I was introduced to Mark via Jean-Baptiste Leroux, founder of ELX art, who I interviewed previously for Masters of Many. I'm always fascinated by the split of people who are entrepreneurial from the very start of their time working, vs. those who start off in a more traditional work set up and make the shift later on. Mark falls firmly in the first camp, having started his own magazines at university, gone on to set up digital agencies, getting involved with the art scene, and now running his own strategic branding and marketing agency with his wife, as well as the brilliant FAD magazine. I caught up with him to find out more about what he does, and how he got to where he is now.
Tell us a bit more about your journey to date...
I started my own business in college at the beginning of the 90's. I started in print publishing with two magazines. One was an electronic lifestyle magazine that covered music, fashion and technology and the other was about skateboarding. We did the magazines for about 5 or 6 years; and because we knew a lot of the advertisers directly, the marketing manager of Levi's asked us if we knew anything about websites. We said yes...and then tried to work out how to build a website! We built theirs, and then started building more websites, going on to win some awards, because we were quite creative.
Then a friend of ours, who was an account director at Leo Burnett (the ad agency), knew someone senior there who asked us to go and see him at his office. We went to see him, and he rang down to someone who works there who was on the Max Factor account, and asked them if they knew anything about Hard Reality (what our agency was called), and they said 'yes, they're really creative and win lots of awards'. He decided he'd like to buy us, and that's what happened. So that was my first proper job basically, working as head of digital for Leo Burnett, and I worked as part of the company for five years, as our business was subsumed into the overall agency.
We worked with a lot of big clients, like Procter and Gamble, and McDonalds. It was all a bit of a blur; we were based in Sloane Avenue, and we did what people did in advertising, basically got wasted for about 3 years! Then someone in Chicago decided that all of the direct marketing companies round the world in Leo Burnett needed to be merged with the digital companies. That just made the whole thing blow up. At this point I was about 27 / 28.
After that we did two online educational projects that were really big. One called 'So Safe', a Hounslow based project, national lottery funded, which was about helping young people in Hounslow talk about the issues that were important to them, e.g. teenage pregnancy, self-harm, and drugs etc; helping them to create and illustrate their stories. We did another one called respectforme.org, using videos with multiple choice endings, with educational resources and workshops to increase the level of confidence in young women/teenagers . That was a pan European project, with UK, Sweden and Italy in particular.
After advertising I sat down and tried to think about what I really enjoyed and that was working with creative people and ideas that are not compromised. This led me to want to talk , meet, and support fine artists; and manifested itself in FAD magazine. It was initially a print product which moved to being a digital title. I've been doing that for about 8 years. Then about two years ago, my wife decided to leave advertising and come and work with me, and we created the FAD agency. She does planning and business strategy, having worked at a PR agency, on fashion and luxury, and then at Publicis for quite a while. As an agency, we help brands re-launch or find somewhere to go, and we do all of the marketing activity from there. We work with mostly art or culture related brands, including luxury. And that's where we are now, running the magazine and the agency.
I never wanted to work for someone really, even when it's your business and you have clients, it's not working for someone in the same way, and even Leo Burnett wasn't like that, they enabled me to do what I want really. The other side of what I'm driven by is working with lots of creative people. I've fought hard not to compromise, and as a result we get really good work out. One of the most successful campaigns we ever did was launching a new product for Kellogg's and it happened because the client was ill for six months, and we just did it.
What had you studied at university?
I did a business degree. I was creative, but thought I should do something like that. I was doing things like DJ-ing at clubs at the same time, and travelled to places like Ibiza doing that, but I remember seeing people who were 50 something club owners with 18 year old girlfriends, and I looked at that and decided that wasn't what I was looking for.
What made you take the leap to do things differently and to keep changing things up?
Meeting new people and making things happen, London is just like that. Now we're trying to put more structure to it, so we'll see what happens. With Leo Burnett for example, we had a great relationship with the CEO, but then everything changed, and it's interesting how that can happen and transform everything at once.
Do you prefer going with the flow rather than thinking 'this is where I want to be in five or ten years?'
We're probably thinking more about the future now, but I'm quite comfortable with how things are. We don't want a really big company, but ideally we'd like a few bigger, regular clients that we work with and help them become more successful, rather than lots of projects, but everyone wants to do projects!
How is working with your wife in the business?
It's good, she's really clever, and she likes to plan and know what's happening. She's worked with a lot of smaller conceptual designers, and interestingly enough that's the kind of art she likes too, and often they cross over into each other.
When your business model is changing constantly, how do you know when you're making progress; and how do you define success?
There's a few definitions of progress for me - control, having pride in your work and being able to do good work - but it's really hard to do good work. Clients don't always understand what they want or where they're going, or what good work is a lot of the time. We've found that getting the thinking part of the work paid for can be hard. Making stuff, tangible things that you can show them, that's easy, but doing the more important bit is very difficult, but it's worth the struggle, because I don't want to do work that isn't successful.
Do the magazine and the agency feed each other?
Yes, they're supposed to. The magazine is about interesting and cool art stuff, the heart of it is contemporary art and ideas, but then the ideas can exist in lots of different creative vehicles. I find the points where the creative disciplines merge interesting. There is lots of discussion about what is design, and what is art. It used to be that design was more about functionality and art wasn't, but now that can be the other way round. Then you have fashion in there and music, and it's all blurring.
Another thing I find fascinating is that if you call something by a different name, it can cause it to be looked at totally differently, for example, 'experiential marketing' vs. 'performance art'. Ultimately it's the same thing, but you can sell it to someone in a different way.
The magazine is doing well, although similar to other magazines, a lot of the traffic is now on social media vs. the site itself. We don't really have a traditional advertising model, our focus is more on advertorials and sponsored posts, and we're more likely to move to things like product development and events in the future, less online specific stuff.
The agency is the thing that makes the money, not the magazine really. The magazine gives us a reason to be at events and a reason to talk to people. However, we've ended up getting a lot of work that is very different to what we talk about in the magazine. We write about new and contemporary art, but a lot of the agency work is about luxury and art from the 15th century.
What do you find difficult about managing multiple jobs?
What I find difficult is when I don't have lots of things going on, that's when I worry! They all tend to feed each other as well.
Do you have moments of fear, and what do you do to spur yourself on?
I have moments of fear every week, and I have done for years! If you're not scared, I think you're not doing something right. You have fears of failure monetarily, but it comes back to what your definition of success is. Do I really want to do what it takes to be a big, global, successful agency? To do that you have to be really on it, and quite selfish in your approach and they are things that I don't really want to be.
I think making sure you have enough time to think is a big factor. I'm noticing the seasons more, the moons and the tides (laughs), and I'm running every morning. I'm trying to slow things down a bit. I don't drink as much and I don't do any drugs any more. I think I did all of that stuff because a lot of what I was doing for work I found quite boring
I think it's really important to work with young people as well. The people I know who are the same age as me, who I think are still interesting, are that way because they still work with a lot of young people.
What or who do you find intimidating?
When I was young I worked with people who had really senior jobs, so I don't find people intimidating really. You realise that some of them aren't focused on doing the best job for the company that they could, as they're more focused on what they can do for themselves, which perhaps naively I was really surprised by.
What makes you feel good / powerful?
Getting work across the line, and seeing things become successful. Enabling people to do their jobs well.
What’s the best compliment you’ve been given?
Getting emails from people who we've met where they say that they like that we write about because it's not main stream or popular, as that's what we strive to do.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
It was enjoying the moment, and it still is a bit. I like brands, building brands, and for those brands to be successful - but it's not really about my legacy, it's about theirs. It's nice to help them be successful.
Where would you like it the magazine and the agency to get to ultimately?
I'd like to be properly successful in London - making a profit, working with really good people and good brands, and producing content that is interesting. Then it would be great to do that in different cities and hang out in some different places, for example, Sydney (where I have family) or California and run things from there. A lot of people from London and NY are looking at California at the moment, and it's where the future of the world is being created in terms of the Google's and the Facebook's of the world. What brands do we have in Europe that can compete with those companies?
How do you organise your days?
We have a Monday morning meeting where we work out what we're going to do that week. It's just the two of us in the agency full-time, but then we work with lots of other people. We try and do a set number of hours every day (but the time varies), working from home and in town, and we're considering getting an office, maybe.
How do you come up with new ideas?
We meet lots of people, and talk a lot. I read something about some research that showed that it's a lot easier to brainstorm after you've had a couple of pints, but before that it's not! Having the time to think about stuff means that ideas just come I guess.
What idea do you wish you’d come up with?
A lot of ideas I like I'm sure I've read in sci-fi novels! I was talking about this the other day; whether people who read a lot of sci-fi novels, and then use those ideas are creating the world; or whether the people who write the sci-fi novels actually predicted these things...which is weird.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I just knew I didn't want to work for someone. Now I'd love to be a really good artist, but not painting as such. I've met some really interesting groups of people from Japan who are part of large technology and art collectives, working together to create these amazing things.
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
If an opportunity comes along that you find interesting, grab it and don't worry. Don't worry too much about rules.
Single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
The older I get, the more I believe in proverbs like 'the grass is always greener' - it's so true. It doesn't mean you shouldn't jump sometimes though.