Gerry Hopkinson: The power of ideas

The risk-taking co-founder of Unity tells Matt Cartmell why every PR campaign needs an element of jeopardy.

Gerry Hopkinson: 'I'm very forthright but have learned not to be as headstrong as I used to be'
Gerry Hopkinson: 'I'm very forthright but have learned not to be as headstrong as I used to be'

Gerry Hopkinson is on ebullient form as he seats PRWeek at a futuristic 'listening booth' in Unity's offices, explaining that it is a cast-off from a recent project to remodel a Pizza Express restaurant.

A pizzeria redesign might not be a typical job for a PR agency, but Hopkinson's ideas do not fit into the typical mould of PR. He speaks enthusiastically about brainstorming with the people from the art gallery in the basement and the video game developers upstairs, in the agency's Clerkenwell enclave.

'We're a social currency agency,' he says of Unity, which he founded six years ago with Nik Done. 'Ideas that get talked about are powerful. Without getting too high and mighty, we wanted to do something that had some integrity - we wanted to re-engineer PR for the 21st century.'

The agency's attempt at no-boundary creativity has just won it a place on GlaxoSmithKline's roster. The latest appointment comes after innovative campaigns including ones for Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, which it talked into releasing a Christmas pudding range and an innovative pop single.

Slam PR director Gemma Hunt - who formerly worked at Unity - says that Hopkinson is 'a true iconoclast' with an 'exceptional cultural canon', while also remembering his 'boundless sense of fun'.

'The speed with which he can descend from discussing the most highbrow topic imaginable to a wonderfully silly, childlike humour - special shout out for his "puppet show" in Berlin - and back again never fails to amaze.'

A charming and witty character with a strong grounding in counter-cultural reference points, 48-year-old Hopkinson admits to having his acerbic moments.

'I get bored very easily and I'm very forthright, but have learned not to be as headstrong as I used to be. Part of that is working with Nik and realising shouting loud isn't the answer, but I will never lose my contrarian side.'

Hopkinson says that people love the risky nature of what Unity does. He has talked stars such as Beth Ditto and Paul Weller, as well as Clear Channel and The Roundhouse, into contributing to campaigns entirely for free, because they liked the idea.

'Normally, you try to tell clients how safe a campaign idea is, but that actually turns people off. What we say is "this whole thing might be a total fuck-up". A key element of any campaign is jeopardy.'

Hopkinson is wont to throw the names of cultural theorists such as Rob Walker and Daniel Burrus into his explanation of the agency's work, adding: 'Social psychology is a part of what we do. It's a really disruptive time in culture, politics and business. What we are doing now was unthinkable five years ago.' But for all his conceptualisation, Hopkinson is self-deprecating enough to laugh at himself for being 'a bit of a wanker, really'.

Hailing from Vancouver, Hopkinson studied English and critical theory at the University of British Columbia, while revelling in the ethos of punk. It was there that he did some DJ-ing and put on gigs. He defines this as his bohemian period; it was about 'hanging out, not making money'.

After university he drifted around, wrote about the arts and eventually moved to London. 'A friend of mine said: "Do you want to come and work at QBO doing PR?" I said: "What's PR?" She said: "It's like journalism but the money is good."'

So began his corporate phase working for QBO founder Quentin Bell - 'a fucking amazing geezer', in the world of 1980s PR, when there were no computers, secretary pools typed up documents and long lunches were fundamental to the job.

It was during this time that Hopkinson met Nick Band and Gill Brown, who went off to launch their own agency and invited Hopkinson to join them. During his second stint at Band & Brown, Hopkinson met Done. Launching Unity with her started his 'third phase', when he realised he could be both corporate and bohemian. 'She is the person with whom I have the deepest relationship outside my personal life,' he says of Done.

He remembers what he first liked about her: 'She was great at esprit de corps. I was brought up in a family of southern Italians that had this great sense of "family", and Nik had a similar experience. We had shared values about the importance of people and building strong teams.'

He defines their creative relationship as 'passing the baton' - he will come up with initial ideas that Done will sift through, before he is brought back in to develop them further.

Done herself says his ideas 'at first seem totally crazy ... then you realise he has made seven strategic leaps and gone to a place that would take most people, including me, days to get to'. She adds that at this point he 'usually gets bored and I step in'.

Hopkinson stresses that the next challenge for the 25-strong agency is to become recognised by more brand owners. While he admits that some potential clients can be too risk-averse to take on Unity's ideas, he argues that, after six years, the agency now has a proven formula.

'We're a slow burn,' he says, comparing the agency with his love for indie music. 'We are an Elbow or an I Am Kloot, we're on (record labels) 4AD or Rough Trade. It's about building our fan-base slowly.'

After developing ideas such as never-ending songs, a gig in a prison and a carbon-neutral film premiere, do not bet against the next idea going platinum.

2005 Co-founder, Unity
2001 Board director; CEO, Band & Brown
2000 Head of marketing, Citria
1997 Head of corporate affairs, MasterCard UK
1991 Account manager; board director, Band & Brown
1989 Account executive; account manager, QBO

Tips from the top

What was your biggest career break?

Meeting my business partner and co-founder of Unity Nik Done. She has brought out the best in me and has been there in so many ways - a true inspiration and someone who complements my skills with those of her own.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Quentin Bell, Trevor Morris, Nick Band and Gill Brown were all amazing people, but my true mentor was my wonderfully eccentric, fearless and witty grandmother Rose Hopkinson. She taught me how to live.

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

Try to find something where you feel valued and can thrive, and then give everything to it. Make your mark by being passionate.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Energy, enthusiasm and resilience. Oh, and the ability to have a laugh when things get a bit messy.

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