Robin Grainger interview: 'My only plan was to innovate and do things differently'
The co-founder of GK Strategy speaks out as his agency has just celebrated its tenth anniversary.
Ten years after setting up GK Strategy, it’s fair to say that Robin Grainger is not resting on his laurels. “I still have impostor syndrome,” he says. “I still worry that someone’s going to find us out. But that keeps me fresh. I’m not complacent. I still lose sleep at night over clients.”
Recent developments suggest that Grainger can probably afford to relax a bit. In the space of a decade, his agency has transformed itself from a niche political consultancy operating out of a home kitchen to a full-service public affairs and strategic communications consultancy in the heart of Westminster.
Since it was established in 2009, GK has advised private equity clients on over 300 transactions totalling over $15bn in value. It also does public affairs for the likes of healthcare body Shelford Group, building giant Travis Perkins and pharmaceutical firm Viforpharma. A few years ago, the agency rebranded from GK Political to GK Strategy to reflect its expanding offer. In 2015, it picked up the Agency of the Year gong at the Public Affairs Awards. More recently, GK has raised eyebrows by hiring the likes of former Lib Dem minister David Laws. The agency now has 40 staff and a turnover of £3.5 million.
Is this the place he had always planned to get to? Sitting in the boardroom of the firm’s open plan office just around the corner from the Home Office and Department for Education, Grainger clearly has no complaints. “With hindsight one can always say ‘this was the plan’,” he says “The plan was to build a business that did something a bit different but competed with those more established players in the market. So the only plan was to innovate and do things differently. And that’s what we’ve done.”
Grainger was an account director at the now-defunct Westminster lobbying shop Quintus Public Affairs when quit to set up GK with Luke Kennedy, then an account manager at the same agency. While Grainger had done some work with Lib Dems and Kennedy with the Labour government, neither of them pretended to be Westminster’s best-connected lobbyists. The aim was not to compete with the likes of Bell Pottinger and Weber Shandwick, but to go where lobbyists were yet to go: to the private equity and the investment community.
Grainger recalls: “We had black books but they weren’t very substantial…. So GK was set up as a blank sheet of paper and we tapped up an industry that had never really been approached by lobbyists before. We wanted to offer them political due diligence, which is something that the market had not yet offered.”
He adds: “It was us who created political due diligence and we started in 2009, just after the financial crash. While there wasn’t much M&A activity, private equity had a lot of time on their hands. So we went knocking and doors opened.... We were very ballsy. I was 30, Luke was even younger. It was a little bit of a scattergun approach. We went after any private equity house that had a base in London and we got out and met them. It took about a year for us to land our first project – it was CVC – and in that year we contemplated whether there was even a market for this.
“Originally we wanted to do political due diligence and that was it. But because nothing was happening for a year we ended up doing public affairs, which we both knew. Now public affairs represent more than half of our business.”
These days, GK operates as two teams. One focuses on political due diligence and political risk, with the client list mainly comprised of mid-market private equity houses. The other team focuses on public affairs and strategic communications. They moved offices 18 months ago after growing out of premises at Four Millbank. “I’ve always been keen to be in Westminster. It’s in my blood, I guess. I just want to be around it,” says Grainger.
Key figures in the agency include former PPS Group boss Stephen Byfield who was recently appointed as chairman, signalling a push into planning communications, and Laws who joined in 2017 as a strategic adviser and is in the office for at least a day a week. “David has been absolutely brilliant for us. He’s been phenomenal,” enthuses Grainger. “He’s a natural political consultant and a great mentor to our staff. We love having him around.”
With the public affairs industry not exactly dominated by women yet, the GK boss is also understandably keen to flag up the fact that “three of my four senior members of staff are amazing women”. Grainger adds that the idea of the gender pay gap is something of an alien concept. “If you can do the job, you can do the job and you get paid the right amount of money to do it. I wouldn’t even think twice about paying them less,” he says. “It confuses me how we’ve managed to get to this situation in 2019 where women are paid less than men. Throughout my working life, I can’t ever imagine that having been the case.”
On the firm’s modus operandi, Grainger insists that fluffy public affairs is definitely not what he’s looking for. He says: “I want everything we do to be backed up by evidence, by research - research-led, evidence-based, rather than fluffier public affairs. Every client that we work with gets a risk assessment report that highlights the areas of risk and opportunity, low hanging fruit and the more challenging stuff and then we sit round and we use our strategic advisers like David Laws.”
Are there other agencies that GK would compare itself to? “No,” says Grainger, emphatically. “That sounds really arrogant doesn’t it. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. I just think we’re pretty different.” He lists Cicero Group and Political Intelligence as two agencies he has respect for. While Cicero is making plenty of noise at the moment, lesser-known Political Intelligence is a more surprising choice. Explaining it, Grainger reveals that Political Intelligence boss Nicholas Lansman “turned me down for a job twice which sort of motivated me to get into public affairs”.
Grainger is a Londoner born and bred who happens to support Manchester United. He explains: “I’m a north west London jew, so typically I should be a Spurs fan or an Arsenal fan. But I’m a Manchester United fan because when I was growing up my cousin who loved in Manchester bought me a season ticket. So from the age of 7 to 17 I was at Old Trafford every other week. But I still have to justify it.”
A few months’ ago he celebrated his 40th birthday and the GK boss reckons that he’s become more relaxed with age and the birth of his two children, but the agency can cope with that. “I think I’m too nice, but that’s why having a business partner who is less emotional than me is useful,” he says with a smile.
Getting older has also meant that he has had to hang up his football boots and find a new hobby. “I obviously become stuffy because I’ve really got into golf recently,” he says. Is he a member of a golf club? “I’m not quite that posh yet,” he shoots back. “Or grown up.”
Is he ambitious? “Yes I am. But I’m aware of my own limitations. That’s why I’ve got good people around me,” says Grainger. Asked about the future for GK Strategy, the scale of his ambition is clear.
He says: “In five years time I’d like to be double the size that we are now in staff and revenue. I’d like to continue evolving and being interesting. And I want all of my staff and all of my clients around. Is that too much to ask for?”
PARNER CONTENT: This article is Dods partner content. It has been produced as a joint collaboration between GK Strategy and Dods' editorial and commercial teams.