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Agency Leadership series: The anatomy of Portland

There has been much analysis of how independent PR firms are out-growing, in percentage terms of their albeit smaller revenues, larger PR firms which are part of a holding company. However, globally there are a few interesting exceptions to this trend and in the UK one almighty exception is Portland which has grown at double-digit annual growth since Ominicom bought the business in 2012. With that in mind we thought it would be good to understand the anatomy of Portland...

Since it was established in 2001, Portland, which positions itself more as a professional services firm than a PR agency, has shown strong growth and now employs 250 people. We asked Mark Flanagan, managing director of Portland, to explain exactly how the agency is structured.

Overview: Founded in 2001, the firm’s staff work across offices in London, Washington DC, New York, Doha, Nairobi and Singapore.

Basic structure: The agency is structured around five core practices: Corporate, Government Advisory, Philanthropy, Health and Disputes.

  • Corporate practice – employs around 75 consultants and offers a range of integrated services across its public affairs, employee engagement, digital communications, local campaigns and planning, and corporate communications expertise.
  • Government Advisory practice this brings a team of former senior advisers from British government and politics, the EU, UN and World Economic Forum. The unit works with organisations to devise and implement communications strategies as well as building government communications capabilities.
  • Philanthropy practice – this focuses on running global campaigns for large international foundations and NGOs.
  • Health practice – launched in 2013, this has grown to 25 staff, supporting organisations around the world as they adapt to the challenges and opportunities of healthcare reform and regulation.
  • Disputes practice – led by a former barrister, the Disputes team manages communications for clients involved in high-profile and high-value litigation cases across multiple jurisdictions and languages.

Different functions: Portland has two central functions – Content & Brand and SPARC (Strategy, Planning, Analytics, Research, Creative).

  • Content & Brand team – consists of 20 graphic designers, web developers and video producers, and works on creating compelling content for clients.
  • SPARC unit – includes a team of researchers, analytics experts, strategic planners and creative who work alongside account teams to ensure clients continue to get strategic and creative solutions.

Executive Committee: The agency is organised by an Executive Committee (ExCo), who set the strategic priorities and future investment plans for the business. Chaired by the agency’s founder and group managing director, Tim Allan, its members include Mark Flanagan (managing director for corporate and health), Martin Sheehan (managing director for philanthropy, disputes and government), Steve Morris (managing partner), and Alex Farley (COO). The executive decision-making body works closely with its Partner Group, made up of 17 Partners including three senior artners, George Pascoe-Watson, Sam Ingleby and Jane Brearley.

Advisory Council: This part-time council includes Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications, Will Tanner, Theresa May’s ex deputy policy chief and Nicola Howson, formerly CEO of Freuds and head of communications at ITV.

Case study

Gregor Poyton. partner at Portland, describes the role that research plays in the agency and the value of a special unit that focuses on strategy, planning, analytics and research.

“We are aware that the market is changing. Our clients’ demands and needs are constantly evolving. Clients want work which is grounded not only on the knowledge and instinct of its consultants, but also in the smart use of data, analytics and research.

“In recent years, we embedded a Research & Insights (R&I) function into Portland and rolled out an ‘insight-based strategy’ approach to our clients’ challenges. Built out of our central R&I team, the newly formed SPARC (Strategy, Planning, Analytics, Research, Creative) unit will continue to house specialist expertise and to facilitate the development of strategy and innovative.

“SPARC has been designed to ensure we continue providing impactful strategies based on insight and measurement through research, analytics, planning and creative execution. By combining the know-how and experience of our account teams (instinct) with data, analytics and research (insight), I truly believe we are in a position to offer clients the best thinking the agency has to offer.”

Discussing how well the agency is doing, Flanagan concludes: “Over the last five years, Portland has seen extraordinary growth, and after posting fees in 2017 estimated at £30m – the agency isn’t slowing down.”

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