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Marketeer of the month

By The Drum | Administrator

January 28, 2004 | 6 min read

Like every excited youngster, there was a special group of adults counting down the days until 25 December last year. For the British space team were eagerly anticipating their probe landing on Mars on Christmas Day.

However, somewhere floating in space, alongside the ball from Chris Waddle’s penalty in the 1990 World Cup semi-final, is Beagle 2. It may even be on Mars but hidden beneath a crater – there’s a galaxy of possibilities and we’ll probably never know.

Of course, there has to be someone to face the criticism, questions and cynicism of the world’s press – enter Professor Colin Pillinger, head scientist and chief spokesperson for the mission. With his dishevelled hair, bushy sideburns and crooked smile, Pillinger looks every bit the mad scientist. And fitting the appearance perfectly is his eccentric and animated demeanour – all in all, a complete contrast to the discipline and Armani whistle and flutes besieging NASA’s operation across the pond.

And, of course, it’s NASA that is sitting rather pretty, having kicked off January by landing its hi-tech, and no doubt gloriously expensive, probe on its intended target and beaming back the best images of Mars ever taken.

However, refusing to give up hope of finding Beagle 2 and remaining upbeat about the whole episode is Pillinger. Speaking on BBC Radio 4, the professor spoke openly of his passion for space exploration, and how he hopes his unconventional persona has provoked a reaction in people, inspiring interest in space exploration this side of the Atlantic. This all begs the question of how successful, even if indirectly, has this mission been? Could it be that Pillinger’s manner and his continued media relations work has given a wake-up call to the British public about the importance of space travel and, in particular, our involvement in it? Or does Pillinger simply reinforce stereotypes of the nutty professor while the failure to contact Beagle 2 confirms Britain’s involvement as a mere ‘also ran’?

Carl Hazard, deputy MD of HRO’C, believed Pillinger’s presence in the media was merely a manifestation of the press interest in a major news story. He commented: “My immediate reaction is that Pillinger didn’t need to do anything to spark media interest – this was going to be a first in space exploration and so was always going to generate column inches. I don’t think Pillinger was responsible for the hype.”

Be that as it may, Pillinger has been facing the cameras since day one and many believe he’s the right person for the job. Graham Green, director at Reeves Green, believed putting the professor in this role has been a stroke of genius. “A triumph of branding over substance. The Nutty Professor’s chosen image is the perfect antidote to – and therefore protection against – failure. His wild hair, accidentally retro specs, and graphically emotional gestures all support an impression of the ‘gifted amateur’, which the British love so much,” Green said.

So is Pillinger an accidental hero in the mould of Clouseau and Frank Drebbin? Colin Shevells, the newly appointed head of PR at Robson Brown, believed so: “Pillinger follows in a great line of British eccentrics to explore, and this achievement is the greatest since Wallis and Gromit went to the moon, which was also inspired by a British eccentric, Nick Park!”

Shevells added: “It’s refreshing that the whole thing hasn’t come across in a corporate way. Because he hasn’t over sold the mission, or over spent, it has the markings of being a personal dream for him and, as a result, I think people will have a great deal of sympathy for him and his team.”

However, Hazard is cautious about how the majority of the British public will judge the mission because of the professor and all his quirks. “He looks like a mad professor, which doesn’t help stereotypes, and I think there’s a danger that some Brits will view the failure to achieve what they set out to do as simply a reinforcement of Britain’s image as the ones who always come second yet always try their best, which would be a shame,” Hazard commented.

So has the fact that objectives have not been met made the British look like boys playing a man’s game? Green concluded: “In truth, the Beagle – already aesthetically much maligned by Brian Sewell – was a disaster. Dramatically planned to land on Christmas Day, it might have outclassed the Queen’s Christmas Message ... but it probably fell into a crater and we had to ask the Yanks to find it. But for Colin’s reputation, it didn’t matter.

“As a media personality, as a brand, he is a genius in the mould of Eddie the Eagle. The diminishing TV appearances of Patrick Moore and the absence of Magnus Pike mean there\'s a media vacancy for the eccentric Englishman. If he hasn’t got a manager, I have a contract waiting here.”.

Speaking with a refreshingly optimistic outlook, Shevells believed the tunnel of technical failure has simply been leading to a shining PR light at the end. “I hate it when, as a nation, we criticise people for having a dream. Often we’re so quick to jump up and say ‘we told you so’. Pillinger was the underdog and therefore it’s a fantastic human PR story – he’s inspired a mission that’s come from small beginnings on a shoestring budget, yet managed to get this probe into space – he’s a real character,” he argued.

Only time will tell if Beagle 2 has been successful enough to encourage further exploration from the British space team, and backing from the government, or if people will simply regard it with the respect warranted to a Britney Spears marriage.

Is Pillinger the only real success story of the mission? Is Britain becoming the butt of jokes amongst the world’s leading scientists? I guess the answers, like the probe, are still out there.



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