Neil Bennett: Maximum endurance

The Maitland CEO enjoys testing his own limits - and this approach is rubbing off on his agency. Alec Mattinson reports.

Neil Bennett: 'The crucial thing is to advice - not just smile and nod'
Neil Bennett: 'The crucial thing is to advice - not just smile and nod'

When Neil Bennett reflects upon an 'extraordinarily good' year, he has more reason than most for his good cheer.

'First of all, I lived,' he begins, as he describes the chain of events that almost ended his life last summer.

Bennett, the 46-year-old recently installed CEO of Maitland, is a seasoned marathon runner and last May tested himself in the Comrades ultra marathon in South Africa - a gruelling 56-mile slog between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

'It was a wonderful event and after I'd finished I felt fantastic, but then started to feel ill on the plane home the next day.'

Within hours Bennett was on an acute care ward at Brighton Hospital with kidney failure, partly caused by dehydration and muscle tissue breaking down into his bloodstream. Bennett was in hospital for two weeks and spent most of the next month convalescing. Within days of coming back to Maitland, though, he had been appointed by the consortium behind the £2.9bn takeover of engineering group Tomkins. 'I'm not really an "easing back into things" sort of person,' Bennett chuckles.

It is somewhat ironic that his appetite to face and overcome challenges almost cost him his life, as that competitive goal-focused drive seems hardwired into him.

He even talks about his illness with a sense of pride at having conquered it, noting that his kidneys are now outperforming the average function levels. Temporarily shorn of marathon tests, he has taken up the piano - but typically not content with casually tickling the ivories, he has already taken his grade one exam.

It is this ethos that perhaps led to him developing itchy feet last summer after two-years as vice-chairman of Maitland. He admits to 'looking at my options' over that period. But in October Bennett was told by Euro RSCG chair Kate Robinson that Havas wanted to make some changes at Maitland and he became the new CEO.

'I'd always wanted to be chief executive of Maitland,' says Bennett. 'When I was a journalist, Maitland was by far my favourite PR firm because it was the most decent and honest.'

Having moved from the Sunday Telegraph into PR in 2002 to become Gavin Anderson's London CEO, Bennett eulogises about the industry: 'Public relations is a wonderful industry. It's like being given a backstage all-areas pass to the whole of life.' Meeting prime ministers and royals, interviewing Bill Gates and flying out of New York on Concorde are just a few highlights.

'He's got a great feel for a story and understands what motivates and interests journalists, which has given him a valuable and credible position as an adviser,' says Luke Johnson, who worked with Bennett through his role as a columnist, entrepreneur and chairman of Channel 4.

Some questioned his ability to transfer his uncompromising journalistic instincts to a role inside the boardroom and Bennett acknowledges he has developed a 'much greater appreciation of the difficulties and complexities that CEOs face'.

'The crucial thing to do is advise - we're not doing our job if we smile and nod when a chief executive is ready to commit communications suicide. How you deliver that advice, I have to say, has taken me a few years to learn,' he laughs.

The interview is regularly punctuated by Bennett's laughter and his conversation seems deliberately tailored to give good copy. Bennett demolishes the 'laconic' tag once bestowed on him by PRWeek - 'I'm the least laconic man in PR,' he protests. 'I'm determined to see myself described as "debonair" in PRWeek.'

With that ambition now fulfilled, it is on to the serious stuff at Maitland. Since taking control he has already merged in Apex Communications to create Maitland Political. He says: 'I want us to advise our clients on issues that keep them awake at night, and one is undoubtedly government regulation and policy.'

He talks of trying to reinvigorate an agency that had become 'a little bit down', improving its marketing and growing internationally via the AMO agency network - resulting, he says, in a record number of new accounts in the first half of the year.

Bennett's enthusiasm and passion is ever-present. Now running again and determined to complete a marathon on every continent, Bennett's health scare seems only to have sharpened his drive.

As the interview ends, Bennett acknowledges his experiences have definitely informed, if not completely changed, his perspective.

'There was a moment in the hospital when I thought I might not be around much longer,' he remembers. 'I love every day now - it's so much bloody fun I don't want it to stop.'

CV

2010 CEO, Maitland
2008 Vice-chairman, Maitland
2004 Managing partner, Maitland
2002 London CEO, Gavin Anderson
1995 City editor, Sunday Telegraph
1993 Deputy business editor, The Times
1989 City reporter, The Times
1987 Journalist, Investors Chronicle

NEIL BENNETT'S TURNING POINTS

What was your biggest career break?

Being appointed the City editor of the Sunday Telegraph at the age of 29 by the great Charles Moore. He gave me my final interview in full morning dress over a cup of Lapsang Souchong tea in his kitchen in Islington, as he was going to Ascot races. I ended up as business editor for longer than any other in the newspaper's history.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Maitland founder Angus Maitland.

He has that sadly all-too-rare ability to listen and when I was a journalist he would always be completely straight with me. If I had difficult or simple questions, his commitment to media service meant he would always call back and respond properly. Those things mattered hugely.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Four things: intelligence, judgement, a work ethic and general cheerfulness. I hate working with miserable people.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?

I am reminded of the quote from Jean Paul Getty. 'Formula for success: rise early, work hard, strike oil.'

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