Huntsworth’s search for its new CEO was nothing if not exhaustive. The UK-based holding group trawled the PR world for several months, in search of someone who could handle a fairly challenging assignment: Reignite growth at Huntsworth and succeed Lord Chadlington, the man whose energy and vision had defined the group since he founded it 15 years ago.
Ultimately, Huntsworth landed on Paul Taaffe, the former H+K Strategies global CEO who had been overseeing communications at Groupon for the past four years. The charismatic Australian was not a choice that surprised too many industry observers.
Not only is Taaffe one of a depressingly small group of contenders to have actually run a major global PR network, but the 53-year-old's financial expertise, both from his agency days and at Groupon, is likely to prove critically important when it comes dealing with Huntsworth shareholders.
Indeed, having once been dubbed the ‘boy wonder’ upon taking charge of H+K London before he turned 30, Taaffe has since become an experienced veteran of the agency world. A pretty successful one too, something which should not be obscured by the manner of his exit from H+K four years ago.
For those with short memories, the manner of Taaffe’s departure from H+K ranked as a genuine surprise. Under his stewardship the agency had performed soundly enough in EMEA and Asia-Pacific, even if North America remained a work in progress. The merger with WPP sibling Public Strategies (PSI), however, effectively led to a reverse takeover that installed PSI founder Jack Martin at the helm of H+K.
"If you put your heart and soul into something then it’s always disappointing if it doesn’t work out that way, but the reality was there were other players, other than Paul," recounts one former H+K executive of Taaffe’s exit. "The learning will not be about the last few months at H+K — the reality is there was a long successful career of building stuff."
Taaffe will need to bring all of those skills to bear in his new role, given the dismal nature of Huntsworth’s performance in recent years. The group, whose assets include Grayling, Citigate and Huntsworth Health, has barely grown since the onset of the Global Financial Crisis, suffering from an over-exposure to Europe and an inability to reach critical mass in North America and Asia-Pacific.
Events culminated in a period of relative tumult last year, with Chadlington and chairman Lord Myners announcing their departures within weeks of each other. Speculation has persisted, meanwhile, that Huntsworth shareholder Terry Graunke, who owns private equity firm Lake Capital, might like to merge Huntsworth’s assets with his latest agency acquisition, Engine Group.
Chadlington declines to comment on the speculation but agrees that Myners’ dramatic departure did "put a real burden on the company."
"But we got through it,” he adds. "We’ve got a new independent board, new chairman and a new CEO. It was a tough time but life’s not meant to be organised and easy."
With that in mind, it is easy to see why Chadlington rates Taaffe so highly, even if the Huntsworth founder was not directly involved in the search for his successor. "You’ve got to be tough in this job — you’ve got a lots of competing pressures — and be able to deal with the issues associated with being a public company," he points out. "It’s not just running a division of the firm. After I spent time with Paul I sent a note to my wife, where I said I felt my legacy at Huntsworth was now in safe and good hands."
Sally Costerton, one of Taaffe’s key lieutenants during the H+K’s years, calls Taaffe’s appointment "logical". "You’ve got to really understand the agency business inside out but you’ve also got to understand the plc role," she explains. "That’s going to give you a vanishingly small group of candidates. If anybody can do it, I think he can, but I don’t think it will be easy."
Taaffe himself, understandably, is keen to put a more bullish spin on Huntsworth’s prospects, particularly after the situation he inherited as Groupon’s first communications chief four years ago.
"My mission at Groupon is largely completed; when I first got there they were obviously in a little bit of trouble and now they’re not," notes Taaffe. "I just think Huntsworth is a very interesting company. It has a lot of potential, has some good brands, good people and a lot of promise."
'Tribe Taaffe' "Agencies try to sell stuff that is either annoying to listen to or is plain arrogant" — Paul Taaffe. Taaffe’s leadership skills will undoubtedly be tested at Huntsworth, which recently saw the CEO of its biggest agency Grayling depart after less than two years in the role. Costerton harbours few illusions about the role — "he’s going to need plenty of cash to invest in the business" — but thinks Taaffe’s abilities will stand him in good stead.
"He knows what good looks like and he knows what he’s aiming for," she points out. "That’s a huge advantage, because he has a blueprint in his mind. And he’ll be very credible doing that — he knows it through hard-won experience."
In a business that prizes talent above all else, Taaffe will no doubt be hoping to replicate his ability to attract strong leaders, starting with his search for Pete Pedersen’s successor at Grayling.
"Our business always boils down to having better people than your competition,” says Costerton. "We used to call it ‘Tribe Taaffe’ [at H+K] — he was brilliant at hiring very able consultants who liked each other and had the same values."
Members of this particular tribe are not shy about singing their former boss’ praises. "He understands people very well and is a good leader of them," notes former H+K global CMO Tony Burgess-Webb. "And he combines excellent listening skills with an excellent focus on the essentials, which is really important in agencies where most of the people are bright and have strong opinions and where you can get caught up in the weeds quite easily."
Not everyone is convinced, though. One former senior H+K executive told the Holmes Report that Taaffe’s typical status as the "smartest guy in the room" could sometimes work against his favour.
"He always thought he could improve on an idea that 10 people, but wouldn’t always give it back to them," said the executive. "It wasn’t about being indecisive, it was a different issue."
Taaffe’s experiences at Groupon, meanwhile, where he worked with several agencies from the other side of the fence, are certain to influence his views. He is clear that "agency brands matter, if they are made to mean something", but also thinks that "agencies talk about themselves way more than anyone cares."
"Agencies try to sell stuff that is either annoying to listen to or is plain arrogant, or they are not qualified to provide because they haven’t assessed what the company has in place," he said.
Unsurprisingly, he points to measurement as a particular weakness, adding that agencies suffer from a focus on process rather than products. "If you’re in anything to do with ecommerce, and web traffic, you have to be far more granular about how you measure ROI."
The idea that Huntsworth’s PR firms, or any PR consultancy for that matter, could benefit from a better grasp of analytics is not necessarily the most revolutionary of ideas. But Taaffe’s straightforward nature will be an important asset as he attempts to steer Huntsworth towards a more secure future.
It also ensures a refreshingly unqualified stance on a potentially delicate issue: Chadlington’s continued role at the company he founded in 2000.
"I’m a big fan of Peter and I think it would be phenomenal if he was available," says Taaffe. Chadlington, for his part, says he will do "whatever the board likes me to do."
"Most importantly, from my point of view and the company point of view, there are a lot of very large clients we have where I am intricately involved," adds the 73-year-old. "A number of them might want me to continue in some role or capacity and if that were the case that would weigh heavily on my mind."