It won't be 'PR's moment' if we keep looking cheap - talking creativity with The Romans' Joe Mackay-Sinclair

In our third interview with a leading UK PR creative, PRCA Creative Group chair Nick Woods meets Joe Mackay-Sinclair (pictured), creative director and co-founder of The Romans.

If an album title was ever a perfect fit to describe Joe Mackay-Sinclair it’s the Arctic Monkey’s Whatever You Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.

His appearance and role might lead you to a certain conclusion, but this is the last book you should judge by its cover. Would you think of him as a pretty decent golfer with a slight obsession for 15th and 16th century manuscripts, who really enjoyed almost five years at Burson-Marstellar?

Check out our previous Talking Creativity interviews with Mark Perkins and Peter Mountstevens

Joe is funny, charming, opinionated, considered, and really smart. He gets the big picture and the detail. He gets people, clients, culture, the whole shebang. And, while every agency is a team effort, it’s not hard to see the role he’s played in helping The Romans go from start-up to almost 30-strong, £3million-ish income, multi-award-winning, empire-in-waiting in just over three years.

What makes a good creative?

Most creatives have a bit of weirdness, a bit of madness in them. You have to, really. The way we obsess over ideas. The insomnia. The playing and playing and playing until you get to something.

Is there a shelf-life for creatives? Can you be a 60-year old creative?

Well, I hope there is an element of craft that develops as you get older; you’ve seen more and have a wider appreciation for how things could be done. But equally, you have to have some connection with pop culture or it’s going to be pretty difficult. Our team make some of my work better, absolutely 100 per cent, because they know a better place or person to carry it. When I’m 60 I may not have the connection to culture, but hopefully my craft-nous will see me through...

Is there a 'something' you can define about The Romans’ work, creatively?

We want to do work that people give a fuck about. There should be meaning and longevity to it. If there’s one thing I care about it, its that we don’t do shit, been-seen-before work, otherwise we’d have floated something down the Thames by now, too.

When I look at some of our best stuff – the When Life Gives You Melons podcast series for Freya; our work for Thriva using the man with the smallest penis in Britain; training the police to drive using Gran Turismo for PlayStation; and Brewdog's transgender beer – it's all linked by a love of, understanding of and connection to British culture.

What do you think of the people in the industry saying "this is PR’s time".

It's bollocks, mate. Two big reasons: one, most PR agencies don’t have the firepower of an ad agency with a creative floor of 100 people… how’re you going to win with an agency of 25 or 50 people all doing client-handling, creative, selling-in, media lists and report-writing?; and two, because PR isn’t so complicated that ad agencies can’t understand it.

They’re getting better at selling PR campaigns because paid is changing, too; creative departments are looking for new ways to get their ads talked about. They want their ads to become part of culture, not just sit in a bought media-space. I honestly find the whole discourse about "now is our moment" to be bizarre.

So the reason ad agencies keep winning PR awards left, right and centre is…

...because a lot of them are making better PR campaigns than PR agencies.

There seems to be real variation in the exact nature of CD & ECD roles… how would you describe yours?

I just try to work out where I can add something, and where I’m much better off out of the way. Most often I’m heavily involved in setting direction at the start of a campaign, of deciding which partner to work with, this or that production company and then staying in touch.

So no ‘pitch and switch’?

Nah, clients hate it, don’t they? And to be honest, PR agency work can often look the most shonky of all the work a client sees; we seem to have the lowest production values, so I’m pretty hot on trying to ensure our work is right up there and looks as good as everyone else’s around the table.

We can sometime appear a little cheap, I know what you mean…

Yeah man, we have to be more realistic with clients about cost – the "I’ve got a mate who’ll make a film for a fiver" thing doesn’t help. I know we’re not making glossy, 60-second TVCs but we do have lots of great concepts and sometimes underplay the craft behind it.

I’m not sure everyone will understand how you use the word ‘craft’ in this context, what do you mean?

Are things made well? Sometimes we don’t make our work as smartly, or as well as we could, from campaigns to award entries.

On campaigns, historically it all comes back to cost and budget; we look to shave some cash by kicking the production budget down or using the same film crew all the time. But we need to work with specialists; we wouldn’t want a client to buy PR from a media agency, so trying to sell in a guy in a broom cupboard and a Mac doesn’t help us – quite the opposite.

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