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How I made it: Mark Flanagan of Portland

How I made it: Mark Flanagan, UK MD of Portland 

For our latest inspiring stories series, 'How I made it', we're interviewing the cream of the crop across all facets of communications and marketing. This is where you'll learn about how the best in the industry got to where they are today and hopefully pick up some tips along the way to help your own career progress.

Mark Flanagan came to Portland via talk radio and Downing Street. Having worked in radio for 20 years – including a stint leading London-based radio station LBC – he joined the Number 10 team as a strategic comms advisor in 2008, working with both Gordon Brown and David Cameron. In 2011, he joined Portland, where he set up the agency’s first digital and content practices. 

We sat down with him and talked about the high pressure atmosphere in Number 10, the shift of comms into the boardroom and why being nice can help you to get ahead…

How did you get into the industry? 

I have had an unusual career in which I’ve reinvented myself several times and I would really recommend that. I started out as a journalist and ended up managing radio stations, eventually becoming the MD of LBC. After that, I was asked to do some work in government and I joined the Civil Service – working at Number 10 for three years in charge of strategic comms. Then after that, in 2011, I was asked to take a job at Portland. 

It’s been the big interest of my life, taking my experience in comms from the media and politics and adapting this in a way that works for our clients. 

Would you say you had a big break? 

I think the political phase had the biggest impact on my career. Working for the PM is a great platform for going off and doing other interesting things – you make great connections and it’s the most intense environment you could ever experience.  If you’re working in comms you are under such great scrutiny and I was there in the Gordon Brown years, so you were living in a state of, what felt like, perpetual crisis.  All this taught me to deal with senior people and not be fazed easily. I also got to work alongside people from the most amazing backgrounds who I could learn a great deal from. 

Do you, or did you have a mentor? 

The word mentor doesn’t do him justice but Jeremy Heywood, former Cabinet Secretary, who tragically passed away recently, was the smartest person I’ve ever worked with. He could hold so many things in his head, yet always manage to be level-headed and considerate. 

Tim Allan, the founder of Portland, also imbued me with a great sense of what works in businesses and how to balance considered risk with instinct.

What inspires me these days, however, is not the big fish but the mainly young people I work at Portland every day. I think they call it reverse mentoring. There isn’t a day goes by that I’m not blown away by the smart thinking and creativity that goes on around me.  

How would you describe yourself in three words? 

Authentic. Thoughtful. Resilient. 

What keeps you sane on those crazy days? 

I’m not always sure I do stay sane! I think the only thing that keeps you going generally is refreshing and re-inventing what you do; it’s important to always be looking for the next thing. The world is changing so fast and keeping pace through reinvention definitely keeps me motivated.  Another good piece of advice I received was ‘make time to think’. It’s important to create space to step back and really focus on the things that matter. 

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

Don’t be a d*ck! You need people along the way who you hope you’ve been nice to and fair to. Don’t be impatient, don’t use too many sharp elbows and make unnecessary enemies. After a long career, I now really see the benefit of being nice and keeping your values. You can always get there in the end without being overly ambitious or cut-throat. 

I think I’d also remind myself that careers are rarely linear. You will occasionally jump off and go and do something different. And that’s a good thing – there’s no one path you need to follow.  

What three things would you do to improve diversity in the industry?

I think the most important thing is to recognise that diversity is a good thing in itself. It’s about realising that it’s good for business. It’s not just about government targets or meeting obligations. It will help you build a better model of leadership and social diversity will enable you to work with a range of different thinkers and therefore be able to deliver better work. 

Another important thing is role modelling – putting people from diverse backgrounds in prominent positions. You’ll then attract other people from these communities because they’ll see people who look like them.

And the third thing, I think, is to look at different models of employment. For example, we have a mixture of permanent and non-permanent employees, a graduate scheme, apprentices etc. and this has all helped improve our culture enormously. The big shift is then getting these people into consultancy roles rather than operational roles. If you only recruit from the Russell Group Universities, a certain culture can perpetuate itself. For Portland, we will looking for a broader mix of backgrounds going forward and I have set myself a goal to shake things up.  

What one piece of technology can you not live without? 

Today’s new shiny toy in my work life is a resource management tool called CMAP. It essentially enables you to look at your resourcing in real-time, rather than retrospectively, and therefore helps you to manage it more efficiently. It has the potential to really change how we work – helping us to ensure we’re giving clients exactly what  they’re paying for, identifying staff at risk of burn-out more quickly. Our finance team will be delighted that I’ve bigged this up – but I am genuinely excited about this and other new tools which will liberate our consultants from admin so they can focus on the clients and doing high quality work. 

What is the biggest trend you think we will see in communications over the next 12 months?

I think the way comms relates to the C-suite is changing. It has really moved up the value chain and leaders appreciate more having communications people at the top table. Also, I think there’ll be more focus on the impact that communications has – in terms of reputation and change – rather than just PR for its own sake. It’s a cliché but we live in an ever-changing world of unpredictable reputational threats, and senior leaders now see the benefit in having advisers to steer them safely  through these times of change.  

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Author: Alice Weightman

As Founder and CEO, Alice established Hanson Search in 2002 and has since gained a reputation as one of the leading search professionals in senior appointments across communications, developing an incredible network globally.

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