James Henderson describes his career highs so far and plans for the future
23rd October 2014
James Henderson is the epitome of calm, cool and collected, so it is a surprise to hear that when it comes to work, he craves adventure. This is just as well, as he is experiencing exciting times right now as group CEO of Bell Pottinger, which is still in a process of flux since the company become private just over two and a half years ago, when it departed company from Chime Communications following an MBO led by Lord Bell.
Henderson says: “We are three-quarters of our way through a journey, we’ve achieved a lot, but there is still more to achieve in terms of reinvigorating and reshaping the business. The most important thing is to focus on one brand – the Bell Pottinger brand.” Henderson is keen to stress how his agency now offers what clients want – “a completely integrated offering“, adding, “I’ve always been a believer that the skill set you need for PR is to be multi-disciplinary”.
Henderson has a challenge on his hands building up the brand, as it was less than three years ago (when it was still part of Chime) that Bell Pottinger was having to fight its own PR battles, facing criticism for working for regimes including Egypt and Bahrain during the Arab Spring; plus having its lobbyists outed by the Independent for boasting about their power in Whitehall.
Another challenge is the fact that the PR market is much more competitive today. Luckily, Henderson relishes a battle, although he does sigh when he says that there may be as many as 20 agencies asked to pitch these days. He says he handles this by focusing on the client, rather than the competition: “My key focus is getting the pitch right.”
The part of the pitching process than Henderson enjoys the most is “every bit that’s creative. I love helping people communicate, solve issues and achieve objectives. I enjoy coming up with ideas and then putting them into practice and seeing them work. Ultimately, my career has developed through client work”. He says that it helps that he has an analytical mind that enjoys looking at problems and searching for solutions.
Henderson also enjoys pitching because it is exhilarating, more so than the day-to-day running of the business, which he hopes he will be focusing less on in the future: “As growth and some of the restructuring we have done settles, it will leave me time to focus on client work more.”
Discussing how he got started in PR, Henderson describes that it was through luck, rather than judgment. He read law at university and then went into the city to work at a stockbrokers as a graduate trainee. His life may have been very different if he had not been made redundant in the crash of 1987, the same day as the great storm.
He says he then “fell” into PR, when someone who knew he was looking for a job helped him get a position at the export association, British Invisibles, promoting the city abroad. Here Henderson worked as a junior administrative assistant, a role that involved mainly PR work: “Whilst I was there I decided I wanted to go into PR. But not immediately.
Just after I started working at the company I went to a city dinner and sat next to Alan Parker who had just set up Brunswick. I thought the job I had was just an interim role before I became a lawyer or something, so when Alan said I should come and talk to him, I said ‘no, I don’t want to do PR’. A year later I was knocking on his door, but it was too late …”
It wasn’t long before Henderson was offered a job by Alex Sandberg who was forming agency College Hill. “There wasn’t actually a PR position available, at first I was a research assistant. We would do industry reports for clients on the scope of market place. It was an interesting job, although it took two weeks to find out what it would take two minutes to find out now – I had to go to the city library and use microfiche cards.”
Not long after, Henderson did move into a PR role, and in his 15 years at the agency, one of the favourite sectors he worked on was the luxury sector. “I’ve done a lot of work in luxury sector, I love the creativity, plus the media is more interested in this sector.”
In November 2004, Henderson founded his own financial agency Pelham Public Relations: “Looking back it was daunting, but at the time I was so focused on making sure it worked that I had no fear. In my last five years at College Hill I had many people suggest that I go out on my own, but I didn’t want to do it until I was ready to build something. I waited until I had enough experience and had seen most situations.”
In just six years the agency had grown to 40 people and had a revenue of £6m, but Henderson still wanted to move onwards and upwards, so he approached Bell Pottinger: “I felt we would be a good combination. I was interested in the opportunity and scale that Bell Pottinger could bring us.” In just two years, Henderson’s financial division became the main profit driver of the business.
Despite his talent for turning a profit, Henderson says that he is “hopeless at math”, although he adds that he is “very numerate. I can do practical math. I love combining ideas and practical solutions, which is why I enjoy running a business.”
And so we come back to where we started, the challenge of building up a PR business in an extremely competitive climate. Henderson is enjoying the buzz: “This is a pretty big adventure, much bigger than I thought it would be. I am not yet swimming comfortably.” But then when he is, no doubt he will be looking for his next adventure.
James Henderson, Group CEO of Bell Pottinger