Profile: Rob Brown, MD UK, Staniforth

Staniforth MD Rob Brown tells Cathy Wallace why he believes it is crucial for everyone to grasp the power of digital.

Rob Brown
Rob Brown

There is something very reassuring about Rob Brown. As the Staniforth MD enthuses about the benefits of integrated working with parent company TBWA in the agency's trendy, ad-heavy London offices, it is clear PRWeek is in the company of a real pro.

Brown - who is based mainly at Staniforth's headquarters in Manchester and travels to London once or twice a week - speaks with the confidence and authority one would expect from a professional who has just been elevated to the CIPR's executive board and asked to set up a panel on social media. 'We felt the CIPR should be involved in thought leadership in this area and that the best thing to do was to create a panel,' he says.

The CIPR has not always been seen as a progressive organisation, and Brown feels it will benefit from the forward-thinking nature of the new panel: 'The CIPR should be many different things if it is going to represent the totality of the profession as the industry's chartered body.'

The CIPR has the right man for the job. Brown's book, Public Relations and the Social Web, has become something of a 'how to' guide for PR professionals wanting to embrace the brave new world of social media. The book was published in April 2009.

'To be honest, I expected it to be totally out of date by now,' confesses Brown. 'But I use it as a reference book myself from time to time, and there is nothing in there that is out of date. It is still selling reasonably well.'

Of course, much has changed in the world of social media since April 2009, but Brown addresses these new areas on his blog, which accompanies the book.

Jay O'Connor, the current CIPR president, says of Brown: 'Rob has a real expertise in online reputation management. He is thoughtful, collaborative and passionate about the profession. He was lecturing on PR and the internet in the early 1990s.'

Brown, 47, certainly does not look like a typical digital geek. There is a notable absence of cardigan, comic-book T-shirt and spectacles. Instead, he more resembles a tough guy in a Hollywood action movie. His roguish smile, heavy stubble and slight Manchester twang belie his smart appearance.

Robert Harwood Matthews, president of TBWA Group UK, says: 'It is not easy to pigeonhole Rob. He does not hang with the asymmetrical-haircut Shoreditch mob, but he is every bit as progressive and technically adept.'

Brown certainly talks like a digital expert. 'It is insane to silo digital,' he says. 'This is something that impacts everybody, and so everybody needs to understand it. That does not mean everybody needs the same level of understanding, but having a digital department would be, to me, like having a press release department, where there are only a certain number of people who can write press releases.'

Brown wrote his book while on gardening leave from McCann Erickson, where he was previously head of PR, before joining Staniforth. He has a history of working for networks, joining McCann from Biss Lancaster, and is vocal about the opportunities they offer. 'Because TBWA is a business with a reputation for creativity, it has made us focus on the importance of creativity in what we do,' he says. 'You can always learn from working with other creative disciplines. And in PR we should always try to expose ourselves to new thinking wherever we can.'

Staniforth's London operation is housed within TBWA's Whitfield Street headquarters, and the advertising agency's influence is clear in the materials adorning the walls of the top-floor meeting room. Brown himself spends most of his time in Manchester, but he says there is little difference between the London and Manchester PR scenes.

'The biggest difference is that the PR community in Manchester is much smaller, and therefore it is a real community,' he says. 'Everybody knows each other and it is like a big family. Other than that, there is not much difference.'

He continues: 'We work for clients who are based all over the place. I do not think people who work outside London consider their location to be the most significant thing about what they do.'

For Brown, the most significant thing about his agency is its clients. 'We have increased our client base and that is one of our successes,' he says, naming British Airways, Aviva, Kellogg's and Haagen-Dazs, among other big brands. 'I don't think people know the clients we have. We have a job to do in terms of our own promotion. That is on the to-do list.'

ROB BROWN'S TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

Meeting Tony Ingham (now at IPB Communications) when I was a tea boy at Piccadilly Radio. He suggested I become a trainee at Staniforth Williams, where he was a director. I juggled radio and PR for a while before he gave me an ultimatum: join full time or he would find someone else.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

The joint MDs in that first job, Phil Staniforth and John Williams. Sally Ward, now MD at Porter Novelli, was a friend and colleague, as was Paver Smith director Denise Mullen. Another inspiration was Charles Tremayne, who was executive producer at World in Action when I did a stint as programme publicist.

- What advice would you give anyone climbing the career ladder?

Be dogged and determined. Work hard. Enjoy it. Don't fall out with people; save that indulgence for the latter stages of your career.

- What do you prize in new recruits?

A combination of utter persistence and total politeness. Being able to second-guess senior colleagues and act on instructions before they are given. Oh, and smiling.

 

CV

2008: MD UK, Staniforth

2001: PR director, McCann Erickson Manchester

1996: MD, Leedex Manchester (now Biss Lancaster)

1991: MD/proprietor, Pro-Action

1990: Acting MD, Paragon North West

1988: Account manager-director, Mason Williams

1986: Junior account executive, Staniforth Williams

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