He was born in South Yorkshire but moved to London when he was ten and has lived in the capital or the South East of England ever since, with the exception of a three-year spell when for professional reasons he was in Paris. In terms of content, however, his life has long been distinctly international in character.
Mark attended the University of Wales at Cardiff. His primary interest was in English Literature but for a year he followed, as a minority discipline, a long-standing interest in psychology, a theme that implicitly if not explicitly has been part of his career ever since. The course itself, alas, was rather too focused on the statistical and experimental side of the subject and not the social and behavioural element which he would have been captivated by. Freud’s loss was the Bard’s gain as literature took full control once more and Mark, slightly unfashionably at the time, became an intellectual devotee of Shakespeare, writing his undergraduate dissertation on his sonnets.
When the dreaded milk round came along, Mark was looking for a role that “suited my personality” rather than necessarily his formal skill set. He was attracted by moving into sales with the objective of using that to leap into marketing. He started with 3M selling blank audio/video tapes in an era when the demand for such simple items was enormous. He then moved on to CBS Fox Video, a collaboration between CBS Records and 20th Century Fox, who had recognised the significance of the VHS/Betamax revolution and wanted a slice of the action. This involved both marketing home videos and moving music over to video content.
His real break, though, came when he signed up with Arista Records (now part of Sony). His post was that of Product Manager which might sound a little mundane but masked the fact that its function was akin to that of the Quarter Back of the music industry. The artist would hand their raw material over and the Product Manager would coordinate all the subsequent key decisions. These included the choice of which singles to release, the date at which they should come to market, the design and the packaging, the marketing and the promotion of the material. At the time, Arista specialised in some well-established American stars such as Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin and Jermaine Jackson, all of whom Mark would assist in maximising their commercial potential in the UK.
A partial exception to this rule was a comparatively new artist, namely Whitney Houston. Mark had the extraordinary experience of bringing her through her breakthrough outside the United States, with Saving All My Love For You emerging from nowhere to reach the very top of the UK charts. He, she and her immediate entourage became very close and copies of her gold and platinum records from that time still adorn the walls of his home office.
After that he traversed to Polydor Records as a Senior Product Manager (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera consumed a considerable amount of his time). He was then snapped up by Warner Music who wanted him to take on more international duties which involved three years in their Paris office. When he returned to London it was still with an international responsibility but at a more senior level, co-ordinating strategies across the whole continent for the likes of Madonna, Prince, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. He worked especially closely with Phil Collins in his prime.
In his final two years with Warner he moved over to lead on what was then called “New Media” but what we would now simply describe as the early days of digital music. Having become a pioneer in this virgin territory, he struck out with a colleague to launch his own digital consultancy, FosterCraig. In a significant pivot, partly inspired by having a family member with a disability, he later became the MD of Lifestyle Mobility, which as the name implies, focused on improving the lives of the less mobile.
The lure of the entertainment industry, music and digitalisation, proved too strong, however. At the recommendation of his former employers at Warner Music, he found himself as a Managing Director for Deezer, a company with a huge presence in its native France as a digital services and streaming provider but which had immense ambitions to expand internationally with the UK and Ireland the initial target. This was not an easy mandate as transplanting these sorts of businesses is far from straightforward. It was also a highly competitive area where the barriers to entry were difficult to assess precisely. It launched its service in the UK and Ireland in September 2011. Mark stayed for three years and at its height Deezer became the second largest player in the by then rapidly expanding UK streaming market.
It was time for another turn. Mark was headhunted to become the CEO of a digital events entity called Arts Alliance Ltd. This was a different kind of proposition again as what it specialised in was transmitting arts events which were occurring in one place and beaming them in to cinemas so that they could be watched locally by enthusiasts. This is a well-established notion today but it was far less so almost a decade earlier. Among the pleasures that this involved was that not only had Mark moved beyond pop music to a much wider sphere of entertainment but one of his most important partnerships involved streaming the productions from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
Even at this stage, however, with the slight detour of being a volunteer Digital Board Member of the Entertainment Retailers Association from 2011-2014, Mark was very much a “conventional” single career individual rather than anything close to being a “portfolio” or “plural” person. It is only in the last seven years or so that he has become what he very much is as of today.
What Chair and NXD positions do you currently hold?
“Quite a few. I am Chair of MIDiA Research, which conducts sophisticated analysis of the digital entertainment market across a number of sectors. I am also Chair of Session, a firm which creates software to embed creators’ complete and authoritative metadata at the time of recording (essentially a SaaS business that seeks to remedy a long-standing problem in the music industry, of accurately recording credits and which has a massive impact on the accuracy and efficiency of royalty distribution). By contrast, I am also Chair of Spacehive, the UK’s leading civic project crowdfunding site which matches funding to inspiring ideas for local community improvements.
In addition to which I am the Senior Independent Director for 7digital, an AIM-listed B2B distributor of digital music, and Moat Homes, a sizeable Housing Association in Kent. I am also the NXD and presently Acting Chair for Kitmapper, an arts installation company which sets up exhibitions and shows in various locations, including galleries.”
What prompted you to explore non-executive roles?
“Actually, I did not explore them initially. To be honest, I didn’t have very much awareness of them for most of my executive career.”
How did you get your first one and what attracted you to that particular organisation?
“I was CEO at Arts Alliance when I was approached by a recruiter on behalf of 7digital, a business which was obviously in my space, who were looking for an NXD. I agreed to meet the management team and it transpired that I had worked with many of them at Warner, so I was sold on them.”
In your non-exec roles, what has been the most useful part of your management career?
“I think there have been two aspects. The first is that I have been a career marketeer. I have spent decades building and broadening brands both in a UK context and internationally. Second, I have long been interested in digital transformation. That was the reason why I was initially recruited by Moat Homes, who were not in a sector that I knew well, but who wanted to digitalise their offer, and their customers’ experience.”
What makes a business attractive to you as a Chair/NXD?
“There are three elements to this. The first is the actual product or service itself. Does it excite me, and do I see the market potential? The second is whether I believe that I can make a difference, and add value. The third, probably the most potent, is the people with whom I would be working. Do I think that I would be a good fit?”
Give us the three biggest lessons you have learned from being a Chair/NXD.
“The first is the importance of being able to see the bigger picture. A Board has to be capable of separating out the wood from the trees. The second is the ability to exercise Helicopter Management, in other words, on occasion to deep-dive to deal with a particular problem. Finally, you need to realise that it is as important to offer support to as to challenge a management team.”
What is the best experience that you have had as a Chair/NXD?
“There have been many of them. One example would be Kitmapper. This was originally a B2C marketplace for the hire of audio-visual equipment. It was never destined to achieve scale on that basis. It needed to be pivoted into a B2B company based on organising exhibitions, creative consulting and production, and larger-scale hires, which it has become.”
What is the biggest problem that you have faced and did you/the organisation overcome it?
“This is similar to an answer that one of your recent previous interviewees put forward. The issue was a toxic culture. The Board and Management were split, lacking confidence in each other and the balance I have referred to earlier between support and challenge was out of kilter. Thanks to a strong Chair and a determined effort from both sides we recognised what the difficulty was and managed to resolve it, becoming much more collaborative and productive in the process.”
What do you think are the biggest challenges that Boards will have to face in the medium term?
“In the sectors with which I am familiar there are two which instantly come to mind. The first is the fast-changing pace of legislation, regulation and the governance expectations placed on businesses. The second is that with the recent and sudden switch in economic outlook, access to finance for SMEs is becoming a big issue.”
What advice would you offer to those starting out on a portfolio career?
“First, be selective. It is very tempting to say “yes” to everything. You should only take on projects where you are convinced that you can have a real impact. Second, be committed. I have seen too many NXDs who turn up to the Board meetings but never really get to understand the challenges faced by the management team. Those teams will take pleasure in seeing that you are truly engaged and really want to know what it is that they do on a day-to-day basis and when you demonstrate that energy and real effort they are more likely to listen to you. It is always better to underpromise and overdeliver, rather than the other way round.”