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Gordon Tempest-Hay - Happy Accidents & Passion

School > Civil Servant > Head of Corporate Affairs (Edexcel) > Consultant/Associate Director/Board Director/Assistant Managing Director (Fishburn Hedges) > CEO (Blue Rubicon)

When we first approached Gordon Tempest-Hay (CEO of Blue Rubicon) to ask if he’d be happy to have his career profiled in the first issue of The Foundry Line, although game, he questioned whether his ‘non-traditional’ route would be appropriate for its launch.

All the more reason to choose Tempest-Hay, we say. He appeals to our interest in practitioners with flair rather than formulae, and, in a sense, that PR ‘happened’ to him rather accidentally is part of the riveting story of Blue Rubicon.

We can pick up on Tempest-Hay’s non-traditional career path at the point when he chose to leave school and get a job rather than go to university. He did go, as a mature student, to the University of Westminster to do an MA in Marketing (which he passed with Merit), but essentially, his success might best be credited, he says, to happy accidents and a passion for communication. “It found me. With no ‘A’ levels, nor a degree, mine is not your normal path” he says.

Tempest-Hay’s first job after leaving school was as a Civil Servant in the Department of Work and Pensions, where he was heavily involved in taking two major pieces of legislation through the Houses of Parliament. The work exposed him to the world of press and public affairs. By his own admission, the Civil Service has a gold-fish bowl insularity, and it wasn’t until he found himself dealing with the communications industry, that he began to understand the extent of that space between what Government does and how the public perceive what it does. Suddenly Tempest-Hay understood that his career beyond the Civil Service lay within that space – “I could see the point of interface between the Government and the outside world”.

In 1996 Tempest-Hay answered a Sunday Times ad for a Head of Corporate Affairs at the GCSE and ‘A’ level examinations provider, Edexcel. Given his experience, it made sense to make a move inhouse rather than to a PR consultancy. He arrived at Edexcel with a remit to challenge attempts by the then Tory Government to re-nationalise the examination bodies in the wake of developments surrounding the issues of grade-inflation. Working closely with the Chief Executive and Chairman’s office, Tempest-Hay’s strategy was very quickly successful. This foray into public affairs, and the campaign’s success, coincided with the happy accident of the Marketing Director’s retirement. Tempest-Hay, after just 6-months in post, was propelled overnight into a “do-it-all” role involving marketing, events, strategy and PR. It was, he describes, a “fortunate” turn of events which afforded him direct contact with PR agencies such as Westminster Strategy and QBO; gave him a budget of £2.5 million and put him in charge of a team of 12 staff. Luckily, PR “happened to be something I was good at” he tells me.

So what constituted Tempest-Hay’s first strategic PR career move? Certainly, up to this point, there was an element of ‘falling into’ PR, but after 3 years in his role at Edexcel, he joined Fishburn Hedges as a consultant. This is where he began to get surer-footed about a career trajectory; a new sense of purpose and ambition led to a quick-rise through the ranks before he was made, within 4 years, Assistant Managing Director. “I was very careful about managing that path” he tells me, “extremely driven and focused; pushy even”. Where, he admits, he could “easily have sat back” at Fishburn Hedges, instead, he was eager for the next step to happen. That turned out to be MD of Blue Rubicon where he is now CEO.

I asked Tempest-Hay what his advice to young, entry-level or junior, PR practitioners might be. “Let your enthusiasm shine through, have fun with it. PR can be fun, should be fun, and yet so many graduates entering the industry are so earnest, so serious, not only about the work they do, but also the personal career plans they have. Clients and employers warm to a sense of passion and play”. And while he admits the playing field is hugely competitive – only 5 graduates out of 1000 applicants made it on to this year’s scheme at Blue Rubicon – he suggests it’s a clear sense of ‘character’ rather than ‘career’ that needs to be on show to go the distance.

Perhaps there is a formula afterall for how to create the right conditions for the happy-accidents to happen?

Gordon Tempest-Hay joined leading PR consultancy Blue Rubicon, as Managing Director in 2004 before becoming CEO in 2010. Although its ethos as an agency is decidedly non-divisional, it specialises in Public Sector and Corporate Affairs. It was winner of PR Week’s award for Best Agency for 4 years on the trot and continues its soaring success.

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