Teresa-Anne Dunleavy: Big success on the pitch

The chief executive of Good Relations is overseeing a remarkable change of fortunes at the 50-year-old agency, finds Alec Mattinson.

Teresa-Anne Dunleavy: 'There's a lovely culture about GR'
Teresa-Anne Dunleavy: 'There's a lovely culture about GR'

One of the PR industry's best known brands celebrated its 50th birthday this week, but when Teresa-Anne Dunleavy took over the ailing Good Relations four years ago, there were widespread predictions it would not survive to see its half-century.

The Chime Communications-owned agency featured on the front cover of the first edition of PRWeek (4 October 1984) and has seen some of the industry's brightest and best pass through its doors.

However, when Dunleavy joined in 2007 she found a brand that, if not quite on its knees, had certainly experienced a fall from grace.

But not for nothing is she known as TA, which could stand for 'turn around', according to some colleagues. Dunleavy set about reinvigorating and re-establishing the brand. Her pride in the results is palpable.

The topic that brings the 47-year-old's widest smile of many during the interview is the agency-defining wins Good Relations has picked up in the past 12 months.

She reels off big retainers with Nintendo, BlackBerry, TalkTalk, Weetabix, Bathstore, Comparethemarket and Subway that would have pushed the agency comfortably into the top 40 of PRWeek's Top 150 if it were separated out from Bell Pottinger.

Although a couple of clients, including Nokia, have left the agency, Dunleavy insists the agency has won every big pitch it has gone for during 2011. That success is nicely illustrated by an agency boss coming out of a pitch to greet the Good Relations team with 'oh no, not you lot again'.

Dunleavy joined GR from Porter Novelli, where, after 12 years, she felt 'I wasn't learning from the people around me any more'. She was not short of offers, even being flown first-class to New York to be offered a WPP agency role she turned down, but the opportunity to work alongside Lord Bell was 'a big part of the decision' to join Good Relations.

'If you have an idea, you go to Tim (Bell) with it and if he likes it, you're off and running. The whole spirit is so entrepreneurial,' she says. 'You can have a robust conversation with Tim and he won't hold it against you. Of course, he's always right ...'

GR's return to prominence has not happened by accident. 'There's a lovely culture about GR that was there before I arrived, but perhaps some would say it had become too nice. What we managed to do was raise that bar,' she says.

Her contention that GR had perhaps gone a little soft brings to mind a PRWeek article around the time she joined, entitled 'Bringing in the ball-breaker' (Profile, 7 July 2007).

It is not a characterisation that she recognises now. She is certainly driven and focused, but there is far more charm and approachability in her manner than spikiness and table-thumping.

'I'm not here to be the most popular person, I'm here to deliver results,' she explains. 'You can only keep banging heads together for so long, it's not sustainable.

To be inspirational, you have to be about more than just delivering the numbers.'

She acknowledges a slight change of approach from when she first took the role, referencing some old advice for new teachers - 'don't smile until Christmas'.

So would she now describe her style as consensual? She laughs, raises her eyebrows and decides discretion is the best response.

'TA's team would walk over hot coals for her,' says Ian Barber, a former Porter Novelli and Good Relations colleague who is now director of comms at the Advertising Authority. 'Accountability is at the heart of everything she is about,' he adds.

Dunleavy is surprisingly shy when talking about herself, always on sounder footing discussing the agency's evolution than her personal influence over it.

She chooses her words with immense care, noticeably pausing at times to think of the precise phrasing to convey successes without sounding too self-congratulatory.

When prompted, she does expand on a past life in the National Volleyball League. Dunleavy reveals she gave it up because 'I could no longer do it at the level I wanted to - if I couldn't do it at that level, then I didn't want to do it at all'.

It is an attitude that clearly echoes through her career - as does her approach to skiing, which she describes as 'passionate, competitive and energetic'. She could just as well be describing the day job.

Dunleavy is intimately involved in every pitch and has taken a forensic approach to recruitment during her time at GR. 'I'm uncompromising when it comes to talent,' she says. 'I hand-pick every hire and, if I have to, will personally interview 20 people for one job.'

Amanda Fone, managing partner and founder of F1 Recruitment, comments: 'Under TA's stewardship, there has been a dramatic change in fortunes for Good Relations. She is an exacting client to work with and takes no prisoners; her goal has been to build a world-class team of talent and this she has achieved.'

Dunleavy, who has two children,splits her time between home in Stratford-upon-Avon and London. Time away from the office, she says, is very much about the family, but one suspects that free time remains in fairly short supply as her work at GR is far from finished.

She talks of a pitch recently where the three competing agencies were described as the child, the teenager and the adult.

GR was the adult, naturally, and it appears that, after a slight midlife wobble, it is back on track.

CV
2007 CEO, Good Relations
2004 UK board director, business management, Porter Novelli
2001 UK board director, Porter Novelli
2000 Deputy MD, Porter Novelli
1999 UK director, Porter Novelli
1995 Senior consultant, Porter Novelli
1992 Account director, PRA Communications
1990 PR manager, defence systems operations, Vickers

DUNLEAVY'S TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

As a graduate trainee in Edinburgh, being sent by my boss to a London head office meeting as his stand-in, with a brief to 'just present the deck'. Two weeks later, I was offered a new role at head office, doubled my salary and skipped several rungs in the career ladder overnight.

Have you had a notable mentor?

I had a superb volleyball coach, John Lyle, who taught me a great deal about team spirit and the power of positive thinking when you are losing.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?

Put the money on the table. We can do award-winning work and delight clients, but if it does not translate into profits, then we have entirely missed the point.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

The word 'yes' delivered with an enthusiastic smile.

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