David McDonough has spent 40 years as a pioneering adviser to captains of industry and global leaders ’ and now he shares his memories with Spear’s
Forty years ago, in September 1975, I presented myself at the West End offices of Dunbee Combex Marx, then a successful public company in plastics, cosmetics and toys. With new pinstriped suit and the superficial confidence born of three noisy but shallow years at Oxford, I had won the much coveted post (153 in the field, including Bruce Anderson and Patricia Hewitt) of amanuensis to the co-founder and managing director, a force of nature called Basil, now Lord, Feldman.
With a passion for politics and an acute need to earn a salary (’2,500 plus the use of his chauffeur’s previous Ford Cortina), I threw myself into my first employer’s world.
As well as running what was then a very successful business, Basil’s objective was to make an impact on the Conservative Party and in particular its campaigning methods. (His brother-in-law, the conservative columnist Bill Safire, told him endless stories about the Republican Party’s slick electioneering.) Applying astonishing energy, ambition and unrelenting enthusiasm, my boss went from failed GLC Conservative candidate in Richmond to the president of the party and, still, aged 92, a Conservative peer.
Smooth as Basil’s progress in that realm was, with me as his self-styled chief of staff handling his political life, relationships with the press and growing number of public campaigns, there was a career-changing moment for me in the autumn of 1979. Dunbee Combex Marx went into liquidation.
With six months’ salary in my pocket and Basil’s assurance that I should start a consultancy business to assist other business leaders, I raised a tiny amount of start-up capital and put up my plate, at the great age of 26, in January 1980.
Thanks to the kindness of a friend in advertising, I got drafted on to the project team trying to reinvent Woolworths. From that collaboration, and with some regular income from private clients, we put a team together to bid for the City of New York’s business: a high-kicking marketing campaign around Europe and the Far East to attract inward investment. Miraculously (but I suspect mostly on price), we beat five Madison Avenue agencies and kept the business for two years.
Smoke and mirrors played a key role, but nothing could take away from the fact that at the age of 29 I was running a programme around European capitals for David Rockefeller (then chairman of the New York City Partnership), whom I advised and with whom I travelled.
With wind in my sails, ‘Team New York’ then bid for the launch and marketing of the new Industrial Development Board for Northern Ireland — an extremely tough brief 30 years ago. We won it against stiff competition and kept it for three years. These big-ticket wins helped me build a business that I finally merged with what was then Lowe Bell Communications in 1990. After ten years building a ‘new model’ corporate communications consultancy, including advising the newly liberated legal professions, I wanted a more substantial home.
The next thirteen years, working for Tim Bell as part of his senior consultants team, were on the whole golden times: extremely bright, nice and motivated people, riding high on the back of Tim’s remarkable work for Margaret Thatcher, winning clients galore. We acted for the cream of the crop: election campaigns around the world, foreign governments, top companies and the A-team of business leaders. It was heady stuff, hugely rewarding and great fun.
Three challenges, in my view, changed the landscape. First, we became a publicly quoted company. Second, Blair’s victory in 1997 ended eighteen years of Conservative government. And third, we found it difficult to hang on to really talented people in the middle and senior ranks as the communications industry grew and adapted to a new political culture.
Few, except the substantial shareholders, enjoyed or benefited from public company status — we are not an industry suited to being driven by the City, who never did understand what we do. The arrival of the Blair era panicked essentially Conservative houses like Bell Pottinger and our response was to fill the place with smug Labour former special advisers who were never going to blend into our top-level consultancy culture. And while all the readjustment was going on, some real talent was slipping through our fingers — to rivals and, in some cases, start-ups.
I suppose it was a combination of these and other personal factors that led me to leave Bell Pottinger in 2003. My principal conviction was that there was a growing market in providing high-level strategic and navigational advice to successful people: mostly but not exclusively business leaders. I had seen it done very well by Tim at his zenith — James Hanson, Arnold Weinstock, John King and other giants of the Eighties and Nineties had all benefited from wise private counsel as well as good corporate communications advice.
The new millennium was throwing up a new breed of extraordinary people with common traits: very few people from whom to seek advice; huge unfulfilled ambitions, often beyond their corporate horizons; and the solitude that is so often the handmaiden of success.
So, on April Fools Day 2003, I put up my plate again, this time in St James’s, with two long-standing clients and a 50-year-old’s reignited enthusiasm for the fray. Twelve years later, and now in wonderful offices next to Westminster Abbey, I can say with an unusual degree of certainty that my reading of this part of the market was right. I have been fortunate to forge lasting retained relationships with chairmen and CEOs of public companies, the top brass of global and national law firms, City magnates, major philanthropists and a head of state, a shared relationship still going strong after 23 years.
The ‘close trusted adviser’ is an over-discussed and often overblown breed, but it is not a bad description of my relationships. I seem to combine the roles of strategist, navigator, ‘life counsellor’, therapist and even, on occasion, family adviser. Most of all, I listen. My father — unlike me, a quiet man — told me when I was a young man that the secret to being a good consultant was a capacity to listen rather than talk. It is sometimes a struggle but he was spot on. Being a confidant, ally, adviser and friend is the key. Success can be lonely, and harbouring often undiscussed and unformed ambitions only adds to a sense of isolation.
Don’t get me wrong: I am fortunate to advise some really remarkable people who have achieved and are achieving extraordinary things and see the wisdom of investing in the development of their reputations. It seems that time spent with me — and developing the plans that emerge from our discussions — gives them an added sense of perspective, increased self-knowledge and the resolution to reach new heights.
Not all my relationships are with successful individuals. I also often advise the senior managements of the corporate or professional vehicles they have created or built. This more often than not requires me to create and direct a team of fellow advisers — lawyers, brand consultants, graphic designers, social media experts and public relations specialists — picked from the village of trusted advisers in which I live because I know and trust them.
A charming young man from Spear’s came to interview me for the Index in this edition of the magazine. After I had taken up a whole tape answering his first question (such is the way of the listener who is encouraged to talk), he asked me if he could have a stab at what has made me tick over the last 40 years.
Delighted, I said. ‘Intellectual curiosity,’ he suggested. Spot on. Perhaps it is not so strange that it took an hour’s intense conversation with an independent third party to shed light on what my working life has been all about. Look out, Spear’s: you may have a new close trusted adviser in your midst.