Love it. Hate it. Say you hate it but secretly love it. Whatever your views on The X Factor, the show is a media sensation. For four months of the year, the TV singing contest is plastered over the tabloids' front pages. This year's series concluded last Sunday and all eyes now turn to the race for the Christmas number one slot.
But at the helm of the show's formidable media operation is petite and vivacious Ann-Marie Thomson.
The 32-year-old is responsible for the global reputation of Simon Cowell's entertainment company Syco, its artists and shows. Syco produces both The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent and counts Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke, Westlife and Il Divo among its artists. The profiles of individual TV series are jointly managed with Talkback Thames and ITV.
The job is certainly hands-on. Thomson is at the Wembley-based studios from Friday morning through to Sunday night, responding to media calls throughout the show. She also has regular banter-filled group emails with a handful of tabloid journalists and showbiz editors whom she considers 'friends'.
Thomson insists a lot of the news around the show is self-generating, rather than scripted by the PR team. 'This year, we have allowed the contestants a freer rein with the media. It is the first season where they have their own Twitter feeds, which means they can have a direct relationship with journalists without us being in the middle. Nothing is censored,' she says.
On average, each series generates more than 500 front page articles, but coverage is not endlessly positive. To the allegation that the show harms the music industry, Thomson responds: 'It's a fantastic platform for artists who want to make it and those who have already made it. That is why we have huge international stars queuing up to stand on that stage a year in advance.'
She also denies that contestants are manipulated through the editing process: 'Nobody makes anybody do, sing or wear anything they don't want to. They make their own decisions. They are not puppets.'
As Max Clifford's former PA, Thomson is not intimidated by the high-profile nature of her work, estimating she has already been involved with 3,000 front page stories. In an early display of tenacity, when studying PR at Leeds University, she asked Clifford for his views on how to get ahead in the industry. She ended up working with him for three and a half years. It was during this time that she met Cowell, when he became a Pop Idol judge. Years later, Cowell asked her to set up the PR side of Syco.
Clifford praises Thomson's determined attitude. 'She's done a great job at Syco. She's bright, ambitious and very hard-working. She lives the business and is totally dedicated to what she does,' he tells PRWeek.
Another former boss, Taylor Herring's managing partner James Herring, says she keeps a 'very cool head and a winning smile' while juggling PR for some of the UK's biggest TV shows and stars: 'Despite the fact that she commands the respect of newspaper editors and record company CEOs, she has a common touch with her feet firmly on the ground when it comes to taking those tricky decisions.'
Our interview, which takes place at Syco's offices at Sony HQ, is interrupted by both Il Divo and Alexandra Burke, who spot Thomson through the glass office walls. 'She's fantastic,' Burke tells PRWeek. 'That's why she is where she is. She's got a heart of gold and she really protects you.'
Thomson left the PR bubble in 2005 when she joined the Nottingham Probation Service, working with community service groups, before moving to Garth Prison in Lancashire to undertake psychological assessments of prisoners. The move was driven by a desire for a change and a lifelong interest in psychology. But it was not long before she was lured back into the world of PR, including handling Danielle Lloyd during the Big Brother race row.
Thomson is candid about the all-encompassing nature of her job. 'Anyone who thinks this job is glamorous is heading in the wrong direction. You have to sacrifice some of your friends because you have to live and breathe this show 24 hours a day. But it's a lifestyle choice that you have to accept,' she admits.
The X Factor is set to launch in the US next year, which could see Thomson travelling between Los Angeles and London every week. She is evidently excited by the prospect, although what that will do for her work/life balance is another matter.
But there are not many PROs who could claim so many regular front pages splashes. 'It's strange when you think that the phone conversation I had on my sofa last night is now being read by the whole country,' she says.
Ann-Marie Thomson's turning points
- What was your biggest career break?
Being able to work alongside Max Clifford, getting to know so many journalists and editors, and through Max meeting and working with Simon Cowell at the beginning of Pop Idol. I gained experience at Max's not only in traditional PR but also through brokering deals on stories.
- Have you any notable mentors?
My godmother Alison Carnwath, who is chairman of Land Securities and non-executive director of other major global companies including Barclays Bank, and my godfather Chris Wood, chairman of Corporate Edge. Others include Max, James Herring, Mark Borkowski, more editors and journalists than I can name, Syco's MD Sonny Takhar and, above all, Simon.
- What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?
Create your own opportunities and luck, and watch, listen and learn.
- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?
Absolute passion, honesty, loyalty and buckets of common sense. They need to be tough, straight talking and have a sense of humour - and be contactable 24/7/365.
2007: International head of media, Syco TV/Syco Music, Sony Entertainment
2006: Consultant, Max Clifford Associates
2005: Psychological assistant, HMP Garth
2005: Community services supervisor, Nottinghamshire Probation Service
2004: Account director, Taylor Herring Communications
2000: PA to Max Clifford and then account director, Max Clifford Associates