The signs of decline that haunt Coley Porter Bell

Following a series of departures in the upper echelons of consultancy Coley Porter Bell, the group is poised to axe 20 per cent of its staff tomorrow. Andy Gilgrist assesses the situation

If, as expected, Coley Porter Bell makes ten of its staff redundant tomorrow, the workforce will be down to around 42, half of the consultancy’s size back in 1991.

On its own, this fact is not cause for undue alarm. Many other, still successful, consultancies have slimmed following the recession.

What makes this week’s events at CPB more worrying are a number of factors. First, the cuts represent around 20 per cent of the company – one in five posts gone in one fell swoop.

Second, the end of a massive project for French supermarket chain Promodès is cited by CPB’s management as the reason for the redundancies. So what exactly has CPB’s new-business team been up to in the run up to this fully anticipated event?

Third, the job cuts were preceded by the Christmas departure of long-serving client services director Richard Murray, a loss rumoured to be not half as “amicable” as the official line suggests. Murray can join a long and illustrious list of former CPB directors from the past two years.

So on the face of it, CPB has lost a lot of work, a lot of staff and a lot of “name” directors in recent years. Those subscribing to this view talk of CPB being in peril.

Another view is that new management taking over has left the remnants of old management with little option but to move on. Design consultancies grew too big in the late 1980s. And everyone is at the mercy of the inexact science of new business. Those who take this view suggest time will prove managing director Amanda Connolly and chairman Colin Porter right.

Connolly took over the managing director role from Helena Rees in July 1995. Rees had held the position since January 1994. But it is the previous incumbent by which Rees, Connolly and future CPB managing directors will be inevitably judged.

Jan Hall was at CPB for ten years, during which time the consultancy, and indeed Hall’s own profile, rose to become one of the UK design brands. Not that all was sweetness and light – Hall was not everyone’s cup of tea.

But she left CPB with a staff of 60 and a seasoned senior management team. The Rees era was brief, with the British Gas identity – a job won towards the end of Hall’s tenure – proving to be a high point.

Since Connolly took over, there appears to have been little to shout about. The roll-call of departed directors is long – Simon John, Paul Parkin, Kate Shaw, Kate Irving, Jill Marshall, Marcus Hayes, Karen Hood and Richard Murray.

New blood has come in, but to borrow a footballing gaffe, “you won’t win anything with kids”. That prophecy was proved wrong on the football field, but in the cut-throat world of the 1990s design consultancy, can CPB survive such a loss of experience and talent?

While ex-CPB staff willing to talk on the record about their former employer this week proved extremely thin on the ground, those offering anonymous opinions were many and vocal. “It’s in real trouble”, “too many good people gone”, and “it makes Connolly’s position untenable”, are just a few soundbites.

Does Connolly feel threatened? No, according to Connolly. “What I am paid and employed to do is manage the business sensibly,” she says. And of this week’s cuts, she explains: “This has been a board decision. It is not a nice thing to be doing, particularly when it involves people.”

Of the departed directors she says: “Their decisions to leave would have been taken anyway. We haven’t tried to reinvent things too quickly.” And as to the future, Connolly predicts: “The restructuring will happen and then it will be onwards and upwards. Coley Porter Bell is still a strong brand.”

Of course, the X-factor in all of this is WPP. CPB’s parent group is flying high and making serious amounts of money – profits fuelled by CPB through thick and thin. If Connolly is coming under pressure, then WPP will be the source.

However, some figures bear examination at this point. In the 1991 Design Week Top 100 survey, CPB’s 80 staff were producing a turnover of 5.5m. In the 1996 survey the consultancy’s 55 staff were turning over 6m. From WPP’s viewpoint, the picture looks healthy.

What will the 1997 survey tell us on 21 March? That CPB’s 42 staff are generating a turnover of 6.5m? Probably. But, of course, the financial total will refer to the previous year, the year of Promodès and 1600 packaging designs. It will be the 1998 Design Week Top 100 that may reveal a truer picture of Connolly’s reign.

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