As a child I always thought I would someday become a civil engineer, likely because it was the profession of one of my uncles who I admired. I can’t tell you why in the end I chose a career in public relations but I knew it was a path I ventured down definitively in college and took every measure needed to make it happen. Perhaps it was an accident, or I could have subconsciously wanted to find my way back to engineering, in a roundabout sort of way. Once I landed at Airfoil, my expertise gravitated towards the automotive industry and I’ve ever since worked with many clients and experts across various disciplines related to automotive and engineering. Over time, I have also developed a keen appreciation for all things industrial, manufacturing, and design – whether it’s the craftsmanship of a product, what goes under the hood of a car, what makes a plane take flight, how additive layer manufacturing/3D printing can create the perfect combination of a unique design with an optimized structure, or how much material you can take out of something to make it lightweight – these things are what really make the world work. Getting firsthand experience by observing, trial and error, and making a few mistakes along the way, became my way of learning and storytelling complex, technical and largely behind the scenes concepts. In fact, one of my clients once said that by the end of my career, I might have earned an honorary engineering degree by osmosis. I’ve got my eyes set on it! We’ll see.
It was the most pleasant of surprises when I learned that our partner agency covering EMEA, Six Degrees, has an in-house expert specializing in materials engineering. This person, I thought to myself, was the real deal – the exact combination of communications savvy and true bred engineering education and field experience. While our teams reside and practice in different regions with very different experiences and demographics, we find the same appreciation, approach and most of all, the need, to bring remarkable yet technical stories for our most innovative clients, to life.
So I sat down for an informal virtual interview with engineering guru Andrew Bartlett, director of the engineering and industry practice at our UK-based global partner firm, Six Degrees. Get to know Andrew and our partners, and let us know how we can help you tell your stories – you never know where your industry can take you, and we can help you get there.
1. What influenced you to make the career shift from Engineering/Technical to the Communications field?
For 10 years I worked in very high level research in the automotive industry and I was lucky enough to work with some extremely gifted engineers. During this time I found that I could help them articulate their results, so I ended up helping to write their reports and presentations as well as doing my usual job. That really got me thinking that there must be a gap in the market for people who could understand technical information and make it into a coherent story.
At the same time there was a significant shift in the way that the company I worked for operated. When I started out it was the internal research arm of BL (British Leyland) – which later became Rover – and the various car companies in the group – Jaguar, Land Rover, Rover etc. – paid for us to carry out research for them. Then virtually overnight, that funding was withdrawn – suddenly we became an externally funded contract research company and we had to bring in our own business. My manager, with no training in marketing, became the de-facto marketing manager. I effectively became his assistant. That really got me excited about the whole concept of how you sell technology, especially when dealing with people who don’t really understand it in the detail that you do. It took a couple of years to get traction, but we started to become successful. Then, as is often the case with large companies, there was another overnight shift in direction. We had to ditch all the external business we had won and marketing was no longer our job.
So I had the choice of staying on and leaving what had become a very interesting path or making a complete change of career. I felt compelled to prove myself in the PR field. It wasn’t easy. I frequently came up against the, “Come back when you have some experience,” barrier. So I studied PR qualifications in the evening while continuing as an engineer and eventually I got an opportunity with a small PR consultancy. It meant a drop in status and a huge reduction in salary, but I was fortunate to be at a stage in my life when I could do it. But the difficulties I faced in making the change are why I always make time for anyone who comes to us to talk about getting into PR.
2. Could you describe the similarities and differences you have experienced between the fields?
There are two key elements that are fundamental to the engineering and PR disciplines and those are the need for planning and attention to detail. However, with engineering you have a reasonable chance that if you control all the possible parameters – design, materials, manufacturing, etc. – then you will get a favourable outcome. The results are generally measurable – the car either lasted for 100,000 miles or it didn’t and you often get the opportunity for iteration (you keep working on the problem until you get it right). With PR it’s usually a one shot deal and results are rarely guaranteed, even when you have controlled every possible controllable, the gods can still be against you – for example, a train strike means that journalists can’t make the round table you have spent three months planning.
What I often say to people is that PR is definitely an art rather than a science. But it is an art where you can achieve better results when you take a scientific approach.
3. How do you find that one field has influenced or is influencing the other?
PR is definitely having a very significant impact on engineering. You only have to look at the mountain of coverage generated by Tesla’s Power Wall to see that there is some great communication going on. What concerns me is that the best engineering solutions can lose out to those with better PR. As a former colleague often said to me, “Perception is not the main thing. It is the only thing.”
Looking at things in reverse, there are some very useful trends to getting more scientific in the approach to PR, especially in the adoption of meaningful measurement rather than using made-up parameters like Advertising Value Equivalents (AVEs).
4. What was the impetus for creating this position within Six Degrees?
The aim was to demonstrate to clients that we take industry and engineering very seriously. We offer something more than B2B. I like to think of it as engineer to engineer. It’s something my team excels in.
5. What are the biggest challenges of communicating technical concepts to a mass audience?
The challenge is in drawing out the messages that resonate with different people. It’s hardly ever a case of “one size fits all.” We have to accept that there can be a danger in over simplification. Because some concepts do take a great deal of understanding. However one of my great heroes is James Burke, a pioneer in presenting science on TV in the UK. He once said, “Anyone, however clever they are, whatever their level of education, can understand anything – if it’s explained well enough.” And I really believe that.
6. What aspect(s) about your role would people find most surprising?
Certainly the scope of what I do and the detail that goes into it. It’s not just about press releases and technical papers. Sometimes I have to script videos, write speeches and write technical conference papers. The best communication comes when you really understand a subject from top to bottom. You can’t know as much as someone who has devoted their life’s work to a subject. I expect that my team and I should be able to hold our own.
7. Could you share your thoughts and insights related to the emphasis on lightweighting and the role that materials play?
There is no doubt that materials substitution can play a key role in lightweighting. I have seen this from clients in the cable industry where there has been a trend in some applications to switch from copper conductors to aluminum to save weight. However, from what I hear, things are seldom that simple and while weight can be saved the change can bring unexpected challenges that negate the benefits achieved.
8. As it relates to lightweighting, where do you stand on the debate between material substitution versus material reduction/optimization? How do simulation/optimization strategies play a role?
There is a great deal to be said for evolution versus resolution. Redesigning and design optimisation using existing materials is perhaps a good way to go. What concerns me about exotic new materials like carbon fibre is that while they are immensely strong, how easy are they to repair? There is over a century of knowledge in repairing steel car body panels, for example.
One specific example I can draw on from my own experience is the UK car industry 30 years ago. The industry was shifting towards the use of HSLA (high strength low alloy) steels as an alternative to mild steel – it offered certain benefits in terms of strength. What wasn’t fully understood was that as soon as this steel was welded, the heat input effectively transformed it back into mild steel, so you might as well be using mild steel in the first place.
The research that was done at the time identified that there was an issue with welding of HSLA, especially in terms of fatigue resistance. This is because traditional spot welding tends to put a lot of localized heat into the steel parts that are joined. One of the ways that this has been addressed by technology is the use of laser welding. Because it is so tightly controlled it results in a much smaller heat affected area, helping to preserve the strength of the steel.
9. Composites/carbon fiber/plastics continue to be hot topic in the media – are they telling the whole story?
Composites are fantastic developments and naturally their high-tech nature attracts a lot of attention. I think that maybe good old fashioned materials aren’t getting the publicity they deserve. There is a tendency to want to use new materials because they are exciting, but there is still a lot of virtue in tried and trusted materials like steel and aluminium, especially when they are used in innovative ways. I also worry that graphene is potentially getting over-hyped ahead of it delivering real benefits. Time will tell.
10. There is the idea that every company/brand has an innovation story to tell. What is your take on this, especially as it relates to the materials/plastics industry?
I often encounter companies and brands that don’t believe they have a story to tell. But they wouldn’t still be in business if they didn’t. It isn’t always about ground breaking developments in new materials. Sometimes the story is about innovations in service and how you can help customers meet their objectives.
11. Where do you think the future of engineering is going?
I was brought up in the 1960s, so I still feel a sense of disappointment that the future hasn’t delivered my plastic jumpsuit, hover board, flying car and jetpack. Yet it has delivered things that weren’t thought of like the internet and smartphones. The wonder of engineering is that it will continue to deliver things that amaze us while we still struggle to get trains that run on time.
I believe that we will see a change in the way that manufacturing is organised. As the carbon implications of transportation become even more significant there will be a growing trend for things to be manufactured close to the point of use rather than being shipped halfway around the world. There is also going to be far less mass manufacturing and more emphasis on using technologies like 3D printing to deliver affordable, customized manufacturing.
12. How has the media landscape changed in the industry? How are industry/trade media talking about engineering versus mass media/consumer outlets?
In the UK certainly there is less media and less space available within those that still remain. There is also a continued blurring of the distinction between editorial and paid advertising. There are still some very important and influential engineering media such as the Engineer and Professional Engineering that wield as much influence as the national daily press. One trend I am seeing is a growing desire for engineering clients to want to be featured in the more populist technology press like Wired.
13. How has content marketing influenced the field and your work within this industry?
Content marketing offers huge opportunities, in particular when it comes to case studies. In the past there has been a tendency to focus only on the most interesting high profile stories. But now we have scope thanks to the internet to produce a much greater rage of case studies to match any particular customer application.
14. Anything else you would like to share/discuss/highlight?
When it comes to identifying the best media to use there is only one answer – our clients need to be seen in the media read by customers and other people we want to influence. The key is to find out what they read – just ask them and take a look as what is on display in their reception areas. Sometimes that media might seem mundane compared to what clients aspire to be in. The question is why are we doing this? Is the goal to achieve tangible results or for self-satisfaction?
Also, we should never be afraid of detail. There is a myth that a press release should be one page and no more. That is massively outdated. The answer to the question, “how long should a press release or briefing document be?” is simple, “As long as it needs to be.” That’s not my opinion. It’s fact based on a quarter of a century asking journalists what they want, and they always want all the details I can give them. Not once has a journalist ever said to me, “I really wanted less information from you.”