Post Posted: Sun Mar 05, 2006 3:28 pm Post subject: Mark Borkowski, Britain’s top PR guru,
Posted: Sun Mar 05, 2006 3:28 pm Post subject: Mark Borkowski’s Quest for Barnum’s Holy Grail
Mark Borkowski, Britain’s top PR guru, is now searching for the Sons of Barnum for his new book.
Mark,who I have personally known for many years,cut his teeth at the Edinburgh Festival. He brought fun to promoting shows at the Festival and was the trailbrazer,for the many crazy stunts that people think up to promote their shows at the Festival Fringe.
(Promoters of Fringe shows take note.) He showed that you did not need to throw money at promotion,but with originality in his ideas, he beautifully illustrated how you capture the interest of the press corps,and he always gave them,good pictures and excellent copy. Having witnessed first hand some of the most excellent public relation wheezes that he has come up with over almost two decades. I look forward to his new book.
Below is an article that he put together for Edinburghguide for Festival 2003,and reference to his first book…
John Ritchie, Editor, Edinburghguide.com
Time for Edinburgh again.
Time to enter the gates of stunt paradise for PRs. There’s good news and bad news, but let’s be up-beat first. The festival has long played host to some of the most exotic and absurd attempts to attract media attention. With hundreds of shows clamouring for coverage, with thousands of wannabe stars battling for the big break, and with busloads of journalists packed into a hothouse of stewing speculation, gossip, rumour, and paranoia stoked by 24-hour access to alcohol, the gloves are off. Canny, mischievous, creative or downright desperate: whatever the motivation, Edinburgh is stunt city.
Standing on top of a lamppost juggling seven balls while wearing a monkey suit may be enough to cause a stir in Clacton, but in Edinburgh, it’s just another minor diversion in a procession of misguided attempts to pull in punters. Companies need the media to sell their stuff. Positive editorial endorsement and stimulating stories are needed to plant the punter’s arse firmly on seat C7 in venue 208 in the Outer Hebrides because – strange though it may seem in this supposedly media-savvy age – people believe what they read in the papers. And if what they read is entertaining, it follows that what they’ll see on stage will be entertaining too.
Take our old friend Jim Rose, Circus Sideshow maître de and huckster extraordinaire. Information concerning the sordid content of his show reached the ears of the ferociously upstanding Moira Knox. She hot-footed it to the tent to confront this foul pervert, only to walk straight into the baited jaws of a media circus relishing the prospect of a stand-up fight between the moral majority and an immoral purveyor of filth. The luckless Knox opened her mouth, the cameras and presses rolled, and all right-thinking supporters of disgusting and lurid entertainment raced to the box office to create a sell-out show. Strangely, Parental Care – the pressure group whose outraged fax had first alerted the hapless Moira to the questionable content of the show – disappeared without trace.
Rose later appeared on fledgling star Graham Norton’s Festival Radio show and carefully stage-managed a near-fatal accident with a nail up his nose, admitted himself to hospital, and cancelled a show for authenticity, before hitting the streets with a herd of sheep, and a running lawn-mower balanced on his head.
Malcolm Hardee once adopted a high-risk, undercover strategy. In the media dark ages, he discovered how to phone a review through to the Scotsman. He dictated a rave review of his own show, which went out under the byline of one of the paper’s distinguished critics, and when the paper hit the stands, he flyposted the town with the quotes. Audiences flocked in, and redoubled once word of the stunt got out. After all, someone so audacious had to have something to offer, and any bad review that followed was just bitter, twisted journalists seeking revenge.
Another year, this consummate, instinctive stunt-meister drove a tractor through the Circuit tent wall in the middle of Eric Bogosian’s act, on the grounds that Bogosian had refused to pay him back in a long-running feud over a fiver.
In my time, I have worked with the great and perverse Dexter Augustus, who staged daily shows in the front room of a respectable Morningside house to a maximum audience of six. He let the audience in for free and, on the basis that critics don’t pay for their seats, to retain the protocol of inequality, he paid each reviewer £10 to come in. He refused Ruby Wax entry because he didn’t like her coat.
On the roof of the house, he placed rave-sized speakers blasting out a repetitive egocentric two-minute ditty on a tape loop, which attracted police attention when local residents claimed they were being subjected to the aural equivalent of Chinese water torture. The coverage was superb.
I also have fond memories of the day he confounded Trevor McDonald and John Diamond on the Midweek programme with 30 minutes of gibberish. In honour of his memory, I’ve installed a copy of the tape on my website (www.borkowski.co.uk).
The Black Theatre Co-op managed a subtle attention-grabber by designing a special tartan for the company; Kasaka Hoki of the Frank Chickens claimed that some of the performers were ill, and dragged Japanese tourists off the street to play the missing parts; Richard Demarco, bête noire of the festival elite and the Edinburgh establishment, staged his productions on Inchholme Island near Dundee, and attracted huge press interest as he dispatched audiences to shows by bus and boat; a young Andy Kershaw, midway between auditions for the BBC, stirred up shedloads of pre-publicity for Hank Wangford by putting out an urgent appeal for cowpats to facilitate an American-style cowpat flinging contest; and of course the sadly late, but truly great Marcel Steiner burnt down a replica of the Smallest Theatre in the World, but emerged from the resulting glare of publicity in the best, triumphant show-must-go-on tradition, to rebuild his edifice overnight.
Steiner later held open auditions for a naked Lady Godiva, but sacked her when she turned down the role on the grounds that Steiner was planning to strip off as well and take her round town on the back of a motorbike.
When we worked with Archaos, they were always willing to take their brand of dramatic dementia to the streets, splitting cars in two as they drove down the Royal Mile, jumping motorcycles over traffic queues, employing strong men to bend lamp-posts and overstepping the mark by attracting Special Branch attention when they claimed to be using Semtex imported from Czechoslovakia. But always with the calculated, pre-planned presence of a full-scale media entourage.
All this is good news: in fact it’s the very best. Now for the bad news. The true art of the publicity stunt has gone absent without leave in Edinburgh. It’s been replaced by the art of attracting attention, which is a very different beast indeed. You can stick a car on top of a cinema and get some photographers to come along and take a picture. But as an act without context, a single entertaining idea with no link that the media can naturally make to whatever you think you’re promoting, it’s a waste of time. And an increasing number of people seem to be wasting their time this way. Weird is just not enough. Weird only works when it triggers awareness of the solid thing that the punters buy into.
What marks out every truly successful stunt from past festivals is the ability to create a media event that is intrinsically enmeshed with the production or performance the perpetrator seeks to promote. An event that captures the essence of what the show’s about. The media potentially offer a free canvas, open for all to create the wildest images. It’s a huge advertising hoarding, but no advertiser in his right mind would make an ad that has nothing to do with what he’s selling.
In corporate marketing speak, stunts need to be part of strategically managed campaigns, which successfully communicate core messages to a carefully selected target market, accessed by the media that market reads, in a fashion that encapsulates the product’s point of difference and unique selling point. That may sound like gobbledegook, but it’s a contemporary restatement of a fact that all past masters of the art have always recognised. Ask PT Barnum. Ask Harry Houdini, who famously said, “I get more advertising space without paying for it than anyone in the country.” When we researched stunt history for a book and exhibition called Improperganda (the subtle sell: it’s available this autumn in paperback from all good retailers and street hustlers), we found time and time again that it’s the stunts that obey this most basic of tenets that stand out.
The Edinburgh Festival has always been, and always will be, a celebration of creative energies. But – perhaps understandably – it’s also now a celebration of commercial culture. The focus of performers has shifted to cutting deals. It’s a comedy bazaar with the stall-holders touting their wares to every commissioning editor, agent, booker and promoter they can get their hands on, networking and schmoozing in the right bars and the right venues, at the right times dictated by terms set by money, influence and the career makers and breakers.
This should be a cue for the usual lament about how the festival has changed; a plea for a return to the way things were. But there’s no point in kicking against change. As a publicist, I embrace the change, but I also want to see a return to the old tradition of stunts, because I know they can serve current needs as powerfully as they served needs in the past.
So back to basics. Remember: if you can generate press that is entertaining, the chances are that what you do is entertaining too, and the power-brokers are as susceptible as punters to this approach. The aspiring comic with ambitions to seize a late-night TV slot might profitably divert some creative energies to producing the kind of stunt-based PR that will attract attention far more effectively than countless meetings and lobbying in smoke-filled rooms. Be ruthless, be calculating, be strategic, but never forget that stunts are fun, and can make you famous enough to attract the attention of the suits who determine the TV schedules.
There is a thirst for stunts on the streets. Edinburgh wants them and needs them, as an expression of the creative lifeblood of a spectacular and unique international event. It’s time to rediscover the craft and art of the stunt: performers of all sorts are missing a trick. Just one stunt, done once and done well can establish your reputation for ever, or as near to for ever as matters in this industry. Stunts become legendary, and so do their perpetrators. What TV producer could fail to resist the chance of watching or signing a legend?
Founded his eponymous agency in 1987 and has become one of the UK’s foremost
PR professionals, with a personal media profile as distinctive as that of his clients
With an instinctive ability to develop and maximise headline grabbing stories and
high profile media events. Mark’s creativity is legendary. He believes in
challenging orthodox public relations theory and champions original and
creative communication strategies. His practice was founded on this culture
of radical and innovative thinking, and it thrives on the ability to link
creativity to commercial needs. Clients, products and events that have
benefited from the Borkowski treatment range from Action Man to Gordon’s Gin,
the Bolshoi Ballet, Vodafone, DaimlerChrysler’s Smart car, Hovis, Damien
Hirst, Mikhael Gorbachov, Diego Mardona, Michael Flatley, Stomp, De La Guarda,
Selfridges, Graham Norton, Zurich Financial, Sir Cliff Richard, Eurostar,
Eddie Izzard, Hovis, Cirque du Soleil, Macauley Calkin, Led Zeppelin
Amnesty International and the Artist formerly known as Prince plus many films
including the Matrix ,Best In Show and programmes
ranging from the Word, to Cracker and Spooks for the BBC.
Mark is a recognised and authoritative commentator and pundit on PR,
media and celebrity issues. He regularly lectures to the industry, to
corporate trade associations and to academic institutions. His weekly column
“Stuntwatch” appears in the Guardian online, and he is frequently
commissioned to write in other publications, and to appear on television and
radio news and documentaries, including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and CNN.
Last year, the agency published a book entitled “Improperganda: The Art of
the publicity Stunt.”
John Ritchie Editor@Edinburghguide.com