PROFILE: John Smythe, Smythe Dorward Lambert; Psychologist of business

John Smythe gambled on organisational communications being a success

John Smythe gambled on organisational communications being a success

John Smythe leaps to his feet, grabs a red marker pen and scribbles the

words ‘clarity’, ‘honesty’ and ‘the message’ on a flip chart.

He is explaining what an ‘organisational communications’ firm offers

that your average internal PR specialist doesn’t and why it attracted

Omnicom, the world’s second-largest communications group which bought

SDL last month.

‘Firstly we have brought the skills of the management industry into the

communications industry,’ he says. ‘Secondly, we do not have to produce

things like adverts or press releases but make all our money with ideas,

by consulting.

‘Thirdly,’ he concludes, ‘we draw people from the client side, line

management and psychology backgrounds. Staff are performance-driven and

can make up to 75 per cent of their salary in bonuses.’

Employees are strangely absent from SDL’s Drury Lane offices but Smythe

doesn’t want them there. ‘If people are here I get worried,’ he says.

‘Our job is all about being with clients and helping them do their jobs

better. You don’t do that by offering pompous advice over the


His dream to fuse management consultancy with communications was, he

says, pooh-poohed by the PR industry when he broke away from design

consultancy Wolf Olins Smythe to found SDL with Colette Dorward and

Andrew Lambert seven years ago.

He began his career in conventional PR. He dropped out of a landscape

gardening degree at Leeds Polytechnic a year before graduation and

landed a job at small agricultural PR specialist Agri Press Publicity.

Years later Smythe was handling external relations for businesses like

Occidental Petrol-eum when he saw the gap in the market. ‘I was buying

services and realised everything you could buy was externally-oriented,’

he recalls. ‘I reached the relatively logical conclusion that we were

missing a huge audience - the employee.’

His critics must be kicking themselves now. Smythe is sitting pretty

with 55 staff, a client list which includes British Airways, Barclay’s

Bank and Microsoft, and an annual turnover of pounds 5 million. (‘This

is nothing compared to what it ought to be,’ he adds, marvelling at the

possibilities of the market).

He also has a promise from Omnicom to turn SDL into a global brand.

Symthe and his team plan to remain in London initially targeting

European clients with an expansion into North American and Singapore

next year, either setting up an SDL shop there or moving in with a local

Omnicom business.

‘John is a very good salesman,’ says Lambert, now managing director of

occasional competitor, the change management consultancy People in

Business. ‘He has been single- minded in building a sizable company and

has marketed SDL very effectively.’

‘John identified a niche market that no one else had seen,’ adds

Standard Chartered corporate affairs director Tim Halford, a friend and

former colleague of Smythe. ‘He talks to human resources departments as

opposed to corporate affairs and has learnt their jargon. He makes them

feel important.’

Halford adds that Smythe is ‘intrigued by the psychology of the

business’. He somehow fits an MSC in Organisational Psychology into his

70-hour week. The workings of Smythe’s own mind, however, is something

of a mystery. ‘He keeps himself to himself,’ says Halford. ‘The real

John Smythe is quite hidden.’

But he is open about SDL’s future. ‘It was a struggle to get the idea

established,’ he says of the firm’s change management philosophy. ‘Now

we have credibility. In the next 20 years this will go from a gleam in

my eye to something every company involved in a merger will

automatically want.’

As the best-known player in an industry which he estimates to be worth

half a billion a year, guess who is having the last laugh?


1976 Deputy head of public affairs Occidental Petroleum

1981 Head of public affairs Bechtel Group

1982 Head of corporate communications, Marathon Oil

1984 Managing director, Wolf Olins Smythe

1989 Chairman, Smythe Dorward Lambert

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