From pop to PR and podcasting - the incredible career of DMU alumnus Tom Burgess

From booking Bowie to blues rockers The Groundhogs, Leicester legends Family and watching Rod Stewart and The Faces perform outside the Fletcher Building, Tom Burgess lived a 1970s music fan’s dream at Leicester Polytechnic.

Tom’s time here gave him the grounding to break into the PR industry and just three years after leaving Leicester Poly he set up on his own, eventually founding a global communications company running campaigns in 100 countries.

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Tom (right, as DSU president) at the official opening ceremony for the students' union in 1975. From left, Sir Charles Keene, Alderman Kimberlin (chairman of Governors), David Bethel, then director of Leicester Poly

Today, he’s able to look back on a career as an entrepreneur, publisher, a media advisor, author and CEO. He is a podcast host, whose show The Real Agenda focuses on solutions to major social issues.

But he retains fond memories of life at Leicester: “It’s where it all began for me,” he said. “The opportunities were there and it was a good place to be.”
We caught up with Tom after he was named DMU’s Alumnus of the Month for March. The award is designed to recognise alumni who have made exceptional contributions to their field of profession or who are otherwise doing interesting and exciting things.

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Tom moved to Leicester from Buckingham in 1970 to study Public Administration.

One of the first things he did was join the students’ union entertainment committee which put on socials twice a week and also booked the bands who would come to the Poly. By his final year, he’d started a mobile disco and would be booked for clubs and societies events.

“I ended up having a lot of nights out which I didn’t have to pay for,” he laughed. “Because we were technically working – doing the entertainment, booking the bands, it was classed as part of the job.

“It was a good introduction to dealing with a wide range of people, from the agents to the students telling us which bands they wanted to see.”

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He also once booked David Bowie to appear at the SU. Unfortunately, just weeks after booking him, Bowie’s LP Aladdin Sane went stratospheric and Bowie was suddenly in demand everywhere. The SU got a performance by Leo Sayer instead.

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Tom's podcast The Real Agenda aims to look for solutions to political issues

Tom’s love of music ran parallel with a passion for politics. He was a student rep, was elected SU president twice and was closely involved in the development of the new SU building in Newarke Close, then the biggest student project ever built on campus. The SU, which was where the Riverside Café stands today, was a bigger, purpose-built space that became a student hangout, a refectory and a firm favourite on the gig circuit.

He said: “We were closely involved in the designs for the new building and I was keen that the union led the project. We had input into how it looked, how students would use it and I think we did a good job. It was only ever meant to last 20 years but DMU got good use out of it!”

When he left Leicester Polytechnic, Tom went to work in Manchester for a design agency but soon found himself interviewing bands that played at the university, including the likes of AC/DC, which led to work on local radio and a shift from design agency to PR.

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He thrived in PR and communications and was headhunted to set up a new agency in Manchester. A year later, he struck out on his own and founded Burgess Daring, which managed the marketing of clients involved in the early days of personal computing.

From then on, Tom would always work for himself – he started six PR and advertising firms, launched one of the first money comparison websites named website of the year by The Times and moved to California for a time for work.

“Most people don’t know what they want to do until well after they finish their university degree. It took me a couple of years to find out what that was for me, which was working for myself and controlling my own destiny.”

Today, he has brought his expertise in marketing and communications together with his political knowledge, writing a book inspired by his father’s work in economics called From Here to Prosperity, which includes a review from DMU’s Professor David Wilson, his former lecturer in Public Administration, and a Pro Chancellor of DMU.  He formed the Progressive Policy Unit in 2014 and is also chief executive of the campaigning group Taxpayers against Poverty, an adviser to Tax Justice UK and a fellow of Radix, a radical think tank.

And if that does not sound enough, his podcast The Real Agenda: the Podcast for Political Change, features interviews, news and profiles of change makers and policy experts to go behind the headlines and examine the issues.

“Technically, I’m retired from full-time paid work,” he added, “But I am still determined to bring political change and interesting projects keep coming up.”

Posted on Wednesday 24th April 2019

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