Life without Lynne Franks

`Ab Fab' brought fame to the most successful fashion PR company in England. But now it is absolutely serious about changing its name and burying its founder. By Emma Cook
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The Independent Online
Think Lynne Franks PR, sweetie, and what does it conjure up? The most successful fashion PR company in England? Yes, probably. But a few other things spring to mind first and the problem is, they're nearly all to do with the founder. Once the Jennifer Saunders version had taken hold, it was hard not to think of the more farcical aspects that have become a shorthand for the high-octane, fashion PR lifestyle; air kissing, shopping sprees, Tibetan Buddhist chanting and any number of toe-curling spiritual New Age fads.

Then there's the really flaky stuff that Franks has supposedly dabbled in, searching for elusive inner peace; making a urine circle on a hilltop, being massaged naked on a stone slab in California and attending menstruating rituals. It's legendary antics like these that ensure Franks' personality still defines her PR product. It matters little that the woman behind one of the most high-profile PR companies actually left five years ago and is now a non-executive director.

Yet perhaps her tastes and images don't sit quite so easily with the real business of Lynne Franks PR today; which includes working for such sober, "unsexy" clients as Abbey National and Merseyside Development Corporation. It's easy to imagine the company's occasional collective cringe of embarrassment like Edina's daughter Saffy in Ab Fab every time mummy tries out another eccentric New Age cure. Like sensible Saffy, the company is rather more serious-minded these days.

This must surely be a deciding factor behind their decision to rename themselves "Life PR". As well as being a bit of a mission statement, it's also an acronym. L to pay homage to Lynne Franks' legacy, I for influencer, F for futures and E for exposure. Still, it's quite a drastic brand change, one that any successful business wouldn't dream of doing unless they felt it was absolutely necessary like, say, Gerald Ratner. Surely Lynne Franks can't be that much of a liability. Stefano Hatfield, editor of Campaign magazine, says tactfully: "Like lots of very strongly branded entities, you can become a victim of your own success; if your image becomes inappropriate to the times, you can find it very difficult to shrug off." He adds: "The froth and bubble doesn't help you with the more sober clients."

Samantha Royston, chief executive of Life PR, is diplomatic about their reasons for ditching such an infamous heritage. But then she would be - that's her job. Perched on a purple designer sofa in her funky designer office, it's clear the 32-year-old Royston, who's been with the company for 11 years, is trying to do things differently. Like her predecessor, she fizzes over with hyper-enthusiasm and when she says things like: "We're really excited about where the company's going at the moment" you can tell she actually is. But that's where the similarity ends - Royston is less of an idiosyncratic personality, more a team worker. "Things have massively moved away from the person that was right for the Eighties. Now we've got different values," she says. "To be a `personality' is not what I'm about, or what the company's about. We're a team of people trying to work together."

Since Lynne took a back seat five years ago, it seems strange that they've waited so long to remarket themselves. "When a company's not doing well, the idea of change is very attractive," says Royston. "But we have been doing well, so we've kind of resisted that change. Now, though, we want to focus on other areas we're particularly interested in."

Yet it was the "personality" that fuelled the success of Lynne Franks PR, so much so that the hype was always greater than the business itself. As Hatfield says: "They were never big players in the market, but they were a big noise. They had `sexy' clients and did the glamour stuff."

As a memorable brand, it's hard to imagine Life PR having quite such a resonant impact, but that's probably the point. Maybe it's worth the risk of initial anonymity if it means losing the Ab Fab tag. Royston says: "At the time of Ab Fab, it was a double-edged sword. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't very positive. It was fun, we laughed at it and with it. But," she says, suddenly sounding terribly grown-up, "it's necessary to let the world know that we're not about Ab Fab any more. That was about being frothy and wacky. What we're about is a lot more substance. It's kind of growing-up."

Royston's persuasive but it's hard to believe they've changed that much when you take a peek around their trendy west London offices. They're gearing up to London Fashion Week and you could cut the buzz in the atmosphere with a Blahnik stiletto heel. Still, Royston is keen to stress their serious credentials, and hopes the new Influencer and Futures division, launched next week, will cut through the fluff. She explains: "The units are about identifying trends as they are being born. Then we track those trends through the media to see how they develop."

Their approach differs from conventional market research wisdom. "Most research is based on figures, data and sterile consumer groups. We're much more immersed in street culture, going out there and identifying trends as they happen," she explains. "Then predicting which ones will last." At the moment they are working with the night-club Cream, getting young clubbers to photograph the latest fads in watches, trainers or whatever.

So will they pinpoint the emergence of cultural groups like, say, the rise of the female thirtysomething Lone Ranger? Royston seems less sure. The units are so new, she says, it's hard to give specific examples. Instead she talks about Chanel's Rouge Noir nail polish - "Chanel sold a few limited editions in New York that were picked up on the street. A stylist saw it and thought, `that's fab' and used it on Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, and then a trend was born. That's what our Futures division does; tracks it from the street to the Influencer then the mainstream." It's not exactly Demos, but then that's not what their clients want. Lynne Franks PR was never about dry statistics or hefty intellectual forecasts - Life PR certainly won't be either.

We are interrupted by Royston's assistant who asks if we'd like more tea. "Fab", she says brightly, and whisks off to a soundtrack of dance music. For the foreseeable future, it's going to need more than a name change to take the Lynne Franks out of Lifen