THE EDITOR’S Q&A: Martin Hayes, Automotive PR

By just-auto.com editorial team | 10 August 2007

Automotive PR provides specialist PR services to the motor industry in the UK and globally. The firm is expanding with a new office in the US and a planned new office in China - where it can name Nanjing MG as a major client. Managing Director Martin Hayes recently sat down with Dave Leggett at Automotive PR's London HQ.

DL: How did you get into PR?

MH: When I was at school it was predicated that I was going to be a teacher. My family were teachers and that seemed, without really thinking about it, like what I was going to do. But I did my A-levels and woke up one morning and decided that I didn't want to be a teacher. I then thought, well, I'm good at English and I like cars so I'll be a motoring journalist.

I saw an advert in the Daily Telegraph classifieds for a magazine I'd never heard of called 'Motor Transport' - which is a [freight] truck magazine. At 18 I got a job as a junior editorial dogsbody and I then spent seven years as a truck journalist.

Towards the end of that period, in the mid-seventies, I was interviewing the then Chief Executive of Leyland Truck & Bus and at the end of the interview he said 'don't go away because I want to interview you now'. I got offered a job as press officer at Leyland, moved up to Leyland [in the north of England] from London and I was there for about 18 months, as a press officer.

I then came back to London and worked for Michael Edwardes at British Leyland, and I had truck and bus responsibility alongside broader corporate responsibilities. But that was how I got into PR. 

DL: What's taking up most of your time at the moment?

MH: Growing the business. We set up Automotive PR about seven years ago in 2000. We brought together three small businesses. For the first two or three years we were pretty flat in terms of growth - for a variety of reasons. But in the last three or four years we've really begun to accelerate. My main role now is winning new clients and, increasingly, looking at new marketplaces.

We started as a UK-oriented business and we've grown very much into a European business and we're now going onto the world stage. Our newest client is Nanjing MG and we're their global PR company.

DL: What do you like about your job?

MH: There's the challenge of growing the business, but also in working with clients. Sometimes, they don't know what they want to say. Helping clients decide what their real messages are is a stimulating process. Often a new client will say something like 'we're a very boring company and we haven't really got anything to say'. You'd be amazed at the number of companies in the motor industry who don't use PR and often we're not selling against other PR companies, but selling against the option of not doing anything.

But invariably we find lots of interesting things to talk about, whatever the firm's particular sector or niche. Our skill is helping people spot the ammunition that they have got and helping them to fire it.

DL: Frustrations and challenges?

MH: I suppose I could say dealing with troublesome journalists, but of course I wouldn't want to say that! Actually, getting journalists to attend events such as press briefings is one of the biggest problems we face - it can be difficult to get people under pressure to take time out of the office. Curiously though, we do find that if the events are taking place overseas rather than in the UK, the places are easier to fill…

One challenge we face as we grow is potential client conflicts. We look to the engineering consulting businesses in the motor industry as a model for us in this area. In that case, people are quite happy to put out their longest lead and most sensitive projects - engine development, fundamental design work - to the big engineering consultants. And they have very good Chinese walls and we can do that too. Bear in mind that the sort of work we do is at the last moment in the product cycle, the final phase before product launch. So, we believe there's more scope, but having said that, we are never going to work for head-on competitors and we don't, but we do believe that we can work for a number of different clients in the same space.

For example, over the last year we have been working for Nanjing MG, but we have also been doing some work for Chevrolet for some time and we do some work for Mercedes passenger cars as well. They all knew about each other and were quite comfortable about that.

DL: Just to pick up on Nanjing MG. Have there been particular challenges in working for a Chinese client?

MH: Yes. The obvious ones are language and physical distance - both serious issues. And I think what we hadn't appreciated was how strong the cultural differences would be. We found a number of things in which we were really back to basics…in talking about the culture of the Western world in general, for example. You'd be surprised how much time we have spent looking at other brands - not in the motor industry - that they are interested in comparing themselves to.

But also there's the question of exactly what their aspirations and expectations are in relation to the Western media. That's very different from the Chinese media.

For example, we discovered at a big press conference held in Beijing that all the journalists attending - there were a hundred plus - were given brown envelopes containing money. That's how it works there - a very different environment. It's been a real education.

The challenges are not just language and distance - there's a need for a basic cultural understanding. We hope that we've begun to educate them on what people here expect and I hope those who went to the first press conference we did for them in London last year and also the one we did for them in Longbridge earlier this year will have noticed some major steps forward in the way they present themselves.

We have got more work to do on that and they know we have got more work to do.

DL: Are you looking to expand further in China?

MH: Absolutely and in fact we will have from 1 September our first Mandarin speaker joining us. And we are looking at opening an office in Shanghai.

We are looking keenly at all the big emerging market opportunities. We will have a Russian-speaking intern with us later this year and we see Russia as an important opportunity for us as a growing automotive market. We have two or three clients working with us already who are asking us to do things for them in Russia.

And India is important too. We have another new staff member joining shortly with experience of that market.

DL: And do you prefer to expand from within or to partner with firms with local knowledge perhaps?

MH: We will need to partner with some people in some markets but we think we can do an awful lot [ourselves] now. One of the benefits of the internet and, dare I say it, the growth of English as the international lingua franca of the automotive industry, is that you can actually do a great deal from here. It wouldn't have been possible ten years ago and I'm sure things will change even further.

The other thing I want to mention is that we have just launched Automotive PR of America. We are working with a colleague who very recently left a senior position at Audi and he is setting up a business in New York which will be branded Automotive PR and we're expecting great things from that as well.

DL: How do you think the world of PR in the automotive industry is changing?

MH: Well, obviously there's the impact of electronic media and the internet - that is absolutely key and on-going.

But another thing is that we are finding fewer specialised industry journalists. What's happened is that the journalistic profession - in the West, anyway - is in one sense much better educated because there are degrees in journalism and so on. That certainly was not the case when I was a journalist. But as a result you've got much more generalist journalists who pass through specialist magazines on their way to some other goal.

It used to be more the case that people had a career in industry sectors that they were interested in; the industry interest came first and journalism was second to that. Now it's turned around the other way and it does present some challenges.

We're trying to talk about, arguably, the world's most complex and exciting industry that attracts huge investment, to people who don't really understand much about it. That's certainly true about the broadcast media and some of the electronic media - present company excepted! - and it is a constant challenge.

We very often find that we have to do some basic education on journalists before they can start writing about the subject, something we didn't have to do as much a few years ago when journalists stuck around much longer and developed a good understanding of how the industry works.

DL: Where does an industry-specific and dedicated PR firm like Automotive PR sit in the scheme of things? Some of your clients have sizeable in-house PR departments. Why would they use a firm like Automotive PR? What do you bring to the party?

MH: There are a number of factors here. Firstly, they look to us for greater specialist knowledge in some cases and for our extensive media contacts. Because of our spread of activity we have very close relationships with the relatively few very specialist journalists that cover the automotive industry here. We talk to them day in, day out. That's a real strength that we have that the in-house departments, who perhaps only have one story a month, don't have to the same extent.

Secondly, there's pressure for cost-down everywhere in this industry, especially in 'discretionary' areas like PR. Some of the biggest companies have made major cuts in their PR teams and yet they still have to perform the same number of PR tasks. What's happening is that they are outsourcing more, particularly on a project basis. A vehicle maker may, for example, opt to handle all its launches in-house, but that may mean there's no time left for other areas in dealing with the media and selling stories and so on.  And they come to us to try and help with that.

Our team now includes people with recent in-house PR experience at Ford, Peugeot, Lotus, Volvo and Audi - and two more people on the way in will add to that list. We are developing a knowledge bank of expertise that's as good as anybody in-house and we're carefully positioning ourselves as an outsourcing specialist: we do a project and can offer at least as good a service as they could get in-house.

DL: I notice that your team is enthusiastically embracing blogging. What do you think the blogs on your corporate website achieve?

MH: Actually, we don't really know the answer to that. We decided to get into blogging because we felt that it is a coming thing and we wanted to be into it early. I think it is the case that we're the only agency of our sort that is doing it and really it is about trying to broaden the knowledge of what we do among all the stakeholders that we deal with - journalists, clients and others. How successful is it? All I can say is that our hit rate is growing, we're getting more interaction with people who comment on the blogs we write and so on.

It's a growing thing. We talk about industry subjects but we emphatically do not puff our clients - that would be the last thing anybody would want to read there. So we talk about generic things, we talk about our interests - people will write about their cats and their dogs as well as their cars - so it's a mixed bag. It's early days but we're very pleased with the way it's going.

DL: What do your clients make of it?

MH: An awful lot simply don't read it. There are, realistically, plenty of people out there less hooked on electronic media than you and I are. Not everybody visits blogs. But those that do read them have commented favourably. It emphasises the human aspect to what we do.

DL: What do you identify as key aspects of the culture and ethos of your company?

MH: Most importantly, it's a very open culture. As you can see, the only enclosed space here is this meeting room. We're all in one open office. We all know what's going on and we're very open with our financials. Everyone knows where we are financially - good or bad.

That openness engenders a real team spirit and, although people work on different clients, if we have a client issue, we can put all our brains together and brainstorm around the table. We're very conscious that the only assets a PR company like ourselves has is its people.

It's all about what we can offer - experience, contacts and ideas. We've tried hard to build a team that can contribute in all those areas.

I've been in PR for thirty years and I'm probably more excited now about the future than I've ever been. We are in almost a unique position to offer a range of high quality services to clients, old school and new school.

There are the more traditional firms who outsource and need professional support that we have been dealing with for many years.

But there is also a huge opportunity in addressing the needs of companies who have either never bothered with PR or who have no real conception of how the messages about their products and services get to market, especially companies in the developing world and how their messages get to the developed world. Companies in emerging markets - the countries we've talked about - are on an exciting learning curve.

We have been privileged to have Professor Garel Rhys on our board for many years. Garel's observations on the industry are always fascinating and he's fond of pointing out that the auto industry is often seen as a declining smokestack industry, but it's not - it's a sunrise industry when you consider all the growth ahead in places like China and India. We're in an exciting industry and it's never been a more exciting place to be.

DL: You're clearly a busy lad. How do you like to unwind?

MH: You may be able to gather from my shape that it's more cooking than walking. I'm quite an enthusiastic cook. And I read quite a lot.

DL: Favourite dish?

MH: I'm not a wild innovator and I tend to stick to basics. I can produce a mean spaghetti or a roast.

DL: You like getting behind the wheel?

MH: Certainly. I enjoy driving very much. I cover a lot of miles and in spite of the increasing restrictions and speed cameras, it's still fun.

DL: And what are you driving at the moment?

MH: An Audi A4 Avant.


Martin Hayes

Has more than 30 years' experience of motor industry communications, first as a truck and bus journalist and later as head of public affairs for Leyland Truck and Bus, Midland Bank International and DAF Trucks, followed by seven years in independent PR consultancy before founding Automotive PR in 2000. Serves on the Public Affairs Committee of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders and the Board of Roadsafe.


Further reading:

UK: MG production re-starts in September or October

CHINA: British PRs promote 'British' sportscar

UK: Nanjing Auto takes MG a (small) step further

Automotive PR's website