What PRWeek wants to know is why was Downing Street press secretary Graeme Wilson huddled with The Sun’s former political editor George Pascoe-Watson in a tiny basement room at Portland’s central London HQ one chilly Thursday lunchtime last month?
"They used to work together at The Sun. They are old mates. There’s no more to it than that," explains Tim Allan, Portland’s founder and managing director.
It is nice that Wilson could find time to cross town for a bit of a natter and a catch-up with an old chum. In the middle of the day. In the run-up to an election. But, of course, when decoded, Allan’s apparently emollient denial sheds rather more light on his own modus operandi than it does to explain what was actually going on in that glass-walled cubicle.
First, the modest and self-effacing Allan has deftly shown that Portland employs high-calibre heavy hitters on its staff. Pascoe-Watson, Allan’s old colleague Alastair Campbell and Ed Perkins, former comms secretary to the Cambridge household, are just some of the marquee names on his top-heavy staff roster.
Second, by mentioning Wilson in passing he has casually demonstrated the supreme quality of Portland’s political connections (the subtext being that we don’t go to Downing Street, Downing Street comes to us). His answer to the question reveals his absolute discretion and the ability to speak volumes while apparently saying nothing. And vice versa, when he wants to.
It is a masterclass in the art of blowing your own trumpet without moving your lips. But it is nothing less than one would expect from a man who learned his craft from the sultans of spin, Messrs Blair, Mandelson and Campbell, while working for New Labour in the 1990s.
A growth spurt
PRWeek is visiting Portland’s offices in a quaint central London side street, allegedly known as ‘Bullshit Alley’ when Bell Pottinger occupied the building opposite, because whispers around town say something really quite extraordinary is happening at the agency.
According to former employees and industry observers, Portland, which has quietly shown double-digit growth every year since Allan founded it in 2001, has gone, well, bonkers. One source claims that the agency has gained as much as 70 per cent in fee income in the past 12 months alone.
Figures supplied for the PRWeek Top 150 UK PR Consultancies survey show that Portland had a fee income of around £12m in 2013. If industry chatter is true, that would give Portland fee income of £20m in 2014, transporting it from 21st to 13th in the standings. It would be bigger than Golin, Cohn & Wolfe and FleishmanHillard in Britain – and they are long-established international networks.
Another year like that and Portland would be top five, alongside Weber Shandwick and FTI – but significantly bigger than that other home-grown group, Finsbury. So what’s going on, Tim? Is it true that you put on 70 per cent last year? And how did you do it? Are you the new Alan Parker, or what?
Sadly, Allan cannot confirm or deny the growth figures. US-based Omnicom acquired a majority holding in Portland a couple of years ago and he would face the wrath of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act were he to divulge information. "We are not at liberty to talk numbers," he smiles. "But every year we’ve had double-digit growth, including throughout the recession."
Talking of Omnicom, presumably the fact that Portland’s explosive growth occurred straight after it became a shareholder is no coincidence? Allan flushes perceptibly and purses his lips. "We are still an independent, not part of a network. We have worked with Omnicom agencies and we are excited at the prospect of further collaboration," he says, with no excitement apparent.
On further questioning he cannot or will not name one piece of business it has won through its tie-up. On the other hand, at least one global brand says that it left Portland because of its tie-up with Omnicom. The conclusion has to be that Portland has grown despite its association with Omnicom. Not because of it.
Ok, so from which clients did the growth come? Again, discretion gets the better of Allan. "I don’t want to give names of clients, although PRWeek reported our work with the government of Qatar." And what exactly is that work? "All I can say is that Portland has been retained by the government of Qatar and we are proud to have the trust of the country to do this work."
He is happy, however, to talk about his success in more general terms. "As we’ve got bigger, we’ve got better. We’ve got a wider range of skills; more integration across communications has allowed us to offer more and more services to clients," he explains.
It is true Portland is adding services at a furious rate. There is the new place-branding consultancy – presumably built around new anchor client Qatar. "We want to add a financial communications practice, and an internal communications practice. But the development of a content and brand practice is really key," he explains. That is where the future lies, he adds, and it is the really big value-added service that PR firms can bring, he argues.
And no, since you ask, Allan is not unduly troubled by Qatar’s slightly dodgy reputation – particularly surrounding the 2022 FIFA World Cup. "What we do is highly ethical and first class. We turn down lots of clients with reputational needs. Qatar was not one of them," he says.
Another source, or at least sign, of growth has been Portland’s international expansion. The agency opened its first offshoot in New York in 2009. More recently it opened offices in Washington, Doha and Nairobi, tying in with a network of partner agencies across Africa. In addition, says Allan, "we have a man in Astana", the capital of Kazakhstan.
It is a slightly odd-sounding network that is over-represented in minor EMEA markets. But, according to a former employee, it makes perfect sense when you understand that Allan seems to be in the process of growing a relatively unexplored segment of the PR industry: the creation of comms institutions for developing states trying to cope with the digital world.
Governments are increasingly competing for inward and outward investment, runs the argument. In addition, many developing countries have expanding populations that increasingly get their news from social media. Governments in these countries need to communicate more effectively with their younger populations and the rest of the world but they lack the tools to do so. So Portland, with its impeccable political pedigree, is perfectly placed to help set up government comms services complete with speechwriting units, media monitoring, government information services and so on.
Such an offer plays well to Portland’s great strength: public affairs. It is political understanding, arising from Allan’s earlier career in politics, that gives Portland its edge. It is the foundation of the brand and probably the thing that distinguishes Portland from its rivals.
"When I founded Portland in 2001 I had a clear view that the market was very segmented between financial PR, consumer PR and public affairs," he says. "So I felt that an integrated comms company that had an understanding of political, business and shareholder communications and could integrate the disciplines would be a powerful proposition."
But it is not just Allan’s political contacts that inform his business; it is the political approach brought to the commercial arena. He calls it "contested communications".
"The past few years have shown that there is that real need to integrate communications and bring the experience of politics, where you have contested communications, and create a compelling narrative for lots of different audiences," he explains.
Allan is a poised man with a gentle presence who presents himself as a swan – all graceful progress with no hint of the furious paddling that presumably goes on beneath the surface. The way he tells it there was no grand plan in his career, no particular striving. Life just opened up effortlessly to proffer its bounty.
He got his first proper job after Cambridge when his old mate James Purnell (eventually secretary of state at the Department for Work and Pensions in 2008/9) called him to say his boss was looking for some help. He went along that day for a chat. Next day he was offered the job.
Purnell’s boss turned out to be an up-and-coming MP called Tony Blair. Allan stayed with Blair until 1998, by which time he had become Prime Minister and Allan, aged just 27, had assembled an astonishingly powerful network.
To give but one example: many people play football in their twenties. So did Allan. But his team was called ‘Demon Eyes’ and featured, among others, David Miliband and James Purnell as centre backs, Ed Balls and Allan in midfield, and Andy Burnham up front.
No, Blair didn’t play. But Allan does recall that he used to join in kickabouts at Labour birthday parties. He was a conviction footballer by all accounts. "Jonathan Powell once said that he plays football like he led the party. He just puts his head down and goes and sees how far he can get," says Allan.
In 1998, Allan left Blair to become director of comms at Sky, as one does in one’s mid-twenties. "Working with Peter, Alastair and Tony was fantastic. At 27 I thought I’ll never do anything so exciting and important again. It was an amazing journey and something I look back on with incredulity. I just happened to be there so I was given a huge amount of responsibility at a criminally young age," he says of his time with Labour.
At Sky he met up again with a former opposite number, David Cameron, who had been a special adviser for foreign secretary Michael Howard when Blair was shadow foreign secretary. By now Cameron was working for Carlton TV, which was launching its digital product at the same time as Sky. "He was super-confident, extremely clever," recalls Allan. "He had both a talent for language and understanding of numbers and had a charm and an easiness that was impressive. He’s good company. But he had something special. You could tell even then there was something inevitable about his rise."
Sky agreed to send Allan to do an MBA at INSEAD Business School. After that he returned to Sky and spent a few restless months in its strategy department: "So I had lunch with Tony Balls [then head of Sky], and we came up with the idea that I would leave with the external PR account, then with Bell Pottinger." Balls even agreed to pay six months of fees upfront, which covered all Allan’s overheads for the first year. Portland was born.
A gift for persuasion
Not many people could take a top job, persuade their employer to pay for their MBA, then immediately persuade that employer not only to let them leave but to finance their departure. Balls was a famously hard-headed man. One can only marvel at Allan’s powers of persuasion.
He says it was the prospect of having real responsibility for a P&L and having the freedom to work when he wanted to rather than being part of a big corporation that made him want to start on his own.
Looking back, there is no great mystery to Portland’s growth: "Our strategy has been simple. To differentiate on quality and on integration. If we carry on with both those we’ll find the best talent, a fantastic reputation, client list and senior team."
He feels the market has come to him in some ways: "The job of a CEO these days is not just to set the strategy but to narrate, and that involves good content and effective dissemination. Some is through media and you need advice about placement. Those skills haven’t disappeared. But you also need to engage with audiences that don’t like you."
For the future his ambition is not about size, he says, but quality: "Portland has been a financial success, and that’s good. It’s great that a lot of people have shared that. What motivates me is being able to create a great, sustainable company and the ability to be the best in the business."
Tim Allan biography
2012 Sells majority share of Portland to Omnicom
2001 Founder and managing director, Portland
1998 Director of corporate comms, BSkyB
1997 Deputy director of comms, 10 Downing Street
1994 Deputy press secretary to Tony Blair, leader of the Labour Party
1992 Researcher for Tony Blair, shadow home secretary
1970 Born in Tuscany, Italy