Steffan Williams: Out from under the radar

The MD of Capital MSL tells Alec Mattinson how an international focus has seen the agency quietly become a City success back home.

Steffan Williams: 'It would help us to be better known in our domestic market' (Julian Dodd)
Steffan Williams: 'It would help us to be better known in our domestic market' (Julian Dodd)

It is fair to say that Steffan Williams' decision to ditch investment banking to embark on a career in financial PR was not universally understood.

'A pal recently told me that when I left a safe job in banking to go into PR, some of my friends were close to staging an intervention - they thought I had gone mad,' he says.

Almost 20 years later and a decade since he co-founded Capital MSL, the move makes a little more sense. 'I wish I could claim I was such a visionary,' says Williams. 'As it was, I was bored out of my mind in investment banking.'

Boredom, one senses, is not a state of mind that Williams, 44, handles well. Throughout the interview, he is buzzing with ideas, thoughts and analysis - always keener to talk about where the industry is going than where it has been.

Capital has just celebrated its tenth birthday and is poised to announce the opening of another international hub. Williams is keen to use these landmarks to tell Capital's story - a story that has stayed somewhat under the industry radar.

'We are not as high profile as the size of the business would suggest,' he acknowledges. 'It's not something I lose sleep over, but it would help us to be better known in our domestic market.'

Traditionally concentrating on cross-border, international work, the agency is looking to grow its presence in the UK - evidenced by its recent capture of FTSE 250 brewer Greene King's financial PR account.

City PR incomes are difficult to accurately gauge, but it is thought Capital would sit within the UK's top ten.

The past year has seen a raft of City start-ups launch as senior people peel away from the top agencies, but Capital is one of the few within the past decade to establish itself within the higher echelons of the industry.

Williams says the most important decision he and co-founders Richard Campbell and Nick Lockwood (who has since left the agency) took was to get a huge international network on board from the outset: 'Getting Publicis Groupe on board, as a start-up investor, meant we always had access to that network infrastructure and resource. I don't think we would have got where we are now had it not been for that decision.'

Jackie Elliot, now an independent comms consultant and UK CEO of MS&L when it funded Capital, says: 'Steffan is the sort of man you really want to count as your friend and someone towards whom people gravitate in a room.

'He is a visionary and Richard (Campbell) is a superb foil to him. Steffan is the man who says "we're going to change the world" and Richard is the man who says "where shall we start?". They are a formidable combination.'

Williams has a laid-back charm and regularly punctuates his conversation with casual references to two of his other defining passions; rugby and his Welsh homeland. Witty and welcoming, he also speaks with a lucid and thoughtful clarity that makes it easy to imagine him counselling a CEO facing a crisis of reputation. And reputation is now the key watchword for what Capital does: 'Financial PR has been an easy place to make money for quite a long time but that is not the case any more. There are now multiple, more complex stakeholders to deal with and reputation is dealt with at the highest level of any organisation.'

He argues that this evolution makes it a far tougher environment to launch a start-up business, noting that there were 157 financial PR firms two years ago, but just 107 when he looked again before Christmas.

'The UK market is going through a structural change,' he says. 'You either need to be able to operate on a multi-market basis, or be a niche player - you can't afford to be caught in the middle.'

Capital definitively went for the former - its relationship with MS&L enabled it to have a global footprint from launch, a route most of the City's top operators have since followed.

'Global businesses want to manage their reputation globally,' says Williams. 'It's very rare to find a firm that just wants to talk about the UK.' This international focus has seen him work on blockbuster deals for firms such as Procter & Gamble and Vivendi, and establish strong footprints in key emerging markets, notably the Middle East.

The multi-market focus means Williams spends much of his time on planes. 'Last year, I got enough points to get my gold card back within six weeks,' he jokes.

Despite the long hours, he maintains letting go of his business is not a problem - something that goes back to the first day of Capital's trading: 'On day one, I didn't turn up. I came in on the second day, much to the alarm of my two colleagues, wearing a T-shirt and big Bermuda shorts straight from the Caribbean. I think they wondered what they had got themselves into.'

Williams may have fallen into the industry 20 years ago following a casual conversation with a comms boss after a rugby match, but it is a vocation in which he has found a natural home. 'I've got an opinion on most things, so being a consultant seems a rather good place to be,' he says. 'Mostly, I feel very lucky that through a completely random association I have ended up working in an industry I barely knew existed.'

There is a sense that some are yet to acknowledge the existence of Capital as one of the City's enduring success stories - those not paying attention should certainly start doing so.

CV

2001 MD, Capital MSL

1999 Director, Thomson Reuters

1996 Director, Citigate Dewe Rogerson

1993 Consultant, Walker Williams

1989 Graduate trainee, Charterhouse Bank

TIPS FROM THE TOP

Have you had a notable mentor?
Richard Campbell has been a fantastic mentor, but the person who really helped us was Jackie Elliot, without whom we would not exist. She backed us when we set up Capital and was vital in helping to get the job done.

What was your biggest career break?
Getting the Publicis deal that enabled us to set up Capital. If the three of us had just started under our own steam, we would not be having this conversation today.

What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
I am rather old-fashioned - as I get older, I seem to return to my Welsh Methodist routes - but there is no substitute for working hard; you get out what you put in.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?
People who are smarter and better than I am. Also, someone who can buy into our culture - not just functionally what they can do, but the type of person they are.

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