November 25, 2011
People News: Gorkana meets Anthony Payne Last week Gorkana caught up with Anthony Payne, founder of Peregrine Communications. Last month The Evening Standard published an article by the paper’s business and media reporter Gideon Spanier on the future of the PR agency. It created quite a discussion within the PR community as it contended that agencies faced a choice between the scale of the full service and increasingly global model or one of niche specialism. Anybody left in limbo between the two would become what was termed as the “squeezed middle”. This fork in the road is familiar to Anthony Payne, but it is one he journeyed past ten years ago. For him the direction he should take was obvious. “What I learnt in big agency is that the senior people, the people who really know their stuff weren’t doing any media relations. They spent the entire time either pitching for business or new staff. The turnover at both levels was 30%. I thought that the role of communications was going to become even more important and within that you would have to become even more specialised. Choose your niches and I chose alternatives. We try and find things which are difficult, private equity, structured products, credit and hedge funds. Anything that is complex is where our best place is.” It was a good choice. The market for alternative asset classes boomed in the financial bubble as the Mayfair restaurant trade testifies and with it came greater scrutiny. Hedge funds, in particular, were frequently criticised for their total secrecy. PRs were engaged not to communicate but to stonewall the press. Understandably this would exasperate journalists but Anthony is adamant that this culture is changing fast largely because of the new levels of transparency demanded by investing institutions. “Funds have had to shout much louder to attract attention
to their strategy because there isn’t the money sloshing around. So explaining the complexity to really differentiate yourself from the others and getting that message across becomes more important for them.” “Clever ones have tried to build brands around education. Clever ones have been helping investors understand how they make money. That’s the future of financial services brands you have to educate - you can no longer rely on ‘Trust me, look at my performance in the past.’” Long may this continue as far as Peregrine is concerned as this trend is aligned with where it has been honing its specialist skills. The agency’s offering is centred on a cradle to grave approach to messaging for the financial sector with particular emphasis on educating audiences. “We’ll package up the messaging, storylines and ideas which come from the proof points of the messages” he explains. “We build the story up, package that as in a legal case. Very different from the light weight PR interview of the 90s where an interview would be set up from which a story might not come out but you would necessarily know what it would be.” Anthony stresses that a critical part of this process is having a detailed understanding of the consumers of the messaging. “We want to discover what different audiences, the end investors want, what’s the narrative. To help us do that we build up a distribution map. It’s up to us to put together themes and evidence and that’s driven by what investors are interested in and that’s what helps journalists.” Specialist skills are not just required at the output end of the sausage factory but also in the hopper where the messages are drafted. One of the challenges that Peregrine faces is that the best asset managers tend to be wholly devoted to
their world of managing funds. “They haven’t got the time or the patience but they know they need to communicate. The challenge for the PR practitioner is to be really specialised, really know your stuff and you have got to be able to ask the right questions.”
The agency is now fifteen strong with a skillbased approach employing former journalists and marketeers from the sectors they serve. Specialisation evidently runs strong in the family as Anthony’s wife Tanya runs the successful restaurant PR business Gerber.
Another benefit of the specialist approach is that it can create a virtuous circle with the media. “Why we’re successful is that we’re a great source and journalists will come to us and they know we understand what they’re talking about. They know we’re not going to waste time. ‘I’ll get back to you’ doesn’t wash anymore.”
It is no surprise that creating a narrative is such a strong element to Peregrine’s approach as Anthony originally trained as a solicitor and practised criminal litigation before a change in career. “The law gives you that ability to construct a story on evidence and that is what I apply today. So the way I build up stories and messages is the same as a lawyer would. I think it is a fantastic training, but it wasn’t for me. I thought it would be very glamorous, but it wasn’t. It was the opposite of glamorous, you were basically like a social worker. I didn’t want to compete with these double firsts from Oxford, so I looked around me to see who was having fun and having a reasonable career enjoying themselves. As Clint Eastwood said in Magnum Force ‘A man has got to know his limitations’ and that has always been my watchword.”
Even in the esoteric world of alternative assets, social media is shaking up the natural order. “Journalists often tell people what they really think through their Twitter account so we have to monitor these very carefully. You get one version in the newspaper and you get another version that can be more personal on the twitter account.” Anthony’s view is that Twitter has one particularly beneficial facet. “You can correct things quickly. If we spot a mistake we can quickly tell the journalist and there are examples where they have then tweeted ‘I hear from an authority that x is not true.’” When Anthony founded Peregrine in 2003 it followed twenty years of working for some of the largest global agencies including the big three of Weber Shandwick, Burson Marsteller and Hill & Knowlton. He was adamant that he would maintain control from day one and even now prefers a culture based on performance than equity. “I wanted to be the John Lewis of PR, the biggest bonus arrangements I could possibly have. Because I have no desire or plans to sell the business I think equity is irrelevant. It creates a very weird culture where only incentive people have is to sell the business.”
Perhaps another way of looking at it is that in the niche areas of communications, the specialists have fewer limitations. In having a deep understanding of all aspects of their market, they can hold their own as equals with their peers on both the client and the media sides. As Clint Eastwood also said “I have a very strict gun control policy: if there’s a gun around, I want to be in control of it”. Specialism offers that control.