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You have to be brave in PR, says Kevin Read, chairman of Bell Pottinger

You have to be brave in PR says Kevin Read, chairman of PR firm Bell Pottinger, when we caught up with him for a quick, ten-minute interview. He describes his career to date and offers advice for others hoping to succeed in the industry.

What did you want to be when you were a teenager?
Looking back I always knew that I wanted a role in commerce. My family was always involved with small business ventures. On my father’s side there were pawnbrokers. My mum always emphasised the need for a good education and to aim high. There was no tradition of seeking out a profession. Because of the disruption of the Second World War both of my parents left school without any qualifications.

However, during my school years I had two great loves. As a very young teenager I adored mathematics, and later as a spotted youth I found that I could play a mean game of chess – leaving school as the only chess captain to have achieved the league and cup double.

Would your teenage self be pleased with the way things have turned out?
My teenage self would have been bewildered by the working life I have pursued. Working at the House of Commons, for an array of Liberal Democrat MPs, early in my career, brought me into contact with politicians, policy makers and an array of celebrities. In my agency life I have had the great privilege of meeting and working with inspirational leaders. I have worked with brilliant writers, exceptional creative people and clients who have both driven and shaped the world of communications.

How did you get your first break?
I got my first break by spending 48 hours mugging up on the UK higher education policy prior to an interview with the Liberal Democrat MP, Simon Hughes, who at the time was the party’s education spokesperson. Woking with Simon, a barrister before entering parliament, taught me how to shape, refine and deliver an argument.

What is the best career decision you have made?
Having spent three years working in communications and marketing in the NHS for London’s leading teaching hospitals, including a spell at St Thomas where I worked with Simon Stevens, now the chief executive of the NHS, I decided that I needed to gain wider experience of business and set out to find a role in a consultancy.

And it was to the Quentin Bell Organisation I headed – having been put through my paces by ace coach and writer, Francis Hallawell, and rising star, Sally Costerton.

Any career regrets?
Heading into the world of politics and speech writing meant I left behind an unfinished MPhil, looking at the emergence, and politicisation, of the middle class in Northern English towns at the end of 18th century.

As far as PR consultancy is concerned I would have loved to have taken on a major regional or global consultancy role.

Why Bell Pottinger?
It is an amazing environment. Intellectually challenging. Fantastic clients. Partners that have freedom to pursue their interests. It is a hive of entrepreneurial activity.

And it has kindly allowed me to take a six-month sabbatical at the beginning of 2017 to complete a book on ‘The Business of Pitching’.

What are the greatest challenges of your present role?
Bring together five distinct practices; corporate, brand, digital, design and consumer, to create a single P+L. Introducing new ways of working and outlooks so that a genuinely new and fresh offer will be able to the market at the beginning of 2017.

As chairman the role is to test and curate, be the architect, challenge and generally nudge everyone in a common, progressive and responsive direction. A journey made easier my staying close to what clients and the market demands.

What advice can you give to others in the communications industry?
Be brave. Stand up for what you believe in. Work with the best people you can – and never stop seeking to learn and uncover best practice. 

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