Gavin Devine: Ready to take on the big boys

The new chief executive of MHP has global expansion in his sights and a plan to challenge the top five consultancies. Matt Cartmell reports.

Thinking big: Devine says working as a clerk in the transport committee: ‘led to me taking an interest in big infrastructure and big investments in transport’
Thinking big: Devine says working as a clerk in the transport committee: ‘led to me taking an interest in big infrastructure and big investments in transport’

Gavin Devine's rise to the top job at MHP Communications in April, following the resignation of Sacha Deshmukh, came as a surprise to many who thought the ambitious agency had its top team firmly nailed down.

But what is equally surprising is that this wryly humoured public affairs and comms professional only left the confines of the House of Commons eight years ago.

'There's been a lot of change in a very short space of time,' admits 42-year-old Devine, pondering the evolution of the firm since it was known as AS Biss. Under his and Deshmukh's leadership, it was bought by Engine Group, became Mandate and finally turned into MHP in late 2010.

Cicero Consulting's Iain Anderson - who knows Devine from his APPC work - says of MHP's fast growth: 'In bringing all those businesses together during the past couple of years, Gavin's had a big job to do and I believe the business is now getting the fruits of all that very tough work. In that sense, he's a really good businessman.'

There are further plans for the agency, which saw organic fee income growth of six per cent during 2011 and now has annual revenues of £18m and 150 staff.

Devine has presented a plan to the Engine board for global expansion. 'We are a big fish in a small pond,' he says.

'We were number 13 in PRWeek's Top 150 PR Consultancies published a few weeks ago. If you look at the other companies around us, they are all branches of multinationals or UK firms with big presences overseas. We do international work and we work with organisations on a global basis, but it's not yet a huge part of our business. We've grown this far on the basis of UK work.'

Devine has plans for the agency to be in the top five within the next three to five years, but goes to great pains to point out that any expansion would not come at the expense of quality of work for clients.

He is strong-willed and does not suffer fools gladly, but is also armed with a deliciously deadpan sense of humour. He can also be combative when faced with a conversational challenge. On the subject of the seemingly surprise resignation of Deshmukh, Devine deftly straight bats any suggestion of a 'secret agenda', as he puts it.

'Sacha has driven it,' he says. 'It's his decision ... Sacha reached the conclusion that he wanted to look at different options in his career. He talked to me and Engine and discussions proceeded. The decision was made that I was the right person to take over.'

Devine adds that 'everything is very friendly - we have always had a good relationship'.

As a result of his promotion, Devine has left the APPC, of which he was deputy chairman, although there have been suggestions that his involvement in the body's work has lessened of late.

He certainly seems reticent about discussing issues such as the Government's lobbying consultation.

'Public affairs is my background, but I don't believe it defines what I do. I have a number of clients with whom I work closely and the contract says "public affairs". But, ultimately, the issue is about their corporate reputation and how they position themselves.

'MHP is about one third public affairs and I will devote no more than one third of the time to pronouncements about public affairs. I'm not going to be out there mouthing off about the public affairs industry.'

Devine's interest in politics goes back to his family, 'the only Guardian readers in Surrey'. The young Devine would often be seen handing out Liberal Democrat leaflets in his local area, before studying politics at York University. However, his interest in politics has always been largely non-partisan.'I never felt strongly about any political party,' he says. 'I love the process, but I have never been particularly ideological.'

Leaving university with the country deep in recession, he had little idea of what to do with his life until hearing about the newly launched Commons fast stream programme. He got a job working as a clerk in the transport select committee, where he was involved in preparations for the Channel Tunnel rail link.

'This led to me taking an interest in big infrastructure and big investments in transport,' he says, pointing to MHP's work for Crossrail and Network Rail. But it was a brief conversation with Adele Biss of AS Biss that sparked a curiosity about comms.

In 2004, he was handed a job at Biss' agency to bolster its environment, food and rural affairs connections. It was there that he met Deshmukh, who was also just starting his career. 'In effect, the relationship stayed all the way through the next seven years,' adds Devine.

Deshmukh describes Devine as having a 'very sharp and challenging mind, very effectively packaged in the style of a smooth operator'.

'Anyone who thinks Gavin is going to just manage the status quo, as he has been in the business for a while now, will be in for a big surprise. He has a big appetite for innovation and change, and an even bigger scale of ambition for the business. Anyone who underestimates him is likely to end up regretting it.'

Devine, who lives near Guildford with his wife and children, considers his working style for a moment: 'I'm self-aware enough to know my limits and be willing to say to people who know what they are talking about that they should take the lead.'

With Devine in control, it would be wise to keep an eye out for PRWeek's 2015 Top 150 PR Consultancies, as there may be a new name troubling the top five.

CV

2012 Chief executive, MHP Communications
2010 Chief operating officer, MHP Communications
2009 Chief operating officer, Mandate Communications
2007 Joint MD, Mandate Communications
2005 Deputy MD, AS Biss & Co
2004 Senior consultant, AS Biss & Co
2001 Clerk of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Committee, House of
Commons
1998 Clerk of the Transport Committee, House of Commons
1992 Junior clerk, House of Commons

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Meeting Adele Biss. I had been dealing with one of AS Biss' clients when I was working on the transport select committee and that led me to Adele. Several years later, she gave me my first job in comms.

Have you had a notable mentor?

The late Gwyneth Dunwoody MP springs to mind, but it probably would be my first 'proper' boss, Paul Silk, a brilliant clerk in the House of Commons.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

Telling everyone you are ambitious might work in the short-term, but in the long run won't get you far. Showing that you are quietly and efficiently effective will take you a long way.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

The ability to listen. Talking to clients is often the easy part. Listening to what they want and why they need it is much harder.

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