Profile: Neil Backwith, Countrywide Porter Novelli - Standing up for the staff’s right to a life - Neil Backwith is on a mission to reduce the working hours of CPN staff

Neil Backwith sounds like the perfect boss. Newly-appointed as chief executive of Countrywide Porter Novelli, he is determined to stamp out what he describes as ’the exploitative, very long hours, culture’ of PR.

Neil Backwith sounds like the perfect boss. Newly-appointed as

chief executive of Countrywide Porter Novelli, he is determined to stamp

out what he describes as ’the exploitative, very long hours, culture’ of


This certainly sounds like good news for the 200 employees of the UK’s

sixth-largest agency, but that is not enough for Backwith. His ultimate

goal is to raise the reputation of the communications professions in


’I want everyone to work fewer hours. I really, really, detest the macho

70-hour-a-week role model. We don’t live to work. The whole industry

exploits people by expecting them to work very long hours,’ he says.

’I have made sure CPN has signed up immediately to the Working Time

Directive and I get very cross if I see anyone doing even 48 hours,’ he


Backwith has been with CPN 18 years and when he says: ’I absolutely love

the company’, you believe him. ’We have a very open, honest, reflective

culture. The essential ingredients I found on day one are still


Clients and partners who have worked with Backwith reinforce the view

that he is a great, if ’unflashy’, leader.

’He generates terrific loyalty in staff. He is quiet and cool, rather

than brash and has a great ability for breaking the mould in company


Under him CPN is becoming much more strategic at the higher level,’ says

Geoff Lye who is a director of environmental consultancy,


Ian McKay, worldwide marketing and strategy director for CPN client

Rolls Royce Bentley cars, praises Backwith as being ’great value for

money’, and for his ’very astute understanding of the marketing mix, and

his imagination’.

According to McKay, Backwith’s people skills really came to the fore

when Rolls Royce took the unprecedented step of putting agencies

together to work jointly on a car promotion.

Backwith gravitated towards PR almost by accident after graduating with

a psychology degree. His experience of the ’full marketing mix’ started

at the age of 25, when he became marketing manager for Guinness


He then headed database marketing firm, Market Location for a couple of

years before redundancy made him look at PR as a possible career.

The story goes that Backwith remembers seeing a profile of CPN chairman

Peter Hehir on the back of a job advertisement. He rang him on spec and,

as they say, the rest is history.

By 1993 he had been appointed strategic development director of CPN.

Within a year Omnicom had swooped to buy the agency. ’We had quite a

long courtship as they had been a shareholder since 1989,’ recalls


’As an independent business it was clear we were not going to be able to

develop quickly enough. It meant we became an international business

overnight. We were scared too, but as it turns out, they have been very


This hands-off approach does not stop Backwith keeping quiet about the

money Omnicom brought to the table. ’For me personally, it was very

pleasant, but not life-changing,’ he says.

Although he did not originally crave the chief executive role, he is now

excited by what he calls the real challenge of seeing his strategies

being implemented and successfully working.

Backwith splits his time between CPN’s offices in London and


Aged 47, he has been married for 30 years and claims: ’I am not a city

boy at heart. My love is motor racing and I am also something of an

ageing, failed rock musician.’ He still races his Caterham Seven

sportscar at club level and reminisces about trying to finance his

student days by playing guitar in folk and rock clubs in the


Backwith ’would like to see CPN get a lot bigger as a communications

business’. But a more important goal, in his mind is to ’move what we do

to a much more important and recognisable position within


Corporate relations is the insurance policy companies need to safeguard

the bottom line, says Backwith. He cites Virgin as an example of how a

’fantastic’ public image give the company a reputation that is often

ahead of performance and therefore allows it more time to get things


It would be wrong to assume from Backwith’s outlook on work that he

craves the ’quiet life’. Instead he seems genuinely concerned that his

staff are efficient and happy. ’The level of training PR firms in

general give their staff is pitiful,’ he says. He therefore takes pride

in having installed a management development director at CPN -

recognition that people are his most important asset.



General manager, Market Location


Advertising executive, Countrywide


Strategic development director, Countrywide Porter Novelli (CPN)


Chief executive, CPN

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