When Tony Christodoulou was 30 years old, he departed his native Cyprus for the UK. It was a journey that Christodoulou was already familiar with, having emigrated with his family from the Mediterranean island to London a quarter-century earlier.
This was 1974, though, making the journey considerably less auspicious. Christodoulou, along with his wife Mickey and 13-month old daughter Kathy, fled the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus on a British frigate, leaving behind the country’s first PR firm, already trading briskly after launching four years earlier.
Christodoulou’s firm, Action Global PR, racked up fee income of $18m in 2012, when it marked 40 years of existence. In 1974, the agency’s prospects looked rather more bleak. “We lost everything,” admits Christodoulou. “Clients went, staff went.”
Once in London, Christodoulou set about working to retrieve a precarious situation and approached the Cypriot High Commission. “They asked me, can you shoot a gun?” he recalls. “I said no. Then they said, will you be our press officer? So I did that. Cyprus needed PR.”
You could probably argue that public relations proved to be Christodoulou’s salvation. Soon he began working for exiled Cypriot leader Archbishop Makarios, helping sway international opinion behind his country’s cause. Eventually his family returned to the island, thanks to Christodoulou’s newfound status as a reporter for the London Evening News and Reuters.
Action Global PR restarted life, but found itself operating in somewhat straitened circumstances. One client - the New Zealand Meat Marketing Board - remained, while another, anchor account British Airways, returned soon afterwards.
Fast-forward 38 years, and Christodoulou oversees an empire that stretches from Morocco to Russia to Pakistan, employing almost 400 staff across 31 owned offices in North Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. There is, quite simply, no other PR agency like it in the world.
And, as his episode in exile probably proves, there is unlikely to be another agency founder quite like Christodoulou, feisty, colourful and ready to take on all-comers as the PR industry’s attention shifts to the markets and regions that the 70-year old knows a thing or two about.
“Where others have feared to tread, he’s been willing to go in,” says departing Grayling CEO Michael Murphy, who has known Christodoulou for two decades. “He’s been a groundbreaker. You’ve got to hand it to the man, he’s a bit of a legend.”
“You’ve always got to work”
Christodoulou’s PR work on behalf of Cyprus was not the first occasion that taught him the value of sheer toil. Like many immigrants, his family arrived in London in 1950 to find that the streets were not exactly paved with gold. An eight-year-old Christodoulou began to pick mint and sell it in Exmouth Market.
“You’ve always got to work,” he points out. “And I enjoyed it.”
Some 62 years later, those two traits remain easy to spot. We are sitting in Christodoulou’s office at Action Global’s HQ in Nicosia, a bright, airy building that is surrounded by orange and lemon trees and an assortment of cats. It becomes clear that Christodoulou has not exactly slowed down at the age of 70, although he admits to now working six days a week instead of seven. But his love of the job - “the people, the relationships, the work we do” - is infectious. It explains, he says, Action Global’s continued independence, even as many other independents in his regions have sold out to American and UK giants.
“Tony doesn’t take a one size fits all approach, he’s a true entrepreneur who is very flexible,” remarks Murphy. “He’s ended up with a hugely complex business structure, with part-owned operations, but that doesn’t concern him too much because he’s been fiercely independent and hasn’t necessarily wanted to sell to a larger group.”
“Would I consider it?” asks Christodoulou of a potential sale? “We would listen.” Not that Christodoulou has any intention of becoming a member of the PR establishment. “They’ve been trying to make me corporate for years but I’m not going that way.”
Christodoulou has been proving the doubters wrong for a pretty long time. He describes his London childhood as “very poor”, reminiscing about the time his family pulled up the floorboards to search for a half-crown that his brother had dropped. When his father died in 1961, Christodoulou left school at the age of 16, working as a teaboy before making a decision that would ultimately prove pivotal for his future.
“My friend Jonathan Rowlands had a music publicity business,” he notes. “I joined him, I liked it. It got me out of my £5 a week job.”
Anyone who spends any length of time with Christodoulou will be regaled with stories aplenty. Funnily enough, these dry up when I ask him for a few from his years in the music business, working for the likes of Tom Jones, Rod Stewart and “Humperdinck”. “It was fun,” is all he offers. “The raving Sixties.”
By 1966, says Christodoulou, Rowlands was fed up with music publicity. The duo decided to enter the commercial PR world, working for a West African airline. “They were the only ones that would take us,” recalls Christodoulou. The relationship was not a successful one, leaving Christodoulou with a pair of cufflinks in lieu of unpaid fees. “We decided there was no point,” he concludes. “That was commercial PR. I’ve still got the fucking cufflinks.”
By then, Christodoulou’s mother wanted to return to Cyprus. It was 1968 and the lure of the Eastern Mediterranean was difficult to resist. Christodoulou began working for a Nicosia travel agency, handling PR for British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and Pa-Am, among others.
The BOAC relationship proved rather more fruitful than Christodoulou’s previous airline dalliance. The UK airline suggested he start his own agency, and in 1971 Action PR & Publications was born. BOAC, now British Airways, has remained Action’s client ever since, spanning 15 markets today, despite a bewildering variety of global account shifts, consolidations and reviews.
42 years ago, though, British Airways was Action’s only client. Others soon followed, notably Nescafe, the Cyprus Rally and the New Zealand Meat Marketing Board. It was on the last of this trio where Action began to demonstrate a creative flair that would help define its offering to clients. Charged with promoting the virtues of frozen rather than fresh lamb, Tony and Mickey launched live demonstrations, winning over sceptical Cypriot and Greek villagers.
By the late Seventies, Action was thriving. After starting out in the couple’s spare bedroom, they rented the next door flat as an office. Christodoulou began moving in show business circles, handling PR for a Columbia Pictures production in Cyprus that featured Peter Sellers.
“There was nothing that I wanted to do more,” says Christodoulou. “We worked jolly hard and business was fine. I was happy.”
In 1982, Christodoulou was diagnosed with lupus. Over the following two decades, the blood disease does not appear to have slowed him noticeably, although the effects on his psyche is clear: “I thought I better work hard for my kids.”
No discussion of Action can take place without recognising the rise of Christodoulou’s two children, Kathy and Chris, within the firm. Christodoulou is adamant that their ascension has been based largely on merit yet, like any family-owned firm, there is a clear sense that the younger duo will soon be in charge.
Not that there appears to be anything especially disturbing about that prospect. Both siblings appear capable and committed. Kathy admits she wanted to work in the business from the age of five; Chris initially had his sights set on becoming a pilot, but was persuaded of the merits of a career in PR when, as a 16-year-old, he attended an Action party that featured English glamour model Samantha Fox.
Kathy has the more marked PR pedigree, after spending 15 years learning the ropes at Action. Chris, meanwhile, spent a couple of years selling ads at WSJ before overseeing Action’s publishing unit, eventually running the firm’s Cyprus and Greece offices. I can think of a few instances of sibling rivalry in the PR world, yet there is an easy, unaffected functionality to the Christodoulou dynamic that would put some other family PR firms to shame.
Both of the siblings, meanwhile, clearly have a major say in how the business is today run, which is something of a recent phenomenon. Spend a little time with Christodoulou and it becomes clear that his grasp of detail over his far-flung empire is uncanny. So are his instincts. A meeting with the firm’s accountant, for example, is enlivened with the advice to make a crisis client pay upfront. “If they don’t get out of trouble they don’t normally want to pay. Get the invoice out asap.”
All of this though, suggests a level of micro-management that the next generation may find difficult to both emulate and navigate.
“He has so much experience that no matter how independent my brother and I have become, we need his insight on a daily basis,” says Cathy. “It’s not easy to work with your family on a daily basis, but I think it works for us. We absolutely disagree on some things, otherwise it wouldn’t be real. On the other hand I don’t think the company would have been as successful if my dad hadn’t managed it the way it did.”
“I do shout”
Beneath the bluster, the anecdotes and the steady stream of fruity language, Christodoulou is pretty astute. How else do you explain a PR firm that has, variously, entered countries like Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Kazakhstan, without making any discernible losses?
Much, it appears, depends on two particular factors. The first is Christodoulou’s unique management style, achieved via a relentless succession of phone calls that alternately cajole, berate and praise his managers. Action often appears to be more of an extended family than a business empire, and Christodoulou is in no hurry to see that change.
“I’m too soft with them but I do shout,” he explains. “I know all about them, their families. If they are in trouble, they come to me.”
That cultural underpinning begins and ends with Christodoulou, who brings his managers together once a year. “You have to understand your people,” he explains. “Understand who they are dealing with.”
The second aspect must be Action’s attitude to client service, which reflects the warm, hospitable culture from the which the firm has emerged. “Get to know the important people,” advises Christodoulou. “You can’t just sit there and buy someone a coffee, you’ve got to get into bed with people. Not literally.”
Former BA comms head Tony Cocklin uses one of many Christodoulou anecdotes to illustrate the man’s flair for client care. The start of the first Gulf War saw British Airways aircraft in Kuwait effectively hijacked by incoming Iraqi forces. “Tony immediately packed his bag and went straight to Amman to look after the situation for us. He was tremendous. After being there for about three weeks, he asked: ‘Will I be getting paid any extra for this?’ He went without any thought of that. Of course we did pay him more in the end.”
Notably, the agency is an affiliate for numerous global networks, which Christodoulou believes is as good a vindication of Action’s success as any.
“He has an amazing ability to develop relationships and keep them going,” points out Murphy. “Every one of the major groups ends up using him. Despite an apparent, chaotic exterior, he and his team always get things done and get things done effectively.”
The qualities that have made Action successful are likely to be tested further by the group’s expansion, which began in earnest in 1989, when it opened its foreign outpost in Athens. In the Nineties, new offices arrived at a dizzying pace: Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan , Syria, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Dubai, Kazakhstan, Moscow. There has been little let up over the past decade either, with Action now eyeing expansion into Mongolia and deeper into Africa.
Despite it all, Christodoulou calls his approach “cautious”. If nothing else, it certainly demonstrates a strong will. “When I opened Cyprus in 1971, I went to [later Cyprus president] George Vassiliou,” recalls Christodoulou. “He said you’re bloody mad. Who’s going to buy PR in Cyprus?”
“I said, thanks for the advice George, but I’m doing it. I do my own research. Wherever I go, it’s worked. I never lose money.”
Aside from the deep blue of the Mediterranean, and the ever-present prospect of a rousing Christodoulou phone call, there is not necessarily that much common ground to link Action’s disparate collection of offices. One thing they do share, though, is a preference for local management, which Christodoulou views as an important distinction between his company and other international PR networks.
“You can’t have a European running a country where he doesn’t know the media, doesn’t know the people and doesn’t speak the language,” says Christodoulou of his international rivals. “Good luck to them.”
Christodoulou is generally unwilling to concede that any of the international networks have prospered to the extent that Action has across its markets. He dismisses the notion that they pose a threat, despite the apparent progress of some global firms in such countries as Russia, the UAE, Poland and Romania. An idle observation regarding the success of British Airways’ Olympic campaign last year is met with swift praise for Action’s work on various other BA programmes. Beneath the bonhomie lurks a fierce competitive streak.
“I believe we did the best PR job in the world in 1990,” begins Christodoulou, outlining an undeniably persuasive programme that Action oversaw for the Russian Floks floating eye hospital two decades ago.
“I tried to get it down the Thames…” he muses. The recollection brings a giggle from Kathy but Google’s first search result for the Floks campaign is a letter written by the Action campaign, suggesting a level of SEO savvy that is not exactly synonymous with the organisation.
Much of Action’s work focuses on emerging markets, where PR activity often hews to a more traditional template. Despite that, the firm has made a considerable investment in modernising its approach, not only for clients but in terms of the technology that can help make its diverse network more cohesive.
In this, Kathy and Chris appear to have played pivotal roles. Indeed, as the torch passes, the duo see plenty of untapped potential for the agency. “We need to grow our offering - integrated campaigns, social media,” says Kathy.
“It’s interesting because they did things so differently in the past,” adds Chris. “I think, age-wise, it’s technology.
If Christodoulou is unhappy about the modernisation his younger charges are bringing to the agency, then he hides it well. “If they haven’t learned by now, they never will,” he quips. Yet, he is undoubtedly smart enough to recognise that changes in PR practice require some adjustment to Action’s operating model.
Kathy and Chris, meanwhile, are in no doubt about the indisputable value that Christodoulou still represents for the business. For all of the new technology and digital wizardry that Action will undoubtedly adopt in the years to come, there is some sense to Christodoulou’s enduring battle against becoming just another network full of corporate drones. “The companies we own feel like part of the family - the only reason they feel like that is my dad,” sums up Kathy.
Cocklin believes that Action’s success all begins with Christodoulou’s essential appeal as a “warm and social person”. Those qualities are rarely far from the surface; at a fashionable restaurant by a Cyprus beach, Christodoulou invites his driver to join us for lunch. It is not a particularly radical gesture, yet unimaginable in other emerging markets.
“You have to admire his style,” says Murphy. “A lot of people would describe Tony as a likeable rogue - he’s certainly very opportunistic and he’s certainly one of the most likeable people in the profession.”