'PR used to be about gut feelings and how you got on with clients. Now it's all about evaluation,' says Keith Simpson, who has just left the world of PR to launch his own venture. 'Constantly having to prove your worth through 'evaluation' had not,' he says, 'been thought of when I began work 20 years ago.'
Simpson has seen the heights of PR, rising to become managing director of Shandwick and also of Nexus PR (later Nexus Choat). Now he has chucked in 'the big time' for Optimum.web, a company aiming to be the 'missing link' in assessing how the internet can communicate to and impact upon customers. He's hoping to cash in on the new trend for PRs to ask with greater emphasis: 'What did that achieve?'
How times have changed in one career. Simpson graduated in 1976 and looks back wistfully to a time when degree-holders were able to choose between countless career options. He was put off insurance by his interviewer who asked: 'Have you got good outside interests? Because you will need them to stay sane in this job.'
He learned the skills needed to succeed at Fleet Street advertising and press relations agency City & Commercial, where he would hand deliver news releases to the nearby Express Newspapers.
His next agency, Leslie Bishop, was absorbed into Shandwick's empire in 1986, a deal he says he 'welcomed with open arms' because it was to stretch his professional horizons. By 1990 Simpson was managing director at Shandwick, a job he held for two years. It was, he says, a 'very troubled period' at what was then the biggest agency in the world. It was not a supportive place to work and the brand became muddled. Simpson is critical of Lord Chadlington, who he feels was unable to 'deliver clear visions and a global brand'.
Simpson left for Nexus PR and in six years he grew the agency's turnover from pounds 250,000 to more than pounds 3m in 1998, when it merged with Choat and Partners.
Director Jo Rimmer says Simpson was a 'fantastic thinker, a special person in PR in that he was a real business builder for clients'.
She points to Simpson's 'ground-breaking' distribution deal between two Nexus Choat clients, yoghurt-maker Muller and the fruit juice maker, Tropicana.
'Keith also took a keen interest in people. He amazed us by winning a staff quiz about what we all got up to.'
Simpson raised eyebrows when he quit Nexus Choat last January after a spat with chairman Jonathan Choat over expansion plans by acquisition.
He explains: 'I don't dislike growing by acquisition, but my experience taught me to be wary of blending different cultures.' Simpson owned 20 per cent of the agency and the 'idiosyncratic' Jonathan Choat 55 per cent.
This carve-up meant Simpson was always going to be out-voted by Choat.
'For me it was going to be more of the same thing I had experienced at Shandwick. I needed the driver of a new challenge,' he says.
Simpson was born and brought up in Wimbledon. He went to Rutlish Grammar, the same south London school as former Prime Minister John Major. Referring to Major's famed lack of qualifications, Simpson says: 'Major came out with no qualifications, yet achieved so much. I came out with a lot, yet have achieved relatively little.'
Simpson's outside passion has always been football. Aged nine, he gave up on his native Wimbledon as Southern League amateurs and has supported Fulham FC ever since. His own playing career ended last year when he had his arm broken playing a German outfit in a tournament in Holland. 'It was just a week after Man Utd had beaten Bayern Munich in the European Cup final. The opposition centre-forward took it out on me,' he jokes.
The idea for his new venture arose because, he says, there was too much of the attitude of 'get the site up at all costs, and fix it later'. He adds: 'No one was offering research-based findings to prove that their communication via the web visitor was actually working.'
Launching his own company has a sense of inevitability about it. Former colleague Lindsey Sexton, now PR manager for Guinness UK, says: 'Keith has an insatiable appetite for doing new things and never lost his passion for seeing things about clients in the media.'
Optimum.web launches this week, in partnership with Andy Smith, an academic specialising in human and computer usability. Enthusing about his new baby, he says: 'PR has not in the past had any intellectual leadership role. This is an area where PR can move itself more into science and less about being an art.' That's one way to return the lost fun.
1990 managing director, Shandwick
1989 managing director, Nexus PR
1997 managing director, Nexus Choat
2000 founder, Optimum.web.