This is something that comes naturally to Mark Catterall, Managing Director of out of home advertising business Smart Outdoor, which has grown from a standing start to reach more than 12m consumers a week.
But it was during a game of darts at his company’s Christmas party in 2019 that a noticeable shift in his abilities led to the diagnosis of a life-changing condition that the entrepreneur is determined not to allow to hold him back. Mark talks about his journey with Parkinson’s and how a partnership with charity Parkinson’s UK is allowing him to use his thriving business to raise awareness of the debilitating condition. “It’s been a steep learning curve,” says Livingston-born Mark, 43, who founded Smart Outdoor, a thriving media company that has more than 220 digital screens across the country. “Parkinson’s is not a condition I knew much about when I was diagnosed last year, and a big part of my journey so far has been about understanding the physical and cognitive implications of the condition, and coming to terms with the day-to-day changes I have experienced as a result. Those are the things that surprise you, because I didn’t make the connection between some of the changes I had seen in myself and the condition.” Mark had been celebrating Christmas with his growing team in December 2019 when he realised that he could no longer throw darts effectively using his right hand. At the time, Mark was experiencing weakness in his arm, changes in his walking and problems with his movement. Combined with comments from friends and business associates, asking whether he had injured his leg, he decided to speak to his GP, believing he may have multiple sclerosis (MS). “I was convinced that was what I had,” explains Mark. “There is a family history of MS and there were similarities between the symptoms associated with that condition and the things I was experiencing. So I was prepared for something serious when I went to the GP. They referred me on to a neurologist at Sunderland Royal Hospital and I was surprised when they diagnosed me with Parkinson’s. I knew very little about it.” Parkinson’s is the fastest growing neurological condition in the world, and currently there is no cure. It affects around 145,000 people in the UK, including 5,866 in the North-East. There are over 40 symptoms, from tremor and pain to anxiety. While running his fast-growing business, which now employs 19 people from its Sunderland-base, Mark has been on a journey of discovery, learning more about the condition and making sense of symptoms he had no explanation for before his diagnosis. “I think for me, I wanted to know what was causing the symptoms so I could deal with them and understand what was going on. It was unusual for me to lack energy and have a low mood and that was something I noticed, so it’s been a bit of a battle to overcome for me. It’s just good to know why it was happening, so I can rationalise what I am experiencing and manage it. I am determined to take it in my stride and make the best of it.” Mark’s positivity, something that drives his business, has allowed him to remain optimistic and motivated about his condition. Not only is he determined that Parkinson’s will not limit him or Smart Outdoor, he is using his company to support Parkinson’s UK. As the largest charitable funder of Parkinson’s research in Europe, the organisation is leading the way in driving better care, treatments and quality of life for those with the condition. Their ultimate aim is to find a cure for Parkinson’s. “We have an opportunity to support the charity’s vital work and to drive awareness of Parkinson’s. It’s what our business was built on, so for something that is as close to my heart as Parkinson’s, I would like to help people understand what the condition is about and the many symptoms that it entails.” “Ultimately, the more we can do for the charity, the better. It would be fantastic to find a cure for the condition, so that both myself and other people who are living with the condition can look forward to a brighter future, rather than the prospect of degenerating symptoms. The more we can do to ensure people understand Parkinson’s and encourage them to support a charity that is making such a difference to the lives of people affected by it, the better.” Last month during World Parkinson’s Day (11 April), Smart pushed out awareness messages, across its network of screens both in the North East of England and in Scotland, donating £50,000 worth of coverage and reaching 12.8m consumers per week. The business is hoping to continue collaborating with Parkinson’s UK in the long-term to help raise awareness of the condition. “We have an ability to reach a large number of people, and through the business, I was able to help Parkinson’s UK with their mission. We work with so many brands that are trying to get their messages to consumers – from American Golf, Statsport, and JD to Castore, and we are expecting that – as people get back outdoors as lockdown measures ease – the impact of outdoor media will be greater than ever.” So how is Mark managing with running his growing business while adjusting to the symptoms of Parkinsons? “Running Smart does require a lot of energy, and sometimes that can be a challenge because of the symptoms I have from Parkinson’s. I have to change the way I work, but the great team I have around me helps, and having a positive mindset has been key. “In a lot of ways, it’s been an added driver for me, to make this business even more successful, to show that Parkinson’s is not a condition that defines people or holds them back from achieving their ambitions and reaching their aspirations.” Mark is driving ahead with his ambition to double the consumer-reach of Smart over the next 12 months, undeterred by his condition and its impact on him. For a company that is only a little over two years old, Mark has been able to achieve all he has while living with the symptoms of Parkinson’s for the majority of his entrepreneurial journey. “People can live a normal life, do what they want to do and achieve what they want to achieve, even with the condition. Working with Parkinson’s UK, I hope we can encourage more people to seek support, help those living with it understand the condition better, manage their symptoms and take back control. I would like to think that everyone living with the condition is able to see a bright future. “Parkinson’s is a part of me that I embrace and that I use to fuel my desire to grow my business – and to grow as a person. It will never hold me back.” Ghalib Ullah, Head of Commercial Partnerships at Parkinson’s UK, says: “We’d like to thank Mark for supporting Parkinson’s UK and raising awareness of the condition through this generous donation of advertising space. As a charity, we really enjoy working with members of the Parkinson’s community to find new ways of sharing these important messages to increase understanding of the condition. We rely on the support of companies and individuals like Mark to help us and are excited about working together in the future to reach and engage with more people affected by Parkinson’s across the UK.”