Marek Unt is a strategic communications consultant and PR expert. Marek is known for his role in leading PR for multiple Estonian unicorns, as they transitioned into unicorn status, an unofficial and non-serious record that is definitely not in the Guinness book. His roles included Global Director of Communications at Bolt and Head of European PR at Wise. Based in Tallinn, he advises growth companies on their messaging and communications strategy.
Tell us about yourself. You are known as the PR guy of future unicorns for working with notable Estonian startups. Which were they and what were you doing previous to that / how did you end up in the startup world?
I’ve been in tech for the last 20 years, having first worked in customer support and service management roles at Skype and Playtech, and then in comms roles at companies like Wise and Bolt. My latest in-house role was at Grünfin as their pre-launch CMO.
My first steps in PR were on the agency side, working at JLP (now Miltton) as a consultant. When I got into communications, I had already had a nice career – but no experience whatsoever in PR. So I had to start from scratch. I call the agency years a second university. In fact, I probably learned more in a couple of years than I did in my whole time at the university.
Despite having to start over, I already had a network of former colleagues who had gone on to work across the Estonian tech sector, and I quickly specialized in tech PR. I knew how the companies worked, what challenges they were facing, even the type of politics people had to navigate. As a result, I had a pretty good head start.
At the agency, I was eventually poached to work for a client. That client was Wise and I ran European communications for them for several years until heading to Bolt to set up their global comms team. At all of the companies I worked for, I had great teachers, and I think that eventually helped me to move from someone who was told what to do to someone who was part of the conversations that mattered.
What lessons did you get from each of those experiences?
Transitioning between different types of companies in different stages of maturity showed me how valuable it can be to have already navigated a certain growth stage. Having joined when Wise was already around 300 and going to Bolt when it was around 200 meant I had an idea of what was coming. As both companies grew even larger, I could draw on my Playtech and Skype experiences.
I only partly joke about how Wise ruined me by setting very high expectations for a company’s culture and founders’ integrity. I remember how the company values (that focused on being truly customer-oriented, but also setting your ego aside and being a good person to work with) helped people when facing tough decisions, and the founders always exemplified the values in their everyday work.
The agency, however, taught me the importance of getting the fundamentals of strategic communications right. No matter if you were working on internal communications for a public sector client or launching a new ketchup line, understanding the objectives of PR and taking it from there was similar. People tend to be surprised that agencies can work with such a wide range of sectors and stages of growth. But it’s the breadth itself that prepares you for it, and you learn to see commonalities while accounting for differences.
What were the biggest challenges you faced? How did you overcome them?
People who work in PR are quite vulnerable to burnout. The risk is doubled if you consider the pressures of the start-up world. I’ve come out stronger and wiser from my experiences with burnout, but you’re never completely safe.
The reason burnout is so common in startups and PR is that it’s easy to fail to celebrate wins. There’s always more to do, and the bar is always moving. If you don’t deliberately build in moments for gratification, you will never experience it. Having a mentor who’s been through the experience, or even a professional mental health expert, can help a lot.
What are you working on currently?
As a solo consultant, I help start-ups get their communications strategy straight – help them create a compelling narrative, understand who their audiences are and where they can find them, and convey their message through media relations or other means.
Why is PR such a misunderstood area? Should founders get more PR education early on?
Everyone has their own personal experience with communication and the media. Everyone reads the papers. Everyone sends e-mails, writes presentations. “Communication issues” are thrown around easily as a diagnosis for all kinds of problems. So everyone’s an expert. It seems very accessible.
I do believe that great marketing or PR ideas can come from anyone. But I don’t think that someone without the experience and skills can constantly come up with, judge and execute these ideas.
Reading and consuming different kinds of media is an excellent way to get your education started. Asking someone how stories come about and how a newsroom works is even better. It’s all good if a founder is open to learning about this. If they stick to a distorted idea of what the media is or should be, they’ll be a difficult client to work with, to put it mildly.
How would you rate the Baltic startup ecosystem in terms of PR? Things have picked up in the last few years, but is there something startups could do to get more notoriety? (or, are Baltic startups too quiet in general?)
Generally, I think the Baltics have a great reputation among news outlets. However, the competition on the Baltic scene has gone through the roof, and start-ups expecting their seed round to make TechCrunch may need to adjust their expectations.
Luckily, there are also more outlets covering growth companies. However, a lot of start-ups will need to realize they need to do more than send out a template of a funding announcement quoting VCs who are “excited” about the round. This might mean digging deeper for the story they want to tell, or looking outside of earned media.
What would your advice be for a first-time founder when it comes to PR?
A really simple thing they can do is to start paying attention to the coverage of their sector or competitors, and taking note of the stories being told and why they’re compelling.
If they decide to start doing PR, they should think about why.
What problem do they hope it will solve for them? Is it about demand generation, trust, thought leadership, something else? If they don’t succeed the first time, will they keep trying?
Once they have figured out their objectives, they need to learn about their audience, what they care about, and what the start-up can tell the world that matters today.
Once they can get out of the self-serving mode of “we’re doing this awesome thing” and into the mode of “the world is changing, but we can help you navigate it”, they automatically start being more interesting to the outside world.
What’s next for Marek Unt?
I don’t constrain myself by sector or growth stage too much these days, since I have some experience to draw from for many different companies. In addition to the problems being interesting, my main criteria for choosing clients are their mission and their team.
I haven’t ruled out joining a company in an in-house role at some point again, but whether the company is a unicorn or not plays much less of a role.
How can people best stay updated with the latest from you?
I’m on Twitter at @mrknt for the more day-to-day stuff. I also write an infrequent (but free) newsletter called “Startup PR 102” on my lessons learned working in communications at https://mrknt.substack.com.