Profile: Mark Hardy, marketing director for Simon Cowell's SyCo

Mark Hardy oversees marketing for one of the entertainment industry's biggest successes - Simon Cowell's Syco Music. Interview by Ed Owen.

Mark Hardy, marketing director for Simon Cowell's SyCo
Mark Hardy, marketing director for Simon Cowell's SyCo

Mark Hardy gives the impression that perfection is achievable, and possibly by him. 'When you work in the (music) industry, it's a bit like people working in movies, who can't watch a film without thinking about how it was shot and how they would do it differently. I can't listen to music without thinking about how it could have been marketed,' he says.

Hardy, dressed in designer jeans and brogues, is the first marketing director of Simon Cowell's Syco Music, which he joined from Sony PlayStation in December.

Speaking from Syco's Kensington offices - with Cowell and last year's X Factor victor Matt Cardle wandering around - Hardy explains that a marketing director was needed to deal with an expanding roster of talent. As well as X Factor contestants, this also includes Westlife and the lesser-known Labrinth, who produced Tinie Tempah's Brits-winning single Pass Out.

Syco is also making inroads in the US, where The X Factor will launch later this year, and Hardy was brought in with this project in mind, too, although he admits it will be a challenge for his 30-strong team.

The company is part of the Sony empire, but is a rare success in its own right, in an industry that has been trampled by the digital revolution. After all, few outfits have nailed the commercial side of the download trend, with the marked exception of Apple's iTunes Store, which has attracted the co-operation of most of the major labels. Now, however, Sony, which wants a slice of the action, is pushing its music-streaming service, Qriocity.

'We are looking at new ways of marketing music, which is partly why I moved from the gaming industry. There will always be a world with music in it - music can evoke happiness, sadness, whatever. You are selling emotions,' says Hardy. 'Someone will solve the commercial challenges, and I want to be that person - or working alongside them.'

In stark contrast to the music industry, though, the gaming market is booming. Hardy admits that some of his colleagues questioned his decision to move from PlayStation to Syco. He believes, however, that the tactics that have worked so well in gaming - such as the use of social media and accessibility - can be applied to music.

Gamers are responsible for some of the web's liveliest blogs and social networks, with contributors feeding their obsessions by swapping cheats. The gaming houses encourage this by drip-feeding information online, including their own tips.

Syco's model is not a million miles away from this. Hardy cites social media as a powerful medium that puts fans closer to their idols. His challenge, he says, is to refine this strategy. 'There are massive parallels not just with PlayStation, but with movies, too,' he adds. 'What is especially interesting (about The X Factor) is the amount of activity on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes and YouTube. Teenagers are sitting there with a laptop. They are "media mashing" - and we harness that. We make sure that our fans are staying with the show and brand throughout the week when The X Factor is not on TV.'

Beyond that, Hardy needs to persuade consumers to buy the contestants' future releases - and not just the single chosen for the annual endeavour to be the 'Christmas number one'. Making the acts accessible and personable has underpinned the strategy here: information divulged in the form of tour news, and blogs written by the acts themselves. 'It's not all about highly polished pop videos; it is also about the Flickr-YouTube generation, which is happy to forgo the polish to get to the music,' says Hardy. 'Our artists will give snippets to fans. The X Factor 2008 winner Alexandra Burke will give updates from her "glamsquad" about what her stylist is doing. It is much more interesting for fans than the official documentary months later.'

This approach, Hardy explains, is all about the most basic of marketing edicts - adding value. 'It is shifting records versus selling music entertainment. Getting behind the scenes with Leona (Lewis), watching videos, contributing to the blog and getting a response are an important part of that,' he says.

Mobile, apps and in-game music are also important marketing channels for Syco. The latter links Hardy's old and new roles - he was previously a member of the development team responsible for PlayStation's karaoke game, SingStar.

Creative foundations

Hardy, 38, demonstrated his own creative talent and business acumen in his early 20s, developing a range of men's toiletries in his final year at university that he sold to the now-defunct menswear brand Fosters, which also employed him.

Showing further flair, Hardy went on to win a Royal Academy of Arts fashion competition, which got him a placement at John Lewis. 'I have had to learn business, but that is far easier than having to learn to be creative,' he says.

Some would argue that Hardy's new role is his biggest creative challenge yet. The transition from X Factor contestant to Syco artist can be fraught - and that has a lot to do with the fact that the production team is as much in the dark as the public over who will win, insists Hardy. He reveals that after each show, the team pores over press reports and Twitter responses to get an idea of who the media and public think will triumph.

He adds: 'We start by looking at the contestants going through the live period of the show, looking at how they are developing, the styling they have or that we give them. The minute the final show finishes, my team steps up to take control of the winner.'

Hardy says his job essentially is to get the winner's single to the top of the Christmas chart - not a foregone conclusion, as Syco discovered two years ago when Joe McElderry lost out to Rage Against the Machine following a concerted campaign by the programme's detractors. This was, however, the exception to the rule - so far, at least.

Meeting Susan Boyle, the 2009 runner-up in Britain's Got Talent, might not be top of most teenage wish-lists. However, Hardy, who encountered the Scottish warbler last week during a celebration of her record sales, is, perhaps inevitably, full of praise. 'She is down-to-earth and open to talk about her life. The Susan we saw on YouTube has developed into a real artist.'

Hardy has a point - 14m albums puts Boyle in the same league as Rihanna and Justin Bieber. But for Hardy there is only one true monarch of pop. 'Bieber is the ultimate in pop to a seven-year-old, but not to me personally. It's got to be Simon Cowell,' he says without a hint of irony.


1993-1994: Account executive, Berman McClean PR

1995-1996: Placement to launch range of men's toiletries for Fosters

1996-1998: International brand manager, youth brands, Richemont - Rothmans of Pall Mall

1998-2001: Brand manager, rising to senior brand manager, Disney and Pixar

2001-2010: European software manager, rising to European product marketing director, Sony PlayStation.

2010-present: Marketing director, Syco Music


Music: Baggy-era Manchester

Holidays: Ibiza, for the party

Car: Mini

Technology: Apple

Best Christmas gift: Nespresso coffee machine

Most-asked question about Simon Cowell: What is he like?