Bell Pottinger PRWeek Global Agency Business Report 2016

It's been a solid 12 months for Bell Pottinger, which expanded its offerings, achieved worldwide growth and added plenty of high-profile clients to its roster.

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

Principals: Tim Bell, chairman; James Henderson, CEO
Ownership: Independent
Offices: 8
Revenue: Global $53.2m (£34.8m), UK £27.9m
Headcount: Global 266, UK 201 

"One of our biggest achievements over the past year was to truly establish ourselves as a multi-disciplinary agency," says James Henderson, CEO of Bell Pottinger.

"We’ve always been well known for political advice and capital markets work but we’re now being recognised for our consumer-facing campaigns."

Overall, it has been a good year for Bell Pottinger. Despite a mid-year blip with redundancies in the UK and losing a repitch for the Etihad Airways account, revenue for Bell Pottinger was up six per cent across the group as business flowed through its offices around the world.

"After investing in the business, our challenge this year was to focus on margins. If you look at the figures since the management buyout in 2012, our quarterly revenues have increased from £7m to £9m," Henderson explains.

"Last year, international business grew to 20 per cent of revenue as we had particularly strong growth in our Asia offices – Singapore, Hong Kong, as well as new additions in Kuala Lumpur and Yangon."

In January 2015, the agency formed a crisis and litigation arm led by existing partners Iain Burns and former barrister Stuart Leach, with the aim of consolidating its legal expertise under one roof. The team played a role in helping Japan's Suzuki Motor Corporation secure a major win against Volkswagen in the International Court of Arbitration. 

There were numerous account wins spanning key areas from general corporate and media reputation to digital, political and capital markets work. Account wins in Asia included the Singapore government, public transport provider SMRT and one of the world’s largest commodity traders, Noble Group. In the Middle East, Aldar Properties, Abu Dhabi's largest real estate company and the Saudi Stock Exchange were added to the client list and Amazon and Hitachi Capital were notable account wins in the UK. 

Bell Pottinger added to its celebrity client roster with big names including supermodel Naomi Campbell and the royal family. The firm also helped Cyprus-born entrepreneur and investor Touker Suleyman secure a coveted spot on BBC Two’s Dragons’ Den programme.

"We also had a strong year for M&As," Henderson continues. The agency advised on various high-profile deals during the course of 2015 including Aviva’s £5.6bn purchase of Friends Life, Emirates National Oil Company’s acquisition of Dragon Oil and Johnson Press snapping up the ‘i’ newspaper.

On the geopolitical side, Bell Pottinger worked on the Nigerian elections and carried out lobbying work in the UK on behalf of Russian energy company Gazprom.

Restructuring took place in the London office when 10 redundancies were carried out as part of a "natural streamlining and restructuring process". After 15 years with the firm, group MD David Wilson stood down, citing the need for some time out. Francis Beves, who was a partner in Bell Pottinger's corporate and brand division, also left to join the healthcare team at Hanover.

Internally, Mark Worthington was identified as playing an "instrumental role" in the success of the Asia hub in Singapore and consequently promoted to MD. 

There were plenty of external hires too. The firm appointed its first MD in Myanmar – Graham Stewart. He brought more than 20 years of experience in the media and public affairs to the role, including 10 years at The Times. Liz Morley joined from Maitland to become partner in the financial corporate practice, bringing 25 years’ worth of experience. Kev O'Sullivan, co-founder of Surname & Surname, joined as a partner and head of creative engagement.

Continuing the industry trend of recruiting journalists, Bell Pottinger brought in two prominent figures. Lisa Carter, who spent 12 years at the Daily Mail and worked at The Sun, was hired to head up the lifestyle division, while award-winning journalist Philip Pank joined as associate partner of corporate and brand. Meanwhile, experienced criminal defence barrister Antony Dunkels joined the litigation department, which generated £2m in revenue.

Looking ahead, Bell Pottinger wants to continue gaining recognition for more of its consumer-facing campaign work. Having secured a lucrative six-figure contract from the South African Tourism Board, it began work on this at the start of 2016. So far this year, the agency has staged stunts at key train stations around central London to promote South Africa as a holiday destination and it was also involved in the roll-out of HSBC’s biometric banking services.

"The demand for PR is as great as it ever was but there’s more competition so agencies need to get recognised for top-notch work. Small and large agencies are all upping their game and clients want more of an integrated offering; niche demand isn’t as great as it used to be," reports Henderson.

"At present we’ve got all the core divisions from digital through to litigation that make up a well balanced agency. We will of course continue to explore and invest in new areas of interest to continue growing and provide the best services to clients."

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