The disruptors: how new lobbying firms are rebooting the old order
Are the big boys of public affairs about to get a kicking?
In recent years, the UK public affairs industry has resembled the Premier League before Leicester City took the title. A host of heavyweight agencies have dominated proceedings by bossing pitch lists and attracting the top talent. Portland has often led the way, with clients and former Downing Street advisers flocking to Tim Allan’s agency on big-money transfers. Teneo Blue Rubicon, Hanover and Pagefield have also been difficult to beat ever since they arrived on the scene a few years ago.
Old stalwarts such as Weber Shandwick, Edelman, MHP and Lexington have also hung in there, while the only major casualty has been Bell Pottinger. In short, the hierarchy in the lobbying agency world has been settled for some years now. But could a host of new outfits be about to shake up the old order?
Industry figures agree that times have changed since the height of the global recession when “nobody in their right minds would leave a paying job and do a start-up”. New lobbying firms have been created off the back of the economic recovery, while the 2015 and 2017 general elections emboldened others to take the plunge.
The new player making the most noise is Hanbury Strategy, set up last year by former Conservative special advisers Ameet Gill and Paul Stephenson. Based at a shared working space in Shoreditch where nobody would be seen dead in a suit and tie, the agency doesn’t fit into the unusual lobbying shop mould at first glance. Rather Gill and Stephenson like to talk about drawing up grids, building campaigns, generating stories and shaping political opinion. “We are all from Westminster so we can do the public affairs quite easily, but that’s not necessarily our prime focus,” Stephenson told PAN shortly after the agency was set up.
To that end, Hanbury has avoided hiring experienced public affairs consultants and instead brought in proven political operators such as Theresa May’s former press chief Lizzie Loudon. The approach has resulted in Hanbury winning briefs with organisations ranging from Barclays and GSK to the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
Not everyone in the public affairs world is convinced that Hanbury will succeed in shaking up the old lobbying order. Rather, one seasoned public affairs man claims: “Clients just get them in for the access. But it's only a short term thing while the current Tory lot are power. They won't have the same pull in a couple of years and clients will move on.”
But for now, they are growing rapidly. As clients flock to the new Tory agency on the block, Hanbury now has around 20 staff members and the bosses are showing little sign of slowing down. The rapid growth means that they may soon been forced to move out of their trendy shared workspace and find a new office to accommodate the troops. According to one political pal, that is probably a price that Stephenson and Gill would be willing to pay. “They’re not trying to be a mid-sized agency with a handful of boring clients,” says the source. “They’re ambitious. I think they want to be the next Portland.”
Stonehaven raised a few eyebrows in the public affairs world last year when it hired David Cameron’s former head of broadcasting Caroline Preston as a director. It raised a few more this year when it brought in Portland partner Ben Thornton as director of corporate and reputation.
Previously, the agency set up by former Crosby Textor Group consultant Peter Lyburn was not considered to have a foot in the public affairs world. Rather the focus was firmly on research, campaign planning, corporate strategy and political polling. “We help corporate leadership respond with clear strategic thinking based on unique insight, creating integrated campaigns to transform reputations and change customer behaviours,” states the firm’s website.
There is no suggestion that Stonehaven has turned its back on any of this work. But the agency is thought to have expanded its reach and is increasingly taking work from the established players in public affairs, says one rival lobbyist.
“Stonehaven were effectively a Lynton-style outfit of strategic messaging,” explains one industry figure who was worked with them. “But then clients were asking ‘what can you now do with this’ and they realised that the delivery arm was lacking. That’s why Peter has hired up. He realised he can’t just do the research piece and message piece, he also needed to do the delivery piece. So they are turning more towards public affairs.”
A senior lobbyist at a rival agency says he is impressed with Lyburn’s agency, but insists that they are not doing anything that his shop has not thought of: “Stonehaven may be different from the mainstream public affairs and corporate communications consultancies, but they’re not doing anything that’s completely brand new. They’re doing polling, territory and positioning and we’ve been doing that for years.”
WPI Strategy is also appearing on public affairs pitch lists with increased frequency, say industry figures. Like many of the new players, the outfit set up by former Number 10 man Sean Worth and ex-Policy Exchange communications director Nick Faith claims to do far more than traditional public affairs. In particular, it puts a heavy emphasis on developing policy ideas for clients.
For example a recent campaign drive for Vodafone saw the agency creating economic analysis identifying the digital potential of 50 towns and cities across the UK. The research was launched at a public event with digital and culture minister Matt Hancock and Vodafone CEO Nick Jeffery at the British Academy.
"We see a big gap in the market for a new kind of agency that offers clients both the advice and the platform they need to engage with policymakers in an open and constructive way,” said Faith shortly after the agency was set up in 2014.
Speaking this month, one senior lobbyist advises that WPI Strategy have not quite shunned the traditional lobbying model: “They say they do a lot of policy research. But they also do a lot of old-fashioned contacts-based Tory lobbying.”
But Faith insists: “Our point of difference is that we have the ability to create economic analysis, to develop policy ideas - and to do the more traditional element of public affairs.”
The more recently-established Public First is smaller than Hanbury, Stonehaven and WPI Strategy but no less interesting. The agency was set up last year by former Portland and Westbourne partner (and ex-Policy Exchange communications director) James Frayne and ex-Number 10 education adviser Rachael Wolf. Also on the books is former Whitehall communications chief and Policy Exchange communications director Gabriel Milland. It now exists in the same office building as WPI Strategy close to St James Park station and offers a strong focus on policy development and campaigning.
“Public First do a bit of policy development and a lot of grassroots campaigning. They do a lot of focus groups and quantitative and qualitative research for their clients,” says one industry figure who has dealt with them.
Frayne says policy development and campaigns are both key to his agency’s work: “Two things really change public policy. Firstly, detailed, costed and realistic policy design that ministers don't have the time and experience to dream up and that they can actually implement. And, secondly, campaigns that mobilise constituent groups that elected politicians can't ignore. This is where public affairs professionals should be overwhelmingly targeting their efforts.
“Public First was created with these realities in mind. We don't trade off our past relationships by making introductions or lobbying and we don't pretend gossip is gold dust. Instead we help organisations run high impact campaigns that either inject useful policy ideas into the public domain or that mobilise people that politicians care about.”
Of course, such talk is given short shrift by many senior figures at the established lobbying firms. As they start to feel the heat, rival lobbyists are refusing to buy the idea that the new crop of agencies are adopting a radically different approach. They also suggest that business acumen may be lacking in some cases.
One senior public affairs professional says: "When you set up an agency – and I know because I’ve done it – you claim that you’re terribly new. Of course you do. But the reality is that very little in consultancy is genuinely new. And very little among the new crop of consultancies are genuinely new. That’s not a criticism. A lot of them are very good. But they’ll say that they’re doing everything new when often they’re not.
"The other thing is, do they know about business? It’s all very well knowing about what makes a great wheeze to a special adviser or a policy maker. But if you don’t know about business and how companies work and how markets work then you can’t do as good a job."
Nevertheless the senior lobbyist insists that he is happy to finally see the big boys being given a Leicester City-like run for their money. "Absolutely. It’s better for the market, it pushes you, makes you better. And it means that clients have a better choice with fresh faces and different approaches," he says.
The jury may be out on whether the new kids on the block have anything radically new to offer, but most lobbyists agree that they are doing something interesting. "They are disrupting the market because they are new and exciting." says one experienced agency boss. "And because they are taking clients off the established players – just like Portland when they started."
Picture by Press Association.