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PR Face2Face:Clive Armitage, CEO, Bite Communications

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Clive Armitage oversees the management of Bite Communications and the development of its different business divisions.

This involves managing the Bite brand across three countries, as well as being closely involved in the running of Bullet, Bite’s award-winning new media division.

Clive was a co-founder of Bite back in May 1995 and has 15 years industry experience working across a variety of technology and telecommunications clients including Microsoft, Oracle, Sun and BT.

Clive’s particular passion is developing creative communications campaigns for corporate brands that have a resonance beyond just PR. He strongly believes that creativity is an all too undervalued tool in the business-to-business arena and regards it as an essential ingredient for developing powerful and compelling communications.

Bite PR has a reputation for being an expert on open source technology. With no overt ownership in open source, how do you go about getting press for what might be a free product?

A product stands or falls not because it is free but because it delivers benefit/advantage to the user. Sure, the cost model for a technology is of certain interest but it’s really the feature functionality that grabs the attention.

You just won Sun – and that day, put out a job listing for all levels on the KIT List. What do you think it was about Bite that lead Sun to say – yep, that’s the firm for us? How did you feel about the reverse auction set-up – do you think that more corporations will be going that route?

The key piece of feedback we got was that the chemistry was right. That is crucial for any pitch – you want that chemistry with the potential client. Sun might have been looking for a change of emphasis and some new blood, but they also knew us from our other work for them and appreciated the results from the other work we had been doing for them.

Plus, we emphasized that we would bring a touch of creativity to them – we constantly look for creative solutions for all our clients, for all our campaigns. Our mission at Bite Communications is to be fearless and boundless in everything we do and we specifically referenced that in our response. For us, it’s about taking risks to get big rewards and Sun felt very comfortable with that.

The dynamic bidding process was an interesting experience, not nearly as forbidding as I thought it would be. Is that process put in place to make sure they got the cheapest deal? I don’t think that’s the way it was meant to be at all. And, they didn’t choose the cheapest bid. That was my greatest fear but they made sure to reassure us that the process would not be that way. They lived up to their promise.

The fact is that the rise of the procurement department in large organizations is inevitable. It is the drive to transparency for the best price. While the best price does not necessarily mean best quality, some companies will shoot themselves in the foot by just shopping by price and not quality.

With your involvement in the open source community, do you think that there will be open source public relations, like there is a push for open source marketing?

There is a socialist aspect to the open source community, and until you work out a process to monetize the working together and how different organizations and people can work it effectively, it is hard to judge whether or not there will be an open source public relations movement.

I don’t see anything changing anytime soon. The structures currently in place are working well for organizations.

You started with NextFifteen at Text 100 in 1990, and were there when Bite was spun off. What was the impetus to spin off Bite, and how has being the “smaller” agency helped Bite?

I began my career in 1990 in London at Text 100, and had a great career there. There was an opportunity to pitch Apple in 1995 and Text could not work with Apple because of its work with Microsoft.

We saw the opportunity to go to the board of Text 100, and suggested, with their backing, to start this agency. It was essentially a conflict brand to Text 100, and we then pitched Apple in 1995, and Apple took a chance with us. It has worked for us and Apple – the relationship still exists 10 years later.

At the same time, the Internet was starting to become part of the lexicon, and we wanted to create an agency that was in tune with the times. The persona for the agency was relaxed, more nimble, and we have had a lot of great success and won great brands with that philosophy.

We then expanded to broader technology – B2B and B2C. Bite picked up BT, Toshiba, Oracle – big clients that put us on the map quickly. From the get go we were about making sure that we had a good firm in the UK but quickly appreciated that we needed to be more than just the UK, and the natural move was to come to the US.

In 1999, rather like The Beatles or any British music act, we knew we had to crack America if we wanted to be big worldwide! So we moved here in 2000, and didn’t get a chance to establish right away because of the downturn. But that was also good for us because we didn’t take out a big lease or hire in lots of staff. We kept a small but strong presence in the Bay Area for the next three years, waiting for the recovery. We decided to get to critical mass by acquiring someone, saw Applied Communications and developed the presence from five to 40 people overnight. In September 2003 that acquisition went through, and since then it is about expanding in the US – creating a market, cementing our reputation, and opening in NY this year.

When did you move to the US? Did you find US PR different from UK PR? What were the hardest adjustments, in terms of PR?

At the time of the acquisition of Applied Communications, we appreciated the failure rate of agency mergers, so we took the decision to put as much management bandwidth on the ground as we could. It was a strategic basis to make the merger successful, to spearhead the drive, and that was the impetus for me moving to the States.

There are subtle differences between the US and UK PR scene. The US PR market I have experienced is very tech focused, and is more reactive and news driven. There are large corporations with news every day, and PR is constantly having to handle the generation of the news.

In the UK clients offices are not often the company HQ so generating awareness for the clients can sometimes mean more creativity, focusing on the issues more than the US counterparts.

The challenges for me were coming over and leading a business, and proving to the people that I could add value to their job. It was about helping the people do their job better. We’d acquired a great set of people from Applied – we just needed to re-energize them and give them some belief in themselves. I’m delighted to say they rose to the challenge.

You swallowed up Applied Communications, to build the San Francisco practice. PR Week had a piece on how you handled the integration – and how it was done well – but was there a difference in corporate cultures that you had to merge? How hard was it, and did it just not turn out well for some people?

The key point was that Alan Kelly, the CEO – a charismatic, singular guy – wanted to move on. He appreciated that, for the business to change, he needed to allow new management the opportunity to do the things they believed in. So, once he had moved on, there were no senior people holding back the changes.

The people on the ground embraced the change. We only lost 2 people, who were relocations away from California. I think the people we inherited were looking for something different and they embraced the Bite culture very quickly. They looked at it as something that would be good for them, and put their noses to the grindstones to make Bite a great agency.

Plus, the European practice of five weeks vacation time didn’t hurt!

Text 100 and Bite are known for their open bullpen setting. While that is seen as building team camaraderie, it also inhibits any sense of privacy. Why is it open bullpen, and have you had people balking at such a situation? Or is there a discrimination against walls at NextFifteen?

When we bought Applied, it was a classic cubicle environment. When I first went into there, I had no idea how many people were there, and then 40 people appeared for our first meeting. It was like watching groundhogs pop their heads up out of their holes.

The classic cubicle environment is alien to me, as I had always “grown up” in the open, more European way of working. Privacy is not usually given, but it does foster a feeling of teamwork and the newsroom feeling.

When we first said we were tearing down the walls, there were undoubtedly people who were concerned about the change. If you ask them now, they would say they like the open environment, the team feeling of the place. But there are meeting rooms for those private meetings, private phone calls.

I guess you could say an open environment is also a great training tool. When I first started in 1990, I did listen to the people on how to pitch media. People sometimes hide in cubicles, because they do not want to be heard, or didn’t want others to hear how they pitch to the media. How they talked, how they were prepared – that’s something that the junior people can learn from. It is a chance for people to learn from talented people in an open office environment.

Your agency was just named Technology Agency of the Year by Holmes Report, and was runner up in PRW‘s Mid-Size Agency award. What do you owe your success to, considering you are relative newcomers to the States?

I think it’s a combination of factors including luck.

We have had a presence since early 2000, and have been in touch with the marketplace, and appreciated that the downturn knocked confidence and energy levels at many firms. When we bought Applied, it was an exciting time for us because we were focused on growth and this was in marked contrast to many of the other agencies in the Valley because of their experiences over the last few years. What people were looking for coming out of the downturn was a new, fresh agency. And we have tapped into that mindset, offering a new, fresh approach. We focus on culture, retaining talent, recruiting and molding talent. We focus on happy, motivated teams, and delivering good service. And I think we have had the recognition with some of the awards we won.

You have recently set-up a blog for the firm as a whole, post NewComm Forum. Did the NewComm forum attendance convince Bite to set up a corporate blog? Are you setting up a blogging practice for clients? What place do you see blogs taking in the communications mix? And, how does the blog fit into billability?

We have been watching blogging with real interest for the past 12 months. For me, it was a question of looking at some of the things happening in Iraq, and what was happening on the ground, and then the presidential race showed that it was a communications form that would have a great impact on our industry.

It’s difficult to control and use – in PR, we are typically a gatekeeper for information. With blogs and the impact of the Internet, transparency is king. Clearly, the blog is impacting the ways we do our job and new practices are emerging.

We recognize that if we wanted to talk to clients about the way blogging is going to affect communications, we had to set up our own blog. To understand it, we needed to live it. We opened up the blog to everyone in the office. We really don’t have much control regarding the content on the blog – if it is something you would say in the office, then you can write it on the blog. Thus far, we have certain individuals like Trevor Jonas who loves to write, while others are more passive. It’s open to all.

We will look to replicate the seminar on blogging we had here in Europe in June. We expect to find Europe will not be quite as up to speed, but that will likely change by the end of the year.

What advice would you give PR students entering the field? What do you look for in your people?

Never give up wanting to learn. Anyone going into the industry, they have to have a voracious appetite to learn. PR is fast moving, and the rules are changing rapidly, and you must be able to soak up information quickly. People going into the industry need to be open minded.

My advice is to get into the industry, submerge yourself, and then find the sections you want to work in.

Look for the kind of culture you can identify with, express yourself. At Bite, we have a culture where you are comfortable to put forth ideas. We have an environment that encourages interaction, no matter the level.

There are certain maxims for Bite people: smart, fit into our culture, get along with others, exhibit positive energy and have the ability to interface with clients, whatever the level.

In the past, a lot of the dot-com PR was personality based. What are the pros and cons of personality PR for a technology firm?

Personality has always played a part in PR. If you have a larger than life character, with great vision, you use them. I have heard that argument that dotcom was all about personality but I don’t have a problem with that.

Personality PR brings color and interest to the company, creates debate. Hearing from people like Larry Ellison or Jonathan Schwartz brings something to the table that people want to read about, something interesting.

There is no problem focusing on personality.

Have you done PR in non-tech industries in your earlier days? Since Bite is tech, how do the two industries compare, and how do you deal with the different mindsets?

I did go into tech PR thinking I would get out quickly, but I soon realized the industry was so fast moving, and came to appreciate that innovation makes for an interesting life. Fifteen years later I’m still doing tech PR!

At Bite we have clients who span a broad spectrum of technologies – some focus on business audiences, some on consumers. The key point they share is the need to translate the benefits of the technology into a language that the end user will understand and that’s what is firstly, most interesting to us and, secondly, what we excel at.

Any last words of advice?

I have a cartoon near my desk of a heron attempting to swallow a frog but is failing because the frog has reached out from the heron’s beak and has its hands around the neck of the heron. The caption is “don’t ever give up.” That’s my belief for public relations and also for business, that you should never give up and always enjoy what you are doing.

Reader Comments

Jeremy Pepper is the CEO and founder of POP! Public Relations, a public relations firm based in Arizona, USA.

He authors the popular Musings from POP! Public Relations blog which offers Jeremy’s opinions and views – on public relations, publicity and other things.

PR Face2Face:Clive Armitage, CEO, Bite Communications
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