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,
‘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
‘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
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
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