Mark Borkowski: The 'cult' of Borkowski

The legendary founder has moved on from stunts, but is still making his mark on the PR industry, finds John Owens.

Hard taskmaster: Borkowski demands success for his clients and needs to know every person that he works alongside
Hard taskmaster: Borkowski demands success for his clients and needs to know every person that he works alongside

Underneath the railway arches at Waterloo station, there is an unblinking eye staring out over the commuters, families and couples rushing by.

Below the eye-shaped window, pearls of wisdom on publicity compete for space: 'There's nothing so dismal as fact'; 'It's only true if it makes you laugh'; 'Publicity is poison. It doesn't hurt unless you swallow it.'

The mysterious slogans form the frontage for Mark Borkowski's new office, and over the background noise of trains passing overhead, he launches straight into things.

'Creativity is stifled by process, as people try to make their margins,' he says, referring to criticism of the industry following a poor PR showing in the recent Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity.

'These are incredible times and people are doing wonderful work, but it's just not being leveraged. We're all lumbered by what everybody else thinks PR is.'

As he looks through the window at the 'people who really matter', it is clear he is a man with quite a bit to say.

This is no surprise. Since stumbling into the world of comms more than 30 years ago, the 53-year-old has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to Mikhail Gorbachev, and provoked more than his share of publicity storms. He is also the man who, out of nowhere in April 2011, upped sticks and left Borkowski PR, the agency he founded two decades ago.

So, in the words of his own blog: 'Who the hell is Mark Borkowski'? For one, he is a man who demands dedication. 'I run a cult,' he says. Though he is self-aware, the line is delivered with only a hint of irony.

'I demand success for my clients, and I need to know every person I work with. There are no shortcuts. Wherever ego, I go - and that can make me hard to work with.'

Borkowski first carved a niche for himself as a stunt orchestrator extraordinaire.

Whether this reputation was earned through stunts that did happen, such as letting a scorpion loose in a BBC green room, or the myths around ones that failed to make it, including plans to cover the Hollywood sign with the Typhoo logo, it is an image that he has, to an extent, embraced.

Anointing himself 'the proud inheritor' of the traditions of PT Barnum, Borkowski has followed the 19th-century American publicist's blueprint of smartly courting controversy to productive effect.

Nowadays, much of his work is behind the scenes, and he regularly helps big-name brands with crisis issues.

Borkowski admits that a big part of him 'aches' for the stunts of his past, which he sees as limited by the ever-growing reels of red tape that must be navigated.

However, head of UK PR at Sony Electronics, Lucie Speciale, argues that to let his stunts define the man is to underestimate him. Speciale, who used to work for Borkowski, says: 'I think the reason people call him a stuntster is because they don't understand what else goes into his PR.

'He was behind a lot of the stunts that are remembered, but he is a great operator and ahead on the tech and digital sides.'

Borkowski is evidently excited by the freedom offered by his new agency, which works in a collaborative role with trusted figures across the globe.

He maintains that there is a moral, rather than financial, core to what he does, and shows no signs of slowing down. Many who have worked for him regard him as an inspirational leader.

He approaches public relations as something of a romantic - that is, with the critical vigour and stubbornness of the true believer. It seems a key factor in his decision to leave the agency now called Beige.

When pressed on the issue, Borkowski is tight-lipped, but Chris Lewis, CEO of Lewis PR, says: 'It takes a lot of courage and personality to walk out of a company and start again. In terms of his spirit, he was generous in that he didn't say: "I'm going to make this difficult." He just went off and did his own thing.'

Lewis also credits Borkowski for anticipating the merging of the marcoms disciplines, adding that he is 'one of the most exceptional practitioners in the industry'.

As a youngster and a self-diagnosed 'arrogant bastard', Borkowski was inspired by Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and received 'a wake-up call' to do something with his life after his father's death.

It was during his time as a press officer at the Theatre Royal Stratford East that the father of two learned a simple lesson - 'if you preach to the ghetto, you get a bigger audience'. He adds: 'The most important people to spread the stories were the cleaners. They were the ones going out to bingo and the local post office, and if they didn't like it, you didn't have a chance.'

Borkowski's career is well documented - not least by the prolific networker himself in a 2,812-word biog on his website.

But when asked about the highs and the lows of working with the good and the great, the answer is dispiriting, if inevitable.

'Don't work with your heroes,' he says with a wry smile. 'Often, these people are different and work in a different reality, and the bigger the star, the truer that is.'

Borkowski does reserve special praise for Gorbachev, though, whom he calls a 'dignified and charismatic' man.

Despite this disillusionment, he is positive about his work and PR in general, saying it has a 'great opportunity' as long as it is 'not corralled into cliche'.

Leaving Borkowski's office, one memorable phrase from our conversation is echoed on the wall: 'Wherever ego, I go.' Perhaps, but it is easy to see why so many others will continue to follow him on that journey.

2011? Founder,
1990 Founder, Borkowski PR
1985 Freelance
1983 Press officer, Theatre Royal Stratford East
1981 Publicity assistant, Wyvern Theatre, Swindon


What was your biggest break?

Landing a job at the Wyvern Theatre. It was the moment I discovered a purpose and a passion. Theatre was an environment in which I thrived.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Philip Hedley, my boss at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. He plonked me into the press office, obviously to stir things up. I was intoxicated by this notion that Philip taught me - risk. He also taught me trust and tolerated failure.

What advice would you give to people climbing the ladder?

Have a vision and chase it with passion. To determine, define and defend our role as the driving force. Value instinct and intuition, as well as analysis and rationality. Don't believe the hype.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

A compelling Facebook profile and a sharp Twitter stream. Plus lateral thinking, commitment, curiosity, humility, a sense of humour and an acceptable taste in music.

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