Taking the hotseat
Many people gripe and moan about the lack of opportunity in the Scottish media industry these days, but if anyone needs a prime example of somebody that has made the most of the opportunities this industry offers, it is the man pictured opposite.
Just eight years ago, Jeremy Hamilton sat in a basement office in Glasgow re-writing press cuttings for the weekly bulletin Priority magazine. Perhaps, if anyone at that time had suggested that the guy who sits at the end of the corridor and writes Priority would be the boss of a major networked PR consultancy within eight years there would have been some puzzled looks. But that’s just what he did two weeks ago when he was installed as executive director of Harrison Cowley’s Scottish office.
I first met Hamilton in his small basement office eight years ago when I joined Carnyx Group as a (fresh-faced?) reporter and over the years have been able to monitor his rise to fame. Somewhat depressingly, while I have moved approximately 20 yards along the corridor in the last eight years, Hamilton has scaled the heights of Scottish PR and now sits at the top of the tree at a consultancy with plenty of heritage behind it. Or, as he explained when we met for a swift glass of red in Glasgow: “Harrison Cowley is a very strong brand within the PR market and a genuine UK player with 11 offices spread across the country, backed by a down-to-earth, straight-talking CEO and management team, who are genuinely focused on building long-term relationships with their clients and staff. The Scottish market has always been, and will continue to be, extremely important to Harrison Cowley. It is home to some great brands and businesses, and the opportunity to head up Harrison Cowley’s Scottish operations was simply too good an opportunity for me to miss.”
That golden chance to step up to the managerial plate came towards the end of last year when Harrison Cowley’s joint MDs, David Southern and Malcolm Brown, both quit the consultancy within weeks of each other to move to Heart of Midlothian FC and Scotmid respectively. Senior executives at Harrison Cowley immediately launched the hunt for the person to take over and their eyes finally settled upon Hamilton, who agrees his first task is to return a degree of stability and continuity to the Edinburgh consultancy’s staff and clients.
“All businesses go through change from time to time, regardless of sector or size, and the recent senior management changes within Harrison Cowley in Scotland were simply part of that natural business cycle,” he says. “I’ve come to head up the Scottish business and the transition into my leadership has been very smooth so far. Clients and staff just want the same simple things: support, guidance, delivery, accountability, creativity and energy, and that is exactly how I’ve approached my first couple of weeks in the chair.”
As a Strathclyde University politics graduate, Hamilton quite literally has a degree in diplomacy. He backed that up with a post-grad diploma in entrepreneurship from Glasgow University in 1996, but it was during his time at university that Hamilton got the media bug, initially writing various music and club reviews for the Sunday Times Scotland’s Ecosse supplement. From uni, he joined the publishers of The Drum, Carnyx Group, in 1997, supporting The Drum’s editorial team and in 1998, he moved on to edit Priority magazine.
It was during that same year that he left Priority to join Shandwick, which became WeberShandwick, as a PR account executive under the guidance of the then managing director Graham Jack. His PR coming of age arrived quickly when, alongside Jack, he was responsible for handling all the media relations for the Scottish Qualifications Authority during the exam results fiasco of 2000. As Hamilton says, his mobile never stopped ringing for weeks as the Scottish media feasted on the banquet of mistakes. Despite being relatively new to PR, Hamilton soon found himself working with some of Scotland’s - and the UK’s - biggest blue chips including KPMG, Coca-Cola, First Group and Robert Wiseman Dairies among others.
It was during this period that Hamilton learnt what he believes has been the most important PR lesson he has ever learned: “Never over-estimate what is achievable and be honest with your clients at all times. Spend as much time planning your campaigns as you do executing them, stick to the agreed timetables and always make sure you get a good night’s sleep.”
The next chapter of his story emerged in 2001 with the birth of a major new PR consultancy in the form of Mike Murphy’s hatch-group. Graeme Jack was appointed by Murphy to establish the Scottish office and it was no surprise that Hamilton, who had earned his stripes in record time thanks to exam markers not being able to collate exam results accurately, was Jack’s first recruit in his new venture.
Hatch-group grew quickly and Hamilton was involved with the co-ordination of Orange and Nokia’s Edinburgh Festival sponsorship, project work for Shell UK, Eurohostels, Langs Hotel, communications agency Coltas Group and Robert Wiseman Dairies, a former Shandwick client.
In fact, Hamilton now regards Jack as having had the largest single influence on his career to date: “I’ve worked with and known Graeme longer than anyone else in the industry and he has without question been the one that has had the greatest influence on my career,” he says. “It’s important to have people who you can relate to, talk the same language with, and Graeme has been that person for me. But now I suppose we compete with each other, so I’ve changed my mobile number!”
Hamilton’s next move up the ladder came in 2004, when hatch-group was taken over by Huntsworth and rebranded Trimedia. Always a thrill-seeker, Hamilton moved to an in-house role as head of communications for First Milk, the UK’s largest dairy co-operative, handling 20 per cent of all UK milk and boasting a turnover of some £600m. It was his first in-house role, allowing comparison between the two worlds.
“Every PR consultant should spend some time working in-house whether it be on a sabbatical or full time basis,” he says. “It provides an invaluable learning curve in terms of being able to fully understand the daily trials and tribulations your clients face. It is important to be able to fully understand and to be capable of fully empathising with the daily pressures your clients face, whether your point of contact is an in-house head of communications or the CEO, finance director or commercial director. I am now able, for the first time, to appreciate fully the ways in which an external consultancy should fit in and work with client businesses. That said, given the choice I am a consultancy person, and while my two years in-house were extremely valuable, I missed the scope of experience and challenge that only agency life can provide.”
While some may consider Hamilton’s rise to the top to have been relatively rapid, he disagrees: “I don’t see it as rapid at all. Ten years is a fair amount of time, and I’ve worked across such a diverse portfolio of clients and projects during that period, that the position of heading up Harrison Cowley in Scotland seems a natural step forward for me. Running Harrison Cowley in Scotland is no different to launching hatch-group, the psychology is exactly the same.”
As for moving Harrison Cowley forward, Hamilton is taking an ‘evolution, not revolution’ approach as he explains: “The priority is to move Harrison Cowley forward in Scotland. To bring my style of management into the team, to develop a new culture that is as hungry to deliver for clients, as it is to win new business. I don’t consider it a challenge as such, it is exciting and a real privilege.”
Hamilton has worked hard to rise through the ranks in Scottish PR, but if he has achieved anything it is to demonstrate that success is there if you genuinely want it in Scottish media. And for any young PR executive wanting to follow in his footsteps, he advises: “Focus on understanding the media in the early stages of your career. Try and really understand what the media wants and needs, how they work and how PR fits in with the media agenda. Focus on your writing skills, read case studies, trawl through previous campaigns, look at what worked and what didn’t and most importantly get yourself aligned to a good agency with good managers and even better account directors.”
Good advice. As if to prove he really has become part of the PR cognoscenti, he’s next at the bar.