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What I’ve Learnt: Nigel Hughes, MD, Havas Red North

Nigel Hughes

Nigel Hughes is managing director of Havas Red North, part of the global Havas Red network. A well-known face on the Northern PR agency scene for nearly 30 years, hes’s worked for some of the region’s most successful PR firms.

Under global CEO James Wright’s leadership, Hughes helped launch Havas Red in the UK in 2019 and he sits on the UK senior management team as well as in the Havas Red global leadership group.

Here, he shares all the lessons he’s learnt.

Which single daily habit or practice could you not do without?

If you are a commuter like me, you are a slave to Trainline as soon as you wake up – just to see which trains are actually running or are on time today. I once heard ex-transport minister Lord Adonis describe Transpennine Express as the biggest misnomer of all time. “Apart from my own name!” he added.

What’s been your luckiest break?

My first PR job was at Greenwood Tighe in 1994. I didn’t even really know what PR was back then, but I wrote a press release, demanding to know why a top PR agency hadn’t yet signed me up and I sent it to every North West PR agency that was listed in Yellow Pages. Brian Beech must have seen something in me and he give me a chance as a junior account exec, for which I’m always grateful. Three years later and I was an account director on MFI, which was the biggest account in the North at the time. 

What’s your best failure?

My first real job after university was as a writer for a North West football magazine. I only got around £100 a week, but I was living the dream. I got to talk about football all day and to meet some of my heroes. Interviewing Pat Nevin at the Tranmere Rovers training ground is still a career highlight. Sadly, the magazine went bust because none of us had any idea of how to sell advertising space. It was sad when we had to call it a day, but the guy who set it up has a top job at Reach Sport now and my portfolio of published work did help get me my first PR role, so I suppose we did OK in the end.

What is the best investment you’ve ever made, either financial or time?

Tony Wood was a proper whizz at digital marketing, well before it became a thing (I’m sure he still is, obviously!). He told me to book onto a training course in digital PR that was being run by e-consultancy, as that was where everything was going. I think it cost around £1,000 but it completely changed my understanding of how PR can work. I created a twitter account on the train home from London, while most of my pals were still sending each other messages on Friends Reunited.

Which book would you recommend others to read and why?

I’ve read Mark Borkowski’s book The Fame Formula four or five times. His tales about the old school Hollywood publicists are so entertaining and they are still relevant today. I love his story about how P.T. Barnum trained an elephant to plough a farmer’s field as a publicity stunt for his travelling circus – I think that was Barnum’s attempt at CSR.

What one piece of advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

You should listen more. You don’t know anything yet.

Who or what has had the single biggest influence on your working life?

I’d say I’ve learned more in the last three or four years than at any point in my career. There are so many clever people across the Havas Red global network, you can’t help but keep improving – but I’ve been influenced by every boss I’ve had. Pete Johnston, Creative Director at MAP, played a massive role in my working life. He was the first advertising creative I met who truly believed great ideas can come from anywhere and he really encouraged me to put my ideas forward. Before too long, we were presenting PR-led creative strategies together – rather than leaving PR to slide 99 of a 100-slide integrated marketing deck.

Tell us something about you that would surprise people.

I appear in The Stone Roses film, Made of Stone.

How will the COVID crisis change work for the better? 

Fully remote working is a step too far in my view, but hybrid working brings obvious benefits for individuals and overall and it doesn’t seem to have harmed productivity. None of us have seen anything like the COVID crisis before, so we all had to learn as we went along. The best companies decided that, in a global emergency, they genuinely did want to make a meaningful difference to people’s lives and I do hope that continues.

What does success look like to you?

I would usually say something about Tranmere Rovers moving on from the lower reaches of League Two, but I’ll stick to work stuff. Havas Red is a spectacular success story already, but we are only at the start of our journey. Flexible, fun, energised, purpose-driven, creative, empowered, bold, restless and relentless. There is a lot more success in store for us and we are enjoying every minute.

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