Chris Ward: The PR boss who works from coffee shops
- 29 July 2013
- From the section Business
Public relations entrepreneur Chris Ward is speaking to me over an internet connection from a McDonald's somewhere in central France.
He's not quite sure where because he's just completed another stage of this year's Tour de France route in aid of charity. Names and places have become a little fuzzy after the 200km (124 miles). He's exhausted.
But at least Ward, 50, is practising what he preaches. His book, Out of Office, is a hymn to coffee-shop creativity and the myriad advantages of ditching the deadening confines of the office and working where you like.
"It's the way I've lived my life for 10 years," he says. "I started hanging out in coffee shops, and found I was being far more creative and productive. I do so many different things and people wanted to know how I managed it, so I wrote the book."
It wasn't always like this. From a young age Ward was a driven businessman, "brought up to believe that owning possessions was what you were worth".
He managed bands in his 20s, then set up PR company Beatwax in 1992 to help brands target the newly burgeoning student population.
"My original ambition was to be a boss and get a gold watch at 65," he says.
High-profile clients included social networking pioneers Julie and Steve Pankhurst, founders of Friends Reunited, and various beer companies. Another project was First Movies, a research firm offering members free movies and other incentives to provide feedback to Hollywood film studios.
'Living a lie'
However, despite the success, his busy working life began to pall.
"I marketed too many beers," explains Ward. "I had to decide the personality of a beer when it was exactly the same as supermarket own-label stuff. I was living a lie."
He sold his companies to Miracle Media Group in 2002 for an undisclosed sum, although he admits the amount was "close to seven figures".
"I then went out and bought £200 worth of Lycra, went cycling and ran 10 marathons," he says, in what sounds dangerously like a mid-life crisis.
He kept himself busy with various charity fund-raising projects and the years rolled by. Then he saw an advert for creative director of UK charity Comic Relief.
"I hadn't worked for five years but I still got the job, because doing marathons and cycling was seen as a positive. Yet people worry about having gaps in their CVs. They shouldn't."
Cynics might suggest that such Damascene conversions to a new way of life are a lot easier when you've got a big chunk of cash in your pocket. While that is undoubtedly true, there's no denying Ward's genuine enthusiasm for "out of office" working.
"The great thing about the internet is that it's freed people from the office. We don't have to be tied to our desks anymore. We can work when and where we like."
But he is not advocating quiet home-working. He likes to be immersed in the buzz and noise of people, in a coffee shop "surrounded by my potential customers".
Ward argues that background noise and the interaction of other human beings can actually help people concentrate and boost their creativity.
He also advocates the concept of "flow" - the state of total absorption in a task that brings us real happiness.
"A key part of this lifestyle is to work when you feel inspired; when you're in the flow," he says. "Stop when you don't feel like working anymore.
"Don't be confined by the nine to five. You're not productive when you're just fiddling around on Facebook and YouTube watching videos of cats."
But while not having an office works for him, Ward admits that there are still concerns associated with the practice.
Lack of presence in the office can mean being overlooked and distrusted by managers, he says, while many people find working from home makes them less, not more, productive.
"There is still an expectation that you have to have an office. Hopefully these ideas are beginning to change," he adds.
"You should be measured by your productivity, not your presence. Bosses need to be educated about this.
"The more out-of-office business success stories there are, the more bosses will be convinced."
In his book he cites plenty of examples of business ideas that were hatched in cafes and coffee shops, from Michael Acton Smith's Moshi Monsters children's game, to JK Rowling's Harry Potter books.
However, he also acknowledges that the luxury of flexible, non-office-based working isn't open to vocational professionals, such as doctors, dentists, firefighters, nurses and teachers.
Creative and service sector professionals, on the other hand, would find themselves feeling far more fulfilled and productive if they got out and about, he believes.
"There's a big opportunity for people to relax and do what they really want to do, to be more entrepreneurial."
When he's not entertaining his four children in west London, or cycling the Tour de France route, Ward is working for the Mandela Day Pledge Book charity and rubbing shoulders with retired South African bishop Desmond Tutu and Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton.
"I hope we're entering a less materialistic age," concludes Ward. "It's better to do things than buy things."