Stephen King | The Innovator 25 EMEA 2020

Stephen King


Middlesex University

“I don't think anyone truly innovates from a comfortable sofa. My best ideas always come when the hordes of Mordor are at the gate.”

Stephen King is a shining example of how to ensure students of PR are not only employable in a fast-evolving industry, but desirable hires for the world’s leading agencies. At Middlesex University Dubai, King has worked with more than 80 graduates and 200 students, and has made enormous changes in the way the university teaches advertising, PR and journalism during his five year tenure. King constantly seeks out new ways of engaging the PR industry, using his huge network to ensure his teaching is relevant to its needs, and gives his students exposure to top tier agencies. He has designed multiple experiences aimed at improving employability, including a speed networking challenge and Instagram TV profiles. Every term, King takes his students on a variety of trips to inspire them, from film studios to boxing gyms, to the UAE's mountain ranges to discuss extreme sports marketing. His innovative approaches not only engage even the most difficult students, but also push all of them to their limits. King worked in agency at ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller and MSL, as well as leading sustainability and corporate responsibility for regional telecoms company Etisalat before moving to academia in 2015. One of the many who nominated King for the Innovator 25 said: “I do not believe I have ever seen him sit still. He is a constant innovator and the best part is, he never does it alone, pushing his peers and students to strive for the same level of greatness.”

Where is the most urgent need for innovation within the PR/communications industry? 
Artificial intelligence.  It is only a small leap from where we are today to fully accepting robots as 'stakeholders' in a PR strategy.

How would you describe the communications/PR industry's level of innovation compared to other marketing disciplines?
PR has always been leaner and more entrepreneurial than other disciplines. Our business is also intrinsically linked to the stakeholders that we engage with. This has helped the industry transition from one issue to the next comparatively easier than other marketing disciplines.

How have the events of 2020 impacted innovation in the PR and communications industry?
Covid-19 has brought rivals together through the various PR associations and other business and social groups to share best practices and overcome mutual problems. These groups have bonded through shared adversity, and the industry, if not the world, is stronger as a result. 

Where is the PR industry's greatest opportunity for taking the lead on innovation?
Covid-19 has opened exciting opportunities in the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) sector. Hybrid format events allow exhibitors to engage with international audiences, making sponsorships, speaking opportunities and general presence marketing activities so much more effective and efficient. The data that these events generate offers compelling ROI arguments, and I may also bravely predict a resurgence in popularity of the press conference, at least in a digital format. 

What is the ideal working scenario for innovation?
I don't think anyone truly innovates from a comfortable sofa. My best ideas have always come when the hordes of Mordor are at the gate!

Has 2020 changed the way you define/approach innovation? How?
2020 has inspired a total revaluation of money, experiences, and relationships, with the former declining in importance to the benefit of the latter. As a result, I find myself seeking more humanist solutions to problems with the aim of building deeper connections between and within communities.

What is the most innovative comms/marketing initiative you've seen this year?
The TikTok-ers who pranked President Trump's election rally. Respect is also due for the smaller PR firms, and in the UAE, I feel TishTash has done some great work. Not only did founder Natasha Hatherall-Shawe launch the SME Rise Collective to support local businesses, but she also introduced a novel drive-through style influencer concept in collaboration with Costa Coffee.

What is the most important lesson you've learned this year?
Being positive is not a state of mind and it doesn't just happen naturally. It is an urgent item on your to-do-list which you must prioritise and work at every day.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider innovative.
Recently, at 2am: I had completed two speaking engagements and had discovered that the curtains in our spare room can work as a green screen. I disturbed the house whilst I developed the idea to a minimal viable level of delivery.

This term: I am currently pioneering the use of online gaming tools to provide richer learning experiences for our students. I am using the fantasy roleplaying tool Roll20 along with Token Stamp to provide our youth with a safe space to present themselves and interact with their friends. I have also incorporated Among Us into our learning activities as a team-building and co-operative problem-solving tool.

All time: In 2014-15 I was building a business concept around short-form video for social media. I tested it at IBC in 2014 and it crashed and burned – the exhibitors said no-one wanted this kind of cheap content. But I persevered in Dubai, and conducted demos in South Africa and across Europe, before backpacking across the US recruiting a fluid network of content creators. I was actually presenting my concept in New York at the same time Sir Martin Sorrell was in Cannes to announce the launch of Truffle Pig, a traditional agency model that offered a similar proposition.

Any habit/activity that you have added to your life this year that you hope to take forward post-pandemic?
Just before the summer I started a podcast with some of my students. Although we don't have many listeners my subconscious is continuously buzzing and I'm excited to find out what I've spotted that I don't yet understand.

How can the PR industry make real progress in diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) and what is the biggest obstacle?
The PR industry is best placed of all the communications functions to benefit from advances in teleworking. And with the learnings of Covid-19, we are now in a great position to address the challenges that the entry level employees, women and BAME communities have faced. My research this summer reveals areas where with effort, we could potentially make significant strides in achieving our DE&I targets and reducing the economic and digital divide. This means a radical revaluation of SOHO-based workers under the purview of facilities management teams, and evolving the role of the modern office into the contemporary 'village' responsible for raising future generations.

What are you thinking about most these days? 
My new wife! We flew to the Seychelles as soon as the airports opened for travel and are enjoying our lock-down honeymoon.

Your bold prediction for 2021…
Augmented audio becomes a thing. Directional noise reduction/enhancement and/or subtitle-enabled sunglasses, and of course, our own personal J.A.R.V.I.S! Also, the Dubai World Expo will be the biggest and most successful ever.