Ball joins Portland as adviser

The PR company once close to the Labour Government is widening its sphere of influence, writes Nick Clark
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The Independent Online

The Public relations firm Portland, whose influence reaches to the heart of government, has secured its second coup in a week by hiring the former BSkyB chief executive Tony Ball as an adviser, which the founder expects to lift the group "to a new level".

Portland, which was set up by a close aide to Tony Blair, has been steadily growing its turnover and its impressive roster of government and international corporate clients since it was set up in 2001.

The company provides communications and public affairs support to clients ranging from Google to Southwark Council, and is expected to expand further in 2010 after attracted a string of senior names from UK industry, Fleet Street and Whitehall.

The latest was yesterday's recruitment of Tony Ball. Tim Allan, Portland's founder and managing director, said: "Tony is one of Britain's best businessmen and he will be an enormous asset to Portland. Having a chairman of his calibre will lift Portland to a new level."

The television industry heavy-hitter's role as chairman of Portland's Advisory Council reunites him with Mr Allan, who oversaw corporate communications at Sky when Mr Ball was chief executive. "Tony taught me about business, management and risk-taking," Mr Allan said earlier this year.

Mr Ball said he had followed the firm "over the last few years, and I am excited about playing a part in the next stage of Portland's growth".

The appointment comes shortly after Portland hired George Pascoe-Watson, the political editor of The Sun, as a partner.

Andrew Nicolls, founding partner of the City PR firm Penrose Financial, said: "Portland are very well respected, with a client list of big brands, although they are pretty secretive." He added: "They do big advisory work on big brands for big bucks."

Portland has strong connections with New Labour. Mr Allan was deputy to Alastair Campbell when he was Tony Blair's director of communications. Steve Morris, a managing partner, was a former adviser to No 10; head of writing David Bradshaw was a speechwriter for Mr Blair, and Martin Sheehan, formerly Gordon Brown's head of strategic communications, is also a Portland partner. Yet the group does not intend to allow the potential change of government to dent its influence, and has lined up a string of hires with links to the Conservatives, a party led by a former public relations man in David Cameron.

Mr Pascoe-Watson said he was "thrilled to have played a role in switching The Sun's support to David Cameron", adding: "The political and media landscape is undergoing historic change. David Cameron is on course to be the next Prime Minister." He followed the appointment of the former Tory cabinet minister Michael Portillo to the advisory council set up to "oversee the company's strategy" and, which will be headed by Mr Ball.

Recent hires with links to the Tories include George Eustice, a former spokesman for Mr Cameron, as associate director, as well as Ruth Ferrer-Lengton, once an aide to the former Tory party leader Iain Duncan Smith.

Portland has grown to 50 employees since it was launched in 2001, and has opened offices in New York and Nairobi this year.

Last month, Mr Allan said the business had "grown from a small boutique agency a few years ago to a significant player in the UK communications market". He added: "We have ambitious growth plans, and the wisdom and experience of such distinguished advisers will be an enormous asset guiding us through this stage in our development."

Steering to Portland: Group's stellar clients

Under Mr Allan's expert handling, Portland has built up an impressive range of clients, ranging from the UK Government to US multinationals including Coca-Cola and Google.

The company offers communications services to blue-chip companies such as Vodafone and Tesco, and has the mandate to advise on Jaguar Land Rover's strategy.

Its success convinced McDonald's to shift its business over from rival Bell Pottinger in June last year. The fast-food giant said at the time that it wanted a public relations agency "with the capacity to support us in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as in Westminster".

Yet Westminster is a speciality. Portland has the mandate to advise the Central Office of Information, the Government's communications arm, as well as the Communities and Local Government office and Southwark Council. It has advised the Kremlin in the past, and also worked for Russia's energy giant Gazprom.

Beyond the corporate and state clients it supports a series of charitable causes. Portland advises the Tutu Foundation UK, set up by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to tackle violent gang culture, as well as the Kofi Annan Foundation and the Teenage Cancer Trust.

Appropriately for a company that prides itself on helping clients to "be prepared" for any eventuality, Portland also has the contract to advise the Scout movement.