Panic inevitably ensued before, remarkably, Clarke managed to guide her team to a memorable account win.
‘We knew our stuff,’ recalls Clarke. ‘These days most pitches are deeply dull because they are death by PowerPoint. But we won that pitch because we knew what we were talking about.’
Clarke admits the experience is not one she enjoys reliving. Yet, in its dramatic swoop from panic to performance to eventual success, it encapsulates the qualities that make the gregarious 48-year-old such an asset to Huntsworth.
‘She is the glue across the group – a really excellent resource,’ says James Acheson-Gray, MD at Huntsworth agency Grayling PR. ‘She is very intuitive, reads clients very well and is more often than not right. And she can turn her hand to anything.’
Sitting at the top of Huntsworth’s rather antiseptic offices in Marylebone, it soon becomes evident Clarke’s roving role
within the group covers a lot of ground.
She is, at any one moment, pitch doctor, training head or client services director. She also plays an important role in the company’s increasingly aggressive acquisitions policy.
‘What I do probably is not reflective of what it says on my card,’ admits Clarke. ‘I sometimes joke that I hope I am not a jack of all trades and master of none.’
Clarke may be an all-rounder, but when it comes to business development there is a touch of the demon fast bowler about her. Indeed, it is hard for her to speak for any length of time before the conversation returns to a topic close to her heart: pitching.
‘It is the hunt and the kill – the competitive nature,’ she muses. ‘That whole adrenalin rush, the collegiate nature, the team spirit.’
According to Vikki Stace, chairman of Huntsworth-owned Trimedia, Clarke is a force of nature when it comes to pitching. ‘She has the X-factor that means the chance of winning when she is involved rises by 30 per cent,’ she says.
What Clarke has achieved during her seven years at Huntsworth might make some of the group’s more heavyweight peers a little envious. The PLC rarely steals the spotlight away from its agency brands – but Clarke has still been able to fashion a role of considerable value.
‘My sense is a lot of holding companies are there to count up and report numbers,’ she explains. ‘It is an interesting investment Peter [Chadlington] made. It is a visionary approach to hire someone to my position who is funded by the group rather than an individual agency.’
As a veteran agency chief herself, Clarke is aware of the need to tread lightly. ‘I was very conscious that initially you have to earn respect,’ she points out. ‘I like to think I helped challenge views of the centre.’
In recent years, Huntsworth’s steady growth has impressed industry observers – with its 2008 results offering evidence of another strong year. In some respects the company punches above its weight, particularly if a broader view is taken of its global footprint. After spending three years in charge of Shandwick Asia-Pacific, again at Huntsworth chief executive Lord Chadlington’s behest, Clarke understands these challenges better than most.
‘We would like to be bigger in China, and India is definitely a market in which we would like to be,’ admits Clarke. ‘But we are pretty well placed. I think our shareholders will be pleased to know the business is in the hands of people who practise and understand the marketplace.’
It is the kind of seasoned comment that is not out of place at an analyst briefing. But Clarke dismisses the possibility that she may one day succeed Chadlington, despite speculation to the contrary.
‘I am hugely flattered by that, but being a CEO of a PR agency, and then a region, and now having this deliciously varied role is one thing,’ she says. ‘Being a CEO of a PLC is a different matter – it is a very different role and it is not running an agency.’
Perhaps it is simply less fun. Ask around, and the one point to which people often return is that working with Clarke is, as Acheson-Gray puts it, ‘great fun’.
‘It has certainly always been part of my style,’ says Clarke. ‘Our business is about relationships, whether it is financial, public affairs or launching a chocolate bar.’
Clarke hastens to add that she is not a ‘laugh a minute’. Particularly not, presumably, when the lights go out during a big-ticket pitch.
Alison Clarke’s turning points
What was your biggest career break?
Joining the Board of Welbeck PR at 29, shortly after its acquisition by Shandwick. It gave me invaluable insight into running a successful agency within the best practice demands of a PLC at a young age.
Have you had a notable mentor?
My first boss in PR, Ann Brunton, who brought a practical and level-headed approach to the challenges of agency life, and my current boss Peter Chadlington. He has an enthusiasm and energy that is infectious and a belief in his people that is liberating.
What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
Be yourself, be natural and lead by example of excellence. People respect leaders who roll up their sleeves and deliver and clients respect candour, honesty and integrity.
What do you prize in new recruits?
In addition to the obvious educational and intellectual skills, likeability matters and the ability to be a strong team player. A requirement to diagnose problems and provide thoughtful solutions is imperative – plus a hunger for learning.
2003 Group business development director, Huntsworth
2000 Chief executive, Shandwick International Asia Pacific
1996 CEO, Shandwick Welbeck
1992 MD, Welbeck GolinHarris
1989 Board member, Welbeck GolinHarris
1985 Account executive, Welbeck PR
1982 Graduate trainee, Pedigree Petfoods