20 Not Out

20 not out


Mushroom Media is 20 years old today, April Fools’ Day. From humble beginnings — it all started with a £3,000 ‘youth business’ loan from the Prince’s Trust — to an equally humble office 20 years later, Mushroom has kept me off the streets and for that you can all be thankful.

I set up the business with my colleague and friend Victoria Mottram. We’d both sold advertising at Dennis Publishing on an IT trade publication, so we understood that technology was big business and was set to get bigger. I then went on to sell ads to the TV world on TV World and Broadcast. That was another eye opener. Everyone kept saying telly and tech were going to come together, so Vics and I thought we’d beat the rush and launch a TV- and tech-specific PR agency. Well, we were young.

Five years in, the general view was that anybody who had a business had to bust their guts to grow it, in order to then sell the thing they had created and loved. That felt counterintuitive to me, so I sought the advice of a consultant at Business Link, the national agency for small businesses. The sage consultant advised me that growing Mushroom only to sell it was never going to work for me, because I simply didn’t care enough about just making money. But, she inquired, had I ever heard about corporate social responsibility?

 I hadn’t. Even though I’d completed a management-studies degree only 10 years earlier, I’d never heard of CSR, ethics, business for good, environmental impacts or sustainability. It still strikes me as remarkable that, in the mid-1990s, there was absolutely no consideration given at degree level to the impact of business on anything other than the bottom line.

So I went home, googled CSR and had a moment of blinding clarity: this was it, this was my thing, this was the answer to my capitalist discomfort. This, surely, would entrance all right-minded creative people… So I developed reporting systems for sustainability and invested the few shekels I had in the prototype of an app (note to self: should dust that down again one day). Trouble was, the creative people weren’t that entranced, more discomforted by self analysis— and none of it seemed to have a short term return, so what was the point?

 A couple of producers wanted to ‘appear’ ethical after the Queengate Affair (search it if you don’t recall!), but not at the expense of their budgets — budgets that become even more pressured, and precious, as we entered the most punishing period of austerity since the 1930’s.  

Fast-forward 15 years and it feels that there’s finally an awakening. Parking the notion that it might be too little, too late, I’ve gone back to school and I’m studying for an MA in sustainable leadership. It’s proving to be a revelatory experience. There’s now hard work being done to ensure, for example, that diversity is not a tokenistic add-on to make companies look good — plus hard research to prove that the more diverse a company, the more successful it can expect to be. Meanwhile, the message on climate change and its huge, possibly irrevocable challenges is being delivered by Uncle Attenborough — so it must be true. Then there’s the growing realisation that neo-liberalism and the global economic, corporate and political systems that rule the world are, if not unfit for purpose, then in dire need of a radical overhaul.

 This time is an incredible opportunity for storytellers to contribute to the discourse on how we can make our systems serve people and the planet as well as profit. I’m genuinely in awe of the creative process. Watching a team of professionals take an idea and fashion it into a piece of entertainment is pure alchemy to me.

I’m very proud of Mushroom Media and all the companies we’ve worked with over the years. And I can say, hand on heart, that I’m invigorated by the collective feeling of change in the air and the opportunity we all have to do things better.

 So thank you very much to all those who have worked with us, supported us, laughed with us and had the humility not to take it too seriously. Onwards and upwards.

Cheryl Clarke