Over the last dozen or so years, to those fine dining fans that have enjoyed the top end of the London restaurant scene, there has been one name that has stood out as a constant in an ever changing industry. Without question, regarded and respected as a leader – and not just amongst her peers – Maureen Mills has blazed a trail through the tough business of top end restaurant PR and marketing.
Maureen found time to talk to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide about her background, principles, practices and observations. Interview took place at The Club at The Ivy, September 4th 2009.
Tell us some background about yourself?
Although I’ve been here in the UK for the last 21 years, I am originally from Toronto, Canada. During the last 14 years I’ve set up and run Network London PR – a firm with a focus on the predominantly high quality, top end restaurant market place.
My professional background has pretty much always been PR. My first role was working in Toronto for the Four Seasons Group, I was then headhunted by British Airways to do in house PR in Canada. I spent a great eight and a half years at BA; during part of that time I was seconded to London for a year to work in a special, focused PR and marketing unit that Lord King (CEO) had set up – I was effectively representing North America in a global centralised unit. That year was to trigger my permanent move to London which happened a year later.
I’ve always had a passion for food and drink and often the projects I worked on at The Four Seasons and British Airways touched heavily on travel and restaurants.
So, having arrived in London, I was deciding what to do next, and a friend of mine from Canada owned a London-based publishing company – an international division, Where, and acquired Where London magazine.This covered the top end of the hotel, theatre, sight-seeing, restaurant and bar scene. For the following eight years I was directly involved in editing and publishing the magazine.
Following that I wanted to start something of my own and so in 1995 Network London PR was born. I was lucky to have developed the kind network of contacts that brought some very good clients very quickly.
What are the guiding principles of Network London?
We like to keep the chef, restaurant and restaurateur client base focused with an attention (on purpose) to quality. That doesn’t necessarily mean Michelin Stars but I like clients that have all the attributes of aspiring top end quality establishments. I also like a personality in the kitchen, let’s say “a kitchen with a heartbeat.”
I tend to really get to know my clients well, giving them personal attention and developing a bond of mutual trust that sometimes leads to becoming personal friends – I’ve found this naturally comes from maintaining high quality professional relationships but also having a shared passion for the sector.
As we keep Network London compact, focused and high quality, I’m confident that I can provide the right level of personal attention for my clients.
How would you describe your team at Network London PR?
We’ve always been three, three and a half heads. The current team is young – 23 and 29 – but they’re developing significant experience all the time and display the passion and thirst for knowledge for our sector that enables them to make a wonderful contribution to servicing and developing our client base.
What differentiates what Network London has to offer clients?
As well as the personal involvement, which brings a well travelled and experienced skill set, I would say the next differentiator is that we act as general consultants to our clients – far more than pure press liaison.
This can be anything from advising on the format of a menu for a proposed new venture through trends on wines, pricing and food to educating a new client about what’s actually involved in creating the appropriate strategy for image and awareness. Naturally, maintaining a broad list or network of media contacts is also central to our success.
What would your be overview of the top end of the London restaurant scene?
In the last two years London has experienced a lot of change at the top end and it remains in a state of flux. I think this may not settle down for another year or so, if ever. We’ve seen, for example, a number of highly regarded prominent western European chefs open restaurants that have not been as successful as they may have hoped. Many of the two star plus restaurants that remain are in the process of reviewing their products. They are asking themselves “What do my customers really want?” and we’ve found changes like set menus and regular promotions coming in to battle the economic times.
Perhaps too, there is a move back from complexity to simplicity. A couple of years ago, the top end restaurants would invariably have dishes with foams, jellies and smears and sometimes you’d be asking yourself “What is the main ingredient amongst all those on the plate?” Now there’s a move toward having fewer ingredients with clean, clear, deep and distinctive flavours.
Restaurants are also relaxing the dress codes and increasing informality. Maybe these trends will make top restaurants more accessible to people and break down the barriers for those who currently only dine out at such places very infrequently or not at all.
What drives you toward your target client base?
Well we’ve been very fortunate in that offers of work extend beyond our capacity, so I’ve pretty much been in the position to pick and choose my clients according to my own objectives for the business. A priority is quality but also, as I mentioned earlier, “the heartbeat in the kitchen.” I’m also focused on making sure that each client is proud to be associated with each other member of the stable – to be a professional team or family of shared respect.
What role do you see for the internet in restaurant PR?
Oh huge! New media is such a fast moving and dynamic environment. Just a couple of years ago, the top end restaurant blogging community appeared out of nowhere and has expanded into something really significant. Sites like UrbanSpoon are very interesting and, as an example of type, likely to play an increasing role in restaurant PR strategizing. As with any form of journalism you have to come to discerning conclusions about the difference between the good and the indifferent. Nonetheless there are some top quality voices that are broadcasting through the internet.
With the likes of Twitter, we’re yet to see the long term marketing/PR scope of the platform for our clients. I know a couple of my clients “tweet” all the time and can’t speak highly enough of Twitter so I’m keeping a watching brief to see how that develops.
The internet also offers the restaurants themselves the opportunity to make their own web presence as positive and user- friendly as possible. Also the web newsletter has proliferated and become a useful marketing tool for clients.
These things reflect the changing nature of the PR task– it is now a matter of strategizing “a jigsaw” where the internet may be three or four pieces of the puzzle and the puzzle and pieces are forever changing and expanding.
What other aspects are there to a PR strategy?
Previously, the number one objective was to get a review from a leading journalist in one or more of the major print media. A good review would have an immediate and often lasting positive impact on trade. To an extent this is still the case. The challenge is often to educate a new client about the broader scope of opportunity for coverage.
Over the years of Network London the role of TV has changed too – ten years ago you didn’t really see chefs on quality TV but over the last few years you can’t hardly turn it on without seeing chefs and restaurants! Again, where there is such quantity, it is a matter of distinguishing the desired quality. We’re very lucky in that our clients tend to be in demand, so when you look at the three or four programmes that offer valuable coverage, you’ll find that clients have appeared on the majority of those programmes.
You tend to be low profile but high powered…has that been a conscious decision?
I was so flattered and surprised to be voted in the top five most influencial people in food and drink two years running by the Evening Standard!
In fact, staying low profile has been a conscious decision. While I’ve been offered plenty of media opportunities for myself (and have done one or two bits here and there) I make a conscious effort to put my clients first and let them speak for themselves.
For quite some time there’s been more work than I can handle so there’s never been a need to raise the personal profile.
Describe a day in the life of Maureen Mills….
We’re very lucky in that around fifty percent of our time is spent reacting to good, interesting opportunities that can benefit our clients. I would say about half of my week is spent in meetings – usually over food in a restaurant (laughing!).
There are always on-going, proactive, strategy and planning meetings or calls. I like to have a mix of established clients that I hope to always have and then about 30 to 40 percent of new clients. This helps bring variety to the work and means that I always have interesting new projects.
I’m always thinking about the future too! The dynamics of the top end London restaurant scene are fascinating and will continue to bring new and exciting surprises every day!
And so it was time to leave. I found Maureen Mills the most charming and self-effacing person – with a natural warmth; no doubt she (and her company) will continue to dominate a marketplace that brings so much pleasure to so many.