PROFILE: Charlie Hoult, CEO, Loewy

Wanted: 30 plus. Good chemistry. Willing to collaborate. Star quality. This is not a personal ad for Charlie Hoult, but if it was, it would be quite accurate.

Hoult: The next Martin Sorrell?
Hoult: The next Martin Sorrell?

Instead, this is a list of qualities that Hoult is looking for when buying a PR agency, something he will be doing more of in the near future. Having just completed the takeover of Mantra PR, the 40-year-old is now CEO of a company with 360 staff and nine businesses, also including BMA Communications and Rainier PR. With an agency shopping list, a clear plan and a recent £12m injection of cash from a venture capitalist, he is at the start of building his empire, and is very much on the prowl.

But sitting in his rather empty office in Pimlico, drinking tea and sharing his chocolate, we are surrounded by paper, an archaic toaster and his cycling shorts. ‘This isn’t very corporate or swashbuckling is it?’ he muses. ‘I should have an office that people occasionally quake in, or a box of tissues for when I make them cry.’

His vision is to create a group of specialists who work together on integrated campaigns, and his enthusiasm is apparent as he fervently explains the model, sketching out charts and diagrams.

The vision seems sound. He denies any suggestions that agencies will be forced to alter their strategies, or suffer from any brutal cost-cutting exercises. ‘When people hear the word “merger”, they immediately think, “I’m going to get sacked”. That’s not the case. If you’ve spent years building up a business, you want to reward loyalty.’

Instead, he feels it is empowering for agencies to work out solutions together. Staff are given shares in the group as an incentive. ‘I want to see where it goes, not force it,’ he argues. ‘We’re not one big blancmange. This is about a shared destiny. A hot-shot of agencies flying in formation. A flotilla of yachts, not a supertanker.’ His time at Manchester University studying poetry was not wasted.

Hoult was initially set on being a journalist and freelanced for the Evening Standard’s gossip column, The Londoner. But after becoming disillusioned with deadlines and ‘150-word slugs’, he was lured to PR by the promise of better pay, foreign travel and more camaraderie. He worked for GCI, Write Image (now Metia) and Text 100, but ever the entrepreneur, he set up tech specialist Wilson Harvey in 1994 with a friend.

Building trust
While at Wilson Harvey he helped run the UK version of First Tuesday, the networking event which was influential in the dotcom era. Founder Julie Meyer, now CEO of Ariadne Capital, says: ‘He comes from an entrepreneurial family and is creative, engaging and funny. He’s also a trust-builder, and that’s an important quality when building up a business.’

Hoult merged his agency into Loewy, becoming CEO in 2004, after securing a loan from Channel 4’s chairman Luke Johnson. ‘The Loewy Group is becoming a serious player,’ says Johnson. ‘Charlie’s focus on PR is the right one, as it offers a more stable earning stream than some of the other marketing services.

‘Charlie sees himself as a people-person. He has worked hard to build up morale and enjoys a joke and fancy dress,’ he adds.

Hoult is a persuasive advocate of the benefits of merging, arguing for the safety of having a shared portfolio and the advantage of ‘cross-pollination’ between disciplines. He leans in, eyes twinkling: ‘It’s like having three boyfriends. One might be nice, one’s a twat and the other might be OK. I have three PR businesses, so if one is doing well it can compensate if one isn’t.’

The corollary of this is with no single business worth more than four per cent of Loewy’s business, it is also easy to dump them.

Hands-off approach
But sources within agencies already bought by Hoult indicate that their new boss adopts a trusting management style. As long as his agencies deliver on their targets he doesn’t feel the need to meddle simply to impose control.

Management style aside, it is unlikely he’d have to time to become over-involved in the day-to-day workings of his new acquisitions. Married to a dermatologist and living in a six-bedroom house in Buckinghamshire, which he says is more like a ‘Footballers Wives’ town in Slough’, Hoult has four boys under five years old.

He is also searching for additions to his work family. Hoult is keen to expand into the financial, energy, automotive, pharmaceutical and international PR sectors (particularly the US).

He has a well-defined offer for agencies, multiplying their pre-tax profit by five or six times to value the business. Agency owners receive 60 per cent of the payment up front and a further 40 per cent in shares. If the agency grows by more than 20 per cent, there is potential to increase the payout.

In return, Hoult insists on an agency making a £1m profit, something he calculates is reasonable on the kind of 30-employee business he is targeting. ‘We’re looking for people with a similar mentality, who are mid-career and want to be part of something’, he says. ‘We won’t buy from owners who want to take the money and run.’

His long-term intention is to have all his agencies working together in an integrated fashion, putting Hoult in an ideal place to capitalise on clients’ desires for integrated thinking.

Does he want to be the next Martin Sorrell? ‘Yeah,’ he laughs, brown eyes glinting, ‘Why not?’

TURNING POINTS

What was your biggest career break? My ambitions in journalism stalled in the recession of 1992 with hiring freezes across editorial staff. I applied to over 40 Media Guardian small ads and got one offer: Text 100 (thank you, Rita Broe). It was a fabulous grounding in business and in PR.

What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder? Start 30 minutes early at least twice a week. Do something to make yourself indispensable to the team, however small it might seem. Make lists. Always call the person you most fear first. Always take notes because it shows respect and attentiveness. Write thank-you letters.

Who was your most notable mentor? Paul Burgess, my original business partner, and now creative director at Loewy. He showed me how PR could work with design – not just the picture that sells a thousand words, but how a graphic language can enhance a message. Do, however, avoid his flaming Drambuies!

What characteristic do you prize in new recruits? Proven passion for ‘stuff’ outside work. A CV with a hockey regular or an out-of-hours yoga teacher, a charity trustee or an orchestra regular… This demonstrates an engagement with real people and real discipline. Therein lie the committed team players.

1991
Graduate trainee, IPC

1992
Account executive, Text 100

1993
Co-founder, Wilson Harvey

1995
Co-founder, Wilson Harvey

2004
CEO, Loewy Group

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