Profile: Rita Rowe, Mason Williams

Everyone in the Manchester PR scene seems to have an opinion about Rita Rowe. ‘Formidable’, ‘inspiring’, ‘an old-school PRO’ and ‘figurehead’ are just some of the descriptions that come forth.

In the flesh, Rowe is pleasant and entertaining. ‘Formidable?’ she asks. ‘Really? How ridiculous.’

‘The reason everyone here knows me is because I’ve been around for a long time,’ she says. Mason Williams, the consumer agency she and now husband John Williams started from scratch, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Rowe (née Mason) and John left Staniforth Williams in 1986 to launch the agency. Rowe had kept her surname from a previous marriage, but gave the agency her maiden name.

Broadcaster Noel Edmonds had a significant part to play in Mason Williams’ inception. He and Rowe had crossed paths a few times over the years: on one occasion in the early 1980s, she got him to turn on the Christmas lights in Manchester when she was publicist for the city’s Library Theatre. Later, in 1986, he asked her to promote a show he had in the pipeline – and it was for this project that Rowe and Williams set up their agency.

The programme never saw the light of day: the idea was scrapped after a participant died during a stunt on
Edmonds’ The Late Late Breakfast Show. So Mason Williams started life with no clients and no income.

‘It was terribly scary, but looking back probably the agency’s making. We had about three months of planning,’ she recalls.

Today it has 34 staff, including a dozen in London. The client list includes Monopoly, Subbuteo, My Little Pony, WD-40 and The Mayfair Hotel.

Brought up in St Helens, Rowe started working life as youth promotions organiser for the Lancashire Evening News and Burnley Evening Star. Under the name Satellite Sue, she organised beauty contests and discos, as well as
filling two pages a week with kids’ news and gossip stories.

A natural storyteller and performer, she describes theatre as her first love, revealing that she spent her youth
touring in a ‘raunchy rock’ band. ‘What did I look like? Crap,’ she says, dryly.

Today, she writes theatre reviews for BBC Radio Manchester.

For the past five years, Rowe and Williams have commuted to Majorca every weekend, dividing weekdays
between their London and Manchester flats. The commute from London to the island, Rowe claims, is easier than the journey she endured to the capital when the couple lived in Yorkshire: ‘I can get from Covent Garden to my front door in Majorca in four and a half hours. I’m always plugged in when I travel, and we have an office in Majorca – we’re always working.’

Her hobbies include rearing hens, horse riding, skiing and sailing, and she is friends with Danish actress Brigitte Nielsen (‘Gitte is fab!’) through her husband’s passion, motor racing. This lifestyle, and the fact that Rowe has spent 20 years as managing director of her own agency, beg the question: why has Mason Williams never sold up? ‘There’s too much to do,’ Rowe says. ‘Maybe we’re just gluttons for punishment.’ Winning jobs in London, where they opened ten years ago, is challenging, she admits, ‘but that’s changing’.

Rumours of tension with Brazen, founded by Nina Wheeler four years ago, are unfounded, she claims: ‘[The Mason Williams breakaway] was nothing, just one of those annoying little bee stings. Or, rather, wasp stings.’
Former PRCA director-general Flora Hamilton worked with Rowe while the latter was regional chairman of the PRCA. She describes Rowe as ‘instrumental’ in getting Frontline – the association’s networking initiative for young people – off the ground in the North-West.

‘Manchester is one of the strongest UK regions, so is a close, competitive environment,’ Hamilton says. ‘Rita has had a high profile for 20 years, running a clever business. Lots of people have been trained the Rita Rowe way and have a lot to thank her for.’

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