Simon Kelner's independent approach to PR

Straight-talking ex-national newspaper heavyweight Simon Kelner promises that his new agency will be 'free from PR bollocks', reports Alex Benady.

Simon Kelner: New agency head
Simon Kelner: New agency head

Simon Kelner is sitting in the plush wood-panelled boardroom of the luxury emporium Fortnum & Mason when a waiter glides in bearing salvers of fruits and sandwiches.

It is lunchtime on launch day for the former The Independent editor-in-chief's new PR agency Seven Dials. Fortnum & Mason is his founding client and it looks like PR is treating him well. How is he liking it so far?

'I don't know yet if I enjoy it,' he says in a soft Manchester accent. 'Obviously I've gone into this with high expectations, but I'll let you know in a year's time.'

It is a slightly surprising reply, lacking the energy and optimism one might expect to accompany the highest profile PR agency launch this year. On the other hand it sounds honest and truthful, which makes it bang on message, honouring Kelner's promise that Seven Dials will be a 'grown-up agency, free from PR bollocks'. Key to that is a selective attitude to business, he says. 'It's easier to do PR if you believe in the brand. So for instance we definitely won't be pitching for the Bahrain government account.'

Clearly running a PR agency is not his lifetime ambition, so why has he chosen to do it now? 'I have been the chief executive of the Journalism Foundation and had a couple of columns since I left The Independent. Then my friend Ewan Venters (CEO of Fortnum & Mason) asked me for some PR advice and at the same time Beattie McGuinness Bungay was looking to extend the remit of its agency. So it was a mixture of chance and opportunity,' he says.

Given that the worlds of PR and journalism are converging because media organisations are cutting back on budgets, it seems like a natural transition.

In fact, Seven Dials has been operating 'under the radar' for a month now. Bankrolled by advertising agency Beattie McGuinness Bungay, and operating from its offices, Kelner is a shareholder and chief executive of the new agency. He already has substantial outgoings, maintaining a staff of seven that includes former deputy editor of The Observer Jocelyn Targett and ex-InterContinental Hotels Group PR director Eleanor Conroy. The firm also has an advisory board including Simon Walker, the former comms secretary at Buckingham Palace, and former Times editor Charles Wilson.

Kelner denies this makes Seven Dials top-heavy for a start-up. Rather, it is a mark of the agency's ambition. 'We are offering vast experience of media and quality journalism. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to get serious people,' he says. Besides, overheads are very nearly being covered. In less than a month Seven Dials has picked up Fortnum's business and projects from Aberdeen Asset Management, as well as the launch of online alcohol delivery service 31 Dover. Kelner hints at more business in the pipeline.

Perhaps a more serious question for Kelner is that Seven Dials looks, well, a bit analogue for our brave new digital world. Kelner, who edited The Independent for 13 years up to 2011, argues that to some extent it is an irrelevance. 'Yes, you have to understand how digital works. As a newspaper editor I embraced digital. And we do have an in-house digital expert. But the truth is that the principles of journalism are the same regardless of where it appears.'

Besides, print is still alive and is still the preferred medium of senior clients, he argues. 'You can give clients any number of print-outs and graphs, but they'd still rather see a cutting from page 6 of the FT.'

But PR is not simply about sitting back and giving dispassionate advice. It is a service industry. One wonders whether 56-year-old Kelner, who has been a journalist since he started on the Neath Guardian in 1976, has the stomach for a service role and the patience to deal with impudent journalists.

By way of a tester, PRWeek asks why most food shops waft the odour of baking to their entrance, while Fortnum's smells of fish? 'I don't think anyone has said that in 307 years,' he laughs. The implication is that the question is a bit stupid. But there is no sign of the famous Kelner short fuse.

Even those who might not be on his Christmas card list admit Kelner is unusual among journalists for possessing not only Olympian journalistic skills, but also exceptional marketing nous. As editor of The Independent, it could be argued he revolutionised an entire industry. He was responsible for single-issue front covers. He also took the paper tabloid and founded i, the world's first concise quality newspaper.

'He really understood his market and his brand and was able to bring in game-changing, business-saving innovations,' says one former colleague. 'He is a very capable man. But he likes a lunch, he has a huge ego and he likes to work with the stars. PR should suit him.'

CV

2013 Chief executive, Seven Dials PR

2011 Chief executive, Journalism Foundation

2008 MD and editor-in-chief, The Independent

1998 Editor, The Independent

1986 Deputy sports editor, The Independent

1983 Assistant sports editor, The Observer

1980 Sports reporter, Kent Evening Post

1976 Trainee, Neath Guardian

SIMON KELNER'S TURNING POINTS

What was your biggest career break?

Being asked by Donald Trelford (then editor of The Observer) to become editor of the Observer magazine in 1992. Up until that point, I had spent all my career in sport, and it opened up a whole new career path for me.

Have you had a notable mentor?

I have been extremely lucky to have worked with a number of people who have had a significant influence on my career. Dudley Stephens (my first boss at the Neath Guardian), Peter Corrigan (the legendary sports editor of The Observer), Charlie Wilson and David English (both heroic newspaper men), and, of course, Tony O'Reilly (former owner of The Independent and one of the world's great figures).

What advice would you give people climbing the career ladder?

Show up on time, work as hard as you can and make yourself indispensable.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Someone who has done their research, shows a passion and understanding for the job, and knows where apostrophes go.

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