Charlie Tarr | The Innovator 25 EMEA 2023

Charlie Tarr

Founder & CEO



“In a world where everyone is 'disruptive' or trying to revolutionise with the next big thing, we forget that true innovation can often lie in refining and tweaking what works, and doing it brilliantly.” 

Charlie Tarr, the founder of strategic communications firm Woodrow – named as one of PRovoke Media’s fastest-growing UK agencies last year – represents a new type of agency leader as the PR industry enters a more mature phase. His work is defined by comms challenges on issues at the forefront of international relations, global security and society. He led the global crisis comms response on behalf of the Liberian government during the Ebola outbreak, has managed responses to terror attacks and international incidents, and been at the centre of legal cases for people defending the voice of the voiceless. He has gone on to advise companies, organisations and entrepreneurs on having conversations that truly matter on issues that define how we live and work. For Tarr, effective PR isn’t about fame, it’s about influencing the conversations that matter most. The agency – which prides itself on its people-first culture – recently crystallised its difference in a recent brand refresh as the ‘Future Positive’ consultancy, drawing a red thread through its clients and approach not by sector nor service, but by impact and influence, from the maritime sector anchoring a movement toward decarbonisation, to carbon-neutral concrete to help the construction industry reduce its environmental impact. The agency has on average pitched once a year since Tarr opened its doors five years ago, instead winning major clients through word-of-mouth and referrals. Under Tarr’s leadership, Woodrow is unquestionably a firm to watch. 

How do you define innovation?
Making what is proven to work, work better. To borrow from the brilliant James Clear [writer of ‘Atomic Habits’]: “Old ideas are a secret weapon because they have already managed to survive in a complex world. Iterate, don’t originate.” In a world where everyone is “disruptive” or trying to revolutionise with the next big thing, we forget that true innovation can often lie in refining and tweaking what works, and doing it brilliantly. This is what we try to do at Woodrow every day.

What is the most innovative PR or marketing initiative you've seen over the past 12 months?
Orange’s ad ahead of the FIFA Women's World Cup, part of their sponsorship of the French team. Confronting bias head on. Brilliant.

In your opinion, which brands and/or agencies are most innovative in their approach to PR and marketing?
For someone who has built a career at the sharp end of issues-focused corporate comms, it may seem out of place to mention a fashion brand. But I love what Jacquemus has done. Interesting, playful, brave. Ideas I wish I thought of.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider to be innovative.
Growing Woodrow to an FT1000 business and PRovoke Media fastest mover with very little competitive pitching – and almost no PR and an extremely minimal website – was something that at the time felt brave. Many people questioned the strategy. Some thought we were mad. But it felt authentic to me personally and our brand. We solely focused on clients and our team. I'm so happy we stuck to our guns.

Who do you admire for his/her approach to innovation? 
[OpenAI CEO] Sam Altman. I'm a huge believer in how AI and human creativity can come together to solve the most pressing problems. True innovation. His frank and honest assessments of the entrepreneurial journey are also spot on, as is his belief in the moral imperative to support entrepreneurs and start-ups – the engine room of innovation. 

How do you get out of a creativity rut?
Space. No phone. Fresh air. Exercise. It'll come.

What advice would you give to the PR industry around embracing innovation?
I think we can all do better at getting out of the industry echo chamber. There is a lot of great work by colleagues and agencies to take inspiration from. But the best ideas can come emerge from the most unexpected places. At Woodrow, we constantly look for inspiration outside of the comms sector – we have conversations on what’s caught our eye from art to archaeology, science to music, history to philosophy. It’s these ideas you can bring to your daily work and advisory, either improving what already works, or solving the issue that once seemed unsolvable. And as always, keep it simple. Shiny and exciting does not necessarily equate to success and impact. 
What would you be doing if you weren't doing your current job?
Academia. Put me in a library, give me a subject to research, and let me write. It's my happy place.

Which book/movie/TV show/podcast/playlist/other cultural source has provided inspiration over the past year?
Yellowstone on Paramount+. Remarkable in its depiction of power, wealth, the clash of old and new worlds, and a reminder of the overwhelming wonder of a natural world that we all need to protect. Also a joy to watch a master of his craft deliver a leading role so effortlessly.

How can the PR and communications industry harness innovation to make more progress on diversity, equity and inclusion?
There is still an antiquated approach to the recruitment process, especially in filtering candidates effectively, or helping candidates find firms that share their values or have opportunities, training or vacancies. Agencies, recruiters, career support networks need to exploit technology far better in this area.