Our second Houston interview had us sitting down with one of the most influential men in Houston. As founder and operator of On The Mark Communications, Mark has had a very interesting career that has touched upon everything from luxury retail, to fine dining, to Houston’s massive medical sector.
Raja Ratan: Mark, how did you get your start in Public Relations?
Mark Sullivan: In a word, circuitously. In my day, I didn’t know anyone seeking out a career in Public Relations, including myself. I was a Psych major at UT without “a calling” to become a doctor or lawyer, or anything like that. After graduating I taught English in Cuernavaca, Mexico for two years, followed by grad school with a Masters in English. By then I had my sights set on New York City, and I fell into a job working for former Fed Chairman, Paul Volcker, at a boutique investment bank, doing all kinds of things, but writing played a big role. Turns out I’m really good at dumbing things down (which I don’t know if that’s good or bad). From there, I talked my way into a job writing for a new economy tech show on the fledgling cable network CNNfn, which led to freelance writing for various national magazines. When I moved back to Austin in 2004, I became Features Editor for a glossy Texas lifestyle publication, which was a great gig, but it didn’t exactly pay the rent.
I started writing press releases for a boutique PR agency in Houston to supplement my income. That experience led to a full-time job doing PR in Houston and laid the groundwork for launching On the Mark Communications in 2008. With about $2,000, no office, and one client to my name, I opened up shop just as the Great Recession was kicking into high gear – not a business plan I would recommend to young people, but it was mine nonetheless.
RR: It is evident that your company has evolved significantly since its inception, tell us more about the work you are focused on right now…
MS: In the beginning, we were primarily known as a restaurant PR agency because my first client was Houston’s first James Beard Award winning chef Robert Del Grande, at the groundbreaking Cafe Annie, who we still represent today. At the time, we were also opening The Grove at Discovery Green, and other restaurant clients soon followed. As in any business, things naturally evolve, and we somehow managed to organically start working with clients in different industries. We still work with lots of restaurants, but we have a much more diverse, and therefore dynamic, client roster in the form of hotels, resorts, luxury brands, multifamily and residential real estate, law firms, builders, banks, start-ups, and citywide institutions. I was born and raised here, so I take particular pride in the people, places, and things that make Houston, Houston. In 2014, we worked on the $128 million capital campaign for Hermann Park Conservancy that transformed “Houston’s Central Park” into an urban oasis, and we’ve done Public Relations in one form or another with some of the city’s most hallowed institutions like the Menil, Houston Museum of Natural Science, University of St. Thomas, The Orange Show Center and the Art Car Parade. These are things that distinguish us from other cities, and it gives me untold pride to play a small role in their success. I am fortunate to have gotten to a place where we only work with people we love, but it’s taken 10 years to get here.
RR: Tell us about a recent project that is close to the heart…
MS: Texas Medical Center would definitely top the list. I was born at Hermann Hospital where my dad did his residency and training on his way to becoming an oncologist and partner at Diagnostic Clinic of Houston. As a kid, I spent weekends tagging along with him on his rounds at every major hospital in the Med Center, and in many ways my life was shaped by those experiences. When we made the short list of agencies for the Request for a Proposal that Texas Medical Center sent out for a game-changing new project called TMC3, I was ecstatic if not a little shocked. We were up against some big international firms to do the PR for the first-ever collaboration between research and practical medicine that could potentially expedite the cure for all kinds of diseases. I knew the odds of landing the account were not in my favor, but I also knew that I had something no one else did: a deep-rooted understanding of the world’s largest medical center. The competition may have had offices in New York, London, and Hong Kong, but I had something they didn’t, which was a lifetime of knowledge learned via osmosis from my dad, who passed away unexpectedly 3 years ago. I literally cried when we got it, so I’d say that’s about as close to my heart as it gets.
RR: You are a well-traveled man, what is the most stylish city that you have been to?
MS: Barcelona, Rome and Mexico City would top the list for most stylish.
RR: What are the most important pieces in your closet right now?
MS: I’d say my black tie apparel is really great. It’s nice when that black tie event comes up and you are equipped with a number of options from the traditional black tux, to more fun dinner jackets.
In February 2008 Mark Sullivan founded On The Mark Communications (OtMC), a boutique public relations agency headquartered in Houston, Texas. Among the firm’s specialties are media relations, event coverage and support, marketing partnerships and social media strategy & management.