“It was serendipitous,” said Jonty Summers, managing director of the Middle East business of the London-based consultancy Hanover Communications, which took over Bell Pottinger’s regional arm last year.
The owners, shareholders and staff at Bell Pottinger would not use the same word to describe the collapse of the firm after a scandal in South Africa that involved allegations of racism, kleptocracy and social media manipulation.
The British PR firm was put up for sale after its client in the country, the Gupta family, were exposed as perpetrators of “state capture” — taking over the money-making institutions of South Africa in collusion with a corrupt government. It was the biggest scandal to hit the PR world for many years.
Hanover — which was started in 1998 by Charles Lewington, a former British government media adviser — saw an opportunity in the Middle East, where Bell Pottinger was one of the established names with a presence going back decades with some big clients, especially government-related corporates.
“The original plan was to grow the business for Hanover here just through hard work, but when Bell Pottinger came along it made sense,” Summers explained.
Summers is not concerned that any of the dirt from the Gupta scandal has stuck to Bell Pottinger in the region, nor that there will be any legacy at the merged entity. “Our London management does not suffer from the same traits that Bell Pottinger’s used to. We are decent people who believe in treating others in the way we would like to be treated,” he said.
“The critical difference between the two companies is our respective approach to ethics. The Bell Pottinger Middle East team was a separately run business, with a good client list, let down by poor leadership that did not operate to the same rigorous standards as Hanover. We have conducted extensive due diligence on their clients and are absolutely committed to operating the combined business to the highest ethical standards. We have a robust ethics and conflict policy,” he added.
The acquisition of Bell Pottinger’s Middle East arm gives Hanover an immediate quantum leap in size, adding 17 executives to its payroll for a total strength of 20 — half of them Arabs or Arabic-speaking — with Archie Berens, the former Bell Pottinger boss in the region, chairman of the new business.
It also adds big clients like Aldar, S&P and Senaat to the list of corporates it services in the region. “None of the Bell Pottinger clients in the region left because of the Gupta scandal,” said Summers.
The strategy is to focus on high-end corporate communications advice, with a particular emphasis on those sectors where Hanover already has expertise — health care, financial services, technology and sports — via its global business based in London, Brussels and Dublin.
There, it already services clients like Facebook, Apple and Goldman Sachs, all of which have a big presence in the UAE. One aspiration is that some of that global business might be persuaded to go with Hanover in the Middle East as well; another is to add to the select list of “crisis communication” clients it already has in the region.
Does all this add up to a sound commercial strategy in a highly competitive market? The Middle East has seen an influx of international communications firms over the past decade, especially in the UAE. The opening up of Saudi Arabia under the Vision 2030 strategy has added to this competition, with many firms using the Emirates as a base for operations in the Kingdom.
“It’s no more competitive than London or New York. People will always want advice from good consultants, especially on the top-end strategic side. There aren’t as many good ones as you’d think in that space,” said Summers.
“Our growth has been funded by the profit we make from client work. We have no debt. The big networks are reporting a slowdown but our growth is bucking this trend,” he added.
Summers sees Saudi Arabia as a part of the Hanover strategy in the region, though admitted there are no immediate plans to open an office in the Kingdom nor fly “armies of PR men into Riyadh every Sunday morning,” as he put it.
The London-based Lewington was involved in the 1990s at the tail end of the big privatization drive set in train by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and continued by her successor, John Major, whom Lewington served, and was regarded as a specialist in privatization messaging, especially on the consumer benefits of state sell-offs.
“In Saudi Arabia, it’s likely that demand will rise for strategic corporate communications consultants with an understanding of the culture of the region who can help Saudi companies put plans in place to navigate some of the complexities of privatization,” said Summers.