This fact is further highlighted by the extensive post-interview emails which detail all the things she did not get to say during our one-hour talk.
When PRWeek meets ‘TA’, as her colleagues have labelled her, she is sitting in the agency’s roomy Holborn headquarters a few weeks into her role. She covers a variety of subjects in an engaging Glaswegian accent, which has remained undimmed by a gradual move southwards.
‘My husband lived down here when we first met,’ reveals Dunleavy. ‘I moved to the North, then the Midlands and then London. See, I compromise.’
Yet Dunleavy does not have a reputation for compromise. Despite being a lively and energetic personality (and a former National League Volleyball player), she is known, if required, to let loose on poor performers. It may be a Scottish thing, but she does not seem someone with whom you would want to argue. ‘I’ve never shied away from telling someone if they are not up to scratch,’ she admits. ‘We talk about it and then move on. But I have been called a ball-breaker in the past.’
Perfect, then, for Good Relations. Having been around for 46 years, the agency is one of the oldest brands on the UK PR scene. In its day, it was a PR standard-bearer, but it has seen quite a bit of staff churn recently. The week before Dunleavy joined, the MD of the agency’s property and planning operation, Paul Demoldenberg, announced he was arranging an MBO of the division, taking with him six staffers.
Shortly afterwards the agency suffered the departure of more senior staffers, including lobbyist James O’Keefe, who left to form an agency with former News of the World editor Phil Hall last week.
As a result, the wolves are sniffing at the door. PRWeek has been inundated with calls from various ‘insiders’, suggesting the agency was about to be read its last rites.
Long-term MD Ann Fossey, who moved to chairman when Dunleavy joined in May, confessed the agency needed to start getting a different message out, and insisted Good Relations was in rude health.
Dunleavy diplomatically concedes it has been a difficult time: ‘It is fair to say there were a few immediate challenges I needed to get to grips with quickly.’ On her first day she helped some planning and property staffers pack up their belongings, which was, she says, ‘surreal’. But she insists the division was ‘a very niche part of the business and not central to our core strategy’.
Owner Chime is investing to rebuild the strength of the agency, beginning with Dunleavy’s appointment. So her brief is to reinvigorate the Good Relations brand and let people know that, far from winding up, it has the full weight of Lord Bell’s company behind it. ‘Good Relations is a cracking brand that has lost its way a bit,’ argues Dunleavy. ‘It has a lot of history and a lot of talent, but needs a bit more direction.’
She adds: ‘I want Good Relations to be known as the agency that really “gets” relationships in the modern world. There is so much fragmentation; it makes good relationships more important than ever.’
The statement may sound contrived, but Dunleavy means what she says. And there is a job to do – former staff also attest to the agency having lacked identity and falling behind other Bell Pottinger brands.
There was competition between the different practices within the agency itself, which Dunleavy felt was unhealthy and did not fit in with Bell Pottinger’s ‘collective’ notion. So, in her first week, she removed each practice’s individual profit responsibility. This has centralised control, while also serving to encourage more collaboration between staffers in the public affairs, corporate and consumer divisions.
Former colleagues variously describe Dunleavy as ‘incredibly hard-working, but always smiling’, ‘driven’ and ‘someone you would want to work for’. It is generally accepted that she has high standards and expects everyone who works for her to live up to them.
‘One thing I will say is that standards are important to TA,’ reveals Ian Barber, head of PR, Barclaycard, who has worked with Dunleavy at PN. ‘The client knows what they are getting and she makes it very clear what is expected of you.’
He implies a pernicketiness akin to the character Monica from the American TV sitcom Friends. ‘It could be frustrating for the team around her,’ Barber says. ‘But high standards are reassuring to the client.’
And she is not afraid to push her point of view. At Porter Novelli, she had to fight to convince her board director colleagues that it would be worth the agency pitching for the British Airways media relations business. She won the argument, and PN subsequently won the 12-way pitch.
‘I think we battered [then BA comms chief] Iain Burns into submission,’ says Dunleavy. ‘Enthusiasm helps.’
After ten years at PN (‘hitting that figure was a wake-up call’), 43-year-old Dunleavy took a year-long career break. She spent more time with her two children and ‘had a pie ready in the oven’ when her husband got home from work.
Over that time, she was being courted by Lord Bell and Bell Pottinger Group chairman Kevin Murray, before they eventually offered her the opportunity she was looking for.
‘If figures were reported separately, we’d be a top 50 agency – just,’ reveals Dunleavy, referring to the PRWeek annual Top 150 table. ‘The ambition is to get inside the top 30 by the end of 2008.’
What was your biggest career break? Probably a (very public) fax that came into Porter Novelli shortly after I’d joined in a mid-ranking role. I had been involved in a pitch to the DTI that week and they wrote to say we would be appointed ‘on condition of the ongoing involvement of consultant TA Dunleavy’. It’s fair to say that it put me on management’s radar. I miss faxes.
What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder? For anyone working in an agency, it would have to be ‘put the money on the table’ – nothing talks louder. People who do great PR without an eye on the agency’s commercial success are missing the point.
Who was your most notable mentor? I have never pursued the formal mentor route but always valued [ex-Porter Novelli board colleague] Sally Williams’ advice – and she was generous with her time in giving it. I greatly admire Sally’s ability to stay focused on the end goal and always rise above the crap.
What characteristics do you prize in new recruits? Passion, business savviness, commitment to client service delivery, flexibility in every sense, a ‘work hard, play hard’ mindset, someone who is straight (ie, non-political).
CEO, Good Relations
UK board director, business management, Porter Novelli (PN)
UK board director, PN
Deputy MD, PN
UK director, PN
Senior consultant, PN
Account director, PRA Communications
PR manager, Defence Systems Operations, Vickers plc