Profile: Brian Gunson, Munro & Forster Communications

Brian Gunson has growth plans for Munro & Forster after the recent MBO

It is ten minutes into the interview and Brian Gunson has so far covered Impressionist painting, river traffic on the Seine, the origin of the Russian word for 'railway station' and the trouble with stress.

There has not been a word yet about the MBO - which he led - of Munro & Forster Communications, the agency of which he is now chairman. Nor is there much chance for the next few minutes because he is talking about blood pressure.

This seems pretty much par for the course. Mike Stone, CEO of the Patients Association (of which Gunson is acting chairman), explains: 'The best way of describing it is that he's a fountain of enthusiasm that keeps on going.'

Gunson is talking about blood pressure because he currently monitors his own, using technology developed by Adidas, as part of a health-check process. So, has the MBO been stressful? 'The bottom line is yes,' he says honestly. It must be said that he looks pretty fit, however.

Gunson started working life as a biochemist and has moved through sales and promotion into PR, including over a decade now at M&F. He hopes this experience - and that of the team to which he constantly refers - will help drive the agency's growth plans and see turnover doubling to more than £10 m by 2007.

Founder Alison Munro is retiring, and Gunson has bought the majority share of the business she started in 1984. Today, M&F has an ethical client list including top name pharma groups such as AstraZeneca and Schering-Plough, but under Munro the agency was built on brands like Body Shop, Tie Rack, Oasis and Hugo Boss. There is little evidence of these overt lifestyle clients on the company's books now, but Gunson insists it is wrong to see M&F as a healthcare shop. 'People tend to pigeonhole healthcare as far-end pharmaceutical,' he says.

But a snapshot of the agency's work also reveals Brita Water Filters and William Levene (home of Ken Hom woks), as well as programmes for Community Care magazine and the British Liver Trust. So would it be fairer to call M&F a health specialist with a consumer focus? 'Maybe, but that definition is completely out of date,' Gunson says politely.

M&F clearly counts its issues and campaigns portfolio with the Department of Health, for example, as consumer work in the broadest sense. Here it works on childhood immunisation, drugs, social care and the 'five-a-day' fruit and veg scheme for schoolkids.

Before we get too hung up on definitions, Gunson asks MD Julie Flexen, who has led the consumer practice for nine years, to talk about what the agency's aspirations on the consumer front are now. 'We want to be marketing consumer brands positioning themselves in health or wellbeing areas, from skincare right through to food,' Flexen, who has an FMCG background with Biss Lancaster, explains. M&F's consumer health work already encompasses smoking cessation with GlaxoSmithKline, plus cold remedies Benylin and Sudafed, along with oral care and women's health with Pfizer.

One thing is apparent: any definition of 'consumer' work in M&F's future no longer has a place for high-street fashion and digital gadgetry, the standbys of two decades ago. 'In the next five years there will be consumer work related to health, diet and nutrition,' Gunson continues. 'The demographic shift in the population is towards the elderly, so on the wellbeing front we can talk about social care.'

There will be more campaigns, some continuing an anti-smoking, pro-fruit theme, another perhaps addressing obesity in children. The company has also been working behind the scenes around the Office of Fair Trading's look into the deregulation of high street pharmaceuticals. 'We are into health across the continuum,' Gunson says. 'I see PR as being about campaigning, rather than just being a tool in the mix.

Our ability is in understanding very specific consumer needs, not just in white, middle-class England, but across the whole spectrum.'

Gunson says the company will also be launching a couple of new services: 'The sea change in the last couple of years is that clients are getting us in to help them in a strategic capacity, enabling us to develop programmes behind that.'

For now, he is concentrating on life post-MBO. 'We need to make sure the organisation is fit for the next expansion,' he says. 'We want to continue to be independent, to control our destiny and do bloody good work.' Gunson pauses, looking around the functional, rather bare walls of the conference room. 'The only changes might be one or two more plants and pictures,' he muses.


1984: Promotions manager, Haymarket Publications

1985: Account manager, Kingsway

1994: Joint MD, Munro & Forster Communications

2003: Chairman, Munro & Forster Communications

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