2008 PR manager, ITV Consumer

2007 Senior publicist, factual and new media, ITV

2005 Publicist, factual and entertainment, ITV

2003 Press officer, Science Museum London

2002 Media relations officer (campaign contract), Comic Relief

2001 Assistant publicist, factual programmes, BBC

2001 Media relations assistant (campaign contract), Comic Relief

1999 Reporter, Southern Daily Echo

Tips from the top

What was your biggest career break?

Comic Relief changed everything for me. I learned about comms from the best people in the business, what passion in a workplace can achieve and how important the team around you is.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Stephen Bromberg, who was head of comms at the Science Museum. He let me learn through experimenting, which was brave, and backed some of my more ridiculous endeavours.

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

Don't pigeonhole yourself, show initiative and be prepared to roll your sleeves up and muck in. Don't misspell anything - ever. Also, be a team player and speak your mind. Generally, people value input from all angles.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Initiative, passion, attention to detail, a strategic mind and curiosity about lots of things.

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