It is hard to reconcile the slightly cerebral figure Mat Morrison cuts with the controversy he managed to unleash on Twitter a couple of weeks ago.
Anyone unfamiliar with the flurry of tweets that erupted because of a research study developed by the Porter Novelli head of digital may wonder what all the fuss was about.
Morrison and PRWeek collaborated on a study to gauge PR agency presence on Twitter, the micro-blogging service that has captured the imagination of social media afficionados across the globe.
Once published, the study’s results spawned a level of indignation that suggested many agencies were taking their Twitter rankings very seriously indeed. ‘I am not surprised – you publish any league table and you will get that kind of response,’ says Morrison. ‘It was total Twitter-bait.’
But according to Morrison's former business partner Leo Ryan, the response is unlikely to have fazed the 37-year-old. ‘He is not afraid to put noses out of joint,’ says the Ryan MacMillan director. ‘He is the kind of loose cannon you want on deck, because you never know where the targets are.’
Morrison has good reason to be proud of the reaction he generated. For one thing, his remit at Porter Novelli includes an effort to revamp the multinational agency's somewhat staid image. ‘There is a perception we are trying to address that
we are a safe pair of hands but a bit old-fashioned,’ he says.
For another the uproar is a perfect example of why any client should be taking social media seriously. ‘People respond much more strongly online than they do offline,’ says Morrison. ‘The way audiences feel they are involved means you do suddenly get the equivalent of phones ringing off the hook. These are the sorts of things we watch on behalf of our clients – knowing how and when to deal with it are big new skills required of PR agencies.’
As PR agency speak goes, this is pure textbook. So it comes as a surprise when Morrison admits he is an ad-man at heart, who has only been working in the PR industry for less than two years. ‘I come from an old-fashioned advertising background,’ he admits. ‘I am a rapidly evolving dinosaur.’
Given the current evidence, extinction does not appear to be an option. Morrison is effortlessly fluent in the language of
digital media, even if it is sometimes cloaked in the kind of absent-minded gesticulation that hints at an academic background (and also results in one shattered glass during the interview). Not that, like any successful media planner, he lacks commercial acumen.
Instead, says Immediate Future MD and long-term business associate Katy Howell, Morrison has an approach to PR that seems ideally attuned to the prevailing social zeitgeist. ‘He is challenging the way we view comms with a mixture of metrics, evaluation and econometrics – which adds credibility to the work we do in PR,’ says Howell. ‘And he shares that information.’
For Howell, this makes Morrison one of the industry’s most important figures. ‘He takes all kinds of experiences and turns them into PR,’ she adds. ‘We miss out on that. This is why the big budgets go elsewhere.’
This is high praise for someone who believes that he still ‘doesn’t quite get’ the PR world. But Morrison’s views on the blur between advertising and PR in the online world sound highly plausible.
‘Ad agencies were able to make money very early on,’ he points out. ‘They are starting to create really exciting campaigns but they look more like PR campaigns to me.’
That model, says Morrison, remains hampered by advertising’s continued focus on the big TV spot. The opportunity for PR agencies cannot be ignored.
‘People in PR have the kinds of personalities that lend themselves brilliantly to this new world,’ he says. ‘But you need to understand the technology. Otherwise the people solving the client’s problems are Google and Facebook.’
And Twitter, presumably. Morrison admits the social media community must break out beyond the 'interesting echo chamber' it can tend to favour. For cautious clients, Morrison’s advice is similarly stark: ‘Listening is essential.’
Even if, as Morrison knows better than most, the reaction turns ugly. ‘When you first start listening you will hear the kind of noise you heard last week,’ he explains.
‘Gradually, you realise that what people are telling you is that they care.
The fact that people care so much is a good sign.’
Mat Morrison’s turning points
What was your biggest career break?
Getting a job at AKQA in the mid-1990s because my sister was temping there. I was basically an un-hireable doctoral drop-out at the time.
Who was your most notable mentor?
I have been lucky to work with some excellent people. But Ross Sleight, ex-DDB, now strategy director at Virgin Games, still stands out. I worked with him at DDB, and then again at HHCL & Partners.
Advice to people climbing the career ladder?
Get out there and meet new people in the evenings. Do not distinguish between your professional life and personal, they are one and the same – if they aren’t, you probably don’t enjoy your work. You may be in the wrong job. In my late twenties, most of my calories came from industry parties.
What do you prize in recruits?
Curiosity, charm and an obsessive geekiness. A desire to fix stuff, to do it better. And a slight lack of respect for the status quo and authority for its own sake. In the work we do, everything needs to be questioned.
2007 Digital planning director/global head of digital, Porter Novelli
2006 Founder/director, Ryan MacMillan
2003 Founder, Mediaczar
2002 Digital comms planner, Heresy
2000 Head of strategy, Tribal DDB London
1996 Account manager, Lowe Digital
1996 Account planner, AKQA