Andy Polansky’s office is a fairly sizeable affair. I think I may have seen entire agencies fit into smaller spaces. There are desks, sofas, tables, balconies…even the giant stuffed giraffe appears to have its own reservation.
But if his New York digs are expansive, Polansky himself is rather more reticent. Unlike some of his peers among big PR network CEOs, this is not a person that enjoys talking about himself. Indeed the Weber Shandwick CEO’s aversion to the limelight is no accident, says Tim Sutton, who runs Weber Shandwick’s operations in EMEA and Asia-Pacific, and has known Polansky for 19 years.
"Andy is not going to post on an issue or opine publicly too much about the way the industry is going on Twitter or Facebook," says Sutton. "He’s cautious in that way. Almost like a cat."
It is only towards the end of this conversation when, finally, the claws come out, in response to a question about whether publicly-held agencies are right to blame their holding companies for under-investment.
"I think it’s bullshit," says Polansky after a long pause. "Whether you’re owned by private equity or a holding company or employee-owned. It’s up to the leaders of the business to develop the right strategies, cultivate the right talent, innovate and succeed in the market. That’s always got to be self-funded."
It’s worth noting at this point that Weber Shandwick has been pretty good at funding its stellar growth in recent years, particularly when it comes to investing ahead of the curve. And Polansky’s comments serve as a timely reminder that, for all his affability, the Weber Shandwick boss is as fiercely competitive as they come.
"Look in the mirror, you control your situation," he adds. "It’s always easy to blame somebody else. Be accountable and deliver for your people, your shareholders, your clients, your employees."
"Culture is our killer app"
Born and raised in New York City before moving to New Jersey, the 54-year-old Polansky partly credits his understanding of people to the three summers he spent working as doorman at the Castle Village apartment complex. “When you’re a doorman you learn to observe and listen a lot,” says Polansky. “You learn about people."
Polansky’s emotional intelligence, according to everyone I spoke to, should not be underestimated. “The thing I’ve always admired in Andy is that he really is a most active listener,” says Sealed Air VP of global corporate communications Jim Whaley, a Weber Shandwick client for several years. "The first rule of leadership at any level is you have to care about the people around you more than you care about yourself."
"I always wanted to know how people are thinking and feeling,” adds Polansky. "You always want that transparency so you can have an honest dialogue and break down barriers and silos. You talk about a collaborative culture — culture is our killer app."
By the time he became editor of his high school newspaper, Polansky’s love of the media was deeply entrenched. He edited his college newspaper and also found a full-time editorial gig before graduating. More journalism roles in New Jersey followed before a friend recruited him to join Bozell’s New York office in 1983.
“I took that leap and never looked back,” recollects Polansky. In the 30 years since, Bozell has undergone a dizzying series of mergers and acquisitions, and ownership and name changes. But Polanksy has remained a constant, taking charge of Bozell PR’s New York office before he had even turned 30, and climbing steadily upwards in the years to follow.
By 1991, Polansky’s rise was already attracting external attention. That year, he was flagged as an ‘agency all star of the future’ by one Paul Holmes, who noted that Polansky was "not yet 30 and already positioned on a management fast track". Apart from demonstrating that even the Holmes Report can occasionally get things right, the article notes that Polansky has stayed put despite a recent ownership change. That, along with Bozell’s presence at the intersection of various marketing and communications disciplines, would become a recurring theme in Polansky’s career.
"I feel like I’ve worked for seven or eight different companies,” he notes. "I was always broadening my responsibilities. I had different exposures because our business — we kept bringing more dimensions in."
One of those “dimensions” would ultimately have a critical bearing not only on Polansky’s career, but on the eventual emergence of Weber Shandwick — the 1993 acquisition of Sawyer Miller, which brought Harris Diamond and Jack Leslie into senior roles within BSMG.
It was Diamond who asked Polansky to lead BSMG’s New York office in 1996, before promoting him to increasingly senior roles, culminating in Polansky’s eventual succession as global CEO when Diamond departed to run McCann Worldgroup in 2012. By then, Polansky’s status as Diamond’s successor was assured, but in the mid-Nineties, Bozell’s management ranks did not always appear as rich with talent as Sawyer Miller’s.
"Andy always had that unique skill of understanding people, understanding clients and understanding where the business needed to go," points out Diamond. "There are very few people who can fit all three of those things together."
"The storm’s passed"
It is easy to forget just how ill-fated the mergers of BSMG, Shandwick and Weber Group first appeared when they were combined under the auspices of Interpublic Group in 2001. (Full disclosure: I worked at the Hong Kong office of Weber Shandwick for 12 months during this period.)
Few agency mergers, as we are constantly reminded, result in much more than a short-term boost to the balance sheet. The best deals are often smaller ones; combining three giant publicly-held firms was hardly viewed as a surefire recipe for success.
That the formation of Weber Shandwick has succeeded, in such a striking fashion, is now taken as a given. But Polansky has not forgotten the doubters. "People said the merger would fail. I always like it when people underestimate what we’re going to do in the market."
With good reason, Polansky takes plenty of pride in the merger’s ultimate success. It seems clear that the process, along with the numerous other agency deals he has observed and worked on during his career, have informed his management style.
"If you’re trying to build a diversified truly global firm, you’re going to have people with different cultural backgrounds and perspectives," he points out. "It just gave me an appreciation for walk-around management style, ear to the ground, talking to people at all levels."
Weber Shandwick’s staff do not appear to mind. “The nice guy image isn’t something made up,” says Sutton. “We have 3,700 employees and it’s amazing how many of them he knows. And he knows the names of their partners."
Polansky’s ascension to the global president role in 2004 meant that he now found himself effectively working in tandem with his global CEO Diamond. The pair are not necessarily the oddest couple but there is a marked difference in their styles, something that was not lost on people inside the business.
"Andy is emollient,” says Sutton. “I was in many situations where Harris Diamond was around, and Harris was doing his big leadership thing. Andy is perfectly capable of dissenting, but in a way to get everyone to a different place."
Polansky shies away from characterising the relationship as a ‘good cop/bad cop’ one, even if that description is not uncommon. “Everybody has different styles,” he offers. “That’s what made the partnership work so well."
Sutton describes Diamond as "a great wartime leader”, someone who not only ensured the success of the merger, but led the firm to sustained global growth, something that was ultimately recognised by Interpublic Group when it upped him to McCann Worldgroup CEO five years ago.
"Everyone loved and respected Harris Diamond,” notes Sutton. "But he’s a big guy, more polarising. When Andy Polansky came, there was a sense in the first few meetings — the storm’s passed."
Polansky, a keen kayaker, might appreciate the reference, as he probably would Weber Shandwick president Gail Heimann’s description of him as a calming presence during turbulent plane flights. Following an outsize personality like Diamond cannot, by any measure, have been an easy task. But the idea that the firm would drift once he took charge, says Sutton, was "soon dispelled."
"To know Andy is to know that Andy is a competitive guy and he is willing to make the moves that will put is in a winning position,” explains Heimann. "He is always focused on where we can get first mover advantage. I think he is willing to take measured risks where he sees potential reward."
Thus, Weber Shandwick, rather than missing a beat, appears to have elevated its offering to another level in the last five years, driven by service expansion (particularly into content, creative and digital) as much as geographic growth and multi-market cohesion. Any potential weaknesses — the firm’s middling Indian presence, for example — have been summarily addressed, helping it retain Global Agency of the Year for the past two years.
"The best time to change things up is when things are going really well," says Polansky. "I felt like we were in a really strong position to take that next step, drive exponential growth in the business, attract new types of talent into the organisation. You have to have courage and take risks — not every hire or decision is going to necessarily be 100%. You can’t keep moving forward if you’re risk averse."
"We’re not in the business where who’s liked wins"
Polansky, for all his good humour, is not above holding a competitive grudge or two. We are talking a couple of days after Cohn & Wolfe upset the odds to win North American Large Agency of the Year. A brief exchange about Weber Shandwick’s investment plans is captioned by a muttered comment from the agency’s CEO: "We’re just trying to keep up with Cohn & Wolfe."
As already mentioned, he is quick to recall criticism— 15 years later — of the Weber/Shandwick/BSMG merger. Perhaps most pertinently, Polansky appears to nurse the conviction that he was underestimated when he followed Diamond into the global CEO role.
This kind of mild paranoia, of course, is not exactly uncommon among successful business leaders. But Polansky is right to have divined that people perhaps expected a less hard-charging agency when he took the reins from Diamond, not least because the transition was, as Diamond himself puts it, "taken for granted."
"It would have been easy to underestimate him at first, because he followed such a charismatic leader,” says Sutton. "Having said that, no one should doubt that Andy has got a pretty deep inner steel. I say that as someone who as seen him make some really tough calls, involving very senior people and client situations — he’s remarkably decisive on those things. He’s very good at democratic input but there’s no question there’s some autocratic output."
That much, says one Weber Shandwick source, became clear when Polansky promoted Heimann to president in one of his first major moves upon taking charge of the firm. Unlike Polansky, Heimann was not the only contender for the role, after previously serving as vice-chair and New York president. Later in 2013, Polansky named North American president Cathy Calhoun to a newly-created chief client officer role.
"Both big personalities — he could have messed that one up and lost both of them," says the source. “But he succeeded in completely re-energising Cathy with the global client experience role, which has become a key pillar of our business.” Heimann, meanwhile, has clearly flourished, leading the firm’s successful expansion into the broader content and digital mix.
Polansky, for his part, has not suddenly changed his spots. He has not, by all accounts, started shouting at people. Nor are there now layers of handlers to wade through. So accessible is he that Whaley admits "I forget sometimes he’s a CEO."
"When you start changing your style because somebody puts a different title on your business card, you can go off the rails,” notes Polansky. "I am who I am."
The firm’s performance suggests that, whoever he is, Polansky’s leadership style is working just fine at Weber Shandwick. Even if it does sometimes appear at odds with an industry where agency leaders are not averse to seeking out the limelight. Polansky typically appears far more comfortable deferring to his colleagues — whether Heimann, Sutton, Leslie or EMEA CEO Colin Byrne — all of whom, of note, he has now worked with for upwards of 15 years.
"I’m quite comfortable giving folks on the leadership team the spotlight because they are among the brightest people on the planet," says Polansky. "That’s what made this place work. We’re a team. There’s a great deal of trust, admiration and affinity."
"When one thinks about other leaders in the marketing service space, you see how people telegraph and project," adds Heimann. "Andy doesn’t do that."
Which begs the question. Does Polansky know something that other agency leaders don’t? Is he really, as Heimann puts it — a touch effusively perhaps — "a model for a new type of leadership?"
If he is, then it appears safe to assume that Interpublic Group has taken note. “I think the sky is relatively unlimited with respect to Andy’s capabilities and skill set,” says Diamond, who is already viewed as a leading contender for the Interpublic CEO role, should a vacancy arise.
"It’s more than that he’s liked," continues the McCann CEO. "He knows how to get the best out of people and motivate people. We’re not in the business where who’s liked wins. We’re in the business where success and growth wins."