More diversity required on agency CEO carousel
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More diversity required on agency CEO carousel

Arun Sudhaman

The global agency CEO market is not one that you would describe as ‘high-turnover.’ Apart from the departures of Ogilvy’s Marcia Silverman (2009) and Hill + Knowlton’s Paul Taaffe (2010), there has been precious little movement in the C-suite of the big PR firms. Olivier Fleurot became MSLGroup’s first global head in 2009 when Publicis Groupe merged its PR operations; other than that, you have to rewind the clock to 2006 for the last major CEO shift - Mark Penn’s arrival at Burson-Marsteller. Which makes the events of the past few weeks fairly tumultuous, as far as PR firms go. The succession of Ketchum CEO Ray Kotcher by Rob Flaherty was widely-anticipated, but it would be difficult to say the same of the two other CEO departures: Porter-Novelli’s Gary Stockman and Michael Murphy at Grayling. (Or, indeed, Geoffrey Pelham-Lane’s exit at FTI Consulting). Which means that the PR industry, for the first time in a long time, now has some fairly significant vacancies at the very top of the tree. Some hefty paydays, presumably, are in store for the headhunting firms that are already sharpening their sales patter for prospective candidates. What exactly will the recruitment consultants find? It has become commonplace for PR firms to make much of their efforts to attract talent from outside the typical corridors of public relations life. Yet it would still count as a surprise if a major firm opted to hire a less conventional candidate to run its global operations. Perhaps it should not be. Two CEOs that have hardly been unsuccessful in their current roles are Fleurot and Penn, each of whom arrived in the PR world from careers outside the industry. Penn, of course, was a pollster with considerable experience of the political battleground; Fleurot, meanwhile, started out as an engineer before eventually running the FT. Another name worth throwing into that mix is Chris Graves, who took on the top spot at Ogilvy PR Asia-Pacific after a lengthy career as a journalist and publisher, before eventually assuming global CEO duties at the WPP firm. On the debit side, many would point to the example of Tom Nides, the former Credit Suisse executive who led Burson-Marsteller for such a short period of time it does not even rate a mention on his Wikipedia page. At a senior level, the talent pool within the PR industry is neither incredibly deep nor particularly broad. Vacancies at a local or regional level are typically filled by one of the usual suspects: someone who has already run a PR agency business, or an obvious candidate from within. A broader horizon might be in order. It seems sensible, for example, that agencies should consider the opportunity to hire a senior corporate communicator, particularly given the comparable size of the bigger global in-house teams. Similarly, the continued integration of public relations and social media, and its broader collision with the marketing world, would point to an opportunity to advance the claims of people from the digital or advertising industries. Even the professional services arena, most conspicuously in the realm of management consulting, appears to offer fertile soil for recruiting potential PR industry leaders. This is all fine in theory. Actually persuading successful executives from other industries to make the leap has proved problematic. The hope is that this particular hurdle becomes an easier one to clear as the PR discipline grows in importance. You can find a good discussion of some of these issues during our recent roundtable with Cohn & Wolfe. I can think of several instances where major PR firms have attempted all of the above, with unsuccessful results. A lack of cultural familiarity with the agency in question remains a concern, but this should really only worry successful businesses, rather than unsuccessful ones, where scrapping a hidebound culture may be part of the solution. PR industry inexperience can also make the most progressive recruiter pause for thought. Yet it could be argued that many of the bigger firms have outgrown the need for a ‘practitioner-CEO’ (and that there is little need for an expensive recruiter if an agency is focused exclusively on the usual suspects). The PR industry’s glaring lack of diversity, meanwhile, continues to exercise many minds and consciences. It is too easy to frame an emotive debate in terms of ethnicity or gender. The fundamental issue, to my mind, is the impact on the different skills and backgrounds that are effectively shut out of the PR world, by an industry that rarely appears comfortable embracing the disruptive potential of different types of people. Put simply, it is impossible to argue that a more diverse industry is neither stronger nor, as rival disciplines eye PR turf with aggressive intent, more competitive. The issue may be more critical a junior level, but the pattern established by the senior ranks of the big PR firms is hardly inspiring. The stability in PR agency C-suites is something that other sectors should envy; an open-minded approach to CEO vacancies would set an example that the PR industry itself could emulate.
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