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
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