Late into the evening, 30 floors above Tottenham Court Road, John Lehal is deep in conversation with two members of Parliament. The champagne is flowing at his agency's swanky fourth birthday bash, but Lehal is sticking to the orange juice. For now. 'I can't start drinking before the team,' he tells PRWeek, with an impish grin.
The Insight Public Affairs boss' brave resistance in the face of Piper Heidsieck and Perrier-Jouet on this occasion is a rare sight in the champagne-fuelled world of public affairs. But then again, Lehal does not fit easily into the stereotype of the typical Westminster lobbyist.
Conservative Party leader David Cameron may recently have characterised the profession as being about 'the lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear', but Lehal insists this is not his style.
'The industry has changed a lot and it's companies such as ourselves that are the ones to watch,' he says.
'The work we do with our clients is about advising them on their objectives and how politics can play a part. You don't need to be going to Westminster and Whitehall and having quiet chats with people, or spending hours lunching your friends from Parliament or government departments. It is far more about business strategy.'
In 1997, Lehal was one of the Labour Party's youngest general election candidates. After being selected at the age of 22, he was just 24 when he contested the safe Conservative seat of North East Bedfordshire. 'Having spent time as a Labour Party member, I just threw my hat into the ring for this seat, which was near where I lived, and was selected,' he says casually.
Lehal gives the impression that a similar lack of planning precipitated the conception of Insight Public Affairs.
He moved to set up the agency in early 2006 after spells at Edelman and the now-defunct but legendary lobbying outfit Westminster Strategy. For many people, this would be the culmination of months - even years - of planning. But not Lehal.
'I hadn't harboured aspirations for years to set up my own agency,' he says. 'When I decided to do it, it happened very quickly. There was a week, in early December, when I registered the company, found an office, spoke to people and recruited, and got a laptop. Four weeks later, we were up and running.'
Insight Public Affairs now has 13 staff and is one of the more exciting agencies snapping at the heels of the established players.
In 2008, the entire staff of Insight spent a week on the campaign trail for Barack Obama, working out of the Democratic Party's Florida HQ. More recently, Lehal took his staff to Washington DC to see the US political system in action.
Also on the Florida delegation was Labour 'Twitter tsar' MP Kerry McCarthy. She says of Lehal: 'Whatever he gets involved in, whether it's organising an event or a campaign, or simply putting on a party, he pulls out all the stops.'
Having known Lehal for 15 years, she predicts: 'He will continue to climb high as long as he keeps his feet on the ground. And - having known him as long as I have - I'm sure he will.'
Lehal cites Edelman European vicechairman Michael Burrell as his mentor and Burrell is not surprised that his protege is rapidly becoming one of the better-known players in the UK public affairs industry.
'John has got tremendous energy, drive and chutzpah,' says Burrell. 'He's an indefatigable chaser of new business.
He's a fabulous networker and understands the importance of getting out there. If we were doing a league table of UK public affairs networkers, he'd be right up there in the top ten.'
Other friends of Lehal support this view, confirming he is no stranger to some of Westminster's more upmarket clubs and bars. 'He has a tremendous sense of fun,' says one close pal, intriguingly.
But Lehal, who has two young children, also stays firmly grounded. He says his drive and determination come from his parents, who were immigrants to the UK in the late 1950s: 'That whole thing has been drilled into me from a very young age; that you've got to work twice as hard as your friend sitting next to you.'
Lehal says his regular visits to see family in India help him to keep things in perspective.
'Yes, we have a nice lifestyle and we go to Washington and drink very nice champagne,' he says. 'But there are a lot of people who don't have any of this, and you can't take it too seriously.'
JOHN LEHAL'S TURNING POINTS
- What was your biggest career break?
I was set to become a secondary school maths teacher, but withdrew in favour of a researcher's job in Parliament. That was a helpful stepping stone in getting me to Westminster Strategy - at the time, the industry's leading lobbying firm.
- Have you had a notable mentor?
I spent five years working for Michael Burrell and still respect his judgement and sage advice. Generally, I find entrepreneurs' personal stories interesting, hence I'm always looking through Management Today, business books and weekend press to glean insights from the people behind successful firms.
- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
People want high achievers and hard workers. I'm fully signed up to Edison's one per cent genius/99 per cent perspiration theory. And that's not to say I'm encouraging a late-hour culture: work hard then leave.
- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?
Too many people hide behind email. I meet people who phone me, follow up after a meeting and are clear why they want to work at Insight.
2006: Launched Insight Public Affairs
2003: Account director, Edelman
2000: Senior account manager, Westminster Strategy
1997: Researcher to Margaret Moran MP