10 Minutes with a PR Pro: Richard Nichols, CEO, Instinctif Partners

Richard Nichols chats with us about making things happen and working with exceptional talent

Role: CEO Organisation: Instinctif Partners Richard Nichols was featured in the 2015 PR Week Global Power Book. As part of our #PRProSeries, Janie Emmerson, MD of Communications at Hanson Search, interviewed Richard to find out how he made it in the industry.

Why did you get into communications?

Having graduated from Cambridge University as an economist, I moved into the world of accountancy. So I guess many would then describe me as a “bean counter” by background. I built a career at Price Waterhouse in London, spending a brief time on secondment in Amsterdam. In the early 1990s, I left to join British Gas and got heavily involved in the de-merger in a corporate finance role at the their Rivermill House headquarters. Having spent 18 months there, out of the blue I took a phone call from one of my former PW clients, the founders of a then small PR firm named Citigate. I recall their words were “Come on, Richard. How do you fancy a proper job”. They said they needed someone with larger, blue-chip experience. They took me out to dinner, and over a loaf of onion rings at TGI Fridays (not sure why I remember that piece so well!) they persuaded me to join them. I did not know what to expect but I sensed that even if this was a poor decision, there was no question that it was going to be great fun. So I joined Citigate in 1995, back then a privately owned PR firm with approximately 200 employees, based in Birchin Lane, London; and that was my introduction to the communications industry.

What personal attribute has most helped you succeed in your career?

I would like to think that I have brought a core financial and commercial underpinning to everything I have been involved in. And I have always then surrounded myself with a real mix of incredibly talented people. I would also like to think that I have been reasonably successful in bringing diverse, talented and passionate teams together and getting the best out of them. I have always had a clear sense of vision, in terms of understanding where a company or our industry is heading. I have always then been fortunate enough to be in a position, with the talented people around me, to make things happen.

What would you say has been the biggest challenge that you’ve overcome?

Probably the impact of the dot.com crash. Everyone can point to a moment in their career where suddenly things don’t all go right and for me it was 2001. As a public company we were trading on a multiple of over one hundred times earnings, a FTSE 250 company, and in 2001 the corporate recession hit. The dot.com bubble had well and truly burst. The shares price was only heading in one direction as the City decided that a PR firm should not be valued at over 100 times earnings. I would guess that the PR industry is unlikely to see such valuations again! The challenge was then against this backdrop to steer a successful firm, still profitable and generating cash, that had rapidly grown to over 2,000 people, but now over an 18 month period was to experience a continually falling share price. The business was still well-positioned with great brands and client work shining through, but that was not so readily transparent when each day employees were looking at a share price heading south – being re-rated from almost 100 times earnings to nearer 10 times earnings. The company had no divine right to survive – but survive and flourish it did.

Who would you say has been the most inspiring person you’ve worked with?

I have always been inspired by the people I work with. I have never really looked to a single individual throughout my career, as I have been fortunate during the last 20 years in to have met some of the most inspiring, interesting, dynamic and challenging entrepreneurs; each of whom has had their own and often very different qualities – but all in their own unique way inspiring. I believe that working in such environments is a real privilege. I don’t think that any one day in all of my last 20 years has ever been the same. No one individual has provided me with that one single lesson that has moulded my career. It is the combination of the intelligent, eccentric, outlandish, brilliant and awful moments that have inspired me and continues to get me out of bed every day. And that certainly remains the case today. I respect all people who are passionate – the enthusiasts. I get inspired by what we are building at Instinctif Partners, where we have some incredibly talented, enthusiastic people, drawn from all ages and varied backgrounds. They all have something rich and different to add. As a firm we’re all in our own way blazing a trail - and I love it!

What is the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?

There are probably a few... “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” It’s pretty straightforward, but if I had a pound for every person who said “I wish I’d had that idea” I would be a very rich man. The simple reality is it’s less to do with the 20% inspiration and so much more to do with the 80% perspiration. It’s about drive, commitment and sheer bloody-mindedness at times to make things happen. “Think big, start small, act fast” probably sums up the practical approach to the two core brands I have been associated with building in my career – both at Citigate and Instinctif. And on a similar theme, “fail fast”. Never be afraid to fail. Learn from your mistakes. Everyone make mistakes, but if you get more things right than wrong, you are building something.

In ten years’ time, what do you think will be the biggest change in the global communications industry?

So much has already changed. Companies used to control their identities and reputations but now knowledge, information and perception are created in a huge ecosystem of customers, employees, suppliers, customers, commentators and communities that moves rapidly and is digested by everyone, not just the intended audience. There is an increasing call for genuineness and authenticity in all walks of life. “Keep it real” is indeed one of our values at Instinctif. Wouldn’t it be great if the big change was business becoming trusted more. My hope is that the communications industry will have played a role in putting the trust back into business.

What would you say are the three words that best describe you as a communicator?

I see myself as the conductor of a Philharmonic Orchestra, in that people don't come to listen to me or watch me conduct, people come to listen to the orchestra. That’s my style. I rarely seek the limelight, but take real pride and am thrilled when the business and talented people around me come together to win – whether that’s succeeding at a pitch, delivering a unique experience for a client, handling an IPO successfully, Instinctif being nominated for the latest industry award, attracting a really talented new graduate to join our company... all those moments that combine to build a successful business.

Apart from your current role, what would be your dream role within communications?

I can easily answer that, I’d like to be manager of Newcastle United. But given the results this season, maybe I should even consider playing.


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Author: Janie Emmerson

Janie leads Hanson Search's European offering. Based out of our London office, she manages both the London and Paris team, supporting and guiding their efforts across the region.

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