Back in his twenties, Tim Allan used to advise Tony Blair on his media appearances. Now, ten years after leaving Downing Street, Allan is the boss of one of the UK’s hottest PR consultancies and it is his turn to take the limelight. ‘I had a late one last night,’ he tells PRWeek’s snapper, a mischievous glint in his eye. ‘So if you can Photoshop around the eyes that would be great.’
After years of maintaining a low profile, Allan is stepping out of the shadows. His agency is rapidly expanding, both at home and internationally, and he is keen to talk.
This year, Portland made its debut in PRWeek’s Top 150 PR Consultancies, charting at number 53. In recent years, various new divisions – planning, international affairs, public sector – have been set up, while offices are planned for Nairobi and New York.
Allan himself will be heading over to the US this summer to get the New York office off the ground. ‘Portland has changed considerably in the past few years,’ he says earnestly. ‘We’ve moved to a different level.’
Allan set up Portland in 2001, having spent three years at BSkyB after four years as Alastair Campbell’s deputy in the 1990s. Lobby journalists around at the time testify that the cool-headed Allan was always cut from a different cloth to that of his robust boss. ‘He wasn’t a ranter like Campbell; he would try to schmooze you into submission rather than bully you,’ says one.
Allan, now 39, admits life is not quite as hectic as it was during those heady days at Downing Street. He is less likely to race in to the office at 6am – especially since the advent of the BlackBerry. ‘These days, with technology, we work at all different times of the day,’ he says. ‘I’m not generally the first person in the office… I have two young children and I like to take them to school when I can.’
Nevertheless, Allan remains close to his former Downing Street colleagues, many of whom are now in the cabinet. In particular, work and pensions secretary James Purnell was best man at his wedding and remains his closest friend.
Many senior journalists also know him well. The Sun’s George Pascoe-Watson, a regular golfing chum, says: ‘He used to fire-fight in Downing Street and knows the players – he totally understands the system. He also gets newspapers and TV and the way in which journalists work on stories. He likes journalists. That’s a big plus.’
So what does Allan make of former Downing Street spin doctor Damian
McBride’s now infamous emails setting out plans to smear senior Tories? Allan is scathing: ‘If you spend your time gossiping with journalists then there are these sort of silly ideas that go around, but smeargate was on a totally different scale. I think seasoned operators were quite shocked that someone would suggest inventing rumours.
‘It was just wrong on so many different levels – it’s the type of thing that smacks of pre-student politics,’ he adds. ‘Quite apart from the stupidity of sending it from a Downing Street email, the whole strategy was nonsensical.’
As Labour continues to feel the effect of negative stories such as ‘smeargate’, the Conservatives appear to be marching steadily to power. With a change of government on the cards, some believe public affairs agencies with strong Labour credentials will need to adapt to the changing circumstances in Westminster – or lose out.
With his Blairite origins, some wonder if Allan will suffer. Others note Allan also has plenty of high-powered Tory friends – including Google’s global comms chief Rachel Whetstone and her partner Steve Hilton, director of strategy for the Conservatives.
‘Tim is one of the best people with whom I have ever worked – intelligent, witty and creative,’ gushes Whetstone, a former colleague at Portland. Pascoe-Watson also notes Allan is ‘well-connected with both Labour and the Tories’.
But is he well equipped to deal with the Tories? Allan – who recently hired Cameron’s former press secretary George Eustice – insists there is nothing to worry about.
‘I don’t think clients hiring Portland did so because they thought I would get on the phone to Tony Blair for them. That was never the case and clients never thought it was the case.’
He adds: ‘It has always been about giving political insight and running campaigns. The fact that there may be a change in government is not something that makes me particularly concerned.’ With his track record and his ambitious expansion plans, one is inclined to think Allan has good reason to remain unruffled.
What was your biggest career break?
Getting called after I left university by Tony Blair’s PA, asking me to come in for an interview. James Purnell had recommended me for a job as a researcher. ‘Were you involved in student politics?’ Blair asked me. ‘I’m afraid not,’ I said. ‘Great. Can you start tomorrow?’ he responded.
Have you had a notable mentor?
Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson taught me a great deal. They are both good managers and that is rare in politics. Tony Ball at Sky taught me about business, management and risk-taking.
What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
Work really hard. The work that you do in the early years can determine the rest of your life. So do the jobs that give you the best experience.
What do you prize in new recruits?
Intelligence rather than skills. The ability to think and write logically is what we get paid for. And people with opinions. We are there to give advice, so telling clients it’s tricky is not very helpful.
2001 Founder and managing director, Portland
1998 Director of corporate communications, BSkyB
1997 Deputy director of communications, 10 Downing Street
1994 Deputy press secretary to Tony Blair, leader of the Labour Party
1992 Researcher for Tony Blair, shadow home secretary