Jeremy Paxman isn’t noted for handing out plaudits on Newsnight, but in the case of Mark Borkowski he made an exception. Mark, he announced to the nation ‘is the proud inheritor of the Barnum tradition of publicity’.
Mark’s face is known to millions. They might not be able to pronounce his name (bor-cough-ski) but he’s the man they see on their widescreen plasma TVs when producers need authoritative comment on scandals, celebrity and the media itself. They might seek his opinion on the latest reality TV shock-horror story, Britney’s latest 48-hour marriage, or even a misconceived breast-revealing Superbowl stunt. Whenever the celebrity news agenda hits hysteria point, Mark offers thoughtful analysis, a wry point of view and an insider’s insight.
That insight is drawn from hard-won experience. He’s no academic observer of the media and its celebrity machinations: he’s in it, up to his neck, every day. This is the man who has handled PR for some of the biggest names in the business and continues to do so. He’s worked for Eddie Izzard, Graham Norton, Joan Rivers, Macaulay Culkin, Sir Cliff Richard, Shirley Bassey, the Bolshoi Ballet, Cirque du Soleil, the Three Tenors, and that trio of Michaels (who sound like a firm of provincial solicitors) Jackson, Flatley & Moore. His roster of the rich and famous even extends to Mikhael Gorbachev and Diego Maradona.
He’s also publicised some of the best TV drama series over the past decade – including Spooks, Our Friends in the North, The Lakes, and 40, and he launched The Word, The Girlie Show, Never Mind the Buzzcocks and They Think It’s All Over, at a time when everybody thought they were very bad ideas. In some cases they were right. He’s been behind the high public profile of a string of West End successes, and his portfolio of film promotion includes cult classics such as American History X and Best in Show, as well as multi-million-dollar box office hits like The Matrix. When mounting a major propaganda drive to secure £60 million of lottery funding, it was to Mark that the Royal Albert Hall turned for advice.
What also distinguishes him is his willingness to engage with challenging international work from left-field companies and artists.
Early in his career, he brought to the attention of the British public a ramshackle but inspired grunge circus from France called Archaos. The name is now legendary in alternative theatre circles. At the start of Mark’s stewardship, Archaos was performing in a shoddy 400-seat tent on Clapham Common. Three years later, thanks in part to the immense media storm he had succeeded in whipping up, it had shifted into a 5,000 seater. During that time, Mark saw to it that Archaos drove a car across the Albert Bridge in the rush-hour, split a moving vehicle in two in Princes Street in Edinburgh (a journalist in the back, who was eight months pregnant went into labour as a result), and leapt over traffic junctions on a motorbike. He encouraged the company’s Iraqi strong man to bend lampposts before claiming he had run away from the circus to join the first Gulf War. Mark pressed performers into running amok with chainsaws in public and deliberately outraged every moral watchdog and local authority wherever it went. After all, for right-thinking folk everywhere, if Mary Whitehouse and a stuffed shirt on the Council thought it was bad, it had to be good.
He went on to scale new heights of extreme entertainment by publicising Jim Rose’s S&M Circus Sideshow, in which a selection of freaks dangled breeze blocks from nipple rings, hung flat irons from their penises, ate light bulbs and cockroaches and persuaded audience members to drink the regurgitated contents of their own stomachs. Though Jim is notably dissimilar from Jeremy Paxman, they share the same opinion of Mark. “He is the greatest publicist I know” says Jim, a man ready to hammer a nail into his head at the drop of a hat.
Lately, Mark publicised XXX by La Fura, a multi-media Spanish theatre concoction which enacted de Sade’s Philosophy of the Bedroom in the most graphic and explicit detail ever seen on a British stage. Was it pornography? or was it ART? While the debate raged, the press printed the stories and the pictures Mark gave them, securing the total sell-out sought by both the venue and the company.
He also launched the fantastical circus-cum-rave-cum-performance-art aerial ballet De La Guarda in the UK, personally securing the sponsorship to secure their debut at the London International Festival of Theatre (but only after he’d been persuaded to travel to Marseilles to watch them perform in a disused submarine workshop). A whole roster of off-the-wall, radical and groundbreaking acts owe their success in this country to his tireless, committed and passionate approach to PR. The list includes everybody from the original Stomp, through to Robert Lepage, Momix, Mummenshanz, Lindsay Kemp, Ken Campbell, Philippe Genty, the Kodo Drummers and the Shaolin Monks.
Mark views PR as an instinctive, spontaneous, totally creative business whose sole function is to fire the imagination of the reading and viewing public. He doesn’t care whether this involves auditioning parrots that subsequently damaged Frank Windsor’s ear, (purportedly) killing off a tap-dancing dog in a road traffic accident in Stratford which ultimately persuaded the local council to institute a one-way system, leaving a live scorpion in a BBC green-room, inventing a troupe of performing pit bull terriers for no better reason than it seemed a good idea at the time, setting flocks of sheep grazing in central Edinburgh, organising a no-safety-net tight-rope walk across the Thames, building the biggest paper boat in the world, staging a theatre show in a two-seater car, twice presenting and twice earning a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the Biggest Custard Pie Fight in the World (on the second occasion in the Millennium Dome, possibly the best use to which it was ever put) or simply doing a Jim Rose by hammering a nail up his nose and setting fire to his chest hair. Anything, in fact, just so long as it gains the column inches that attract attention and bring punters to the box office, or as the great showman Silas Bent once put it, “if there’s no excitement ready made, some must be invented”.
The widely held belief that PR should be about the absolute, rigid, undeviating control of a message is anathema to him. The message, he believes, can only be properly communicated by stirring the imagination, and ultimately what stirs the imagination more than anything else is the ability to conceive and tell a great story. In that sense it would not be too high-flown to say that Mark Borkowski regards PR as an art form in itself.
Entertainment – and the technique which sells that entertainment to the public – is in his bloodstream. His career started with humble beginnings at the Wyvern Theatre in Swindon, followed by a successful tenure as in-house publicist at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, during one of its heydays under Philip Hedley as London’s most vibrant centre for multi-cultural theatre and new writing.
But it would be wholly wrong to pigeon-hole Mark as purely an entertainment publicist, a lightweight locked into the superficial celebrity circus. While he may be on call for a professional take on Jordan’s latest pneumatic exploits, his opinion is regularly sought on more substantial issues of PR practice, particularly its moral aspects.
He writes opinion pieces for the broadsheets on an occasional basis and produces a regular, provocative and cogent column in The Guardian online, (“Stuntwatch”) which frequently focuses on corporate and political abuses of the media. During the course of the 2nd Gulf War, he established a significant American audience, through his repeated, thoughtful and detailed criticism of the techniques employed by the US propaganda machine. On this subject, he is currently wrote a BBC 3 documentary How The War Was Spun.
He’s also gone head to head with the likes of Nestlé and Kraft, and has offered outspoken criticism of our own government’s spin culture.
In academic and industry circles he is a respected lecturer and thinker. He has particularly strong links in Holland, where he has run courses in PR at the prestigious Das Arts cultural centre, and Masterclasses on web-PR with the government-sponsored organisation Mediamatic. Throughout, he has always laid a heavy emphasis on teaching through the practical experience of the processes of PR. Late last year, he worked with a group of web-design students in Holland to create a national news story about a supposed EU ban on the tradition of Sinterklaas. It came from nowhere, except the imagination of the students, but produced a furore in the Dutch media and it provoked the EU to shut down three websites dedicated to promoting disinformation concerning the EU’s supposed plans. Flaubert said “all that which is invented is true”. This was Flaubert’s principle incarnate.
Mark has played a key role in developing the careers of a number of advertising stars, notably Trevor Beattie and Tony Kaye, and he’s increasingly in demand from an industry that is – at last – beginning to understand that its erstwhile poor relation can make a potent contribution to ‘marketing product’.
Much of this side of Mark’s work depends on his understanding of the ways consumer brands operate. Although his profile is connected with celebrity, much of his agency’s day to day work comes from the representation of major brands. In this guise, his company manages – or has managed – PR for the likes of Vodafone, Tiscali, P&O, Eurostar, Smartcar, Lotus, Hovis, Virgin Megastores, Selfridges, Horlicks, Bacardi, Pimm’s, Piat d’Or, Gordon’s Gin, Hasbro UK (Europe’s largest toy maker and manufacturer of Action Man, Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly). Not headline-grabbing stuff, yet the techniques Mark views as essential to entertainment PR are the identical techniques he strives to use when generating media coverage for corporate clients.
After all, what journalist in his or her right mind would want to write an article, unprompted, about Bacardi Breezer? Breezer is Breezer is Breezer. Let’s not be cynical, but it’s sticky flavoured tart-fuel which gets you drunk, and there are no column inches in that. But if you turn the Tom Cat from the Bacardi ads into a Hollywood star, weave a series of outlandish stories round his contract riders and pampered celebrity lifestyle, take him to film premières, award ceremonies and first night parties, organise media trips to Prague for his latest advertising shoot, get him pictured with glamorous soap stars and finally secure him a newspaper column in a national daily, then the media can’t resist the story. It’s a showbiz style of PR: it makes the media flock to the brand, and so secures the kind of prominence that the product alone would never warrant. And as far as the bean-counters who control such things can see, it bears fruit on the bottom line. As PT Barnum once observed “Every crowd has a silver lining”.
For all his public profile, Mark Borkowski is a private person. He was born in Gloucestershire in 1959, and still lives close to his birthplace and not far from the abattoir where he learned the basics of selling by marketing sausages and bacon on leaving school. He rarely allows his work to impinge on his family, and leads a domestic life far removed from the flurry and fluff of PR and the media circus. He has a monumental collection of artefacts and curiosities from his twenty-five years in the business, and in a mill near his home there’s a voluminous store of cuttings relating to every client for whom he has ever worked. His passion for keeping hard copies of the coverage his company Borkowski PR has secured is undimmed by the easy advantages offered by the electronic age, although he is an enthusiastic adopter of new technology. Mark’s mill is a vast and bizarre storehouse of memories, and a testament to a remarkable career. For many years Mark recorded a diary on a Dictaphone on his way home from work: there are yards and yards of tape that recount the daily development of his career and his adventures in the industry – some mundane, some dramatic. Every notebook he’s ever possessed can be found – somewhere – in this strange repository.
One of his strengths – and one of the aspects of his character that can be infuriating for his colleagues – is his restless, enquiring mind, his curiosity and his readiness to embrace the new, however far-fetched the concept, however impractical the idea. But what inspires the lasting loyalty and affection of his staff is the knowledge that at least one in ten of those ideas has genuine value and exploitable potential.
Which brings us to the genesis of SONS OF BARNUM. When he began working as a PR in the theatre, Mark’s discovered the extraordinary power to be gained in provoking the press; the power which resides in the ability to create stories the media swallow, and the resultant impact on the public and on sales at the box office. That was his education, pure and simple, in perhaps the hardest PR environment around.
It wasn’t until many years later that he met Jeremy Beadle. Beadle has a huge library extending to more than 20,000 volumes. The London Standard’s TV critic, Victor Lewis-Smith (incidentally, a great admirer of Mark’s style of PR), once commented that 20,000 books were as much use to Jeremy Beadle as 20,000 pairs of trainers to Stephen Hawkin. But ignoring the easy laugh, the fact of the matter is that Beadle is a man with an abiding fascination for PR stunts and the circus business. After hearing tales of Mark’s past exploits, he suggested that Mark might want to investigate the history of PT Barnum and The Greatest Show on Earth. What Barnum did in the late 1800s, he intimated, was very much what Mark had been doing for years. He thought, to the casual observer, it might seem as though Mark had modelled his techniques and career directly on Barnum’s.
That conversation took place in 1991, and it inspired Mark’s growing interest in the history of PR and specifically the publicity stunt. In 2001 he created an exhibition – “Improperganda: the Art of the Publicity Stunt” and published an accompanying book – which drew together some of the most classic PR images of all time. The power of images to communicate directly with an audience had long been a theme in Mark’s work, and the exhibition provided an historical perspective on his established practice.
What also became evident in the compilation of the book was that Hollywood’s early publicists, knowing no other way of working, had adapted Barnum’s techniques to the evolving movie business. There were no rules or constraints, (such as there are today in the modern, tightly controlled superstar environment) and these publicists – amongst them Harry Reichenbach, Warren Cowan, Jim Moran and Russell Birdwell - operated with a free-wheeling, buccaneering spirit which 21st century studio chiefs and PR fuhrers would regard with profound horror. Perhaps for that very reason they scored some resounding successes. They did nothing by the book – there was no book to follow – they were anarchic, indisciplined, and sometimes just plain dangerous. Who today, for instance, would book a crated lion into an hotel room under the pretence that it was a grand piano? And more to the point, why would they think it useful to do so? These pioneers showed a creative spirit and a truly inspired ability to improvise their way out of tight corners. Ditto Borkowskii.
In the summer of 2004 Mark took to the stage of the Wildman Room at the Edinburgh Festival to premier “Son of Barnum: A Stunt Too Far”, his live one-man exploration of the world of the publicity stunt. Part lecture, part performance, part ego-trip, his run on the Fringe was greeted with genuine appreciation, as well as laughter, applause and offers of corporate bookings. The stories he tells in the show are those of the publicists of the past 150 years, going back to Barnum himself in the mid nineteenth century. In short, they were exciting, and the work they produced was also exciting. More than that, it was memorable and thoroughly, thoroughly entertaining.
For Mark, this approach is what still lies at the heart of great PR. The means of ‘delivery’ may have changed; we may operate in a far more sophisticated, diversified media market, but at the root it all rests on the ability to fire the imagination of an audience. Spin will never engage, convince or excite the public: real PR will. It’s his belief in these principles, and his practical application of them to business problems, which makes Mark Borkowski “the proud inheritor of the Barnum tradition”. It’s often easy to disagree with Jeremy Paxman. In this case it’s impossible not to.