Jun 19th 2017

An interview with Babel CEO Ian Hood: PR, motorcycles, and lunch

When I left University, the world of full-time work was a daunting place. Desk jobs in offices are so often billed as soulless, monotonous and mundane. I was worried all of the life would be sucked out of me in a small cubicle somewhere in central London. Yet, when I first came to interview at Babel, I was pleasantly surprised to see no individual offices, no partitions, and big windows allowing the crisp winter sun in. It’s that open environment that has allowed me to learn so quickly about the world of PR, to integrate myself with my colleagues, and not only remain who I am, but grow as a person. It’s also thanks to this culture that I was granted the opportunity to sit down with Ian Hood, CEO and co-founder, to ask him about his life and career to see if I could garner a few tips.

It’s probably best we went back to somewhere near the beginning. Ian, did you always think you would work in communications?
Like many people, my early career was a little schizophrenic – left school at 16 (much to my parents’ annoyance), spent a few years as a motor mechanic, entered university as a mature student, dropped out, sold commercial property and ended up doing public consultation for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link project (essentially a communications role). From there I was headhunted for a role with Telewest plc, one of the companies that merged to form Virgin Media.

The next logical question would be: have you always been a tech-savvy person?
Knowledge, about anything, is all about curiosity. I’m certainly curious about new technologies but I’m also curious about a range of things including business, politics, economics and human behaviour. That’s actually very important in the world of technology communications. It isn’t enough to simply understand and drool over the latest widget; you have to think about how it fits in, what impact it can have, how the target market might react etc. Only then can you start to define a strategy and design appropriate tactical elements.

How was Babel born?
My co-founder, Narelle, and I were both working at the same agency and we were offered the opportunity to take part in a management buyout. Frankly, it wasn’t very appealing given the management structure that was planned. At the time, we were jointly responsible for a significant proportion of the company’s new and existing business and so the decision to leave and start Babel was the obvious alternative.

Even though this is your interview, we shouldn’t forget your partner in comms. What made you think Narelle was someone you’d like to start an agency with?
Narelle is quite possibly the most organised person I know and that’s not something I’m famous for. When people think about PR and communications, they often talk about creativity but creativity by itself is wasted if you can’t back it up with great planning, resourcing and implementation. We have much in common, including being country born Australians, but I think we both realised that we had strengths that would be a great complement in our own agency.

After looking at your LinkedIn page we can see that you have been the owner of a few other companies, such as IHCC and YourPressOffice.com. What made Babel different from the other communication start-ups you were involved in? Why has it stood the test of time?
IHCC was simply myself offering consultancy services to a variety of primarily large enterprises, one of which (THUS plc) I helped to guide through the early days of an IPO and they then brought me on full time. YourPressOffice.com was a not terribly successful attempt to provide small companies with an outsourced press office. I think it’s good to try new things, even if they might fail, because only then can you really identify what it is you’re best at. Babel works because Narelle and I have combined our expertise and experience with a great team. We never lose sight of the fact that campaigns have to deliver. We make sure that happens for every client, no matter how big or small.

Looking back over your career, what would you say were your highlights?
There have been quite a few. Starting Babel is top of the list, but in terms of campaign activity, doing battle with Sky’s satellite services when working in the cable business was always fun, as was launching the UK’s first broadband cable modem Internet services (max. 2Mb if I recall!). More recently, a very challenging but successful project to launch was Epson’s augmented reality smart glasses, but what is most satisfying is seeing our efforts rewarded over the longer term. Helping to build Ruckus Wireless over four years to make it the darling of the enterprise Wi-Fi sector and an acquisition target was a particular favourite.

And can you recall any particular lowlights?
Thankfully very few, but in my early career being taught the difference (when an unexpected and very embarrassing story appeared) between ‘off the record’ and ‘not for publication’ was painful. The real lowlights for me are twofold:

The impossible demands on journalists today. They are all too busy, mostly underpaid and often expected to churn out copy like a sausage machine. It’s changed an awful lot in the last 20-30 years but, en masse, we appear to have decided not to pay for news and instead, accept an entirely ad funded model. That makes the economics of news production very challenging. Like all things in life, you get what you pay for.

The increasing prevalence of ‘pile it high’ agencies. I won’t name names but these are the companies with dedicated and very polished pitch teams that promptly disappear as soon as the account has been won. The entire account is then run by people with little or no experience who simply act as a conduit between the client and their target audience. They add no real value and they do their clients no favours.

As CEO of one of the top 20 tech PR agencies in the country, is there anything you miss about your early days as an executive like me?
It’s a different environment now but I still get a huge kick out of coming in to work, designing campaigns, winning new clients and advising them and our team when something particularly challenging comes up. If you pressed me I might admit to missing the (very) long, and typically (very) well lubricated, journalist lunches. When I started in PR and communications that’s how we built relationships with journalists. It wasn’t good for the liver but it certainly worked for the soul.

And to finish things off, could you tell us something we might not know about Ian Hood? It can be something about your career, a niche hobby you might have, or a phobia perhaps?
I’ve never really thrown off being a motor mechanic and I’m obsessed with motorbikes. I always have at least one from the 1970s in the garage in the middle of restoration. Normally it’s an Italian bike but right now it’s a 1974 Honda CB750k, the machine that started the Japanese superbike era. Stop me now before I go on, and on, and on…