Matt Neale - The James Bond of PR

The suave GolinHarris MD tells Kate Magee why he believes his job is 'often the best in the world'.

GolinHarris: MD Matt Neale on the global restructure of the agency
GolinHarris: MD Matt Neale on the global restructure of the agency

Matt Neale has been described by Porter Novelli's CEO Sally Ward as 'the most urbane person I've ever worked with'. It is a fitting assessment of the 37-year-old, who is dressed for PRWeek's interview in an immaculate suit complete with cravat.

For the past six years, Neale has been co-MD at the IPG-owned GolinHarris, alongside Jonathan Hughes. This week, the agency is beginning a major global restructure, which has been a year in the planning.

The agency's staff will be reorganised from generalists into four categories: the creatives (content creators), the strategists (planning directors to media buyers), the catalysts (account managers) and the connectors (media relations specialists).

Neale believes the new approach, similar to an ad agency model, will mean that the agency does better work for clients because it allows staff to focus on their strengths. 'If someone is a great writer, why can't they have a great career writing, rather than being forced to manage people and lead pitches to get ahead?' he says.

The agency hopes the move will help it win an agency of the decade accolade in 2020. 'I would hope that within a year you wouldn't call us a PR agency any more because we are going to offer a lot more. The agency that will succeed in the future will be one that can link up earned, owned and bought media,' says Neale.

The agency also plans to double its size globally in the next nine years and double the 70 London-based staff within just four years. It is in larger agencies that Neale feels most comfortable, arguing they are more democratic. 'In small owner-occupied agencies, if the CEO says "everyone has to wear pink tomorrow" you have to do it because it's their business. But in big agencies, I really believe if you are good, you can get on. It doesn't matter who you are, what school you went to or how you know the boss; talent rises to the top,' he says.

This view is evidently shaped by his own ascent. Neale lived in Canada until he was 13, when he moved to Yorkshire, and he originally wanted to work in the Foreign Office so he could travel the world. During his university years, he spent his holidays visiting 'strange villages' in Africa and sailing across the Indian Ocean.

After losing out at the third interview for the Foreign Office, he secured a one-week work experience placement at Edelman. The glamour of the job - meeting then Prime Minister John Major in the first week - directly contrasted with evenings sleeping on the floor of his friend's house among empty pizza boxes. 'It was an epiphany moment. I just knew it was what I wanted to do. I did more work in that first week than in my entire final year at university,' he says.

He joined Weber Shandwick as a graduate trainee and worked his way up to deputy MD of the consumer division. Here, Neale worked under Ward, who soon identified him as 'a real rising star', praising his charm, his ability to learn quickly and understand what a client needs. She adds: 'He belongs in a James Bond movie. He enjoys the PR lifestyle and is fun to be around. I remember when he got his first office, and he put up a poster of a tropical beach that took up an entire wall.'

Current client Everything Everywhere's brand comms director Stuart Jackson holds a similar opinion: 'There's a "get it right, get it done" attitude within his team that creates a huge sense of momentum and buzz about a campaign. He's an excellent mix of PR man and businessman with the constitution of a svelte ox.'

This blend was best evidenced when the pair went to the Brit Awards this year. 'Matt was decked out in military jacket, Tinchy-style shades and boots that would have had Lady Gaga gushing in awe. It was a 4am finish. Five hours later and there he was, fresh as a daisy, in a sharp suit and trademark patent blue shoes talking budgets and strategy.'

His uncompromising style did not extend to the £10 dress he wore at his stag do at Glastonbury in 2007, but Neale lists the lounge scene as one of his interests, alongside Cold War novels. He says PRWeek's description of his dress sense in a 2010 diary piece as 'a 1960s London playboy' was 'the nicest thing anyone has said about me'.

Now at the helm of a large agency and married with a daughter, he has come a long way from his time at university in Bradford, where he used to sit on his roof with a friend drinking red wine - tellingly forsaking the more fitting local brew of John Smith - dreaming of a 'romantic and glamorous life'.

A life lived in pursuit of glamour.

Perhaps the boy is satisfied now.

2007: Co-MD, GolinHarris Europe
2005: Co-MD, GolinHarris UK
2003: Deputy MD, consumer, Weber Shandwick
2002: Director, Weber Shandwick
1997: Graduate trainee, Shandwick


What was your biggest career break?

Working for Siemens Mobile during the tech boom. It was a ludicrous race for global market share. I remember drinking a dark rum and coke in Venice with Mick Jagger and the president of Siemens. They'd turned up to watch Kylie perform at our MTV launch party along with 2,000 other people. Outside, press boats were sinking in the biggest thunder storm Venice had seen for decades and my German client said: 'Matt, zis is a crazy party!' I was thinking - I can't believe I get paid to have this much fun.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Aside from my partner Jon Hughes at GH: Sally Ward, when she was my MD at Weber Shandwick, David Brain at Edelman, my boss Fred Cook and Bobby Ewing from TV's Dallas.

What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?

Be loyal, make your boss look good, hire people who are better than you and always look to promote from within.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Bright, straight-talking and driven people. You also have to love it - this is often the best job in the world.

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