Agency ready to open new permanent HQ

The 29 rebel agents who fled PFD, the U.K.’s oldest and largest tenpercentery, to launch breakaway outfit United Agents have endured a year of turmoil and conflict.

But now, at last, peace appears to be in sight.

After a few months of staff working from home and out of temporary offices under a cloud of litigation, United Agents is finally getting ready to open the doors of its new permanent HQ on Soho’s Lexington Street.

Comedy mogul Peter Bennett-Jones, manager of Rowan Atkinson, has emerged as a key ally in brokering a settlement with CSS Stellar, PFD’s publicly-quoted parent.

He will take a small stake in United Agents, and serve as co-chairman alongside Lindy King, whose clients include Keira Knightley. Bennett-Jones, who sold his production outfit Tiger Aspect in 2006 for more than $50 million but still runs his own boutique PBJ Management, has helped to secure a bank loan against earnings over the next five years. All 29 agents have also invested in the company.

Now they can get back to devoting all their attention to their clients, who include many of the U.K.’s leading actors, directors and writers, such as Kate Winslet, Ricky Gervais, Mike Leigh, Alan Bennett and Richard Curtis.

The agents insist, of course, that their clients didn’t suffer from the upheavals. But when you’re juggling deals on a cellphone from your kitchen table while being sued for gross misconduct by your former employer, anyone could be forgiven for being slightly distracted.

Yet virtually all the clients stuck with them. “The only concern our clients had was for us, particularly when certain stories started to leak out in the press,” says Ruth Young, who reps James McAvoy. “We tried not to involve them. They didn’t need to know how bloody and brutal it has been.”

The agents say it was for the sake of their clients that they had to break away from CSS Stellar in the first place.

“The overriding problem of corporate ownership is that you’re subject to the parent company’s whims,” says Dallas Smith, who reps Winslet, Sienna Miller and Rosamund Pike. “As an agent, every decision has to be about what’s best for your client’s career at that moment, rather than maximizing profits.”

CSS Stellar, a sports and entertainment promotion group, purchased the company from the senior agents in 2001. But the relationship rapidly soured as PFD’s earnings were milked to bolster other divisions of the struggling group, and promised investment in development failed to materialize. Disillusion turned to anger last year when CSS Stellar snubbed a buyout bid from the agents, then tried to sell PFD elswhere without consulting them.

The entire team — aside from veteran lit agent Michael Sissons — resolved to quit and start its own agency.

The drama was the buzz of London’s salons and gossip columns. It featured an irresistible cast of characters — on one side, the agents to half of Britain’s most famous stars and novelists; and on the other, Caroline Michel, a high-profile prima donna of the publishing world, whom CSS Stellar hired from William Morris last September to run PFD in the hope of stopping the exodus, but whose unwelcome arrival just tipped the rebels over the edge.

Their defection drew bitter legal and financial reprisals. CSS Stellar fired several agents who had already handed in their notice, bounced them out of the office and then announced it was investigating them for “discrepancies” in their commissions and bonuses. It tried to sweet-talk others into staying. But adversity only drew the rebels closer together.

“The best you can say is that it’s been a hellish corporate bonding exercise,” says Natasha Galloway, who reps young directors such as Kevin Macdonald. She jointly heads the film and TV department with Duncan Hayes, whose clients include Gervais.

Caroline Dawnay and Simon Trewin run the books division, while St John Donald will act as managing director. Other key film and TV agents include Anthony Jones, Tim Corrie and Maureen Vincent, along with Pat Kavanagh on the literary side.

“We all own United Agents — not equally, perhaps, but we all have an equal say,” Galloway explains. “We all chose to be there, when in the short term at least, we could all have had an easier life taking jobs elsewhere. If we had been an unhappy group, we would have split up, but there’s a degree of loyalty and trust. It’s a really good cross-generational, cross-disciplinary group of people.”

“What’s impressed the hell out of me through all this is that these people have behaved with total integrity, in a profession where people don’t always have that,” Bennett-Jones says. “Part of that integrity is that the client comes first.”

The problem for United Agents is that PFD retains the vast literary backlist, all ongoing income from existing deals and a share of any new deals for former PFD clients over the next three years. On the other hand, the once-mighty PFD has been reduced to a shell, with just a handful of its own clients.

But a boardroom reshuffle at CSS Stellar in January has opened the door to a compromise. Bennett-Jones is leading the negotiations for United Agents. Talks are ongoing, but the vitriol of last fall has been replaced with a more conciliatory tone.

“The clients are not best served by the divorcing parents fighting over the baby,” Bennett-Jones comments.

Bennett-Jones insists his role is not to lead United Agents, but to support the team with his entrepreneurial expertise. Smith says he expects the new company will become more actively involved in developing and producing for its clients. Bennett-Jones has certainly travelled that route successfully before with Tiger Aspect.

“The primary task is to get us up and running, and to make sure the clients are serviced,” Bennett-Jones says. “But part of the service now involves being entrepreneurial. There isn’t an ambition to become a production company, but there are opportunities to help clients to find the right producers and have a stake in what they do.”

So what’s the difference between the old PFD and the new United Agents? “We’ve grown up, and we’ve learnt,” says Smith. “Now we control our own destiny.”

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