But Guilford insists he is not a typical public affairs high-flyer. ‘This is as smart as I’ll ever look,’ he says, dressed in brown brogues and suit. ‘I don’t fit the stereotype of the super-well-dressed lobbyist. In fact, I actually think that Brussels is quite an informal place. Everything is informal, from the dress sense to the demeanour to the interpersonal relationships.’
Guilford, 46, has spent 20 years in Brussels, beginning with a three-year stint covering EU affairs for The Times. He went on to hold a series of posts at the European Commission, including spokesman for the then European Commissioner for Competition Sir Leon Brittan (‘a very good person to work for – fabulously intelligent, bold, decisive. I got a lot of profile and was able to give him a lot of profile’).
He is also a former negotiator and spokesman to the previous Commission president, and now Italian prime minister, Romano Prodi.
EU Commission deputy spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde-Hansen, who worked with Guilford in Prodi’s press team, says: ‘He is a straight talker and gets things done very quickly.’
But there is also a playful side to Guilford, who lives with his wife and three young sons. He reveals that a Russian army hat spotted hanging in GPlus’s cloakroom was a joke he bought for a colleague who could not make the G8 summit in St Petersburg.
Unsurprisingly, Guilford’s EU contacts are impressive, and during a brief photoshoot outside the Commission he is greeted by several important-looking passers-by. However, he is keen to stress that GPlus’s success does not hinge on such connections.
‘Contrary to popular opinion, business here is not about address books. It does help to know people, but what is key is the insight gained from having worked with these people. He adds: ‘The EU operates under a system you cannot predict unless you’ve had experience from the inside. It is unstructured, it is half-built – its ideology and the perimeters of government haven’t been decided.’
In December 2000, Guilford judged himself and former BBC journalist Nigel Gardner uniquely positioned to guide clients through this ‘unstructured’ system. With some backing from Luther Pendragon (founding partner Charles
Stewart-Smith is an old schoolfriend of Guilford’s) the pair set up GPlus. Rapid growth and an eventual sale were part of the plan from the outset, and Omnicom paid around £8m for the agency last year.
Guilford describes GPlus as the consultancy for organisations with ‘a real problem in Brussels affecting their reputation’. One such client was the Kremlin, which famously hired the agency as part of a Ketchum-led team during last year’s G8 presidency, and Guilford adds that GPlus was asked ‘to cover Russia’s G8 priorities – energy security, education and infectious diseases’. He says: ‘In reality, the broader view of that brief was everything to do with Russia’s integration into the broader world economy.’ GPlus received some flak for handling the account, but Guilford justifies his dealings with president Vladamir Putin. ‘Russia is not perfect,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t have a perfect democracy, it doesn’t have perfect human rights, but it has come a hell of a long way in the past 15 years.’
He argues that people forget how the country went through ‘utter turmoil’ under former president Boris Yeltsin. ‘Now there is a commitment to liberal economics, human rights and democracy. They’re not always perfect, they’re not always kept to, but the direction is right.’
The GPlus founder’s straightforward demeanour, insider knowledge and impressive contacts are a potent combination.
Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the Russia account, it is easy to see why Putin judged Guilford to be a safe pair of hands.
CV - Peter Guilford
Senior partner, GPlus Europe
Founding director, GPlus Europe
Senior media adviser to EU Commission president Romano Prodi
Trade negotiator, EU Commission
Trade spokesman, EU Commission
Competition spokesman, EU Commission
Brussels correspondent, The Times