Alex Sandberg: Not afraid to rock the boat

One of the PR industry's most outspoken characters tells Alec Mattinson that he is not going away any time soon.

Alex Sandberg: Not afraid to rock the boat
Alex Sandberg: Not afraid to rock the boat

Alex Sandberg has a confession to make. 'I'm a man cursed with an opinion,' he confides. 'I can't help giving it.' The irrepressible founder of City agency College Hill is one of the industry's genuine characters - and one who insists he is not going away any time soon.

Last month, he signed a deal to sell a majority stake to private equity owner Vitruvian Partners, valuing the College Group business at about £45m. Sandberg is now refocusing on strategy and client work, and is quick to rubbish suggestions that he is about to pack up his opinions and ride off into the sunset.

'I'm not leaving the company I started. I'm still a significant shareholder here and I rather love the thing I've built.'

Over the past five years, the 62-year-old has, with new CEO Richard Nichols, diversified College Hill from its financial PR roots to become a broad-based consultancy with a litany of practice specialities.

Sandberg has handed the day-to-day running to Nichols - and is particularly keen to go on record 'backing Richard to deliver' - to refocus on building College Hill's core business. 'I need to get back to my roots,' he says. 'I've been overstretched. We're on our way to £50m of annual turnover, which needs to grow to £100m. I'm not sure I have all the skills to manage that day-to-day. In fact, I'm sure I don't.'

That sentiment would be mere self-deprecation from most, but with Sandberg, there is the sense that it is more indicative of his sometimes brutal honesty.

He is immaculately spoken and not averse to enjoying some of the finer things in life, but this is married to a blunt, no-nonsense approach.

'Alex is more than a PR guy; he's a business strategy adviser,' says Nick Beighton, long-time client and finance director and company secretary of ASOS. 'Invariably, he asks you the questions you don't want to be asked and tells you things no-one else will tell you. I call him "master Yoda".'

There is widespread respect among his contemporaries for his achievements at College Hill - both in building a business to attract respected private equity investors and the longevity of the brand stretching back over two decades.

There are, however, few other figures who divide the industry so starkly. He has passionate advocates across the business, but it is fair to say his direct and uncompromising style is not universally popular.

'Alex tells things exactly the way he sees them - you either take that or you don't, but if you don't, you won't get the best out of him,' says Beighton.

'I might be slightly Marmite,' admits Sandberg. 'But a lot of people who haven't met me have opinions. Call me a twit after you've met me, but do me the courtesy of meeting me first.'

During the interview, Sandberg is charm personified. He is forthright and does not mince his words, but he is also playful and keen to engage - a far cry from the 'Attila the Hun' caricature, as he puts it.

He talks particularly animatedly about his times as a young man in the hip London of the 60s and 70s. He started life as an accountant, but soon realised his true calling lay elsewhere. 'I found myself auditing a bacon-curing factory in Trowbridge in late July when my mates were on the King's Road. It didn't take me too long to work out I was in the wrong place.'

From there he 'fell in with a guy called David Puttnam' - that is Lord Puttnam, producer of Chariots of Fire. At the time, Puttnam represented the cream of London's photographers, including David Bailey, and Sandberg became a junior partner, repping the snappers around ad-land.

Soon afterwards, Puttnam joined film industry stalwart Sandy Lieberson at film production company Goodtimes Enterprises, and Sandberg went with him to work under Lieberson. He recalls: 'Can you imagine being a young guy allowed to use a black Mini Cooper at the weekends with an eight-track stereo, and your boss works for David Bailey? How much better can it be?'

The contrast of City gent and child of the 60s - 'I saw Hendrix play at Covent Garden; it still makes the hairs on my neck stand up' - might seem stark, but Sandberg is adamant there should be no distinction.

'We treat ourselves far too seriously,' he says. 'What we do should be creative, brave, taking risks and fun. If you aren't chuckling and making your client chuckle, that's a real shame.'

Turning his back on the film world, Sandberg eventually found his way to PR when he and former Daily Mail journalist Anthony Nathan went into business together more than 20 years ago.

Sandberg remains once of the industry's strongest advocates. 'On a good day, the best agencies are as good as any professional service because we can add huge value. Some of the planet's best brains work in PR and I sometimes wonder whether we are proud enough of what we do.'

On the board of the PRCA, he has strong views about the future of PR trade bodies: 'I want those two bodies banged into one to create the PRIA, the public relations industry association. It is inevitable, in fact. I'm sorry if people don't like hearing that, but our industry is a little more important than egos in separate camps.'

One particular bugbear is that agencies do not charge enough. 'If a consultancy does a crap job, fire them. Fees should be related to successful outcomes. If we deliver, we should be paid accordingly,' he says.

As the interview ends, Sandberg is keen to ensure it was 'not too boring'. 'Boring' is one adjective few could apply to him.

CV
1990 Founder, College Hill
1972 Joined Anthony Nathan, subsequently Nathan Sandberg
1970 Assistant, Goodtimes Enterprises
1969 Photographic rep, David Puttnam Associates
1968 Articled clerk, Tribe, Clarke, Paynter and Darton (Robson Rhodes)

TIPS FROM THE TOP

Have you had a notable mentor?

Sandy Lieberson was the best guy for me. He was unbelievably tough and knocked the pomposity out of me so hard, as a young poseur.

What was your biggest career break?

When I met Anthony Nathan. He was a hugely bright guy and I owe him a great deal.

What qualities do you most prize in new recruits?

You are looking for people who have insight, charisma and someone you know will be working at 2am if that's what is needed to get the job done.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?

Be brave - you'll get nowhere without taking risks. And never give up. This is a fantastic occupation and I cannot think of a better trade, but if you're not having fun and enjoying yourself, you won't do it well.

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