Edelman, Bell Pottinger, MHP: Intriguing times in agency land amid boardroom shake-ups

The coming of autumn has heralded a flurry of senior people moves in PR agency land, bringing some complex challenges for some of the UK's biggest consultancies.

All change: Lord Bell (left) and Alex Bigg have lined up new roles
All change: Lord Bell (left) and Alex Bigg have lined up new roles

Let’s start with Bell Pottinger, which lost one of the industry’s ‘big beasts’ last week after chairman Lord Bell quit the firm he founded 30 years ago to form a new PR business called Sans Frontières.

Bell has chosen the same name as the arm of Bell Pottinger that handled sometimes controversial geo-political work with foreign governments accused of human rights abuses. Will the new venture have a similar global client focus?

Speaking to PRWeek, Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson was not drawn into the details of Bell’s client plans, saying simply he "will start afresh and get new clients" and "continue to do some of the work he’s legendary for".

Could it mark a break with the past as Bell Pottinger focuses on more ‘mainstream’ work? Is this the post-Bell "new dawn" to which Henderson has referred?

Time will tell, but in the meantime the agency has also lost an experienced pair of hands in Gavin Davis, MD of its corporate and financial division, who is stepping down for a new senior corporate comms position at Sky.

Bell Pottinger will be eager to find someone of a similar calibre as Davis, a veteran of 10 years at the business under its different guises, particularly as the group targets growth through acquisitions following Bell’s departure.

Meanwhile, Alex Bigg, general manager at Edelman’s London office, is jumping ship to become CEO of MHP, succeeding Gavin Devine who joined Porta Communications as COO in July.

Like Davis, Bigg is an experienced agency player, effectively the right hand man of UK CEO Ed Williams who has helped oversee impressive growth at the UK’s biggest PR shop in recent years – Edelman UK added an extra £5m in revenue last year after topping £50m in 2014.

Bigg, who has worked at Edelman for 15 years, has led the UK corporate and public affairs business for three years and is credited by the agency for being integral to the integration of Smithfield – its financial PR shop acquired last year – and for overseeing the team in Ireland. Forgive the pun, but these are big shoes to fill.

MHP challenges

Bigg joins MHP at an intriguing time for that agency. Last year the Engine-owned business reported an improved but flat performance after a difficult 2014 that saw the loss of some lucrative project work combined with the closure of its Brussels and Edinburgh offices.

The departure of Devine and financial services chief Jamie Brookes, who recently joined RBS spin-off bank Williams & Glyn, also present challenges. But there’s some reason to be upbeat, given the recent relaunch of the agency’s stellar Missing Type campaign enhancing its reputation, plus some decent account wins from the likes of TalkTalk and lending group Together.

Elsewhere, other agencies facing significant personnel changes include Freuds, with the departure of chief creative officer Seb Royce after a year, and FleishmanHillard Fishburn, which has hired Kev O’Sullivan as creative director (another Bell Pottinger departure).

On a global level, there will be much interest in Omnicom PR Group’s new structure after London-based Ketchum Europe CEO David Gallagher was given the new position of international president for growth and development.

Ditto Golin, with its new ‘triple CEO’ structure that will see Jon Hughes, Matt Neale, and Gary Rudnick given enhanced CEO roles after Fred Cook steps down at the end of the year.

It bodes well for an interesting few months ahead in agency world, and who would bet against another shock departure, appointment or shake-up before the leaves go brown?

John Harrington is deputy editor of PRWeek

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