As Co-founder and Director of Meteor Public Relations for five years, Alex Burmaster has carved his career path from the moment he left university.
After freelancing for over four years, Alex went on to work for data giant Nielsen, where his focused lied in trend spotting and market research.
Then after a company change, he decided to do the brave thing and go his own way. Thus his London PR Agency, Meteor was born.
Alex now works with a global network to provide digital marketing-related services or insights into consumer behaviour and the advertising industry to a B2B audience.
We caught up with Alex to talk about the PR industry today, his career path, and how you can get into the industry.
Having studied a business-related course in Uni, did your passion for business start then?
To be completely candid with you, whilst at university, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I did a business course, but management sciences was quite general, and I deliberately picked that because it was a good course, but it was also quite broad.
It gave me the opportunity to assess different career areas and not get pigeon-holed too early on. It was an opportunity to find out what I might like.
"My passion began at start-ups as you work across a lot more areas of the business."
It wasn’t really until a few years after university when I was working at my first start-up when my passion really began because at start-ups you work across a lot more areas of the business, everyone kind of mucks in together.
After university you freelanced for over four years, what did this period teach you?
I think for me now probably it taught me to be more reliant on yourself for income, which sounds silly because obviously, you are reliant on yourself when working to get paid, but I was directly responsible, as opposed to working for another company where they are paying you.
I think it made it easier for me to start my own business when I did five years ago because I’d already been through a period of where I did different jobs, and I didn’t have a regular, stable income.
There would be a period where I would have an unsteady and unreliable income, I think that’s what puts a lot of people off starting their own business, but because I freelanced for such a long time, I was used to that environment.
What was the transition like from freelance to big business with Nielsen?
I thought the transition was going to be difficult, but the jump just wasn’t as big as I thought it would be.
Although Nielsen is an enormous company, the division and office I worked in had 30 to 40 people, so although I was in a company that globally had thousands, my immediate world was probably only about 30 other people.
In a way, it had a little bit of a start-up mentality because we worked in the online division, which was a much newer, much smaller division of the company.
It was quite a nice segue because I worked in start-ups in the digital environment and although I was going to a very established company, the position I was going into was relatively new.
At Nielsen you worked on marketing strategies and internet analysis, how difficult is this?
You’re very, very reliant on the data that is produced for you to make those trends really, that’s the biggest challenge, you need data to back it up basically.
You’re hugely reliant on the quality of the data that your company is producing to be able to then marry that up with what you’re reading and seeing in the wider world, which a lot is based on facts, but a lot is based on opinions as well, so that was really the biggest challenge.
"I was introduced as the man who predicted the end of Facebook."
I remember going in to see Facebook, as I had written a story about how their first drop in traffic they’d ever had, so I did quite a balanced story, called ‘Facebook traffic falls for the first time’ but made it very clear that "one swallow" doesn't make summer.
But it got picked up a lot and I actually went into to present to Facebook about a month later and I remember the UK Managing Director at the time introducing me as ‘the man who predicted the end of Facebook’.
It was very tongue-in-cheek, but it was important to flag that trend as it was around the time that we were doing a lot on MySpace and Bebo, and they really did hit the wall a couple of years later.
Why did you choose to start Meteor?
Well, I’d been thinking about doing it for a while. Going back to my freelancing days, I had always enjoyed being my own boss, and I always thought that I would like to get back to that.
[Nielsen] had changed dramatically in the time I was there, our area in the business was being merged with the bigger Nielsen family, so our division ceased to exist as a sole entity.
So I thought it would be the best time to go and start a new thing. You can always find a reason not to do it, but I was partly being pushed to do it, my division was disappearing, it gave me a little boost to go do something on my own.
What difficulties did you face in starting your own business in such a saturated market?
A lot of my success is to do with my network. The big advantage that I had was that part of my role at Nielsen, as well as being an analyst, I did the front of house work, so I did a lot of the radio, TV, press work.
I was sited a lot so I had quite a good profile, in the sense that I had been both the national and the trade press talking about internet trends.
So I was fortunate in the sense of I had a relatively high profile, and also because I’ve worked at a company that was one of the leaders in the industry, I had a good profile both from the quality of work that I did, but also having a press profile certainly helped.
How do you tweak your work for your overseas clients?
You might tweak the way you speak to journalists, the way that you deal with them, the material you might send them, the time period that you might work over, the process can change, and the context itself can change.
What might be an interesting story in the UK, might not be in Dubai, or Italy, where the markets aren't as advanced.
"It’s about understanding how the story needs to change to be relevant to the market."
For example if doing stories Dubai, we might do a much more simple or straight forward story that’s relatively old news in the UK, because it’s the world’s most advanced market, whereas Dubai is relatively new, so it’s about understanding how the story needs to change to be relevant to that market.
What does PR mean to you now? As it’s grown dramatically from the days of a simple press release?
Very simply PR to me is getting coverage and publicity for my clients in the titles that are relevant to their business, it’s really as simple as that.
Sometimes you have to handle crisis communications, that would probably be the secondary element which is about coverage, but getting the type of coverage in relation to a particular issue that might surface, and obviously being able to control and manage the message that ends up being printed or published.
So really PR hasn’t changed that much in the last 10 to 20 years?
I think the fundamentals and the basic premise of PR hasn’t changed. Obviously, the channels have changed in terms of social media, which has had a big impact on PR and the ability to control the message that goes out.
In the old days there was a certain amount of newspapers and four or five TV channels, now there are 200 channels and there is social media, so the managing of all those elements has become more complex.
Another fundamental change is email's big impact on PR, previously if you had a press release or you were selling a story to a journalist, you either spoke on the phone, faxed it to them, or gave it to them in person. Now you could send out a press release to 500 journalists at the click of a button.
Email has generated a huge amount of noise and irrelevance that clogs up journalists’ time.
Would you recommend a young person start their own PR company now?
The PR space is a very very crowded area, there are an ever-increasing number of agencies where people who have worked in other agencies have gone on to make their own.
If you want to go out on your own at a very early stage, you need to have a point of differentiation or a specialism to really appeal. You’ve got to ask, why would someone use you, why would they use you versus the hundreds of other agencies out there?
"Why would they use you versus the hundreds of other agencies out there?"
But I think if you’re starting your own business, you must remember it’s not just about coverage for your clients, it’s also about running a business.
The ideal way is to work at another agency, get the experience, and make contacts, you’ll learn what you’re good and not good at, what you like doing, what you don’t like doing and then it makes it much easier for you to decide the area or the avenue you want to focus on if you were to go it alone.
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