One of the most commonly asked questions of 3x1 founders Julie McGarvey and Cameron Grant is how the PR company got its name. Pseudo-intellectuals like to pontificate that the name is representative of the emerging communications companies of recent years, combining advertising, media and PR. Others say it’s the power of three people (although quite how that works is beyond me as it’s just the duo at the helm of the company). Grant and McGarvey laugh when I share these theories with them.
“The name came from us launching the company on
1 January 2001,” says Grant. “We had no name, no income. We were working from Julie’s kitchen table.”
“To be honest, we were forced into coming up with a name really quickly because we got on the pitch list of St Andrew’s Bay Hotel,” McGarvey adds. “We were working full-steam on getting some credentials ready. We did think about McGarvey Grant, but it sounded like lawyers and I hated it. And there was a trend for PR companies having modern names, not ‘such and such associates’. We were in a more modern, creative services business.”
Grant, in particular didn’t want his name above the door. “Then we’d never have an exit route,” he says. “I said to Julie we wouldn’t want to be doing what we were doing in 20 years, and there’s nothing to stop anyone else being a director of this business because their name’s not above the door. If you look at people who were bought over, like Flora Martin [former Citigate Smarts director], the first thing they do when they leave a business is buy their name back.”
Both Grant and McGarvey come across as charming, enthusiastic and professional. Before meeting them, I canvassed opinion on the duo which ranged from “utterly charming” to “scary”. It turns out that while both are passionate, driven and great company, they do have a bit of a reputation in the industry for being tough to work with. They’re pragmatic about that though, saying that while some people don’t relish their attention to detail, their response is: “Tough.”
“Because we work on so many consumer accounts that are being publicised across the UK, we are very conscious that we have to be as good, if not better than, London-based agencies,” McGarvey says. “We push our staff out of their comfort zone, which can make us tough to work with.
“Sometimes, if we take staff from another agency, they’re often scared out of their wits to pick up the phone. That sometimes makes us more challenging to work for. But the sheer satisfaction you get from seeing the staff achieving things makes that worthwhile.”
Both in their 40s, McGarvey and Grant launched the six-year-old company after years at other consultancies. They’d worked together at The Communications Group, and it was over dinner in November 2000 that they discussed working together on a start-up.
“I’d been offered the chance to set up my own business in the past, but it was over dinner one night we talked about it,” says Grant. “I wanted to do it with someone else, as I think it’s a very lonely path to go down on your own.”
“I wish I’d done it a lot earlier,” confesses McGarvey. “But we had a bit more experience.”
“I think part of our success was that both of us had run businesses,” says Grant. “There are so many people who set up on their own and say they’re a PR consultancy, but when it comes to actually running a business, they have no idea about credit control, office administration and employee relationships. If you’ve not been around that it can be incredibly daunting. We weren’t the youngest when we started, but I think we had a maturity our clients wanted.”
The first client through their doors in 2001 was Highland Spring, a brand the company now handles on a UK-wide basis. Most recently, 3x1 worked on the launch of the brand’s sponsorship of Scottish tennis champion Andy Murray, garnering page after page of publicity in the quiet period between Christmas and New Year. Considering Saddam Hussein was executed at that time, the coverage was impressive, something McGarvey and Grant put down to the professionalism of their team of 11 account handlers.
“We’ll get a client on GMTV just as often as we will on Scottish radio station,” says Grant emphasising again the company’s position as a UK-wide consultancy. “We know we are tough, but we believe everything should go out to a very high standard. And you’re only as good as your staff. They’re the next stars, the hungry ones who want to be the best. Finding people who are really hungry is really difficult. There are hundreds of people who want to get into PR and who think it’s all glitz – which sadly it isn’t.”
Grant started off as a chartered surveyor, before changing his degree to accountancy. After moving into PR, he went back to university to do a masters in PR and marketing at 27. McGarvey went straight into media at the BBC, and also started in PR at 27.
“Cameron and I are far more appreciative of the value of a client base, because we’ve nurtured and built that,” she says. “I sometimes have to instill a sense of ‘these clients don’t just come about’. We have people coming into the business at a much earlier age who have no sense of the value of building and sustaining that kind of portfolio.
“I remember my earliest experience as an account executive on the Gleneagles account – then I went to work for another company on a different hotel group... I remember going on a press trip, walking into the bathroom and thinking, ‘Where’s the bathrobe?’ That was a wake-up call. I realised not everybody has a Gleneagles or a Stobo.
“There are exciting things to work on, but there’s also an awful lot of unseen drudgery before you get the limelight. And the media are tough to deal with. There are a lot of people in PR who are frightened of journalists.”
After Highland Spring, the consultancy won St Andrew’s Bay Hotel, and bolstered that with confectioner Lee’s. The following year, Scottish & Newcastle appointed 3x1 to work on Kronenbourg. St Andrew’s Bay has since been absorbed by consolidation into hotel groups, but Lee’s and Kronenbourg still work with the consultancy.
Both Grant and McGarvey believe the agency’s organic growth has given them confidence to invest in staff, and take on project-based work. “A lot of our philosophy is that we are an extension of the client, so we spend a long time getting under their skin,” says McGarvey. “There’s not an ‘us and them’. You are an external adviser, but I think relationship-building is crucial for longevity.
“More and more companies want to test you out on a project, rather than hand you an account. The evaluation of everything now means marketing directors are under huge pressure to justify their spend. It’s not just a matter of ‘we’ll do a bit of marketing, a bit of advertising and a bit of PR’. It sounds awful, but 20 years ago I might have sniffily turned down something saying it’s too small a project. But not now. We’re growing our business and we have evidence of growing those projects into something more substantial.
“It’s very rewarding to see that growth. Andy Murray was Highland Spring’s idea. We were very involved in it. The idea of getting Highland Spring and First Group involved in the Commonwealth Games bid for Glasgow was ours. We’re lucky we have clients who are very open to ideas. Having a relationship where you can throw them ideas all the time, they’ll often find the money for the idea.”
Grant doesn’t believe that having an office in Glasgow stops clients working with them, believing instead that if they offer the same quality as a London consultancy, clients will work with them. That attitude has seen them lauded as ‘ones to watch’ by London-focused PR Week magazine.
“There are 3x1 people on planes and trains to London all the time,” says Grant. “We consciously made that decision to come back to Glasgow. We’re both Glaswegians, and having worked in London we realised it didn’t make a difference where we were based.”
All that remains is attracting the right staff. The idea of succession management, they both believe, is a driving force for people joining 3x1. “Career advancement is a big attraction for people,” says McGarvey. “There are also people who are driven by wanting fancy titles.”
“People also judge it by their peers if they’ve got a friend at another agency,” says Grant. “I wouldn’t have titles if you could get away with it as you create a hierarchy that isn’t helpful. But everyone who joins us is automatically joined into the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. And if people want to join the Marketing Society or Chamber of Commerce, we help them do that. We send them on two or three training courses every year and that’s quite a financial burden to bear. It’s very easy to bill people and get the money in, but you have to account for your business.”