Jonny Popper - A man of many talents

The MD of the London Communications Agency can juggle, unicycle and is hellbent on securing an Olympic legacy. John Owens reports.

Olympic fever: Johnny Popper
Olympic fever: Johnny Popper

Though never far from the global spotlight, London truly took centre stage in 2012. A summer kicked off by the Queen's Jubilee pageant ran hurtling into the ultimate city showcase, with the glare of the Olympic flame dwarfed by that of the invading press for a few weeks of sporting glory and planning headaches.

But now the real work begins. And noone knows this better than London Communications Agency MD Jonny Popper, who remains 'deeply proud' of the work his agency is doing around the Olympic Park's regeneration.

Stocky, hair gelled and shirt unbuttoned to the point of revealing a dark mass of chest hair, 41-year-old Popper is at first appearance every part the London-born deal-maker done good.

Although the father of two admits to being no shrinking violet when it comes to arguing his case, he quickly reveals a love of technical detail and a strong social conscience. This is evident both in a CV that takes in work at the NHS and the way he describes his aims for the agency and for London - aims that are inextricably linked.

'I couldn't understand people saying they would move out during the Olympics - I was so excited for it,' he says. 'I wanted to work on the most challenging and interesting projects - those we feel benefited the capital. In this regard, the whole development of east London has unquestionably hugely benefited the area, the rest of London and us.'

Popper launched London Communications Agency alongside Robert Gordon Clark in 1999, just as the building blocks for the Greater London Authority were being put in place.

Popper had already cut his teeth working on campaigns backing a referendum for a London Mayor and Assembly.

This included his idea to send a truck to Scotland bearing a billboard that showed a cheque for the amount it was claimed London had subsidised those north of the border.

But while this idea never got off the ground - perhaps unsurprisingly, it was deemed a tad politically sensitive - the agency certainly did.

'I thought it was a brilliant idea, and for me it was a no-brainer,' says Popper, referring to the planned agency. 'London is without doubt the most difficult region to operate in.

'It has 32 boroughs, as well as a hugely varied media environment, and is a very complex place in which to make change happen.'

Despite the perceived limitations of running an agency focused purely on the capital of the UK, Popper dispels the suggestion of any plans to change the model.

However, he is ambitious and claims that the market is bigger than that of Sweden, pointing to many years of strong growth for the agency.

The success is in no small part down to his partnership with Gordon Clark. 'We work very well together, with complementary skills,' says Popper. 'I am quite good at all the processes and running things, and he is good at the bigger picture.'

This dynamic duo has enabled the agency to gain an inside view of many of the profound changes within the capital, with wins including NHS London, London City Airport and CLM, the construction and project management consortium engaged by the Olympic Delivery Authority.

Donna-Maria Cullen is executive director at Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, whose work with LCA included Popper co-writing the team's bid to take over the Olympic Stadium.

She says of Popper: 'He is one of those rare individuals in consultancy who gives intelligent consideration to issues wider than the immediate brief. He lives and breathes a project and delivers more than we ask for, ahead of when we ask for it.'

It is an intensity that was forged in a pressure-cooker - the parliamentary arena - where the 'card-carrying Labour Party member' used a sabbatical to work for political heavyweights including Harriet Harman, someone he describes as 'tough but brilliant'.

The experience became a full-time job and held many comms lessons that have stuck with him, although he says he never harboured any ambitions to be a politician. That said, he could just as easily have joined the circus.

An adept juggler and unicyclist, Popper is also one of the authors of a book on the former, improbably titled Club Passing - A Juggler's Guide to Social Interaction.

Those looking to get a real insight into the man could do worse than tune into Channel 4 comedy Friday Night Dinner and take a look at Jonny, a mischievous estate agent in his early twenties. Written by Jonny's brother Robert, the show's characters are based on the Poppers.

'It's definitely based on truth,' laughs Popper, 'and unlike the others, he didn't even change my name.'

However, while his fictional counterpart can be found scrapping with his older brother on the floor, the real-life Jonny has somewhat more advanced skills when it comes to the art of diplomacy.

Dictaphone packed away and interview rounded off, an irresistible last-minute question is posed.

What does the Labour devotee think of Boris Johnson, a man with a big say in London, and thus the agency's future?

A moment of silence is followed by a grin: 'I think the interview is already over, isn't it?'

CV

2010 MD, London Communications Agency

1999 Director and co-founder, London Communications Agency

1995 Account manager, then director, Neil Stewart Associates

1994 Research assistant to Harriet Harman MP, then Nick Brown MP

1993 NHS management training scheme

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Neil Stewart, of Neil Stewart Associates, gave me my first break in PR. I was working for the Labour Party at the time and I remember going to see him just to meet up, being offered a job at the end of the meeting, immediately accepting but not really knowing what the job entailed.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Neil was the closest thing - a really inspiring man who was great fun to work for. And a nod to Harriet Harman MP. I was one of many to pass through her office but it was a formative time for me.

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

Be really good at what you do and take some risks. The best people will succeed.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

A spark. Something that makes them interesting and engaging.

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