Mutant Communications officially made its mark on April 2012 with Singapore Yacht Show as its founding client. Since then, the agency has worked with the client for every single show.
Today, the agency with its neon green logo lives up to its youthful vibrant image. The agency has a powerful track record in highly tailored public relations, content marketing and digital campaigns across Singapore and the wider Southeast Asia region.
“We work closely with brands to ensure their message is heard loud and clear. Whether we’re sharing information with media, staging meaningful and memorable events, building up thought leaders or connecting brands to their digital communities, we know what works,” it boasts on its website.
Joseph Barratt, managing director of the agency talks to Marketing why the ex-journalist entered the hectic world of PR.
(Read our other interviews from the On the Record series here)
Why did you decide to start up your own PR firm?
I must have been having a crazy day. In all seriousness, it started as a random thought, which lead to a reality.
This is a picture of when Mutant just started:
Biggest challenge in running your own PR agency?
Cash flow. It’s stressful managing the balance between growth and maintaining a healthy bank balance. In the early days it was simply getting enough clients on board.
Now it’s more about the balancing act – we’ve more than doubled in size in the past year, but this comes with a new set of challenges. New staff come with immediate costs, yet new revenue isn’t in the bank for several months.
How did you get your first team together?
My first hire was Jacqueline Smith, who is now the regional head of communications at Tourism New Zealand – a decision that was made over a bowl of pho. A good friend and former journalism colleague, I knew she was perfect to help get it off the ground and, thankfully, she was keen to get on board.
Our second and third hires were made through running ads and filtering through dozens of resumes and interviews to find people who could demonstrate a personality and ability to think creatively.
Describe your management style:
I’m a big believer that work-life balance is important for both results and productivity. It’s different for myself – I own the company – but I don’t expect nor want my team running themselves into the ground.
There are plenty of horror stories about insane working hours at some agencies, which I believe is counterproductive. I’d rather have eight hours of someone being productive than someone working at 60% for 12 hours a day. Obviously, a big project might require the occasional long hours but on the whole, I am the sort of manager who encourages reasonable hours and strong time management to allow that to happen. It just makes sense.
Related to that, I think I’m approachable and fairly relaxed as long as the results are there. I encourage team-wide collaboration at all levels of the company and will always roll up my sleeves when I’m needed to step into a project.
Proudest moment in your career?
It sounds a bit cliché, but I feel proud on an almost daily basis. Looking out over a busy office and seeing a team of awesome professionals who are enthusiastic, do top quality work, and know how to have fun is so satisfying. It’s the Mutant family and I’m really proud of having created it the culture we have.
Also, having a bar in our new office is pretty cool…
What was your first PR gig? Why PR as a career?
After a previous career as a business and political journalist, I was inherently suspicious of the whole PR industry. My first gig was working on contract in public affairs at the Australian High Commission, helping with media for events, driving targeted thought leadership as well as facilitating media and for visiting senior government officials, including Ministers and the Prime Minister.
It was very much a case of dipping my toes into the world of PR, but I loved every moment of it and I’ve turned it into a career and a business.
What would you consider your one big break?
I didn’t have any money when we launched. It was the absolute blind trust of one of my oldest and best mates, Reon Woolf, which made Mutant possible.
I shared a long-term business strategy with him, and he trusted me implicitly to get it going. He’s not involved in PR, but he believed in me, and he sent over enough capital to set up our office and hire our first couple of staff. I will be forever grateful.
Who was the mentor who most influenced you and why?
I’ve been lucky enough to have some great people to give me so much support along the way. Stephen Robertson was great for getting a better understanding of the industry and structures involved.
Harry Dewhirst has also been instrumental to our success. As a global leader in the ad-tech space, his insights for company growth and support in putting together the right structures has been immeasurable. He also joined as an investor in January this year.
Your biggest blunder in your career? How did you resolve it?
In the 18 months after Mutant launched, it became apparent that I wasn’t as polished on the sales side of the business. I hadn’t learnt to differentiate between qualified leads and tire kickers or small start-ups with no money.
Start-ups are great to work with as I love their energy and enthusiasm, but there is a commercial reality to take into consideration. If they don’t have money to pay for our services then I’m running a hobby, not a business.
Harshest thing said to you in your career?
A couple of things come to mind. When I first launched Mutant, I remember a friend telling me that I wouldn’t make it and that I was making a big mistake.
The other thing that comes to mind is when I was at the beginning of my professional career, when I was rejected from journalism school. I called the head of the course and he told me that he didn’t believe I had what it takes to succeed in the industry.
Both of those helped drive me forwards. In the first instance I have worked my ass off, and now have an amazing team and a successful agency with a strong reputation for quality. The latter instance, I was determined to prove him wrong. I took a year out and volunteered in India and Nepal, writing as much as I could and sending it to newspapers back in NZ. I then went to another journalism school and won three national journalism awards in first three years.
The icing on the cake was meeting that head of the school at an award ceremony and he, forgetting he had ever spoken those words to me, told me the country needed more journalists like me. Go figure.
Harshest thing you have said to someone?
Firing someone. I’m proud our recruitment standards mean this hasn’t happened much at all, but I’ll always remember the first time when I had to let go of an intern whose enthusiasm wasn’t matched with ability.
I wrote myself a speech and walked around the block half a dozen times practicing it to build up the nerve. The experience was a great reinforcement that focusing on attracting and selecting the best possible candidates is massively important to avoid the more unpleasant side of HR.
What is the hardest part about your job?
I love every single day but I’d be lying if I said running an agency doesn’t take its toll personally. It’s stressful having everything on the line every single day. Sure, it’s a driving force and I love the rush, but it’s also all-consuming.
Biggest misconception about PR?
That it’s simply about media hits.
How do you measure your own personal success?
Last year I got married to the love of my life. Not only is she my wife, she’s now my colleague and works at Mutant leading one of our niche business units. To top it off, she’s due to have our first child in February. If that’s not personal success, I don’t know what is!
One thing you would say to a newbie in the PR industry?
Don’t fret so much about qualifications and following the ‘right path’ to get to where you want to be. Be enthusiastic – always – and proactive. Show people you’ve got what it takes and keep pushing until you’re noticed. Go above and beyond.
One thing you hate most about the PR industry?
PRV. I understand why some brands want it, but I’ve seen so many fluctuations, inaccuracies and impractical multipliers that I struggle to see its true worth in a practical, driving the business forward sense.
How has PR evolved over the last five years?
I feel there is a greater understanding of what a smaller agency can deliver for bigger brands. We’ve picked up good-sized clients who felt ignored after running with the big agencies. It always blows me away to have these conversations and to hear that contracts worth $100k+ per year can be brushed to one side and managed by inexperienced juniors with occasional oversight. Sure, there are still some cheap and cookie cutter smaller agencies around, but there is an increasing number of smaller agencies that are top quality, charge less, and give clients the attention they are paying for.
The other big thing for our position in the market is content and digital. For us it was a natural evolution, which thankfully has been matched by the needs of the industry. We’ve launched a content marketing wing but additionally have extremely high standards for content by all our PR professionals. Having a journalism background myself means this has always been top of mind.
Quality content creation for online and even print is a massively growing need for clients, and I think it’s essential agencies get the talent on board to meet this.