Profile: Nicholas Walters, Manning Selvage & Lee

The Manning Selvage & Lee MD is armed with an aggressive game plan

Fresh from playing a leading role in bolstering PR standards in Asia, seasoned corporate communications chief Nicholas Walters is now eyeing up the UK industry.

Chief executives should take note. A zealous advocate of raising industry credibility, Walters sat on the consultancy standards committee of the UK's PRCA before helping to found regional equivalent in Asia, the Council of PR Firms of Hong Kong.

His first taste of corporate PR was in 1981 as a graduate trainee for GEC UK in Marconi Space and Defence Systems. Despite the trainee scheme supposedly being rotational, Walters persuaded his bosses to let him stay within the company's press wing for the entire two years and ended up acting as a media aide to chairman General Sir Harry Tuzo.

Having fallen in love with corporate reputation work, Walters joined Good Relations in 1983 and steadily worked his way up from account manager to director.

That led to two years as director of consultancy McAvoy Bayley, which was subsequently bought by GCI, at which Walters rose to the position of deputy managing director and European client services head for GCI London. In 2000, Walters took on his Asian Brief.

Despite setting up GCI's Hong Kong/China office 'from scratch', Walters' brief as executive officer and GCI Group chairman of Asia Pacific was scuppered by the general downturn and 9/11. The agency scrapped its Asian expansion programme in a move that triggered Walters' redundancy and return to the UK. After some consultancy work, Walters has now landed the role of Manning, Selvage & Lee MD, vacated when incumbent Anne Morevick returned to the firm's New York headquarters.

With an almost whisper-like voice the 45-year-old, who now leads a team of 70 staff, outlines an aggressive game plan. He says MS&L's current emphasis, which is drawing up and executing large scale integrated programmes for a healthcare and consumer dominated client roster, is to widen: 'We are not big enough in the UK. We will be looking to grow in this market.

I think there is an ignorance about what we do here.'

With 60 per cent of its business regional and global, Walters is preparing the ground for a drive into UK-specific corporate comms work.

Long-term friend and colleague, GCI UK chief executive Adrian Wheeler goes so far as to predict that Walters will play a crucial role in getting not just MS&L, but the wider UK industry 'up where it belongs'.

In his break from work since leaving GCI, Walters has examined the UK market and notes a shift to'realism' since he left the UK at the back end of the dotcom boom three years ago: 'When I left quality and sanity were parked in the bottom draw in the chase for growth and higher fees,' he says. 'Now it is a much more realistic and sane market.'

Walters had only been at MS&L a day when on 3 January he ordered a business-wide review - handled by himself and a group of senior staff - which is expected to lead to a fresh three-year business plan.

And he is certainly not one to shirk a challenge. During the 1980s, in the midst of the Thatcher government's coal pit closures, Walters contested a Labour stronghold constituency seat in Wales as a Tory.

He may harbour pent up energy to cause a stir in the UK if his experiences running GCI Hong Kong office are anything to go by. He believes there is a lack of autonomy given in general to Asian offices from US and European headquartered agencies, which can be 'frustrating'.

He says: 'Very often you are told what to do and say. Headquarters (decision making) may not be as sensitive as it could be.'

Most of Walters' weekends are now spent by the side of a rugby or football pitch following his sports mad 11 and nine-year-old sons. A Chelsea fan, he even manages to catch a game or two in between 'huge' walks on the Salisbury plains near his Wiltshire cottage.

ITN news reader and media trainer Andrew Harvey, who has worked with Walters on client training for media interviews, says Walters does not stand out as a typical PR man: 'He is laid back and quiet. But he knows his clients' business and ensures they get the right message across.'

As the vibrant memories of an ex-pat's life in Hong Kong fade and Walters settles into life at the hub of agency decision-making, his colleagues will be hoping he can breath fresh energy into the UK corporate PR scene.


1996: Deputy MD & European client services director, GCI London

1998: Managing director, GCI London

2000: CEO, GCI Hong Kong/China Chairman, GCI Group Asia Pacific

2003: Managing director, Manning Selvage & Lee

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