The man from the ministry

As it prepares to celebrate its fifth birthday, the Ministry of Sound is well on its way to achieving its goal of becoming a global brand. Steve Bevan reports

As it prepares to celebrate its fifth birthday, the Ministry of Sound

is well on its way to achieving its goal of becoming a global brand.

Steve Bevan reports



The first thing that hits you as you walk off a grubby backstreet near

the Elephant and Castle and into the offices of the Ministry of Sound is

the sheer frenetic activity.



A constant stream of PR people, brand managers, record company

executives, DJs, and delivery boys rush through the reception. This is

the hidden nerve centre of Ministry - a pounds 15 million a year

business with five companies involved in record production, publishing,

merchandising, tours and club promotion. Behind the screen a complex of

makeshift offices hums with the activity of a small army of promotions

people, designers, production staff and others.



It would, admits managing director Mark Rodol, come as a shock to most

of the hundreds of clubbers who queue for hours for the privilege of

paying up to pounds 15 to dance the night away in Britain’s first

‘superclub’, to think that next door is something as prosaic as an

office.



But, as it gets ready to celebrate its fifth birthday on 18 September,

the Ministry of Sound has gone corporate. Now the centre of a fast-

growing musical empire with serious ambitions to be a world player,

Ministry’s credo is encapsulated by a mission statement dreamed up by ad

agency Leo Burnett: ‘We are building a global entertainment business,

based on a strong aspirational brand, respected for its creativity and

quality.’



The company is certainly moving in the right direction. It has doubled

its turnover every year for the last three years to around pounds 15

million a year today. It is about to release its fifth compilation album

and plans being considered include clubs overseas, a shop in the West

End and a Ministry of Sound bar.



Perched in an office above the fray, the company’s 33-year-old chairman,

James Palumbo - ex-merchant banker and heir to millions - plays down the

idea that this was all part of a master plan. ‘I realised, I can’t

remember when it was, that we could have a brand on our hands and that

the possibility existed - though it may be small - that Ministry of

Sound could become a global brand, and very big business indeed,’ he

says.



In his smart grey suit, Palumbo looks out of place among the jeans and

casual wear of his staff and confesses he’s a classical music buff

himself.



The original idea was not his. That honour must go to Justin Berkmann, a

DJ who borrowed the concept from the New York house club Paradise Garage

and took the idea to a friend of Palumbo’s, Humphrey Waterhouse.



The Ministry’s music and policy of flying big name DJs in from the US

set it apart from other clubs. Its trade mark was the sound box - a

sound insulated room with state-of-the-art sound system - together with

its long juice bar and the complete absence of alcohol.



Palumbo - then working at Morgan Grenfell - admits he knew nothing about

the business he was getting into: ‘I always wanted to have my own

business and to do something different. It was very gung ho - I had no

understanding of the market or the music’



Launched with a slick, low-key PR campaign emphasising its exclusivity,

the Ministry was an instant hit. The curiosity about its no drinks

policy only added to its ‘underground’ status. There was no advertising.

It didn’t need it. ‘People came to discover it,’ explains Palumbo. ‘Word

of mouth spreads very quickly. Hype is the expression - you target the

opinion formers at the top... it filters down quite quickly.’



In business terms, however, the club was a disaster. ‘There were six

different management teams all equally inept,’ says Palumbo, ‘we had all

sorts of problems after we first opened - stealing, security dealing

drugs, stock going missing.’ After a year the club went bust and Palumbo

saw his pounds 250,000 investment going down the drain. ‘I had the

option of writing it off or trying to make a go of it.’ He chose the

latter.



In 1991 Palumbo took control and began rebuilding the business. ‘We had

dreadful staff,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t only a question of replacing the

original people - we replaced people half a dozen times before we got

the right one.’ Palumbo’s personal crusade to break the grip of the

London drugs mafia by bussing in bouncers from out of town has been well

documented. Perhaps less so has been the company’s efforts to win over

local residents with a special bash at Christmas and money for

children’s events. Palumbo is, himself, a governor of a local school.



The club’s durability he puts down to constant innovation - sets are

redesigned every six weeks. ‘Clubs typically go bust or decline after a

year - by changing the way it looks, we sort of changed some of the

rules,’ he explains. The club’s reputation for quality - its famous

sound system and professional production staff have made it a favourite

for corporate events. Palumbo compares the experience of a novice

walking into the sound box as like going to Disneyland for the first

time.



The key to Ministry’s success has been aggressive marketing. ‘I like to

think we’re way ahead of the competition,’ says Palumbo. ‘Producing

posters, flyers and generally keeping up the hype. There are four full-

time people whose sole responsibility is to market the club.’



Despite losing some of its early ‘street cred’, the club’s reputation

for professionalism makes it the first choice for brands wanting to tap

into the dance scene without getting their fingers burned. As Dom

Phillips, editor of club bible Mixmag, says: ‘They’ve got a whole office

there, you can ring at 9am. With most clubs it’s a couple of guys

working in a corner of the Mecca they’ve hired for the night.’



The evidence that this approach has succeeded is all around the club.

One room is sponsored by Absolut vodka - another has been turned over to

Sega computer games. Others have followed Ministry’s lead - Phillips

reckons there are currently at least five major club tours going on with

sponsorship from major brands. But, as Rodol points out, the club

environment requires a very special approach. ‘The first thing we do

when we go and see a brand is tell them ‘you have to accept the club

market is something you’ll never understand, let us guide you through

it.’’ Already almost over the hill at 29, Rodol is the first to admit he

himself relies for guidance on the club’s young promotions team.



It seems to work: everybody wants a bit of the Ministry action these

days- trooping around ahead of me was a bunch of marketing executives

from Timex. But Palumbo says: ‘We can’t go with everyone, our brand is

our baby.’



The focus on the brand is one of the things that has set Ministry apart

from others in the club scene for some time. Freud Communications

account director Jonathan Kennedy - who is working with the club on a

massive industry bash to celebrate its fifth birthday - remembers

meeting Palumbo four years ago. ‘He was talking about the lateral brand

development of the Ministry of Sound brand then.’



The inevitable comparison is with Virgin - which has its own nightclub:

Heaven. Palumbo, however, is adamant that he won’t be launching Ministry

of Sound cola. ‘We only extend [the brand] to areas which have direct

synergies... I have no interest whatsoever in putting our logo on

toothpaste.’



As for comparisons between his own style as chairman and that of

Virgin’s Richard Branson, Palumbo says: ‘I’m not going to dress up in

stupid outfits.’ Rodol makes the point that, unlike many in the

entertainment business, he and Palumbo try to stay in the background -

‘Ministry is deliberately faceless, the only face is the logo.’



Palumbo’s own relationship with the press has sometimes been fraught. A

bitter legal tussle with his father over control of a multi-million

pound trust fund saw his school days, even old girlfriends, raked up as

part of a concerted campaign to paint him as the prodigal son.



But he remains fairly relaxed about the press and - although he insists:

‘No-one is going to buy or not buy one of our CDs or T-shirts because of

some poxy article about me suing my father’ - his reputation undoubtedly

adds to the club’s mystique.



In terms of in-house PR, Rodol and Palumbo are it. ‘Ministry of Sound

has grown so quickly that PR has been one of those things that has been

handled on auto pilot,’ says Rodol. ‘Soon we’re going to need to choose

whether to extend our use of agencies or whether there is enough PR work

being generated internally to justify a permanent post.’



The longer term challenge is to maintain the credibility of the brand

while exploiting it commercially. Many in the industry think it has

already pushed that as far as it can. But, as Rodol says, knowing just

how to walk the fine line between commercial success and blowing its

cool completely is what has so far kept the Ministry of Sound one step

ahead.



Brand power: breaking the mould



‘Other people have cottoned on to the power of a brand and a strong logo

but nobody’s managed to create the same sort of cachet that the Ministry

of Sound has,’ says Damian Mould of dance music PR specialist Slice.



The agency has worked with the Ministry for four years and has been

involved in many of the club’s trade mark PR stunts. The Ministry first

tried its hand at stunts in 1992 when it projected its logo onto

Battersea Power Station. But it was only when it repeated the exercise

on the House of Commons in 1993 that it really made the headlines.



As Mould explains, the original plan to project the logo on to

Buckingham Palace was scuppered when he and his crew were arrested as

they unloaded the projector from a van at 5am ‘Somebody tipped them

off,’ says Slice, who suspects one of the tabloids. ‘Still it generated

a lot of press coverage - all we got was a parking ticket’.



Mould regrouped, gathered the journalists and headed off for Westminster

Bridge. They eventually got the Ministry logo up on to the Houses of

Parliament for 45 seconds.



The event was a template for Ministry of Sound’s maverick approach to

PR. In 1994 it projected its logo onto the Anglican Cathedral in

Liverpool to publicise its Pepsi-sponsored club tour.



Later that year the club persuaded boxer Nigel Benn to wear the logo on

his shorts during a title fight. And, as Mould says, it didn’t cost a

penny as in return Benn was allowed to DJ in the club’s main room.



A move to more social and political statements came on World Aids Day in

1995 when the Ministry brought a 60ft inflatable pink condom to Soho

Square, to publicise its clubbers sex survey and push the message of

safe sex.



One of the clubs’s most successful stunts was its bid to turn Guy’s

Hospital into the world’s biggest nightclub - complete with mock-up

showing clubbers queuing up outside. As Mould explains, even though some

of the newspapers rumbled that it was a stunt, they covered it anyway.



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in