Neil’s firm, Neighbourhood PR, has a variety of clients on its books, but it’s safe to say the drive, focus and passion of his firm lies with music. And so it’s no real surprise to discover that Neil’s career also has musical roots; he took his first job in HMV because, y’know, in the late nineties and early noughties that was the place to be for music lovers and aspiring musicians/artists/DJs.
I’m sure we all remember our first jobs. They tend to be low waged, reasonably repetitive, mildly frustrating – ‘character building’ experiences. Often, they’re accompanied by studies to try to build a career, some grand plans for the future.
It wasn’t quite this way for Neil. He used his as an immediate springboard, into entrepreneurship, as he opened his own record store on Newcastle’s High Bridge. It was the best of times, and the worst of times, he recalls.
“I chose not to go to University because I was really hungry just to work – much to the annoyance of my parents and my grandparents, who thought it was a natural course of action.” And being thrown into running his own store as a teenager suited his personality: “I’m quite spontaneous. Dive in, and work out a plan once you’re in!”
For the music industry, the record store is at its heart on a day-to-day basis, and it helped Neil to get a really broad range of experience in the music industry – dealing with labels, artists, consumers; everyone involved in the process from start to finish. But the store wasn’t right for him.
“I was naïve, really, thinking that if I could sell records at HMV I could sell them for me, and just make the same amount of money but be a million miles forward.” His plan was very much personal, fitting in with Neil’s lifestyle and his passion for music, but the demands of the business were bigger than he anticipated, and the venture ended in what Neil describes as ‘the biggest learning curve ever’.
Onwards, and upwards, Neil was left with a choice to make about his future direction. “I wondered, ‘which part of this experience did I like the most?’ And I gravitated towards the side that was closest to the artists themselves. I applied for a job in London, in PR for the more commercial end of dance music, and the person that interviewed me was actually recruiting to fill her own role,” he told me. His interviewer, Kate Matheou, was leaving to set up her own company in Manchester.
Neil didn’t want to live in London – it felt like a necessity; one he challenged then and continues to challenge now. “There isn’t a need to be there five days a week. I believed that then and I believe it now.”
He did get a job out of that interview. Not the one he applied for, but Kate took him into her new fledgling firm and he worked there for the next three years, for Kish Communications. He was based in Manchester, which was at least in the right end of the country.
And Neighbourhood PR would come along in early 2013. Neil moved back to Newcastle from Manchester, as Kish was being wound down after a change in personal circumstances for Kate. Neil considered taking on the running of her firm, but with entrepreneurial roots already firmly planted, the choice was simple: “I’ll just do what I’m doing already – but for myself.”
“Thankfully, they all followed me,” he says, of the loyal Kish clientele, and Neil’s proud that he and Kate remain friends to this day. Neighbourhood was born, and the fun began in earnest.
“I try to get everyone to think about the narrative, and that’s hard to do with short term goals.” Neighbourhood is a small but perfectly formed team, who handle a sensible number of clients and have a reputation for doing their job particularly well. He encourages his team not to accept limitations, but to think like a sportsperson, and visualise the success they’re looking for. Aiming high.
“As a company, it’s our responsibility to not only push the client out of their comfort zone, but also to push publications. So let's blur the lines of what is seen as editorial for that readership – creating interesting articles and interesting end results,” he says, citing a crossover between musicians/artists and their health and fitness interests.
His list of featured publications is a veritable who’s who of media outlets and publications; specialist and non-specialist, from the Sunday Times to Vogue and Vice.
“We’ve got a good track record. Six of us up here, three in our London office,” he says, and he’s considering whether that balance is quite right for his business. Neil’s firmly at the helm but also relies on the support of Jennifer Oztoplu – soon to become Jennifer Bainbridge – when it comes to spinning the plates that are involved in a business of this size.
“It feels like a team, not a workforce,” he says, “and I want to stay hands-on.” He’s right at ‘that’ point in business, where to really grow, Neil would need to become an MD.
“But I don’t wanna be an MD!”
Well, that’s that settled.
But he knows that, in their current setup, further growth is not sustainable; that’s the next big jump. To scale, or not to scale. And for Neil, that’s actually something of a complex question. “I don’t think I’d like to have more than ten people. Well, maybe fifteen people,” he considers, and his inner entrepreneur is again struggling to stay down.
“We could double our turnover, and get more staff, more clients, but… that doesn’t work for the model we’ve got now. One of the reasons it works is having household names side-by-side with other talent, and when I speak to the media I can interweave a few artists. If my client list was 60 people long? That wouldn’t work so well.”
As for Neil’s actual client list, it starts with Maya Jane Coles, Moby, Heidi, and moves on to Pan-Pot, John Digweed, Tricky, Catz 'N Dogz and Space Ibiza, to name but a few. But to think that music is all they do, would be doing his team a huge disservice – they also work with clients who are in similar interest circles, who fit in with his ethos of interweaving clients.
So the growth of the business now will come from the clients they currently have – doing more with them, investing in them as they grow.
“I’ve got 101 different ideas for new things. I’m quite erratic,” he says, suddenly speaking at a hundred miles an hour. “And I have to stop myself and think, are these real viable business ideas, or are they just things I want to do? Just because I want to wear nice clothes doesn’t mean I need to buy a clothes store!”
And it’s that leap of logic that makes Neil who he is. He describes himself as ‘obsessive’ – but that word shouldn’t carry negative connotations here. He simply means that he doesn’t do things by halves, he wants to know and understand everything about a topic. And he isn’t constrained by the barriers of what is or isn’t conventionally ‘a good idea’.
His days tend to be filled with the media relations aspect of PR, and he likes them that way. As an international brand, he deals with media outlets across the world, wherever his clients happen to be.
And he’s constantly thinking about stories. “Music PR is vulnerable to just taking the artist and making them talk about their music. But if you’ve got an artist where nobody knows their background… you can present part of their story, and start to leave a trail of things for their fanbase to connect with.”
He’s built a strong brand identity for Neighbourhood, and part of that is because they exist outside of London. “I want to make sure there’s a look and a feel about the company, which makes up for the fact that we’re isolated up here.
“I’m on a bit of a crusade about the North East. The number of Northerners working in the music industry in London. Just stay here! The idea that people have to pack their bags and move to London to ‘make it’ is archaic.” Neil wants us to embrace the culture that we have up here, helping people to recognise that they can be creative and enjoy a good quality of life here.
That’s not to say, of course, that he doesn’t like London. But he finds that he is much more efficient when his time there is limited. And he’s got ambition to increase the number of people he represents who are from this area, where he can build devoted followings for them.
“A singer-songwriter who has 1,000 fans on Facebook,” he muses, “where every single one of them is engaged.”
And has the 32-year-old Neil’s passion for music waned? He considers the question, for a moment. “There are times where I feel disconnected from music, because it’s work. My perception and my love of music have changed – and that’s not just because of age!”
“It’s the finished product – that’s where I get my excitement from.”