'We should have a superiority complex' - talking creativity with W's Mark Perkins

In the first of a series of interviews with leading UK PR creatives, PRCA Creative Group chair Nick Woods speaks to W executive creative director Mark Perkins about the creative process, PR versus adland, and whether CDs are the industry's new rock stars.

'Critical thought is every bit as important as creative': Perkins, left, with W founder Warren Johnson
'Critical thought is every bit as important as creative': Perkins, left, with W founder Warren Johnson

Specialist creative directors have finally ‘arrived’ in the world of British PR.

Over the last 10 years the numbers have slowly crept up from around zero, to today where the number is somewhere north of 50.

We now have a group of genuine creative leaders who are developing work that is arguably stronger than that seen in any other discipline. And work which is showing signs of increasing muscularity, meaning ‘PR creative’ is a term this generation is re-defining.

Some think that sitting at the top of the pile is W’s executive creative director Mark Perkins (100 career awards and counting), who I met recently to discuss his thoughts on being an original thinker and the state of PR creative today.

Q: Tell us about your personal creative process.

MP: It’s a mix of teamwork and solitude, and of forgetting about the client. I draw from personal experiences, opinions, high and low culture, ideas, thoughts – data – from all over the place, from teams, from reports, trying to make connections in my head.

Most importantly, I consider the audience and the client assets to work with – its logo, retail space, staff, heritage, emotions it can generate, whatever – and find a way to be entertaining or do the unexpected in some way. 

However, the thing I’ve found most useful is to be equipped with a highly developed sense of the absurd.

Q: When developing a response to brief, would you say you become obsessed?

MP: One hundred per cent, yes, all the time. I can be kept awake or wake up early. I think of little else while commuting, walking the dog or watching TV. People who think they’re creative, but aren’t, tend to blurt out the first thing they think of, they don’t push themselves to see what they think of next. For me, anyone can have an idea, creatives just reject far more. Critical thought is every bit as important as creative.

Q: I’ve heard you complain previously about the weakness of the classic PR brainstorm – can you explain why?

MP: The most thoughtful people are invariably not the loudest, and vice versa. You can’t crack a brief in an hour. You have to live with the problem and keep making those connections. The best way to get young talent to develop is to empower them with time and plenty of prompts to get them thinking and asking questions.

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Q: How important is empathy as a creative force?

MP: The audience you’re talking to is going about their daily lives, not giving a second thought to your brand; we need to disrupt them, and to do that we need to be able to think what they're thinking.

Q: What are your thoughts on adland’s creatives versus our own?

MP: We do some amazing work, which gets people talking just because it’s genuinely interesting and shareable, not because we’ve put a £5m media spend behind it to force it into conversations. We should have a superiority complex, because our results can’t be bought’.

Could ad agency creatives do our job? Sure, they can get the same brief and have to come up with one idea. Here’s the catch: lose a couple of zeroes off the budget, no access to planners, no cool director, absolutely no media spend, hardly any time and has to be original enough to make national news, they’d probably shit themselves. Not long ago I made a content film for TalkTalk, ‘Anger Management with Neil Warnock’. That was signed off, loosely scripted, shot in his living room, edited and in the news within the week. Maybe the grading wasn’t perfect, but the headline alone was an easy sell to news desks and football fans.

Q: Someone suggested to me the other day that CDs are the new industry rock stars – do you agree?

MP: Possibly, although most of us would shy away from that term. But where we’ve been making it up as we go along I have no doubt there are a load of hungry people in their 20s and 30s looking at them and thinking ‘I can do better than that’. And that’s what keeps us on our toes; otherwise we are Cliff Richard.

Q: Any disasters in your locker?

MP: There’s a Christmas campaign for a toy brand, years ago. I’ll never forget the look on 100 schoolchildren’s faces, the look of crushed disappointment, as the planned 10m high tree arrives and is shorter than me… truly a Spinal Tap moment. I phoned London Tonight and told them not to come.

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