Interviews

Mark Runacus MBE, Co-Founder, Wax/On

When it comes to advertising leaders shaping culture beyond the realms of the industry there are few better examples than Mark Runacus, who as chair of PrideAM has led the creative charge pushing for better LGBT+ representation.

Izzy Ashton

Assistant Editor, BITE

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“Advertising is part of the fabric of our society and it plays an important role in creating role models,” says Mark Runacus MBE and Co-Founder of Wax/On. Runacus is talking about PrideAM, the LGBTQ network founded in 2015 to “represent the LGBTQ community and ensure that they were supported”. As chair of the network Runacus has been instrumental in bringing about change across the industry, principally in the representation of the LGBTQ community.

This commitment has been acknowledged by Runacus’ recent recognition in the Queen’s birthday honours list, where he was awarded an MBE for services to advertising. It is a monumental and well-deserved award, yet when he received the letter, his first thought was that it was a hoax. When asked if the week following the announcement had been any different, Runacus laughs and reveals that “it’s all been very normal, usual day to day stuff. Although it might be different when I see my mum tomorrow.”

The recent introduction of the new ASA guidelines around gender stereotyping are reflective of a progressive step-change in the industry. But, when it comes to LGBTQ stereotyping and representation, there is still a long way to go. In fact, 52% of consumers believe that the LGBT+ community is invisible in advertising according to research from UM. This is why Runacus believes networks such as PrideAM are so vital for the industry: “[Our purpose is] lobbying brands and their creative and media partners for better LGBTQ representation in advertising…because for too long advertising has been bereft of LGBTQ role models.”

Advertising is part of the fabric of our society and it plays an important role in creating role models.

Mark Runacus

Marketing was a job that Runacus only came to in the second wind of his career, having begun his working life as a journalist when he was 18. He has fond memories of reporting from the court rooms and trawling through the journalistic law book on the bus. It was only upon reapplying to university and completing graduate training in marketing that the agency world beckoned.

He quickly realised he was, by his own admission, “the anxious planner” having not followed a traditional route into the industry. “I don’t have the credentials, I didn’t do a degree in psychology, I didn’t work for Unilever,” he explains. Having spent many years agency side, he reveals he reached a point where “my own insecurities and anxieties meant that I decided that my future didn’t lie in the big Accenture.” His concern, however, was that “I might struggle with people who don’t get my little eccentricities.”

So, he set about finding his business partners, which as he revealed, should not be taken lightly: “Choose your business partners at least as wisely as you choose your life partners.” Partners found, Wax/On was born, an agency which, says Runacus, wanted to bridge the siloed gap that the industry had found itself falling into: “We all agreed that we’d witnessed the disappointing silo behaviours of agencies in the way that media and creative had become disconnected…clients were not getting the best work and they were not getting the best value.”

Choose your business partners at least as wisely as you choose your life partners.

Mark Runacus

Runacus acknowledges that building internal workplace culture hasn’t always been at the forefront of his focus, having once been “genuinely cynical about all of the management textbooks that talk about culture.” But, with Wax/On, Runacus found it essential to “quickly identify some of the fundamental values that brought you all together that you want to cling onto” and then align these values with those of the clients they work with. The culture has to evolve as the agency naturally grows but these values, “to leave a positive mark on society,” must stay the same.

Runacus leads at Wax/On with a perspective and inclusive mindset that permeates the agency’s culture. It’s one that also extends to the “big, informal, energetic network” that is PrideAM. As a DJ “frustrated that I don’t get a chance to do it properly,” when he needs a bit of inspiration of his own, he turns to Stevie Wonder, whose picture he has taped to his desk. And if all else fails? “I put on I Feel Love by Donna Summer…and I dance my heart away.” A recipe to live by, MBE and all.

Outvertising, PrideAM’s comprehensive guide to producing LGBTQ inclusive advertising, examines case studies from across the industry, highlighting ROI alongside representation. The Second Edition iteration of the guide launched this week having previewed at Cannes Lions. Visit PrideAM’s website to find out more and download Outvertising.

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Q: What has been your proudest moment of the last year?
A: I suppose that’s the MBE. It’s tough to talk about this without sounding boastful and vain, so please take this on face value. I was surprised. So, surprised I presumed the first contact I had from the Cabinet Office, an e-mail, was a hoax; an ID fraud scam thing. I ignored it for a few days. Then I got a phone message that the Cabinet Office had called. So, I read it properly, and thought it was a really elaborate hoax. Finally, I spoke to a charming person in the Cabinet Office and I could tell she was smiling as I apologised for ignoring her because of my hoax theory. She assured me I wasn’t the first person to think that. You see you have no idea who nominated you. So, whoever that was, thank you. Not really for me but for all the people I work with who work so hard. I promise to use it to do whatever I can to make our industry more inclusive and diverse, inwardly and outwardly. But launching Wax/On made me proud too. That’s another story.
Q: Industry wide, what work has excited you most this year when it comes to LGBT+ representation?
A: I think we’re getting better at unstereotyping the LGBTQ community in our advertising, but our colleagues in the entertainment media are still way ahead. I see many more characters in films and drama now that I can genuinely relate to, or my friends tell me they can relate to. There’s much less heteronormativity in drama for example. Better intersectionality too. I admit they have more time to really explore characters and situations showing that LGBTQ folk have the most diverse lifestyles and attitudes.

I’m calling for over-representation...I will continue to shout about the business case for this: it drives, greater, more profound engagement. It sells.

Mark Runacus
Q: How do you see the advertising industry evolving over the next few years when it comes to representation?
A: Not quite the answer to your question, but I’m calling for over-representation. In order to achieve change to the scale and within the time needed, many more LGBTQ, BAME, disabled, and other groups must be in our advertising. I will continue to shout about the business case for this: it drives, greater, more profound engagement. It sells. In PrideAM’s new publication, Outvertising, we highlight case studies with ROI.
Q: What do you see as the big opportunity for Wax/On within the current marketing and media ecosystem?
A: When we started, people said no-one really wanted our model. It’s not a new idea, having creative and media together. I’m old enough to remember when they were together. I’ve seen Sir John Hegarty talk about this several times. He explains that, in the old days, as soon as he’d formulated an initial response to the client brief, he would pop downstairs to the media department and share his idea with them before anyone else. Only when they could envisage it in context, as a poster, a press ad, a TV ad, did he realise his idea was worthy. Then he would develop it with his creative colleagues. We’re slowly seeing more clients come to us because they recognise that when message and medium are planned and developed together, the result is incredibly powerful. And we don’t always have to plan and buy the media to make it work. Our methodology embraces other media partners to get the same, best outcome. Better creative. Better results.
Q: What piece of advice do you give to the junior members of your team?
A: Specifically, to planners: learn how to tell a compelling story. That makes a great pitch. A great creative brief. A great strategy.

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