Dragged kicking and screaming to success

Tony Langham and his partner Claire Parsons took out credit-card loans and remortgaged their house to set up their financial PR business.


Tony Langham

Most people choose a career because they have at least some desire to do it. But as far as Tony Langham, 52, is concerned, he was "dragged kicking and screaming" into communications. A former political market researcher with polling firm Mori, Langham was commissioned to conduct focus groups in pubs and living rooms around the UK to see if people wanted to buy shares in British Telecom. His conclusions, and the success of the resulting share offer, led him to follow his boss to the PR firm Dewe Rogerson, which wanted to set up its own market research unit.

But after seeing a communications agency from the inside, Langham decided to move to the PR side of the business. That's where he met his future wife, Claire Parsons. Inspired by Langham's accountant father, who told his son that the people with "serious money" were business owners, not staff, they formed plans to strike out on their own. The final trigger for the move came in 1989, when Parsons (by now his wife) moved to rival agency Quigley, only to see it bought by Dewe Rogerson, leaving her with the embarrassing prospect of telling the clients who had followed her that they had to return.

Despite a precarious financial situation they had to take out credit-card loans and boost their joint mortgage to 100% of their property's value the couple took the plunge, formally launching their financial PR business Lansons in November 1989. Like similar firms, their strategy was to make money by selling advice and reputation management services. But unlike rivals, who either focused solely on the Square Mile or did general PR, Lansons was in the middle it targeted financial services specifically, but not just City firms.

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The cornerstone of the agency was one big client, Churchill Insurance, who followed Tony from Dewe Rogerson. But the couple's mix of experience, knowledge of financial products and creative ideas meant that, by the time of the official launch, other firms had decided to sign up too. In effect, the company "took off straight away", and after just two years, it had ten staff and 20 different clients.

There were still plenty of challenges. Most consultancies fail to grow beyond around 20 staff, says Langham, because they don't put into place the infrastructure needed for growth. However, he'd always wanted to build the firm beyond that level. So in 1994 he took a radical step. To motivate his staff, and stop them from leaving, he sold them 40% of the firm, while he and Parsons retained 30% each. This gave Lansons the boost that it needed to become one of the leading independent PR agencies, with a current turnover of £10.5m.

Looking back on his 24 years as co-head, Langham puts much of the agency's success down to its holistic approach offering a wide range of advice to its clients. This wasn't unusual in the early days, but then other agencies jumped on the bandwagon of putting products in discrete silos' in the 1990s, only recently returning to traditional methods. He also thinks the fact that he first knew his wife as a co-worker has made them a more effective team and enabled them to keep their professional and personal relationships separate. But he thinks it "doubtful" his children will join the firm.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri