Lunch with... Leon Cook
PRCA director general Francis Ingham dines with the Murex Strategy communications director at Shepherd's restaurant.
Until earlier this year, Leon Cook was a director at APCO Worldwide. He is also a former communications director at the European Azerbaijan Society. He and I caught up over lunch at the usual place and in the style of Arlene Foster gate-crashing a Dominic Raab/Michel Barnier tet-a-tet, a certain Lionel Zetter joined us.
We turned immediately and inevitably to Brexit. How, I asked Leon, did he think it was going?
"I respect the Prime Minister a lot. No one in their right mind would swap places with her right now. Chequers is completely unpalatable to the EU. Bearing in mind I'm someone who voted for Brexit, I think there one or two scenarios. One is that by hook or by crook, they manage to hobble over the line and get this voted through, but this is not really Brexit; or we'll end up remaining, because the maths don't allow for a WTO style hard Brexit.
"If I had £50 to put down right now, I would say that we're going to end up staying a bit longer; that there'll be a fudge; that the transition agreement will suddenly be opened up. We'll be bending over backwards to the EU, and God forbid it, I actually believe there might be a second vote."
And if there were a second vote?
"I believe in Brexit. I can't believe that another referendum would be a yes-no scenario. They would probably offer a multiple choice one - so hard Brexit, this deal, or remain. I'm not going to vote for a hard Brexit, because I think it would be punitive on industry, even though I believe in the sovereignty of our institutions. I certainly don't like this deal. So if I had to vote again, I probably would reverse my decision. But I never believed that we'd come to this juncture by the most haphazard route. And when your chief negotiator falls on his sword just a few months before the whole thing’s supposed to be finalised, you've had your chips."
In an industry where four out of five practitioners say they voted remain, these are strong and bold words. And quite the tribute to Cook’s integrity and straight-talking. Pushing my luck with direct questions receiving direct answers, I ask who will be the next PM? Will it -as Shepherd’s proprietor believes and hopes- be Bozzy Bear?
"No-one could conscionably vote for someone that doesn’t lead from the front, that isn't credible internationally. If we'd have had this conversation in the Spring, there'd probably be about 15 names or so. But now I think it probably has to be a remainer. And for that reason and I never thought I'd say this, it might well be Jeremy Hunt. He’s held an office of state that is basically the biggest poison chalice for five years. He’s fundamentally hated by an entire section of the public sector, but has held it together, and commands the respect of the rest of people in Cabinet. Young enough, dynamic enough."
Changing perspectives, we move from the political to the personal. Cook’s been at big agencies and in-house alike. What’s changed in the industry over those years?
"The big boys have done a good job of consolidating their power. They've evolved. They are literally full service. They do absolutely everything now whether it be financial, comms, AI, everything.
I've been in Washington, I've been in The Hague. Fundamentally, these larger consultancies are more or less the same -and certainly the American ones run on the same methodology. You go into board rooms and you're speaking to clients who want to be able to see a wide ranging tapestry of experience. Unless you’re boutique, you’ve got to offer it all."
And which is he?
"I work for a boutique... I’d say that we're unique. I can't think of another company that does what we do in the market. We marry strategic communications with community engagement and security. There are enormous security challenges and clients are looking for support either from New York or from Brussels or from London. The calibre of personnel that we have within our space is exceptional, with plenty of former FCO and security personnel."
Which certainly sounds unique to me. So to the regular final question -something readers won’t know about him.
"Well Lionel's gagging for this one. I am, for my sins, a fluent Dutch speaker."
And then he says something I don’t understand. And translates…..
"I've enjoyed this interview with these two gentlemen. Enjoy your starters, and best wishes to your readers for the rest of 2018."
And in the best Dutch style of embracing fun, with did just that.
Home cured ham and dover soul; smoked salmon and rib eye steak