Takeover talks

By The Drum, Administrator

September 24, 2004 | 8 min read

Isdale and Caira talk it out

The sun is shining down on the steps to The Big Partnership’s salubrious New Town office on a crisp Edinburgh morning. Pamela Caira, Catchline’s head honcho, rushes up the steps, Harvey Nichols bag in hand.

The first thing that strikes me is that Caira’s not in the boardroom with her new colleague, agreeing on a PR plan for the interview, following the recent conclusion of a deal that sees Catchline come under The Big Partnership’s umbrella, getting their stories straight.

In fact, contrary to that, Graham Isdale, one of Big’s three founding directors, is bounding down the stairs at a rapid rate of knots to greet her (and not me, I hope) with an exaggerated hug.

Isdale is relaxed, open-collared. The hard evenings spent thrashing out the deal are over, and it shows.

As we enter the boardroom, Isdale and Caira position themselves in seats next to each other at the table, pushing a large bowl of fruit aside to make way for a tape recorder and three glasses of water.

The pair share a joke (or two) before the questioning starts. Spirits seem high, and they can barely conceal their delight at the deal – which involved “cash and shares” – and will see the enlarged company become what they bill as the “largest full-service PR agency servicing Scotland”.

Furthermore, it will see the company blossom to a size similar to that of the Scottish operation of Beattie Media, Isdale’s former employer – although that is a point, perhaps surprisingly, played down by the Big director.

Isdale and Caira talk together about the background to the deal.

“The first contact came almost two years ago when Scottish Enterprise decided to rationalise its PR contracts from thirteen to three.

“Due to the scale of the contract, I remember putting a call into Pam,” recalls Isdale. “Pam and I knew each other at that time, although we were two rivals, and two likely contenders for the Scottish Enterprise contract.”

The two rivals formed an alliance to win the business. “It made sense,” continues Isdale. “The starting point was the very natural synergy between the principles of the agencies and the way in which we went about business and thought about business.

“We pitched together, winning the contract, forming a business alliance. It was during this period of working together that we realised just how close we were and how well we worked together.

“It became a natural progression to take it to the next stage. It was something that evolved and developed.

“We began talking on a more formal basis about the possibility of coming together as one organisation, and it became clear that we could. We kept talking and that led, this week, to the deal being concluded.”

What has emerged now is The Big Partnership Group Ltd. Catchline will continue to be autonomous, but a wholly owned subsidiary of The Big Partnership Group. The name and the brand, Catchline, will continue as before.

Big has been traditionally PR, and everything that PR now stands for. But Caira’s offering at Catchline goes beyond this.

“Catchline,” continues Caira, “has become quite a unique company. We have a PR division, a publications division, design, multimedia and also events. We can offer a full range of services to clients.

“We were Scotland’s third biggest independent PR company ... and probably the best kept secret in Scotland.”

Over the last 15 years, Catchline has built up an impressive client list and reputation from its Fife-based headquarters, while Big is the second fastest growing PR company in the UK, in the top 35 agencies – the fifth largest outside London. Now, with Catchline, Big becomes the second biggest PR company outside London, employing 70 staff across four offices (Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Fife).

How many people are in Beattie Media, I venture? “I don’t really know (Isdale’s quick to answer) ... I think Gordon was quoted recently in the press saying he had about ... (he wracks his brains) ... I really can’t remember. I really don’t care ...”

Isdale clearly won’t be drawn on the subject of Beattie Media. So we change tack quickly.

Caira takes over: “The main thing at this early point is to get the two companies happily merged and working very well with each other. Making sure that all of our clients – of Big and of Catchline – are happy, and service continues as strong as ever. These have to be our priorities.

“We (the board) obviously need to sit down and discuss our strategy for the way ahead, but growth is very much on the cards.”

“We are best placed to dominate – perhaps that is too much of a PR term to use?” mulls Isdale. “We want to consolidate our position in Scotland as the leading full-service agency. But, of course, there will be a natural progression,” he says, continuing to add more than a hint that a move south is one area of “natural progression” high on the agenda.

Big is now over four years old. It was launched in the spring of 2000 by the three founding directors Alex Barr, Graeme Isdale and Neil Gibson, following a split from Beattie Media.

The split was acrimonious and relations are still sometimes strained. So will this move, which will see Big grow to a size similar to Beattie in Scotland, increase such rivalries?

Caira answers: “People will see us as a big fish. But my business philosophy and, I’ve discovered, Big’s business philosophy, is about looking forward. You don’t look to the side, you don’t look back. It’s not about rivalries. It’s about building a very good, solid business. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t waste my time on that kind of thought process.”

I venture a reply: perhaps a number of people might have that line of thought process, whether or not Big and Catchline did or did not?

Again, Isdale will not take the bait.

“Business is about competition,” continues Caira. “And perhaps people shall. But that is not the way we are doing this. It is about building a very good business, not about taking other people out. We’d rather be the one to watch than the one watching, though.”

Caira worked in local newspapers before making a move into PR, working for BT and S&N. She then set up Catchline on her own “with just her cat” 15 years ago.

“I started off without a plan, just freelancing, and it grew from there. I’d love to say it was a strategic plan but it wasn’t. The full service aspect just grew from client demand. We had been working with other agencies and we found we had very little control over what was happening for our clients, so it just grew. And, although we are based in Kirkcaldy, which isn’t perhaps seen as the most salubrious place on the Earth, we have always had clients that are national.”

So, with very little changing in the day-to-day business of both Catchline and Big following the deal, what was the driving factor behind concluding the deal now?

“Why now? Well, why not now?” replies Isdale. “It was a natural progression. We worked well together. We have got to know each other very well, and it’s become clear to both companies, the people in both companies, that we have a hell of a lot more together as one organisation.”

“We probably came at it from different directions,” continues Caira, “but we have both come to a point. As far as I’m concerned, businesses either grow or die. Both our companies were on the up, and the right time to come together is when both companies are doing really well.”

Isdale nods in agreement: “Both companies have explored the possibilities previously with other partners. But it came down to experience. It became very clear to me again, this synergy ... Even when, on the face of it, on paper, the business proposition may actually look quite attractive, unless the people fit is a very good one, then don’t do it. You have got to be able to work together very closely. It’s not to say that you won’t have issues, every business has issues, but ultimately it is about having the confidence in each other to resolve them well.”

Caira agrees: “A lawyer’s role is to test people throughout a process like this. And if we were tested during the process, we were always quite happy with the response from the other side. I think we got to know a lot about each other through that, and through the reaction to certain issues, and discovered that, no matter what faces us, we’ll be fine.

“I think we drew a lot of comfort from the negotiations. I’m really excited about this. Although I enjoy PR, I love business.”


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