OBITUARY: A true PR professional and leader

James Maxwell, who died suddenly last week after a short illness, was one of the leaders of the UK PR industry throughout the 1990s. Stephen Farish looks back on his life and career.

A co-founder of Scope Communications, James led the firm to 27th place in the Top 150, with income of £2.7m in 1996, before merging it with Omnicom-owned Ketchum to create a substantially larger agency. James was an early advocate of the need to weave good communications into the fabric of business, rather than simply using the PR professional as a messenger boy or apologist. He coined the phrase 'communications management' to describe this view of PR.

He was also a believer in the need for consultancies to be better run as businesses, and he was proud of Scope's reputation as a model for how it can and should be done.

James began his career in the 1970s as a journalist working for, among others, Nigel Dempster's Mail diary, before joining Lord Chadlington (then Peter Gummer) at Shandwick in the early 1980s, where he marked himself out as ambitious and determined to run his own business. He left Shandwick to found Scope in 1983 with Alastair Gornall. The pairing of Gornall's energy with James's more measured style helped cement the firm's reputation as imaginative and professional, winning the PRWeek Best Small Consultancy award in 1987 and 1988.

With Gornall's departure in 1990 to found Consolidated Communications, Scope became more Maxwellian in character - fewer fireworks perhaps, but professional and consistent with an enviable client-retention record.

James developed a personal reputation as an incisive business strategist and adviser.

On this bedrock, Scope added blue-chip clients such as McDonald's and Carlsberg Tetley, and collected a clutch of awards along the way, most notably as PRWeek Agency of the Year in 1992.

To his credit, James avoided the common fault of agency founders - that of believing the agency can grow and prosper beyond a certain size (typically 30 staff) without bringing forward the next generation of management.

By nature, James cared about the people who worked for Scope and expended energy on developing the talent within the agency.

James was a man of deep conviction - spiritually and in business. He was loyal, and possessed reserves of determination that served him well in the challenges he faced in his professional and personal life. He believed that business can and should be conducted to the highest standards, and was incensed by examples of sharp practice in the PR business.

He was modest about achievements and niggled at any perceived shortcomings.

For example, he often alighted on a comment in an otherwise flattering profile of Scope, which described the agency as lacking creative sparkle.

James recognised this flaw in Scope's culture and enlisted design guru and writer Stephen Bayley to polish the agency's credentials.

Having grown Scope to the upper middle tier of UK PR firms, James realised that, to reach the next level, the agency would need to acquire an international capability.

There was no shortage of suitors, but in Ketchum he found a like-minded culture with which he felt his agency could merge. The deal with Ominicom, brokered by his friend Anthony Wreford, went through in late 1996, and James remained with the merged company for 5 more years - first in a UK role then as European CEO.

It was then that his wife Jo was diagnosed with cervical cancer, eventually dying in 1999 after a fight against the disease. During this period, James took a sabbatical to nurse his wife and look after his children. In researching the disease, he was appalled to discover how little support was available to sufferers of 'unfashionable' cancers. After Jo's death he threw himself into establishing a charity - Jo's Trust - and a website to advance knowledge of the disease (www.jotrust.co.uk).

He left Ketchum in 2001, intent onconcentrating on the charity, and finding new projects of his own. He became an adviser to Tulchan Communications and, to his delight as a cricket lover, was invited onto the MCC marketing committee.

By a strange turn of fate, his last client was also his first employer - Haymarket Publishing Group (the publishers of PRWeek), for whom he worked in the 1970s. In early 2003 he conducted a communications audit for the group, with his customary skill.

He leaves an important legacy. At a time when PR is routinely disparaged as frivolous, evasive or dishonest, James proved that good PR is the opposite of these things. While others built larger firms, won more awards or created a higher personal profile, his career is a powerful reminder that true success in both public relations and in business generally is most effectively built on the foundations of integrity, decency and honour, all of which James had in spades.

FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES PAY TRIBUTE

From: Everyone at Ketchum

James was the classic entrepreneur. Ambitious, excited about every new opportunity, driven to grow. He was a visionary. And by his own example, he inspired teamwork. He became known at Ketchum for his intellect and his dry sense of humour. Yes, he was brilliant in the boardroom, but he was also the first to laugh at himself or to play a practical joke. We will miss him and we will remember him.

From: Lord Chadlington

Chief executive, Huntsworth Group

Early in his career, James joined us at Shandwick. We had started a fast-track programme for young managers and chose him as a candidate. He considered it, then declined, saying he would have to stay with us and what he wanted was to start his own business. His entrepreneurial drive was unquenchable.

From: Andrew Grant

Founder, Tulchan Communications

Two years ago, Jamie became our first non-exec director and, throughout, was a source of advice, support and astute observation. He brought experience of building a successful consultancy and knowledge of the traps to avoid. His Scottish instincts were a welcome contrast to our cavalier attitude to budgeting, but he was always generous with his praise.

From: Eugene Bacot

Managing director, Oakes Bacot

Whatever mark James might have made on the PR industry is less important than his qualities as a man: intelligence, wit and good humour; courage, grit and altruism, too. There aren't many people of whom it can be said that they did more good than harm, but I think that tribute can be made to James. He generated optimism. His actions with regard to Jo's Trust and his family reveal the essence. I last saw him four weeks ago, when we laughed and reminisced about his days as a tyro reporter, with me as his editor, and we resolved to lunch again. Alas, we shan't now.

From: Alastair Gornall

Co-founder, Scope Communications

I was James's partner for eight years at Scope Communications, and I will always remember him as the most passionate corporate communications person I met in my whole career. He loved dealing with a major media crisis, but was also a fantastic dancer. There was nobody who could outshine Jamie in his John Travolta impression. After a glass or two of wine, he was very liable to go berserk on the wine list. He was a great partner and we had a lot of fun together. Many people will miss him enormously.

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