Q&A with Chris Owen, Director, M&C Saatchi PR
Chris Owen, Director at M&C Saatchi PR, is one of the most influential names in public relations. He spoke to AGENT about his 13-year career in Tech PR, his business inspirations, and the importance of work-life balance. “Personally, I think the ‘all work, no life’ imbalance is nothing to be proud of,” he insists.
“Be yourself, believe in yourself, write what comes naturally, and don’t panic—it’ll be okay.”
The tagline of and principle underpinning the services offered by M&C Saatchi PR worldwide is: Driven By Passion—Fearless. Flawless. Free. It’s a motto that could also stand as the personal and professional credo of Chris Owen.
Chris did not get to be the Director of Technology and Innovation within the B2B Corporate practice of M&C Saatchi PR overnight. He has been working in PR for the past 13 years, in a variety of roles, garnering and shortlisted for some of the communications industry’s most prestigious awards along the way.
Prior to that, he ran record stores, and worked as a press officer for a music festival, before he took the ground-zero approach and took a career break to decide what it was he wanted to do. His pathway to tech PR was via an unpaid internship at an agency. More than a decade on, he still regards what he does as “the most fascinating, the most dynamic PR discipline”.
The awards speak for themselves, and so does his professional reputation. One testimonial on his LinkedIn profile lauds the genuine passion for the brands he represents, and his “legendary” wit and humour.
12 Questions for Chris Owen
Chris Owen took some time out to talk to AGENT about his life with M&C Saatchi PR, his business inspirations, his ongoing exasperation with people in the creative industries who do not use Twitter, and the advice he would offer if he encountered his younger self starting out in business today.
1. Briefly tell us how you first got into business, and describe your business goals.
M&C Saatchi PR is about being driven by passion—the premise being, you only do your very best work for clients you truly care about and want to succeed; an obvious statement but one often overlooked. Additionally, we—as part of the M&C Saatchi Group—are driven by the need for Brutal Simplicity of Thought; the idea that it is easier to complicate than to simplify, yet the simplest ideas are easiest for audiences to absorb and they remain fresh in the brain longest. My focus area, as Director of Technology and Innovation within the B2B Corporate practice, exemplifies this nicely – we work with some truly game-changing clients in areas that demand a simple, easy-to-understand narrative in order to resonate. Too much technology is centred around jargon – it won’t ever see adoption if no-one knows what it does. It’s not necessarily the ‘what is the tech?’, but more the ‘why does it matter?’.
2. What is your background? When did you decide on a career in business, and why?
My background is… varied. I ran record shops for a few years in my early twenties and worked running the press office for a music festival putting on the likes of Busta Rhymes, Public Enemy, James Brown and others. After that shut down, I decided to take a break and work out what I wanted to do. I took a (non-paying, it was a while ago!) intern role at an agency which resulted in being offered an AE role in a technology practice, and the rest is history. I’ve been involved in tech PR for nearly 13 years now, and still find it the most fascinating, the most dynamic PR discipline.
3. What gives you the most satisfaction in your business?
Getting to the root of a problem and finding the narrative that clearly defines how a tech business needs to frame itself in the minds of its audience. Every new business that crosses our path has a unique challenge; be it going to market, redefining itself, reinforcing market leadership, or trying to become more agile. This inevitably means that no two days, pitches, or plans are ever the same.
4. Who are your business icons and inspirations?
Dave Trott is an amazing, eloquent, fascinating man with a wonderful turn of phrase and the ability to see the answer perfectly, clearly, and quickly. He’s also lost none of his original East End charm, matter-of-factness and terminology. The second is more someone whom I admire for their writing, and that’s the now very sadly departed AA Gill. His writing was a wonder to behold. I always remember one review of his which disparagingly described a sauce as tasting of ‘hot yellow jelly’ – perfectly dismissive given none of the words are actually flavours.
5. What has been your biggest challenge in business, and how did you surmount it?
I’m not sure I’ve had the biggest challenge yet. Every week brings fresh ones, granted, but these are all manageable and part and parcel of what keeps my job refreshing and different week each week. I guess getting my head around tech and its constant evolution is a big challenge, but this is an ongoing process and the answer is just to read widely, listen in on Twitter, and follow your nose when finding fascinating things to read, and clever people to talk to about what’s emerging out of the innovation sector.
6. Work-Life balance: is it possible? How do you achieve it?
Without a doubt it’s possible. Personally, I think the ‘all work, no life’ imbalance is nothing to be proud of. I’ve worked for someone previously who lived above the office, had no significant other, and rarely saw their family as they lived and breathed the business. They were unable to go out for drinks and chat informally, or ever truly relax. They even went on holiday with the client. It was slightly pathetic really – and an extreme example. The business eventually went under (they were also unable to let go of enough of the business day-to-day and insisted on micro-managing). They had to then spend a year picking their life back up as they’d lost so much through focusing only on work. I achieve a balance by insisting upon it. Yes, some weeks will demand more time due to being pitch-heavy, but on average you have to balance it out. No-one works well if they’re exhausted. Nothing great ever happens at 10.30 at night after the tenth 12-hour day in a row.
7. What is the first thing you do every day?
Check Twitter to see what’s happening, what’s interesting, and bookmark bits for later.
8. What screen saver picture is currently on your phone?
A picture of my wife and I on our wedding day. Soppy, but it was only two months ago, so I’m allowed.
9. What is the most important app on your mobile phone, and why?
Twitter. It’s like the world’s greatest pub, with all the wisest, most fascinating people in it (and, granted, a few obnoxious drunks). Pull up a pew, listen in, and join in when you feel confident about it. I don’t understand people who are in creative industries and choose to ignore it. If Google is search, the Twitter is discovery – you never know what’s going to appear in your feed next, or what fascinating rabbit warren you might find yourself wandering down.
10. What is the last thing that you Googled?
‘Blockchain in plain English’. We’re currently developing a toolkit for a variety of our international offices around a future-gazing piece for early next year. I needed a simple explanation which brings a complex technology to life in contextual terms for people whose first language isn’t necessarily ‘jargon’!
11. What item do you never leave the house without, and why?
My wallet. I did it once last week for the first time in years, and oh my God, it was stressful! I felt like a skint newbie Londoner again, asking to borrow money for lunch.
12. What advice would you give to your younger self starting out in business?
Be yourself, believe in yourself, write what comes naturally, and don’t panic—it’ll be okay.