David Wilson - Beyond the call of duty

The British Beer & Pub Association's public affairs director is in good cheer after securing a Budget tax cut, finds Daniel Farey-Jones.

Only here for the beer: 'Sun readers are beer drinkers and beer drinkers are Sun readers.'
Only here for the beer: 'Sun readers are beer drinkers and beer drinkers are Sun readers.'

It is the afternoon after the night before. 'Apologies for being a bit subdued,' worries David Wilson ahead of the interview.

On the contrary, he is positively garrulous despite the late celebrations with none other than Chancellor George Osborne, who dropped in for a pint of Spitfire. The Westminster Arms crowd was toasting Osborne's Budget Day decision to cut beer duty for the first time since 1959 and scrap the beer duty escalator, a development that 'stunned' the former Labour special adviser.

Having got what the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) wanted, Wilson feels absolutely no guilt for undoing the work of Labour chancellor Alistair Darling.

'The escalator [which increased duty on beer by two per cent above inflation each year from 2008/9 to 2014/5] was the wrong policy and the effect of it was to hammer the British beer industry,' says Wilson.

It is not the first tax-related scalp for the 47-year-old, whose keenness for campaigning goes back to his early days as a Lewisham councillor. He gets a little misty-eyed recalling his time at what he calls the 'pioneering New Labour authority'.

With hindsight, he regrets not staying with the council to make a greater contribution. 'Having said that, being a special adviser was an incredibly valuable experience for seeing how Whitehall really works,' he says.

He left government in 2001 for eight years of public affairs agency life at Lexington and Portland, including fondly remembered campaign victories for the Scouts over water charges (dubbed the 'rain tax') and for Porsche over then London mayor Ken Livingstone's attempt to raise the congestion charge for high-powered vehicles.

Following a stint at East Anglia's regional development body, the Norwich City season ticket-holder arrived at the BBPA in 2011 and set about refining existing efforts to fight the escalator, which included an Oxford Economics analysis of the value of the sector's contribution to every constituency in the country.

Charles Lewington, founder of the BBPA's agency Hanover, adds: 'David saw the industry needed to unite behind a simple but positive message and worked tirelessly to make sure that message reached the right people.'

It is the perfect role for Wilson, observes his former Lexington boss Mike Craven: 'He's a consummate public affairs professional, with unrivalled policy knowledge. Now he can deal with very tricky political and policy issues, while actively supporting his members' products.'

The man himself dishes out credit to many parties, including Osborne's economic secretary Sajid Javid and the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Beer Andrew Griffiths.

Hanover is commended for its advice and strategy, which 'underpinned all of our work', says Wilson. He name-checks Wychwood Brewery for starting the e-petition consumer campaign, later supported by the BBPA, CAMRA and the Society of Independent Brewers.

He scented victory when The Sun lent its support in 2012. 'It's a cliche, but we know that Sun readers are beer drinkers and beer drinkers are Sun readers. Ministers are loath to have a tabloid newspaper campaigning against them,' he says.

Is he not more of a broadsheet man himself? 'I'm quite happy to read The Sun, especially when the Page Three girls came out in favour of us. That was a result,' he jokes.

How would such naughtiness go down with the fantasy political drinking companions PRWeek invited Wilson to choose - one living Cabinet minister from each of the two main parties.

Ken Clarke is in, for being a down-toearth football and beer man who also has an 'enormous hinterland beyond politics', while he wants Tessa Jowell to tell him the real secrets behind Britain winning the 2012 Olympics and show him pubs in her Dulwich constituency.

This diverts us into shared appreciation of certain south London pubs, leading to a mention of his grandfather working at Woolwich Arsenal. Wilson leans in as he explains he is writing a novel about his father and uncle, who were orphaned in childhood and tragically separated.

Potential Booker Prize discounted, Wilson is unsure what his next career step might be, though something community-focused appeals. But for now, there is plenty more to do at the BBPA, including proving the duty cut enables the industry to invest more, campaigning for further reductions and showcasing the sector's employment opportunities.

And there are, he chuckles, still 'many more beers to be sampled'.

CV

2011 Director of public affairs, British Beer & Pub Association

2010 Area director, East of England Development Agency

2007 Partner, Portland PR

2001 Account director, Lexington Communications

1999 Special adviser, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

1994 Councillor, London Borough of Lewisham

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Stepping up to lead the Portland Public Affairs practice when Richard Taylor moved to Morrisons. We won the McDonald's account after a hugely competitive pitch. Playing a small part in the phenomenal growth of the agency was hugely rewarding.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Too many to mention. I learned a huge amount working for Mike Craven [the co-founder of Lexington Communications]. His client handling skills and capacity for political networking are legendary. Tim Allan created a brilliant ethos at Portland and has a great eye for spotting and nurturing talent. In terms of campaigning, James Frayne is the brightest and best I have ever worked alongside. Nick Hindle at McDonald's was a great client to work with. He taught me a lot about the importance of effective campaign execution.

What advice would you give people climbing the career ladder?

Do not allow yourself to get bored. Stretch yourself with new projects in and out of work. Above all, learn from the experience of your colleagues and clients and don't try to be a lone ranger.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Ambition, creativity, a sense of humour and a willingness to learn.

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