The widespread industry perception of Borkowski PR is ‘totally wrong', argues Larry Franks - the agency's larger-than-life Brummie MD.
‘It's not Mark Borkowski, some celebrity clients and a few people doing crazy stunts,' he booms. ‘We have big consumer brands, 32 staff [see below] and a fee income of around £3.5m a year. But people don't seem to know this.'
Mark Borkowski admits that his profile is such that it does not ‘make many friends' in the industry. The agency currently declines to enter PRWeek's annual Top 150 Consultancies report, and he says: ‘I simply don't have time to get involved with things like the CIPR.'
With characteristic elan, Franks suggests: ‘If you see me on the Oriana [annual Communication Directors' Forum event] handing out Borkowski flyers, chuck me overboard.'
But mere mention of the agency triggers an emotive response, as proved last week when an email by one of its freelancers, bitching about another agency, spread through the industry like wildfire (PRWeek, 6 October).
Thrive or leave
Plans are afoot to change the agency's perception problem, and Franks wants to turn some of its creative resources to self-promotion.
The reality of life at Borkowski has certainly changed in the past few years. Around the millennium the agency's focus shifted: the 80:20 ratio of celeb clients to consumer brands began to change (meaning ‘consistent growth' in its fee income in the past five to ten years, says Franks), less-profitable ‘shop-window accounts' were scaled down, and the agency relocated from Camden Town to Holborn - a move that, according to sources, meant a painful rent hike. The agency does not deny this, and confirms plans are afoot to relocate again.
So what is Mark Borkowski's role now? He has specific clients, speaks to account teams at least once a week and presents at around half of pitches.
In the course of researching this article, PRWeek hears tales of five-strong Borkowski teams presenting a pitch with only Mark speaking, something he denies. There are those who find the agency's set-up impossible to work with. One former employee describes the agency as ‘dominated by the cult of Mark', adding: ‘You either thrive there or you last 15 minutes.'
Sarah McGhie, head of comms at Wells & Young's Brewing Co, worked at Borkowski in the late 1990s. She says: ‘The agency was smaller then, and did not have the FMCG clients it does today. But you don't see the "hand of Mark" in so many things any more.'
She adds: ‘When I was there Mark was really hands-on, like a whirlwind, not always easy to work with. But he was great, and taught us all to think like journalists.'
Mark Borkowski accepts that the way he and Franks operate is not to everyone's liking all the time, but is unapologetic. He asks his staff to ‘enjoy the job and be passionate about it'.
One current client is Noel Edmonds, the presenter of Channel 4's Deal or no Deal. Edmonds says Borkowski told him he would need to approve all interviews and appearances. ‘That was a big decision for me,' Edmonds tells PRWeek. ‘But my relationship with the media is better than it has ever been.'
Borkowski is also fiercely proud of the fact his agency is still independent. He says he has had ‘three or four serious offers' to become part of a bigger organisation, but turned them all down.
He claims: ‘We've resigned Mr Kipling and Bisto, both big accounts, in recent years because we didn't feel the brand was right. I doubt we would have been able to do that if part of a WPP or Omnicom.'
Advertising supremo Trevor Beattie describes Mark Borkowski as ‘head and shoulders' above his peers, and defines the work the agency does as ‘crafting news rather than foisting products on journalists'.
This is echoed by Sunday Times Magazine editor Robin Morgan, who affectionately refers to Mark as ‘Borko'.
‘He is one of only two people in PR who can reach me at home or on holiday,' he says. ‘He can do this because he brings in cover stories. He deals with me first-hand, will never waste my time and would turn in his grave before asking for copy approval. He's old-school with new ideas; more of an impresario than a PRO.'
And what of livewire Franks? He describes himself as ‘just a frontman'. He explains: ‘What the agency does is down to Mark. I take care of how we actually do it.'
The decision three years ago to recruit ad industry veteran Rosie Doggett as MD to help Borkowski and Franks backfired, with her leaving after just over a year.
Given his undoubted influence, could the agency survive without its eponymous founder? ‘Absolutely,' insists Franks. ‘The culture of this agency has been passed down and we have a strong team.'
Long-serving media director Joanne McNally says some of the agency's biggest clients only see the agency chief once or twice a year. Hovis marketing head Brendan Rice reveals Borkowski did not attend the original pitch, but the agency team's presentation for the bread account was strong enough to secure a slot on owner RHM's roster.
Or as Beattie responds when the same question is put to him: ‘Sir Richard Branson doesn't fly the planes at Virgin Atlantic'
Whether Borkowski the agency could ever stand on its own without Borkowski the man remains to be seen. But a less maverick approach hints it is thinking of the future.
BORKOWSKI PR: agency facts
Who's who (total staff: 32): Mark BORKOWSKI, agency head; Larry FRANKS, MD; Joanne McNALLY, media director; Tanya LAKE, consumer brand director; Kate MORLEY, account director; Lucie SPECIALE, account director; Natasha GOULD, account director; Kathryn McAULEY, account director
Principal clients: Harrods; Virgin Megastore; Vodafone (consumer and The Big Idea TV show); Thorntons; Blossom Hill; Piat D'Or; RHM; Cabaret
Recent headline-grabbers: Gift-wrapping a helicopter (Harrods); Finding the ‘Nimble Girl' for a new campaign (RHM); ‘Dog wedding' (Harrods)