James Acheson-Gray - Eyes on the prize

The UK MD of APCO Worldwide is a top-class Real Tennis player who is equally determined in his business life. Matt Cartmell reports.

James Acheson-Gray
James Acheson-Gray

It is a little known fact that James Acheson-Gray is a former GB amateur champion at Real Tennis, having played the 'sport of kings' internationally between 1996 and 2005, often in doubles with the world number one.

While showing PRWeek around Real Tennis haven The Queen's Club, 41-year-old Acheson-Gray points to a number of cups in a display case with his name carved upon them. 'It doesn't take much to play for England,' he adds with characteristic modesty.

However, it gives credence to his assertion that, behind his charming and polite exterior, he is a highly competitive individual. 'I do like to win,' he admits.

It is this competitiveness that saw Acheson-Gray take on Singapore's fledgling 1990s PR scene as Grayling's first MD in Asia and turn it into the company's most profitable office, winning British Airways within months of landing.

'It was very entrepreneurial,' he says with a wide smile, adding that he grew the BA business to six markets and then won the global business in 2010.

BA international PR manager Helena Flynn remembers Acheson-Gray for his 'old-school approach' to client servicing. 'You really felt taken care of,' she says. 'We felt he was one of the team. He was so passionate, nothing is too much trouble. He's also great at strategic vision - he always wants what's best for your business and always sees the bigger picture.'

While it was at Grayling that Acheson-Gray made his name, he is now leading APCO's UK office, with a brief to shift the business forward from its lobbying roots to become known as an integrated comms consultancy.

'A big part of my brief is showing that APCO is a lot more than a public affairs and services-to-governments firm,' says Acheson-Gray. 'If you read the old clippings, we have been referred to as a lobbying firm, but we do very little of what one would call traditional lobbying. We offer so much more than the market knows us for.'

Indeed, the US firm now has 54 employees in the UK and 34 offices around the world, handling integrated briefs for huge organisations including GE, MasterCard and eBay. But most importantly for Acheson-Gray, the company is, unlike his former employer, totally independent.

'The fact that we are employee-owned is just hugely advantageous in a number of ways,' he says. 'We have this idea that we can peer around the corner and see the problems that clients face. Much of the time we pitch against management consultants - it's this idea of "what's next?"

The reason we can do that is because we are not reporting on a quarterly basis.'

Certainly a contender for the title of 'nicest guy in PR', Acheson-Gray has an air of good breeding that stems from an education at public school Charterhouse.

He asserts that he has only raised his voice in an office once in the past ten years. 'That was to a girl in Asia. She didn't speak to me for about a year,' he says. 'I learned my lesson - I don't fly off the handle and I'm pretty unflappable.'

Acheson-Gray now lives in leafy Hampshire with his wife and four children.

He admits 'I've had to decommission myself' - living as he does in a house that disgraced Conservative war minister John Profumo once owned.

The house also has a room named the Keeler Suite - in reference to Christine Keeler, whose infamous affair with Profumo ultimately led to the downfall of the Harold Macmillan-led government.

It is a wonder that Acheson-Gray continues to juggle such a full-on family life with his demanding work ethic - he admits that these days he does not get too many chances to hit the Real Tennis courts.

Former Grayling CEO Nigel Kennedy remembers being terrified when playing doubles with Acheson-Gray, who 'served bullets that fizzed past my head', but also recalls that he has 'never heard a client be anything other than profusely complimentary about him'.

Kennedy adds: 'Clients like James' charming and thoughtful intelligence, as well as his friendly, natural ability to deal with people at all levels. He is highly commercial and has a dogged determination and drive that takes him rapidly to his desired goal.'

Martin Brodie, now retired from Rolls-Royce, was in charge of the firm's international comms consultants when Acheson-Gray led Grayling's office in Singapore.

He says Acheson-Gray was a 'tremendous asset for us in the way his ability to develop local relationships helped build our profile' in the region.

'He was also able to understand the complexities of working with an organisation such as Rolls-Royce and was able to relate to every level of the group - locally, in the UK and around the world,' adds Brodie.

On occasions, Acheson-Gray's client servicing has hit heroic levels.

He recalls one incident during his time working in Singapore when, while walking along a beach on Sentosa Island, he saw a man in difficulty in the sea. Acheson-Gray dived in and saved him from potentially drowning.

'It just so happened that Sentosa Leisure Group was a client of mine. Corinna Cox, the head of comms, sent me a log of incidents the next day with my name in it, which read: "Not only do you do media relations, but you also save the lives of our guests".'

Talk about going above and beyond the call of duty ...

 


 

CV

2012

UK MD, APCO Worldwide and member of international management committee

2009

International MD, Grayling

2008

UK MD, Grayling

1999

Asia MD, Grayling

1996

Account director, Grayling

1994

Intern; rising to account executive, Grayling

 


 

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Being sent to run the Asia business, at the age of 28. What it gave me was the confidence that I could run an operation successfully and win new clients.

Have you had a notable mentor?

My father, who was a doctor at a university. He was good on the commercial realities of business. He told me: 'Always look after the money.' He always gave solid commercial advice. Also, Nigel Kennedy, the then CEO of Grayling, for his explanation about what makes clients happy.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?

Don't underestimate the importance of being a good listener; work hard; be enthusiastic about the success of clients.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

A solid academic background, passion, hunger and a willingness to go that extra mile.

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