Gorkana Insight & Analysis Team
Gorkana catches up with Paul Charles and Julia Perowne, co-founders of Perowne Charles Communications, about life post-MBO, shaking up the travel PR market and why Richard Branson is just a phone call away.
It has been just over a year since Paul Charles and his business partner Julia Perowne pulled off what they call "the perfect MBO", hiving off the thriving travel and consumer division of global tech agency LEWIS PR to launch their own standalone agency. "I remember when the light shone – Julia was in Morocco on a press trip and I was turning 40 that day – and I just rang Julia and I said 'we're doing an MBO'. Obviously we had discussed it before but you don't know until the day. It took two months from start to finish."
"We weren't allowed to tell one client or the staff until the day it happened – it was a huge gamble for us. I sold my flat to fund the MBO, which was terrifying but I absolutely love it," says Julia.
They took 11 clients and six staff with them in the amicable split - LEWIS founder Chris Lewis was "very supportive" says Paul - and set up Perowne Charles Communications, a specialist travel, lifestyle and consumer agency, which prides itself on doing things differently from other agencies in the same space.
A year on, and the duo have nearly paid themselves back the money they spent on the MBO, and they are shaking up the travel PR market which Paul says suffers because of a proliferation of old-fashioned practitioners.
"Many travel PR agencies are boring and dull and they've been around for 15 years so they don't know what digital is about, they don't know about social media, they don't know about broadcast. Many of them just offer a print strategy and that's not what companies want. So what we offer is something very refreshing, innovative and different."
Meeting the duo in the Halkin Hotel, one of their growing list of well-known clients, Paul and Julia believe this new approach, along with their combined experience, has helped them steal a march on their competitors.
Julia joined LEWIS in March 2010 after five years at The Massey Partnership. "I was attracted to the security of a larger agency but with people who had the expertise and mentality of a smaller agency." She amassed unrivalled experience working with some of the biggest hotel brands in the world, and was largely responsible for attracting many of the travel clients won during her time at the agency.
Paul is one of the UK's best-known communicators, spending 10 years as a journalist at the BBC, presenting and reporting for programmes including Radio 4's Today, Moneybox and Inside Money, 5 Live's Business of Sport and BBC1's Breakfast.
He moved to the dark side to take up a role as director of comms at Eurostar, running global PR for the cross-Channel train company and launching the first high-speed line in the UK. He then went on to work for four years as director of communications at Virgin Atlantic, creating and implementing global consumer, corporate and crisis PR and advising Sir Richard Branson on his day-to-day PR.
Paul is still in regular contact with the man he admires most in PR, and knows Sir Richard is only a phone call away if he ever needs advice. "He's very genuine and very helpful, especially of people who get up and do something in an entrepreneurial way. He's really kind about people and to people – we had a lot of fun together."
In a move that had many scratching their heads, he left Virgin to join LEWIS, the agency he had been non-exec director of for five years, as chief operations officer in January 2010. "Eurostar and Virgin were the best career jobs I've ever had – they were the best places I've ever worked. People were very surprised when I made the move to LEWIS but I needed management experience if I ever wanted to become a CEO and that's the reason."
Paul has worked with countless agencies over the years in his roles at Virgin and Eurostar (he is coy about naming the best) and this has left him in no doubt about what makes a good agency. "I've been on all three sides – client side, inhouse and agency side. There's no doubt you buy into people rather than choose an agency. Fundamentally you're buying the personalities, especially with smaller agencies."
But it is also experience which has seen the agency reel in some of the best-known luxury brands including Silversea Cruises, Singapore Tourism Board, The Oetker Collection, including Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, ITC Hotels of India, Sibuet Hotels & Spas, COMO Hotels and Resorts and Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa.
And in the last two weeks they've been brought on board by Malaysia Airlines to launch the airline's new A380 this summer. "When you've worked for Eurostar and Virgin and you have that train and aviation experience it works for a lot of transport stories. Many travel PR agencies don't have that expertise because the people who run them will not have actually worked in the industry. Add together Julia's hotel expertise - this is our DNA, and you get something very powerful which is why we’ve won so many well-known clients.
"We absolutely love our clients – we go out with them, we talk to them every day, we're very hands on. That's what we wanted to create with the management buy-out. We never want to lose touch with our clients and we have a hugely talented team to help us achieve that."
Julia agrees: "It's such a cliché but we absolutely throw everything at our clients and they love that, especially in this market. We're providing advice beyond just PR – thinking commercially and driving return on investment is at the heart of everything we do."
Brand partnerships and tie ups is something at which PCC excels – bringing together often unexpected brands for full amplification. COMO Hotels and Heidi Klein swimwear is one recent example.
Paul doesn't have ambitions to be the biggest agency in town but does expect to grow it to 20 consultants in the next year. PCC staff have a mix of backgrounds in journalism and PR, and Paul and Julia have worked hard to create a distinct culture which includes regular gifts for hard-working consultants, birthdays off and weekly baked treats (Paul's speciality is chocolate bread and butter pudding).
Empowering and instilling confidence in their consultants is also key to ensure nobody is afraid to challenge client thinking. Paul explains: "We're very honest with our clients about what we think will work and what won’t work. Too many agencies, and I know this from first-hand experience, tell you what you want to hear but actually the best agencies are those that are consultative and have a very impartial approach. "That comes from having a strong enough relationship with the client to know that you can say at the right moment that something isn’t going to work."
Julia continues: "From the pitch we go in with a very honest approach – this is what you're doing right and this is what you're not doing right. Lots of agencies spend the first half of a pitch telling the potential client how fabulous they are. "We're so comfortable with our clients we're not afraid of losing control. Our team has great relationships with our clients."
The agency rarely has to pitch, attracting most of its new clients as a result of previous contacts, via word of mouth or the holy grail - recommendations via journalists. "It's a nice position to be in - but I still love a good pitch,” says Paul.
And Julia says the future is looking bright despite being in a sector which has traditionally lower margins. "Some of our clients have been quite quiet for the last few years but now they're opening new hotels. Our existing clients are growing where a lot of others aren't. We've got a really exciting pipeline."
Getting their clients great coverage off the travel pages is another key differentiator for PCC. "The travel sections are brilliant but it's all about getting your clients in other pages – it's about getting them into the lifestyle pages, the homes and property pages, product placement. There are so many other outlets," says Julia.
And Paul brings his own skills and contact book to selling in: "Business pages are also critical – I have a lot of contacts there. It's where you take a typical product or brand and put them somewhere you wouldn’t expect. And that's what we bring to the table.
"The moment you lose touch with your journalists and your core contacts you might as well throw in the towel. Anyway that's half the fun of the job!"
Paul and Julia were speaking to Celina Maguire, head of Gorkana's consumer community.