Simon Barker (EMBA, 2008) has just embarked upon the entrepreneurial life and started his own PR business, Barker Communications, based in London Bridge. We sat down to talk about going back to studying, PR and the unexpected.
Tell me about your time at Cass
First of all, I was introduced to you through Rav Roberts, who was my MBA mentor and did a great job. We’ve met up regularly since then and he’s become a good friend.
Cass was many things, including being hugely enjoyable. I’d been out of a formal learning environment since graduating from Leeds in 1992 – so it was 14 years later that I embarked on my second degree! It wasn’t difficult to get back into studying though, and it was exciting to be in a classroom environment and learning new stuff. It was great to interact with the school’s faculty and to be part of a really engaged group of colleagues, and we generated plenty of good discussions. But being back in an exam room was a bit of a shock!
It was a full-on couple of years and there was a lot of cramming-in of work. I had a very busy role at a PR firm at the time and I was working on the MBA Monday – Saturday, including bashing the books on my one-hour commute each way into the City, but I made sure to have Sundays off (for the most part). When I finished I was sorely tempted to carry on learning – I still might pick up some of my free electives. My third child was born three months after I started the EMBA, and for at least six months after I finished two-day weekends felt like a luxury.
The location of Cass is a great asset, right in the City. It’s a brilliant calling card. When I was there the school was in the FT’s top 10 global ranking for EMBAs. Everyone felt pretty chuffed about that and the school was pleased to give us mugs to show off the achievement.
What about the EMBA trips away?
The very first weekend at the military base in Portsmouth was excellent. It was a case of being thrown in with your new colleagues who came from all across the world and just getting on with it. We went to St Petersburg in the first year, and most of us to Shanghai in the second year. Both places were fascinating and I stayed on for extra time in China.
I studied with a great bunch of people and have made some good friends from the group. Many went through difficult times during their time at Cass, with around a quarter of them losing their job due to the recession.
What was the best thing about your EMBA?
It’s hard to pull out a single best but I really felt that one of the advantages of doing an EMBA rather than a full time MBA was that most people on the course had at least 10 years’ business experience to bring to the party. I think the youngest person in my cohort was 29 when we started.
In the first year all the modules were compulsory, but it was great to be able to focus on your areas of choice in the second year. Most of my year two modules were around finance and strategy and I did my dissertation under Professor Laura Empson on branding elite tier professional services firms – and was delighted to get a distinction.
Do you attend many alumni events?
I used to go to quite a lot, but I’ve been so busy lately I’ve not managed to get to as many. I’ll definitely be making more of an effort in the future because they are a good opportunity to meet people and often learn new things.
How is your current venture going?
Doing the EMBA cemented in my mind that I wanted to do my own thing. I had been thinking about it for some time and the stars aligned making this year the right time to launch Barker Communications.
One of the reasons I enjoy PR is because it’s so influential. If you’re not knowledgeable about something yourself, or know someone well who is, then everything you know comes from what you read, hear and see, so the power of PR and editorial endorsement in particular can have a huge impact on building a client’s business and brand. It’s very rewarding to develop a portfolio of media outputs for clients, knowing that those articles will be read by many people in the client’s target audience; then reviewed online as part of the due diligence process for people or organisations looking to engage with them.
My first business trip since starting up was to Warsaw to meet a financial services company, which is now a client. I’d worked in Warsaw for a few weeks in 1998, and it’s changed hugely since then, following sustained growth through most of that time and managing to avoid recession post Lehman. Other clients include a legal services firm and Silicon Roundabout company, and I’m seeing opportunities across other areas such as consulting, energy and human capital.
My resourcing model is to use a network of highly experienced practitioners, so the pitch is that senior people do the work as well as advise, with clients receiving a better and faster outcome (and experience getting there).
What has been the most unexpected challenge in launching your own business?
To look at it another way, I always knew that it would be important to expect the unexpected and be prepared for that as much as possible. All sorts of people have been in touch and I couldn’t have predicted that I’d be doing some of the things I’m doing. It’s about keeping an open mind to opportunities, being flexible and building that into your business strategy. I never expected my first overseas trip to be to Warsaw, for example.
What’s your top tip for the communications industry?
If you want to get into this industry, be hugely interested in the media, how it works and its various channels. Clearly, social media is evolving quickly, but there is still an enormous role for traditional media because the journalists writing it are trained, experienced and masters of their craft and the demand for these people will always be there. My key places to go for information are the FT, The Economist, The Sunday Times and the Today Programme. And it might seem obvious, but in any service-based business you’ve got to be able to relate to people honestly, helpfully and directly.
Fundamentally, it’s about growing the business and doing great work for clients. The two are very closely linked as doing great work builds personal reputation and referral.
Finally, it’s the Quick Fire Round!
Favourite place in London: The British Museum
Favourite holiday destination: China
Must-check every day website: FT.com, the Economist Espresso app (and The Today Programme)
Dream travel destination: Pakistan
Cheese or chocolate? [long pause] Cheese