'People might think granddad is really pulling the strings' - Nexus on keeping PR in the family

Family businesses often struggle with the transition of leadership, but what about skipping a generation? PR firm Nexus has made the leap.

A family affair: Nexus MD Harvey Choat with chairman – and grandfather – Jonathan
A family affair: Nexus MD Harvey Choat with chairman – and grandfather – Jonathan

In June 2018, Harvey Choat, 32, took the lead at Nexus – a step up from his previous roles as a director. It was nerve-wracking at first, but not for the reasons you might think.

Compounding the pressure was the fact that he was appointed by his grandfather, Jonathan, who founded the firm in 1979 and is now its chairman.

"We have quite a big family and there are older members who you could argue are equally qualified to take on the business. It was humbling to be asked," says Harvey. "Although my background aligns more than the others, they are a bit older; but I don’t believe anyone else was interested."

Jonathan, 80, had been keen to bring his grandson into the agency, and they’ve always been close. 

"When the opportunity came, after the last MD, Frankie Oliver, decided to leave, I phoned Harvey," he says. "I knew he could do it because I’ve been closely following his career. It was just a matter of the opportunity being open and right. It wouldn’t have worked if he had decided to join under the previous MD, because she wouldn’t have liked it."

The other hurdle Harvey had to overcome was how his appointment might be perceived.

Perception gap

"It was a funny first couple of months, because you have this feeling of nepotism within yourself. You sit in rooms and, while you don’t try to overcompensate, you certainly are conscious that you don’t want people to think: ‘This guy’s just here because he’s a grandson,’" Harvey says.

"I had to demonstrate that I was capable of doing things such as making the cultural changes that needed to be made, and had the independence and authority to do so. There’s that puppet thing as well. People might think granddad is really pulling the strings, but he has been fantastic in the sense that he has let me get on with it."

Jonathan founded the agency 40 years ago as Cameron Choat and Partners. 

"I drifted into PR sort of as a mistake. I had worked as a marketing director and knew that I wanted to create a PR agency that provided much more marketing-oriented PR," he recalls.

"At the time PR tended to be rather mysterious – people in back rooms, often former journalists who had secret conversations and manipulated public opinion, supposedly. But our agency was much more marketing-structured, so you came up with strategies for a client that consider their whole identity, reputation and image."

The agency evolved to become Nexus Communications in the 1990s, and developed a reputation for food and drink PR.

The biggest change Jonathan has observed in PR and comms over the past 40 years has come from digital media – and he is of the view that most PR firms, including his own, were far too slow to adapt to the digital revolution.

Another change has been the proliferation of specialist communications agencies.

"It’s become much more specialised. What I used to do was a very broad scope of public relations. We would do trade, consumer, corporate, sponsorship, internal relations and so on," he explains.

"You understood the client; you knew them very well. Then it became much more distinct – clients would get corporate agencies, financial agencies, people who specialised. The number of agencies grew massively… We were Top 50 back then and there were only about 100 agencies. Now you get smothered – there are thousands."

Since joining Nexus in 2018, Harvey and his leadership team have evolved the agency proposition from traditional media relations to a ‘creative earned-media’ one that uses earned social, branded media and influencer strategies.

"We think that drives deeper emotional connections with consumers," Harvey says. "If you look at engagement on platforms like Instagram in terms of paid-for boosted content, engagement is dipping, and has been for… three months because it’s so saturated with stuff that doesn’t mean anything. It’s advertising – telling cust-omers – rather than enabling them to have a conversation. 

"That is the first attitudinal change that I wanted to bring in – how to earn brand reputation with consumers.

"We also now have super-clear values that are much more oriented around behaviours and attitudes, which is how we measure people," he says. "It’s for them to relate to values, and this has allowed our team to deliver the ‘earn it’ proposition."

Clarity and ambition

The agency, which is based in Kensington, West London, has about 20 staff, and there are plans to double in size over the next two years.

Nexus has won nine out of the 10 pitches it was involved in over the past year, including winning comms for the Wadworth Brewery, plant-based food brand Meatless Farm Co, and Sherry Wines of Jerez, but its focus is as much on growing its work with existing clients as adding new ones.

The agency also has plans to build an in-house production team.

Jonathan plans to remain involved for "as long as I can consider myself worthwhile of being chairman of the company – otherwise, I’ll get out". 

For the time being, Harvey quite enjoys having his grandad around at the agency. 

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