Tom Blackwell, CEO at EM, on why there is no such thing as a ‘dull mandate’ in Russia, his admiration for Alibaba’s Jack Ma and the challenge of finding the right cheese.
How did you get into international corporate communications?
By complete chance. I never had any intention of working in communications. I just happened to have a meeting about 15 years ago with the owner of a Russia/CIS-focused PR agency. He needed to hire someone quickly for their London office and I was feeling a bit bored with my job at the time. Stars were evidently aligned – within a few hours we had agreed to give it a go.
What does your job involve?
Generally, we try to keep internal administrative processes at EM to a minimum. Hierarchy, reporting, evaluation forms, timesheets, client efficiency reports, etc. These processes take time, and rarely tell you anything you didn’t know already. So I personally spend very little time on “general management”, something I am hopeless at anyway. And instead I get to focus on what I do best.
Like everyone in the team, I have a few key clients that I look after. In addition, I tend to be very involved in all of our major marketing initiatives, as I think I have a reasonable nose for marketing. I am currently working closely with the head of our recently opened Hong Kong office, as we try to roll out our business model in Asia. And lastly, I am an enthusiastic participant in our digital disruption team. We are convinced that the Uber moment is coming for investor relations, and we’re working on some initiatives that could help us to be at the forefront of that.
What’s the most exciting, or different, part of working at EM with its distinctive remit?
That would have to be Russia itself. When I imagine what it would be like to do financial PR for a ball bearing manufacturer in Wolverhampton, or for a widget producer in Wisconsin, I am not sure this would be very exciting. Yet in Russia, there is no such thing as a dull mandate – they all become exciting sooner or later!
What media do you take with you to see you through a long flight? Which media gives you the best snapshot of international issues and developments?
This is becoming a challenge. I think within the next several years, the traditional media model as we know it will be dead. Of course I have my media sources that I consider important. The problem is that it is very rare that I actually go on to their sites or open their newspapers. I increasingly expect the news that matters to come directly to me, for example through my social media feeds. And 9 times out of 10 it does, and it works very well.
The problem is when it comes to long flights – most still don’t have reliable internet, and so the Facebook feed to news concept doesn’t work so well. That said, long flights tend to be the best chance I have of sleeping during the week, and so I am happy for this problem not to find a solution just yet. Airport queues on landing are a perfectly good opportunity to catch up on the news.
What do you like about living in Moscow?
Definitely not the cheese, following Russia’s counter sanctions against the West. Parmesan from Bryansk is simply not very nice. But cheese aside, I am a big fan. The pace at which things move here is extraordinary. Admittedly sometimes they move in the wrong direction, but not always. And in any event it’s exhilarating.
What predictions that people made about Russia in your early days have come true?
Absolutely none of them. It’s a place that always keeps you guessing.
Would it be right to imagine that the recent political conflicts between Russia and the West have made your business life more difficult? How?
It would indeed. In fact, as what was at the time a principally Moscow-London based business, focused on supporting Russian corporates in the international capital markets, our business should probably have become irrelevant, and died a sudden death.
As it happens, things have turned out somewhat differently. Admittedly, we don’t see so much of our competition out here these days, which does of course help. But also, we have always been somewhat unique with a team made up of fairly international former bankers, journalists, IROs, in-house comms people, all of whom are united by a long-standing focus on and passion for Russia. Our ability to really understand both sides makes us better at what we do, and this is particularly important and valued in the current environment. And of course our timely move into Asia was another important contributor to staying as relevant as possible for our core Russian client base.
What is the most interesting country you’ve been visiting for work and why?
Definitely China. We opened our office in Hong Kong at the end of last year, but we also spend a fair amount of time in Beijing and Shanghai on projects for our Russian clients. We have got quite good at figuring out how to deliver results for our Russian clients, by helping them build up their profile in the market, get into the media, etc. But what is exciting is that we know we have only just started to scratch the surface – both in terms of our knowledge of the market, and our presence within it. We have some ambitious plans for the coming years.
Which chief executive do you admire as an international communicator and why?
Jack Ma from Alibaba (technically not CEO, but close enough). I first saw him live at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (the “Russian Davos”) last year. For anybody that knows the St Petersburg Forum, it’s what happens after the conference sessions that matters. But the session with Jack Ma, which was late in the day on the last day of the conference, was packed. Standing room only, and I was one of many standing, engrossed.
Firstly, he tells his story brilliantly, and when listening to him you feel like you are going on his journey with him. But he also embodies many of the themes that we at EM are passionate about. Emerging markets success, market disruption, innovation, growth. In short, we like Jack’s style.
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