Chris Whitehouse, with 40 years working in Westminster and Whitehall, looks back on the evolution of Whitehouse Communications which he launched to industry derision 25 years ago.
May 1997 saw the Conservative government that had been in power for 18 years swept aside by the incoming tide of Tony Blair’s New Labour winning a staggering 418 seats and a thumping great majority. The Conservative Party was flat on its back and going nowhere near government for the foreseeable future.
Working, enjoyably, as I had been, for 14 years for backbench Conservative MPs, albeit the interestingly maverick ones Nicholas and Ann Winterton, the prospect of the irrelevance of working for backbenchers in opposition was not a great draw, and it was time to get a ‘proper job’ outside Parliament, in the real world.
I had already developed something of a reputation as a maverick myself, and with no experience of normal, structured work outside the exciting and chaotic environment of the Palace of Westminster, it was clear that even in the unlikely event that an established and corporate public affairs agency were to offer me a position, it would not be one for which I was cut out. In short, I was borderline unemployable.
By a process of elimination of all other options, I reached the conclusion that I should give it a go to launch a consultancy of my own. I took a punt on myself, and launched in 1998.
Don’t laugh or sneer, please, as other senior figures in public affairs did at the time. I know I had no capital investment, few contacts with government ministers, and no fat Filofax [remember the then yuppies’ trademark information carrier?] full of senior commercial or third sector contacts to turn into clients.
What I did have was a reputation, thanks to some good friends in the Commons press gallery, as an effective grassroots campaigner, and some case studies of projects that had delivered real results whilst I had worked in parliament. I even drove forward the campaign to get private members’ legislation onto the statute book: The Olympic Symbol Etc [Protection] Act 1995 was one of a tiny percentage of private members bills to be enacted, laying down a marker that the UK was looking better to protect the revenues from the Games – a prerequisite if the Games were ever to come to the UK.
I also had contacts across the specialist nutrition sector that needed help in the face of proposals for European legislation that would hit hard the UK’s thriving health food sector. Early on in my consultancy role these were consolidated into contracts to advise the national specialist retailer Holland & Barrett, their trade body the Health Food Manufacturers’ Association, and the grassroots campaign group Consumers for Health Choice.
Just a few months into this new role, the business was profitable and growing, with no debt, and a reputation for effectiveness and competitive value for money. That was the creation of the business that went on to become the Whitehouse Communications of today. 25 years of effective advocacy later, the ever-changing team at Whitehouse and I can be proud of the profile we have built and the results we have achieved.
We were hammered by the uncertainty that followed the Brexit result in 2016, and again by the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, but we had built up considerable reserves and rather than cash them in and run; we took a very conscious decision to use the security they provided to weather the storm – and weather the storm we did. At the beginning of the pandemic we had 12 staff, by the end we were recruiting to take us to almost twice that number.
Today, we are not just the go-to agency for specialist nutrition products in Europe and the UK, but also the leading agency in the continence healthcare sector, a major player in medical devices policy, and have extensive work in the third and independent healthcare sectors.
Yes, there have been great campaign wins, seeing Tony Blair as Prime Minister finally to agree to join with Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London and expelled from the Labour Party, and the Leader of the Conservatives to bid for the London 2012 Games. And blocking the introduction of Article 5 of the Food Supplements Directive for over 20 years [the 2002 Directive is still not implemented!].
But on reflection, looking back, the thing from which I have derived most pleasure is in identifying, recruiting, retaining and investing in the development of the brightest and the best team members we could find, from an unmatched variety of backgrounds; then empowering them to take on responsibility according to their ability, not their age or seniority; and seeing their careers fly.
So much for the past, and as for the future? Tell God your plans for the future, they say, they’re sure to make Her laugh!
The future when we launched didn’t include a coalition government, the Scottish referendum, the Brexit result, a global pandemic, war in Europe, the cost of living crisis, Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader, Theresa May’s disastrous Government and mad general election call, Boris Johnson as Premier, Truss so rapidly crashing the economy, and the highest tax burden in history.
The magic trick, against such a background of change and uncertainty, is to enjoy what you do, be passionate about it, recruit and retain the best colleagues, and focus on the service delivered to clients, so that the results achieved are seen as a good return on their investment. Oh, and don’t care two hoots about industry gossip and sleights from competitors.
I thank all those who’ve been on my team over the years, all the clients who backed us, and the parliamentarians and government officials, among many others, who’ve listened to what we had to say. We have left our mark on public policy, practice regulation and statute; and the world is a little better as a result.
The punt has paid off. Whitehouse Communications has been a success, and we’re here to stay.