Anthony Hilton: How Aviva used Prudential's story

I once had an Evening Standard colleague whose first response when confronted by disaster was always: 'Before we do anything, we must work out how to turn this to our advantage.'

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

As a strategy it did not always succeed, but it reduced the chances of a hasty, ill-thought-through reaction.

Last week, we saw a classic example of how it can also be used in PR. The big business story of the week was undoubtedly the decision by the Prudential to seek to more than double its size, by paying £23bn to purchase the Asian assets of the American Insurance Group in order to combine them with the Prudential's own businesses in the region. This will make the Prudential an Asian business, with its British operations and those in the US no longer the primary focus of management or shareholder attention.

It also risks making other insurance companies look dull in comparison. This suggestion clearly galvanised Aviva, which was scheduled to announce its results later that same week. Aviva's chief executive Andrew Moss' strategic plan is to make his sprawling business much more focused, efficient and profitable. This has been made even harder by the financial turmoil.

Moss might have been tempted to ignore Prudential's move and just talk about the progress his own company has made. Instead, he seized the moment to compare his growth plans and prospects in the 'mature and boring' market of Continental Europe with the opportunity Prudential thinks it has in Asia.

Obviously he thinks there is more money in Europe and a lot less risk, but the point is that it forced journalists to think about Aviva's market position and strategy in a way they have never really done before.

It is a much more interesting story to compare and contrast the two companies' gambles on growth than simply to talk about the numbers. Moss was rewarded with far more coverage than he would ever have got for a fairly routine set of results. He had to share the coverage with his rival, but there will nevertheless be far more people today who understand the potential of his group than there were the previous week.

- Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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