Agency profile: What is it about Blue Rubicon?

Another year, another PRWeek best consultancy award, but what makes Blue Rubicon so special? Cathy Wallace finds out.

Blue Rubicon has done something no other agency has managed: won PRWeek's Consultancy of the Year award three years running.

The award adds to the considerable accolades the agency has gathered - the trophy cabinet includes the CIPR Best PR Consultancy Award 2008/09, Marketing magazine's PR Agency of the Year and the Holmes Report Best Consultancy to Work for 2008/09.

Nine years ago, founding partners Fraser Hardie and Chris Jones set out to forge an agency that would 'transform reputations, change lives and advise leaders'.

The plan was to use a simple formula of 'joined-up thinking', explains Hardie, putting equal emphasis on research, analysis, creativity and delivery.

It may not be unique, but back in 1999 this approach landed the agency its first three clients - Powergen, the Wall Street Journal Europe and Rio Tinto. Since then it has gone on to work with McDonald's, Unilever, Shell, and Cadbury.

But one will not hear Hardie and Jones shouting about it. 'We have deliberately been quite low profile and there is an air of mystery about us,' says Hardie. 'We believe our reputation should be based on what we do, not what we talk about.'

This 'under the radar' approach has been part of the agency's route to success.

There is certainly nothing flashy about the 84-strong agency's London Bridge office. Eschewing the glitzy trappings beloved by some of its peers, there are no fish tanks in reception and no sign of an in-house coffee shop. The desks are open-plan, and the decor is understated, with cloudy blue skies painted on the walls. Nor is it humming with the sound of employees' stereos. Only a colourful library hints at the creativity within.

The office space may be anonymous, but the founders have spent years tuning the make-up of the agency's personnel, opting for a flat structure and shying away from 'specialisms.'

The lack of individual departments such as corporate or financial obviously suits Blue Rubicon's staff. Staff turnover is less than five per cent, and Jones claims to have only lost two people to other agencies since the agency opened.

Staff are clearly Hardie and Jones' most valuable asset. The agency invests £20,000 per employee in developing talent. Creative approaches include sending staff out into Reading to watch mums shop.

When it comes to recruiting people, MD Gordon Tempest-Hay believes the agency tops the wish-list for PR people, but warns: 'Our people are expected to deliver great work, be keen, hungry and passionate.'

If you are awaiting a magic formula, then aspiring agency bosses will be relieved to hear it is neither expensive gimmicks nor suicidal overservicing. What Blue Rubicon has done is focus on delivering to the highest standard possible using fanatical attention to detail.

Sure, the non-specialist flat structure is unusual, but it can only work when both management and staff are pulling in the same direction.

Within this framework, Hardie and Jones have freed up the agency's creative talent to focus on the job in hand: PR and communications. If there is any 'trick' to be learned from this agency, it is this: hire good people, let them do what they are good at, and the results will follow.

 

The team meet the key players

Fraser Hardie and Chris Jones met while playing rugby at Newcastle University. Although their media careers took different directions, they remained friends.

Hardie moved into comms and was global media spokesman for Rio Tinto and head of comms at Powergen before founding Blue Rubicon.

His responsibilities at Powergen included corporate and brand comms, and political positioning as the utility led the controversial consolidation of the UK electricity industry.

Jones trained in print and broadcast journalism and worked for The Journal in Newcastle, the BBC and ITN.

From 1994 to 2000 he was employed by Channel 4 News, firstly as a producer and then as senior home news editor where he managed a team of 30 journalists.

Stories during his time at Channel 4 included the death of Princess Diana, the launch of the Euro, the Paddington rail disaster and the Northern Ireland peace process.

Nine years after setting up Blue Rubicon, Hardie and Jones say they are still getting on.

'It helps that we are extremely complementary in skills and personalities,' says Hardie. 'We totally respect each other's skills.'

'No year has ever been the same,' adds Jones. 'It has been totally exhilarating and fantastic fun.'

Jones and Hardie have been joined over the years by (pictured right, top to bottom): managing director Gordon Tempest-Hay; partner Fiona Joyce; finance director Sue Couldery; and directors Chris Norton, Samantha Field, Rosie Steele and Simon Pritchett to make up Blue Rubicon's board.

 

Timeline

2008: Works on Ed Balls' National Year of Reading. Wins CIPR Agency of the Year and PRWeek Consultancy of the Year for the third year running

2007: Knock-off Nigel campaign to reduce CD and DVD piracy and illegal downloading; national energy efficiency experiment British Gas Green Streets; scoops Marketing magazine's PR Agency of the Year award

2006: Wins PRWeek's Consultancy of the Year award and adds Cadbury and Royal Mail as clients

2004: Wins CIPR Consultancy of the Year; the agency wins a place on the COI roster

2003: Picks up GlaxoSmithKline, and Cable & Wireless CEO Francesco Caio

2002: Wins account for McDonald's 'McJobs' campaign

2001: Hired by first major clients: JP Morgan and Unilever

1999: Fraser Hardie and Chris Jones set up Blue Rubicon.

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