Feature: Slipping into new shoes - High profile PR man Matthew Freud talks to Juliette Garside about his changing role

Matthew Freud has always maintained that spin is a young person’s game. ’There’s nothing sadder than a 40-year-old PR person’, he told PR Week five years ago, just after negotiating the sale of his agency to Abbott Mead Vickers for pounds 10 million. Now he is 36, has climbed to the top of his profession, made a fortune and, having just completed the five year earn out he signed up to when he sold Freud Communications, he is free to leave the agency, and the PR industry altogether if he chooses.

Matthew Freud has always maintained that spin is a young person’s

game. ’There’s nothing sadder than a 40-year-old PR person’, he told PR

Week five years ago, just after negotiating the sale of his agency to

Abbott Mead Vickers for pounds 10 million. Now he is 36, has climbed to

the top of his profession, made a fortune and, having just completed the

five year earn out he signed up to when he sold Freud Communications, he

is free to leave the agency, and the PR industry altogether if he

chooses.



Freud has had an eventful year in the media as well as at work - he is

one one of the few PR men to get as much attention as his clients. His

relationship with senior Sky executive Elisabeth Murdoch and his

reputation for being the PR ’guru’ behind Chris Evans have earned him

profiles in the Telegraph, the Observer, the Independent on Sunday and

the Times in the past three months. In the Observer magazine this month

he was quoted as saying: ’The moment I begin to have a public profile

myself may well be the moment I have to move on.’



Freud says he is not going anywhere for the foreseeable future. But with

four years to go until it’s time to get sad about still being a PR man,

he has spent the last 14 months putting in place a structure that would

allow the agency to survive him.



Just before Christmas 1998, Freud divided his business into two separate

profit centres. He siphoned off the senior talent to create a strategic

consultancy, Freud Consultants. In what is otherwise known as the boys’

club, Freud has gathered around him the close-knit group with whom he

built the business: Kris Thykier, Alex Johnston and the current chief

executive, Nick Wiszowaty.



While those consultants aim to offer wider marketing advice, the other

part of the business, which retains the name Freud Communications,

employs the bulk of the staff and concentrates on PR and

implementation.



With the new structure came a new board for Freud Communications. While

Freud remained chairman, Wiszowaty moved from MD to chief executive,

making way for a new generation of young Turks. Gaby Zein, who is 30 and

looks after the large consumer brand clients, took over as MD, and four

new directors were appointed. They are Oliver Wheeler, 29, who heads the

corporate and internet divisions, Patrick Keegan, 29, and Rebecca Hirst,

32, who look after media clients, and Clare Formon,31, who heads

marketing and new business.



Explaining the rationale for creating two separate divisions, Freud

says: ’There seemed to be an increasing need for strategy consulting

rather than PR, and it was the only way I was going to be able to

develop the senior management into a board that was going to be able to

take the business forward.’



The move does not seem to have frightened clients. The agency’s fee

income grew from pounds 4.7 million in 1998 to pounds 5.5 million by the

end of 1999. ’It was obviously a high risk strategy, particularly in a

year where I had a lot of personal attention, but the fact is that I had

not for a long time been the person who did the work,’ he says.



In fact, the new structure has merely formalised a way of working that

was already in place. Freud has for some time sat slightly apart from

the rest of his business, concentrating on high profile clients and

cultivating highly placed media contacts, while employing a team of very

young, enthusiastic and hard working people to keep the business

motoring along.



The legions of ambitious youngsters at Freud’s have won the agency many

fans, but also a reputation for arrogance. Zein and the other new

directors are aware of their reputation for being too big for their

boots, and the mention of it elicits wry smiles of recognition.’I think

we are very self confident,’ says Wheeler.



Zein adds: ’We do believe that what we do is by far and away the best in

the business. We are very passionate about our work. That passion is

sometimes misconstrued.’



Freud’s is a meritocracy. Those with talent are promoted quickly, which

gives them the confidence to trust their own judgement and to tell

clients what will and, more importantly, won’t work. But has this

culture created people with the maturity and stature to run a large PR

business? ’They are unproven,’ one close observer says of the new

directors. ’If they were outside Freud Communications I’m sure they

would do well, but they probably wouldn’t be able to build and manage a

company the size of Freud’s. There is no one there who really challenges

Matthew.’



Indeed, few PR people can lay claim to having created an 85-strong

agency by the age of 30.



The dilemma for agency founders is how to engineer their departure so

that the business does not collapse into the void they leave

behind.Quentin Bell is now a millionaire several times over after

building a business, QBO, which he successfully sold to its senior

management. He says once a founder decides to move on, it is crucial

that they swallow their pride and let someone else take charge.



’Most founder owners can’t get past that vital point where they actually

delegate properly, which in my case was hiring somebody better than me,

not a sycophant. It is all down in the end to the quality of management

you leave behind.’



QBO was built on the strength of Bell’s flamboyant personality and he

accepts that the character of his agency could not stay the same after

his departure. He says: ’What QBO has done is to rebrand. In the past we

were QBO but we were actually the Quentin Bell Organisation plc. It

can’t stay the same by definition because they are different

people.’



Rebranding doesn’t always work. Lynne Franks left her business in 1993,

but the efforts of those who took over from her to repackage the agency

as Life PR never bore fruit. Less than a year after Life was created,

managing director Graham Goodkind and chairman and chief executive

Samantha Royston left and the agency was folded into its sister

Omnicom-owned brand Ketchum.



Julian Henry, a former Lynne Franks director who now runs his own

consumer agency, Henry’s House, says it is as difficult to imagine Lynne

Franks or Freud Communications without their founders as it is to

imagine Virgin without Richard Branson. ’What tends to happen over a few

years is that the impetus given to the agency by its founder tends to

get lost. The agency has to grow into something else.’



Under its new directors, Freud Communications has already begun to

change.



Whereas ’the boys’ naturally worked closely together, the next

generation have had to introduce formal meetings to ensure the right

level of communication.



They have a new business director for the first time, and a designated

person to deal with client concerns.



Whereas Freud’s has in the past made money by applying its expertise in

creating tabloid celebrities to make consumer brands famous, the new

generation are applying the marketing strategies they have learnt from

consumer brands like Elida Faberge and Pepsi to media clients like the

hit TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.



The agency has taken on a more serious character, although there are

still a cafe and pinball machines in the foyer (the football table has

been confiscated because games became so competitive that staff had

begun betting the kind of money they couldn’t afford to lose).



But Zein does not want to change things too much. She says: ’Agencies

need to always retain the culture and the name of the founder because

that is what has driven the business to date, and it’s what will drive

it on into the future. There is enough of Matthew in us to keep Freud

Freud’s.’



The man himself says that he is now disentangled from Freud

Communications to such a degree that ’if I fell under a bus no one would

notice’. His claim isn’t entirely convincing. Not least because he is so

personally famous that any bizarre gardening accident would

automatically make front page news.



Freud may well have outside interests now, such as the chain of

restaurants headed by Notting Hill’s Pharmacy, and the internet retailer

Toyzone in which he holds a stake, but he is still by his own admission

the first one in in the morning and the last one to leave at night.



The next generation at Freud’s are undoubtedly talented and may well

grow into the kind of managers who can take the business forward

alone.



But they are unlikely to do so until Freud decides to completely let go.



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.