Guest post: A Conversation with Graham Goodkind

Guest post: A Conversation with Graham Goodkind

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Masters PR student Alexi Gunner met Frank PR CEO Graham Goodkind to talk about his journey from student to agency owner, what he thinks a successful campaign entails, and what he looks for in fresh graduates. by Alexi Gunner

The Frank HQ in the heart of Camden is based in a single spacious room, framed by a naked white wall interior; edges filled with a spontaneous assortment of campaign memorabilia and framed newspaper clippings. It’s the sort of environment you could picture as the birthplace of their creative and adventurous campaigns. It is also a fitting backdrop for my first encounter with Graham and his undeniably strong presence and infectious charisma.

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I begin our conversation where a student would typically begin. Graham studied Business Marketing at London Guildhall, a choice he made in order to leave his options comfortably open. “I wasn’t really that keen on further education, I went there because it was the thing to do”, he reflects. His apathetic stance towards the necessity of degrees is firm. “I still don’t feel that you need to have a degree to come into PR. We are a creative agency, and this business is about diversity, getting people from different backgrounds, educational, backgrounds, any kind of background.”

I ask him if his experiences at University have shaped his business practices in any way. The answer, again, is a firm no. “Maybe I grew up, matured a little bit. Working in PR agencies was a much more useful experience for me.” With degrees increasingly becoming standard practice, and with a steady influx of PR courses, are they all a waste of time for him? “Degrees are valuable; but we need to stop this degree inflation. There are other ways, look at all the journalists coming into PR. In an ideal agency, it’s nice to have a mixture of backgrounds.”

A certain qualm that Graham appears to hold towards PR degrees is the absence of the business side of how to run PR. “One of the gripes I have is that they are focussed on theory, and not so much on how to run a PR business.”

But he doesn’t believe its just students that lack this knowledge, but thinks that many creative agencies are under performing when it comes to their business models. “People just want to go off and do PR, without thinking about the commercial side of it.”

But isn’t that simply part of the nature of creative I ask? “Yeah, PR people have a natural instinct to go off and do work without being too worried about how much money they make, or if they make money.” According to Graham, two of the most successful PR agencies in this country, in the case of long-term profit are Freud Communications, and Frank PR. That’s because both really succeed in making a profit through having clear business models.

From Fabulous to Frank Graham's rise to the top of the PR ranks was particularly speedy. By the tender age of 28 he was already CEO of his own agency. What exactly did he do right? “Partly what I did right was I stuck around when everyone left."

Of all places, he began his PR career at the then ever so flamboyant and fashionable fashion public relations agency Lynne Franks. “I stood out like a sore thumb, because I wasn’t particularly fashionable”.

With initial clients including French and Saunders, Lenny Henri, and Gary Glitter (“I shouldn’t really be saying that right now,” Graham adds as an afterthought), his job basically involved answering the phone to journalists and media all day. Although he loved that kind of PR, at the same time he didn’t particularly experience it as a challenge.

Graham’s first encounter with fortuity came when working in the very fashionable firm at a time when more than just fashion brands became interested in being fashionable. When corporate and FMCG companies began flocking to Lynne Franks demanding a dose of the current cool, Graham was their first port of call.

“What I found more interesting was taking a yoghurt, drink, or financial service, and having the challenge of making it interesting”.

Graham managed to carve a niche with his ability to grapple with the perplexing trends and a la mode of the 90’s, while also having the strong understanding of corporate culture that only an unfashionista could muster. So while people were coming and going from Lynne Franks in their mission to rack up the size of their CV, Graham hung around. After a while he found himself covering almost half of the agency's income.

His second fortuitous moment arrived when Lynne Franks decided to sell her agency, and Goodkind was selected as one of her successors. “It was really also about being in the right place at the right time. You need luck sometimes as well as making your own luck.”

Around twelve years ago, after Lynne Franks, Graham decided to start Frank PR together with Andrew Bloch, with the overarching vision of frank, honest and no-bullshit practice; attributes he felt were largely missing from the industry. How does he think things are looking today?

He arrives at the conclusion that in some respects it’s very different, but in some respects it’s very much the same. The dynamics have changed, but the skill sets are still, for him, unchanged. “How you do it is completely different with social networks and social media, but the energy, passion, excitement, the news agenda are just as important now as they were then.”

He thinks agencies are cleverer than they were, and they have certainly become much better at walking the talk and validating PR’s purpose, making our value clearly seen. They are perceived as more professional, but when it comes to being frank, he doesn’t believe that agencies are completely straight with clients.

One of the first admirers of the Frank start-up included Alan Sugar. During our conversation Graham enthusiastically recalls a pitch given to Sugar’s telecom brand Amstrad, the poster child of 80’s multifunctional yuppie gadgets, and finally winning him over only by refusing to take no for an answer. Since then they have worked with Sugar on a variety of projects, including helping ‘The Apprentice’ winners off the ground with their businesses.

The difficulty of being both big and boutique One particular thing that strikes me with Frank PR is that, on one hand, it radiates the undeniable sense of creativity and eccentricity of a boutique agency, but on the other hand their roster of blue-chip clients, including Nestle, Blackberry, NPower and Pernod Ricard could very well be those of a big time international multi-sector firm.

I ask Graham how he views his business. “We are in a bit of a funny position”, he agrees. "We are perceived as a boutique agency, and you’re also right, we’re actually a pretty big agency.”

Frank PR employs more than 70 individuals. For him those two attributes don’t always go hand-in-hand. They are not quite big enough to be treated as one of the huge multi-sector agencies, but are sometimes seen as too big to be treated as that small, hip agency. “Clients come in and are worried we aren’t going to give them enough attention, and by bigger clients we aren’t seen as quite big enough, with too little scope.”

So to get what Graham wants he needs to go smaller or bigger. It certainly appears to be going towards the latter. Frank PR are currently extending their scope, alongside Frank Australia having recently opened in New York a few months ago, as well as introducing a new opening in Manchester.

"It’ll be called Manc Frank”, he says with a satisfied smile.

Biting into the Big Apple Then there’s the New York office. What challenges come with squeezing into the Yankee market? “It’s completely different, we are learning as we go along.”

Sometimes things aren’t quite as you’d expect. Like going to Australia, Graham says, “thinking they are easy going people… they’re not. In the USA there a number of challenges, they are more conservative and it’s a lot harder to get noticed in terms of building a firm’s reputation.”

So why has Graham together with Frank been able to stand tall amidst the graveyard of fallen UK agencies? For him an important decision was to look for locals instead of shipping Brits down. The US is an unimaginably large market, and it certainly is not easy for a newcomer to know their way around.

Going digital and measuring up The campaigns Graham and Frank are most well known for have utilised every imaginable channel, and he certainly is no stranger to the world of digital. When clients were rushing to social media agencies, how did Graham decide to face the growing demand for digital engagement? When social media burst onto the scene, when PR firms left, right and centre were opening XYZ social, he deliberately chose not to.

“I’ve always had the view that if we had Frank digital or social, what would the other bit of Frank do? How we see digital and social media is that it’s part of media. It’s embedded within Frank, as opposed to departmentalised”. For him a great idea is made to work in every channel.

It’s clear that innovative ideas are crucial for the Frank PR CEO. But his business side shines brightly through too. He speaks with authority on the “Triple A evaluation”, a measurement developed in-house within the agency, which aims to measure a wide variety of campaign results.

Does he then naturally have a hatred for AVE?

“Clients are still deploying AVE as a key measurement for their businesses, because it’s one that really puts financial value on something. For me it’s a pretty meaningless figure, but as a comparative number it’s actually quite useful.” Although he knows measurement is key, he appreciates that there are just certain things about successful campaigns that you simply can’t explain in tangible terms.

“If you want to know what I really think, I think you can judge the value of a campaign by just looking at it.” And what if it’s a rubbish looking campaign with good figures? As frank as ever: “It’s still a rubbish campaign.”

The Frank work placement programme Frank PR takes in eight to ten people on their work experience every year, and team you up according to your interests and strengths.

Speaking about Frank PR’s graduate scheme, Graham explains, “This whole business is based on talent, creativity, vibrancy, and it’s about trying to spot this and if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. There’s a belief that you have to be this age to do this, and this age to do that, personally I don’t think that’s that relevant, and neither do clients. That’s why we bring in young talent and try to fast track them, and give them the opportunities here that they won’t necessarily get anywhere else.”

About Alexi Gunner
AlexiAlexi is currently completing a Master's degree in Public Relations at the London College of Communication. He has previously worked at an IT start-up, and is interested in digital, social media and corporate communications. You can follow him on Twitter @alexigunner.
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