AkzoNobel's John McLaren paints a clear picture of business

AkzoNobel's maverick comms chief has built a reputation for colourful truthfulness. He tells Alex Benady big business also needs a straight approach.

Paint a clear picture: John Mclaren
Paint a clear picture: John Mclaren

John McLaren likes to recall the inspirational wit and wisdom of his first boss, Richard Needham, former Conservative under secretary of state for Northern Ireland and minster for trade.

'At a rally in the Northern Irish town of Newry in the 1980s, Needham, who also happened to be the sixth Earl of Kilmorey, stood up and opened his speech with the words, "I've come for the back rent".

'Later when he was trade minister, he opened a Nissan plant in Sunderland with the word "banzai".'

Then he lets out a great fruity laugh.

Such remarks may sound like gaffes - crass, offensive, unnecessary, the sort of things Prince Phillip might say on a bad day. They certainly do not sound like the basis for a successful career in PR. But to McLaren, corporate director of comms at AkzoNobel, they were inspirational because they confronted difficult truths head on.

The first remark acknowledged the rapacious reputation of the old Irish aristocracy, while the second (a Japanese war cry) recognised that although there was a bit of 'previous' between the UK and Japan, the relationship had moved on.

McLaren worked for Needham in his first job as a special parliamentary adviser fresh out of the LSE, and this fearlessness in the face of truth seems to be an approach that has informed the rest of his career.

'He was so honest and so straight,' says McLaren. 'He was a bit like Boris Johnson in that he placed enormous value on authenticity. I suspect I have absorbed that concern for the authentic and for truth.'

Well, not many PR people would openly express a preference for lies, would they? But after stints at International Distillers & Vintners (now Diageo), British Brands Group, WorldSpace and Dutch materials giant DSM, McLaren has moved on to AkzoNobel, the world's largest paint and chemicals manufacturer, which owns such brands as Hammerite and Dulux.

And even at this rarefied level, he has the proof to back up his claim of defending the truth.

Last September his chief executive Tom Buchner suffered a breakdown as a result of overwork after just six months in the job. 'He put too much hay on his pitchfork, as we say in Holland,' laughs McLaren.

The company had a fierce internal debate about how to handle the news. Should it just not comment, saying it was a private matter? Or should it tell the truth?

In the end McLaren triumphed over the lawyers and traditionalists who wanted to pretend nothing had happened and he issued a statement saying Buchner was taking leave for a few weeks after being diagnosed with fatigue. McLaren's only spin was that he branded it 'temporary fatigue'.

Disaster was averted. On the day of the announcement, the share price rose half a per cent. Although it did tumble five per cent in the following week, it recovered within a couple of months. 'Total honesty was the right thing to do. By being honest upfront we got a much better reaction. In the era of social media there is no gap between cause and consequence. "No comment" would have made it much worse,' says McLaren.

Not that he cares much for the short-term vicissitudes of share price anyway - another topic he subjects to more decidedly uncorporate thinking: 'This short-term obsession with shareholder return and quarterly results is just a nonsense. It's dangerous when it becomes the be-all and end-all. Big CEOs like Paul Polman (Unilever), the first thing they do is get rid of quarterly results.'

Although what one might call colourful truthfulness is clearly an expression of his personal style, it is also an existential issue for big business, he argues. He subscribes to the view big companies are psychopathic and they need to address their behaviour if they are to survive.

'If we are going to have our future licence to exist as mega corps, society will increasingly say I know I can buy your product but what do you stand for? Do I like you?'

It is probably true that his career has been built on 'OMG, did he really say that?' moments. When he took his role at AkzoNobel, he spoke at a company conference and opened his address with the words: 'You are all grey mice and I am the mouse killer.' Shades of Needham again.

But he is not just a maverick - everything he says has a purpose, says Tim van der Zanden, head of external comms at listed retailer Royal Ahold, who worked with him for 13 years. 'He's not just ballsy, he deliberately tries to shake things up. That's his schtick. He's a great reader of corporate life, he's clever, he's a man of the world and always sees the bigger picture.'

He may be a crusader, but he is no saint, adds van der Zanden. 'Not everybody likes him - especially process-oriented people. He can be bad tempered - he fired me three times. But he always rehired me again.'

For the moment McLaren is happy where he is. And no, he does not want a position on the board. 'That's a palpable nonsense,' he says. The comms person, he argues, has to be an outsider to some extent to be able to do the job.

'You have to be loyal, you have to care. You have to be proud and emotional. But then you have to be able to distance yourself. It's a bit like telling your sister who she should or shouldn't go out with. Corporations need to have relationships just like people do. No different from the way you or I interact with people in our circle or at work.'

But he says most of the corporate world is not quite there yet: 'If people behaved like corporations, we'd all be single, living in bedsits.'

CV

2004 Corporate director of comms, AkzoNobel

2001 Vice-president, comms, DSM

2000 Director of corporate comms, News Network

1997 Vice-president, corporate and external affairs, WorldSpace

1996 Director, corporate affairs, WorldSpace

1993 Group director, British Brands Group

1993 Public affairs adviser, International Distillers & Vintners

Tips from the top

What was your biggest career break?

Getting headhunted to Washington DC and becoming director of comms for the first time in my mid-thirties. I was probably dreadful but I learned a lot.

Have you had a notable mentor?

The first was Sir Richard Needham. Authentic, honest and successful. He taught me to be true to yourself. The second was Major General Edwin Beckett, who gave me my first job at International Distillers and Vintners.

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

I am not at all sure advice from the top(ish) is valid for the bottom. I think I should say to any climbing comms professionals: what do you really want? If they want to be on the board, then forget it.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Hard craft, collegiality and an instinctive flair are prerequisites.

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