Conservative lobbyist seeks current and controversial clients

Written by David Singleton on 4 May 2015 in Features

After one year in the job, Burson Marseller lobbying chief Stephen Day says his firm is now 'a top five agency' for public affairs in the UK


In many respects, Stephen Day has a typical Tory lobbyist's CV. He was head of the Conservative Association at university before going on to work for a Conservative MP and then making the switch to an agency.

But Day has a few more strings to his bow than your everyday Tory operator. Not only was he head of the LGBT society at Southampton University but he was also a councillor while he was there, making him briefly the youngest Conservative councillor in the country at the age of 21.

“It is a bit Tory Boy-ish, I know,” he says with a wry smile.

Day has just celebrated his one year anniversary at Burson-Marsteller, having joined in April 2014 as managing director and practice chair for UK public affairs and political communications.

Previously he was managing director of Portcullis Public Affairs and also worked at Euro RSCG and Fleishman Hillard.

Day recalls how he made the switch in to lobbying back after meeting with lobbying industry supremo Kevin Bell, then boss of lobbying firm GPC, just before the 2001 general election.

At the time, Day was working for shadow trade and industry secretary David Heathcoat Amery and Bell had been lobbying the MP.

“On the way back to go to Strangers’ lobby to take Kevin back, he said: ‘You were very good in that meeting but the Tory party’s going nowhere. So if you want a job after this, you’re not going to be anywhere in politics for the next ten years, come and work for me. Give me a call after the election.’

“After the election, I was a bit fed up. I gave him a call. Good to his word, in true Kevin style, he invited me to lunch at The Ivy. And after two glasses of wine he gave me the job.”

Now, Bell is global chair of Burson-Marsteller’s public affairs arm having joined the agency from Maitland in early 2014 and promptly recruited his former junior colleague to head the UK public affairs team.

“Now I work with Kevin again. I can’t shake him,” jokes Day.

Burson Marsteller certainly appears to be investing in public affairs. The agency now has 14 people in the dedicated public affairs team led by Day, up from seven at the start of 2014.

Day acknowledges that public affairs has not always been Burson-Marsteller’s strongest hand in the UK but insists this has changed in the last year under his watch.

“Burson Marsteller has got a great reputation in the United States for public affairs and that’s heritage of the company. But also in Brussels we’re very strong. In London, we’ve not been the strongest link and it’s not been our strongest suit previously. I would argue now that in the last year we’ve had dramatic success, much more so that I expected.

“We are now a top five agency by comparison, knowing what I know about other companies and their revenues in public affairs. Obviously people display their data differently but from what know of previous companies, probably when they were doing better, our revenues are higher.”

Day says he can’t provide the figures for the last year’s financial performance due to Sarbane Oxley restrictions, but he insists that “our revenue has more than tripled”.

He cites Uber, Aldi and Ineos as key clients, adding: “It’s heavily regulated sectors where we’re strongest and people who’ve got an innovative and perhaps disruptive brand. We worked on the strike that Uber had and I led Burson Marsteller’s work across EMEA for that.

“Also Aldi is indicative of where we’re going. Aldi is another disruptive brand who’ve come into a market and shaken it up. We’re not afraid of controversy. Ineos are leading he way on fracking, we’re leading their work on fracking.

“So we’re dealing in issues – and I think this is Burson Marsteller’s heritage really - that are current and controversial.”

Day is similarly upbeat about the future for public affairs industry which he believes is continuing to grow and now has the edge over the wider PR industry in many ways.

“Beyond lobbying – lobbying is just a tiny bit of what we do - I think the industry itself is still maturing, whereas I think PR professionals have lost direction a little bit and the PR market itself has shaken up.

“I think public affairs is still earning good revenues and there’s still opportunity to sit at the boardroom table, while I think a lot of PR professionals have lost their place there, actually frankly due to a lack of professionalism in my view across some of that sector.”

As we chat over lunch in Covent Garden’s J Sheeky restaurant, Day makes it clear he is a David Cameron fan and he does not want to see the Tories changing to accommodate Ukip.

“My politics are on the centre and centre-left of the Conservative party,” he says. “I agree with Ken Clarke. I think the Conservative party was going entirely in the right direction in government.

“I think coalition politics is good with the Liberals and I’m very pleased with David Cameron as prime minister. I think there is a danger that the Conservatives are trying to go to the right to try to win the election.”

So is the man who was previously England’s youngest Tory councillor ever tempted to head back into politics, or is he in now public affairs for life?

“For life sounds like a sentence,” Day smiles, before making it clear he has no plans to become an MP any time soon.

“I don’t see it, certainly not in the next 10 or 15 years. There are too many young people in parliament, too many careerists. People who have been in our industry for a brief period of time and used it as a stepping stone. If I was to go into politics it would be after my career has ended, not at any point before that.”

As our food arrives there is just about enough to ask who will win the election. Without any pre-amble, Day cuts to the chase.

“I think the Conservatives will win,” he says. “It will be less tight than we think. I think we’re in a 92 scenario and people will change their mind on election day.”

Such a bold call on the toughest contest in recent history would suggest that Day is a lobbyist of supreme confidence. Either that or a lobbyist who is very keen to tuck into his starter.

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