Meet the modern-day Barnum
The minute Mark Borkowski steps in at the door, his mobile rings insistently. As he answers it, it becomes clear that on the other end is a celebrity in trouble.
“Look,” he tells the receiver, in common sense tones. “Don’t worry about it. It’s no big deal. We’re all human – it happens to everyone.”
Alice Beer of Holiday Hit Squad tripped at the Comedy Awards – in front of half the country’s paparazzi. If it wasn’t for her squeaky-clean image and alcohol-related surname (as she later admits in a post-party article), the subsequent pictures of her wrapping herself round a traffic cone wouldn’t be quite so compelling.
“Talk to the press by all means,” Mark is saying to her. “Just make sure they also write about the projects you’re currently working on.”
He turns to me apologetically as the call finishes. But the interesting thing is, it’s not work that has interrupted our conversation. Alice Beer might once have been a celebrity client – now she’s simply ringing as a friend. A friend who needs advice.
And who better to turn to than Mark Borkowski, founder and owner of one of the UK’s most successful PR agencies. He’s undoubtedly a powerful man – one who has represented businesses and celebrities from Harrods to Virgin Megastores; from Sir Cliff to The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.
But this is no Max Clifford.
In spite of making both money and a name for himself, Mark Borkowski is a man whose soul is clearly marked ‘Not for sale’. And, what’s more, he encourages his clients to keep a tight hold on their own.
“I’m very anti kiss-and-tells,” he says. “I’ve seen the consequences. Not just for the subject matter who might have been caught with his trousers down, but for someone who’s thought, ‘Oh great!’ and taken the £30,000, £50,000, £100,000 from a newspaper but who doesn’t know what they’re getting into. They remind me of cartoon characters, where the eyes go ‘Ching, ching!’ and light up with dollar signs.
“When Clive Sinclair got involved with some exotic model, she did a kiss and tell and bought a car out of it. And that was it – it was over for her. She was ridiculed and you don’t even remember who she is now.
“She came to me and said: ‘What can I do?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely nothing. That’s your price. That was your moment.’
“People want to be rich but it can be at a very high cost. I try to shine a few lights just to make people see that.”
Like the great PT Barnum before him – the one-time American storekeeper who went on to found The Greatest Show on Earth – Mark Borkowski is a creative genius.
Of course, there are all kinds of genius. There are your ‘Stephen Hawkings’ who tell you startling things about atoms. There are those who produce the sort of works of art you wouldn’t feel edgy about hanging on a wall in the Louvre. There are linguists who could render Pride and Prejudice fluently into anything from Latin to Klingon; and philosophers whose ability to doubt makes Biblical Thomas look dogmatic.
Mark’s genius lies not so much in owning the highly-successful London-based PR agency, Borkowski, but in being the psychologist behind that success. In understanding how people tick; in knowing what interests them – what they’ll ‘buy’, both metaphorically and really.
Whether you’re a company wanting to sell a product, or a celebrity needing to look good in the press, he’s your man.
With his sophisticated edge and his analytical skills, he seems more ‘London’ than Buckingham Palace; more ‘Today’ than Jim Naughtie. He’s the great commentator on modern times, whom John Humphrys himself calls when he wants an opinion on anyone from the Royal family to Kate Moss. He’s one of the chosen few who have the home numbers of national newspaper editors in their little black books.
The first time I meet him, it’s at a glitzy launch party for a swanky spa, where specially-hired models, toned flesh barely covered by bikinis, frolic in the oh-so-blue water while the rest of us waddle around the edge. The drink flows, the food is prepared before your eyes, even the sun makes an effort; the design is so grand that Kevin McCloud shows up.
Mark Borkowski, mastermind behind the event, seems to be enjoying himself too. But you notice a discreet watchfulness behind the summer shades; a certain mental apartness.
“You know I’m from Stroud,” he says to me, as the party progresses.
From Stroud? The man who runs one of Britain’s most successful PR agencies?
“Umm,” I say, carefully composing my face into a non-surprised expression.
“I started in PR at the Wyvern Theatre.”
Swindon? The man who – wait for it – is responsible for the tabloids being a dashed lot nicer to Noel Edmonds of the patterned pullie and Crinkly Bottom?
The next time I meet Mark Borkowski, I make sure I have him to myself. He fascinates me, with his knowledge of how the media work; his understanding of what makes a story. He once planted a field of Cabbage Patch Kids; commissioned a world-record-breaking sized paper boat; he took both an elephant and the Andrews Sisters into a fish and chip shop at the same time; held the largest ever custard pie fight of 1,000 people in the Millennium Dome; got Harrods staff to gift-wrap a helicopter. And, allegedly, was thrown out of the BBC for loosing scorpions in the Green Room.
He even persuaded safety inspectors to outlaw a chainsaw-juggling act that never existed, and convinced newspapers the BBC had banned Cliff Richard records.
All in the name of PR.
He relaxes into a chair at the café in Cirencester where we meet; a London-looking guy in a little local diner.
“The question that’s always put to me, when I’m in Gloucestershire, is ‘When did you move down here?’,” he says, “expecting me to say – I moved here five years ago.
“When I say, ‘Oh, I was actually born in Stroud’, there’s a shock; an unbelievability. And then they’ll say, ‘Well you must have been sent away to school’. I say, ‘No, I went to a comprehensive in Gloucester. And I’m very proud of it. It’s one of the joys in life that I can say that.”
It’s a neat irony that he’s often asked to comment on the celebrities who’ve made this area their home. For when their champion was young, even a strange face could cause a stir.
“I grew up in a little village, which isn’t a little village any more: Kings Stanley. If anyone new came in, there were hushed tones. My mum worked in the local shop and I would hear her gossiping with her friends about what these incomers would buy, and what it meant, and the luxuries they would get.
“There’s an ownership of time here: how long before you integrate.
“My mum was a member of the women’s skittle club which did a phenomenal amount of good work for pensioners in the village, including a big turkey lunch in the village hall each Christmas. I was the one sticking up the skittles in the pub, doing a paper round, playing football in the recreation ground in the winter and cricket in the summer.”
If the down-to-earth Cotswolds of his younger days were a formative influence, there was another grounding factor, too. His father, who gave Mark his distinctive surname, had been a refugee to this area from Poland where the family had suffered unspeakable hardship.
“It still troubles me that I never really understood what my dad went through until long after his death. He was fighting for a free country.
“I used to go to Poland from the age of four, and I saw what it was like for my family to be under the yoke of a totalitarian regime in terms of what they were and weren’t allowed to do.
My uncle was imprisoned for calling Stalin a pig.”
It’s not difficult to see how the power of words came home to Mark Borkowski at an early age.
His father’s death, when Mark was just 19, was a bitter blow, but there seems little doubt it also helped propel the lad into his first, and arguably most important, job.
Unable to find his rightful place in life (he’d been unpopular with the establishment at his über-Catholic high school for creating a counter culture pamphlet), he was in danger of becoming a lost soul. Should he go to university? Should he work?
When his mum spotted a job advert for a press officer at the Wyvern Theatre in Swindon, his enthusiasm knew plenty of bounds.
“I so clearly remember sitting in my car about to leave for the interview. The road to my right led to a friend’s house; left was the main road to Swindon. Which way should I go?
“I still think it’s a force of my father saying: ‘Get yourself in gear!’ that made me turn towards Swindon. That was a life-changing moment for me. It’s the most frightening thing in my life to think I might have turned the other way: chilling.”
His time at the Wyvern taught him how difficult it can be to sell things; the importance of the media; and the power of word of mouth. He moved from there to Stratford East, once home to Joan Littlewood’s innovative stage company, before a sympathetic bank manger from Stroud helped him set up Borkowski in April 1989.
Based in London, it began as a show business specialist, with clients such as Gerry Cottle, Sir Cliff Richard and Michael Flatley (one of the few stars he’s ever fallen out with). Nowadays, however, that portfolio has broadened into consumer brand names including Vodafone, Virgin Megastores and Hovis.
What makes Mark so successful is that he’s different – unique, some might say – in his way of working. He doesn’t promulgate false stories; he discovers real ones for his clients – stories that naturally make the headlines.
“What I do is storytelling,” he says. “In the natural way of things, you and I exchange ideas about a place, an idea, something we enjoyed; if it’s good, we’ll tell someone else about it.
“In every brand, every personality, there’s a story. It might be the story of how a person became famous, or how a television show was put together. PR nowadays is about heroes, myths, legends; camp fire sort of stuff. I find the stories that can transform a business.
“Word of mouth is purity of essence, and my industry has started to recognise its value. Ultimately, it will also bring down governments; it will bring down corporations.”
It’s this ability to keep his feet on the ground in a mad world, that has kept him sane; that has meant he has avoided the pitfalls of others. Back home in Chalford, with wife Kate and two young sons, he can afford to laugh at the antics of other publicists. Just recently, interviewing for a book he’s writing, he came across the ex-wife of Hollywood PR guru Warren Cowan. She told him how her former husband was so afraid of losing publicity contracts, he took the actor Danny Kaye on honeymoon with them.
That sort of stunt is not for Mark.
“I met up with an old friend in Stroud once, who asked me what I was doing. When I told him, he said, ‘Do you call that a job?’
“I thought he was joking, but he was serious. He said to me, ‘When the world comes to an end, can you build a shelter? Can you light a fire without matches?’
“And I thought to myself – You are right!
“What is celebrity? You are popular and, OK great. But people like Alice Beer have the same angst about her children as you and I do. Fame doesn’t bring happiness; it brings extra pressures. If you’re a junkie or an alcoholic or a wife beater, that doesn’t go away. All it does is magnify and frame it and make people realise what your problems are.”
If familiarity dampens desire, then perhaps that’s why Mark Borkowski longs not one bit for fame and fortune.
“I just want to be comfortable,” he says. “I want a secure and happy family life, with Kate, who’s my best friend, and my kids.
“I have a complicated life – there are no two ways about it – travelling between here and London. But I’m on a small hamster wheel that I can control. And in my mind, fame and fortune would simply transform that into a bigger hamster wheel.”
Katie Jarvis Cotswold Life 2007