Bell Pottinger Private: Agency Business Report 2015

Business is booming for the independent agency, which saw double-digit growth

James Henderson: CEO, Bell Pottinger
James Henderson: CEO, Bell Pottinger

Principals: Tim Bell, chairman; James Henderson, CEO
Ownership: Independent
Offices: Global 8
Revenues: Global £43.1m; UK £33.5m
Headcount: Global 278; UK 221

This year will mark the third anniversary of Bell Pottinger’s buyout from former parent company Chime Communications. It has been an int­eresting few years for the agency, and in last year’s Top 150 UK PR Consultancies table fee income had slipped a little bit. But this year’s figures are buoyant and so is CEO James Henderson.

"It was a very good year for us, with revenues up by 14 per cent," Henderson says of 2014. "That’s a significant increase, particularly in this market." Growth has been driven to a small extent by the acq­uisition of political agency Centreground, Henderson says, "but other than that it has been self-generated".

The main challenge and focus for Henderson during 2014 has been "trying to build one integrated brand". "Pre-buyout, we were six separate businesses working under Chime. Now we just have one business and we are working to make it as integrated as possible. We have focused on client servicing, business development and having a strong offering."

Internally, the agency launched new divisions to add to its existing practice areas around digital, corporate and branding, politics, geopolitics and finance.

The first was a luxury team led by Karlina Nathan and advised by the FT’s How To Spend It magazine founder Julia Carrick. The division launched to coincide with London Fashion Week and saw Bell Pottinger move clients including Mulberry, Hirsch and Walpole British Luxury into the new arm.

A specialist crisis and litigation division was set up under the stewardship of Iain Burns and former barrister Stuart Leach. Henderson also brought in automotive specialist Will Powell to help the agency tap into a resurgence in the UK car market.

The agency continued to expand into Asia, opening offices in Malaysia and Myanmar. This offering has been considerably strengthened with the appointment of Mark Canning, a former British ambassador and FCO senior staffer.

Canning acts as an adviser to Bell Pottinger’s senior management in Asia, led by Piers Pottinger, and Henderson says an Indonesian offering is a possibility in the future given Canning’s experience in the region.

Other senior appointments in 2014 included Jamie Lyons, a former lobbyist for the News of the World, who joined the political division, along with Razi Rahman and Julie Minns.

Bell Pottinger also significantly increased its credentials with the Labour Party after the acquisition of Centreground along with its founder Darren Murphy, a former adviser to Tony Blair.

Rebalancing the business
In July, Bell Pottinger made four staff members partners after a formal annual selection process was completed. Andy Bloxham, Neil Cameron, Lorna Cobbett and Liz Lynch joined a group of more than 60 people with an ownership stake in the business.

Although Henderson says there was "nothing out of the ordinary" in terms of staff leaving the agency, it is notable that rival Edelman made two raids on the agency’s public affairs team within months, recruiting both partner Gurpreet Brar and public affairs MD Stephen Lotinga, who swiftly left his new role to work for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

Client wins for Bell Pottinger included Centrica, Abu Dhabi airports, Volvo, United Biscuits and Lidl. The agency was also appointed to work on IPOs by TSB and MarketTech, the comp­any that owns London’s Camden Markets.

In terms of client losses, Henderson says: "There is always a certain amount of churn, but nothing out of the ordinary."

He adds: "Over the past couple of years, we have very much rebalanced the business model to cover a broad range of clients with no disproportionate emphasis on one client. No one client represents more than two per cent of revenue – a few years back we had a few very big clients that dominated the revenue."

Looking ahead, Henderson is hoping to continue to grow the agency’s base of FTSE 100 clients, which last year increased from one to six. He also points to plans for more investment in the Far East.

Aside from that, he says he is aiming for "more of the same, really, and bringing in new people – we have already made a number of good hires so far this year".

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