Simon Sproule stunned the PR world when he departed his role as Microsoft’s global comms chief after just five months, and returned to Renault-Nissan. Now Paris-based as the global comms director for the Renault-Nissan Alliance, he sat down with the Holmes Report at the European Communications Summit to talk about why he made the dramatic decision, his agency hiring plans, and why the PR industry is starting to view him as a traitor.
Why did you leave Microsoft after just five months?
It’s a great company and a great brand. There are times in your career when you get opportunities and you don’t know until you try. For me, when I made the jump, it was a fascinating challenge – you go and work for one of the world’s biggest brands. After about three months or so, I started to think I wasn’t the right guy for them. And I started to miss the car business. I had been in the car business for 16/17 years before then. I don’t ever exclude leaving the car business in the future but, right now, there’s so much going on that’s exciting, I had an offer to come back that was interesting and I honestly thought I was doing Microsoft a disservice by staying. [Current Microsoft comms head] Frank Shaw is so much the right guy for that job. I didn’t personally feel I was a good fit for them.
What was it specifically that made you reach that decision?
In the end it’s very much a personal feeling. You can’t put it on a spreadsheet or measure it – you either feel something or you don’t. Working for a company, at least for me, is a very emotional experience. I didn’t feel I could be the best I could be and I didn’t feel it was fair on Microsoft to be in that role. There was no tipping point. Although when I got the call from Nissan, that may have been the tipping point.
It sounds like a cultural thing more than anything else.
No I don’t think it was. I just didn’t feel I was the best fit for them. I always thought that there was a much better guy for the job, who is the guy they put in there. Frank has got so much experience, he knows the industry, he’s deep on the company. I remember having a discussion with him very early on, asking why aren’t you doing this job. He’s a better fit for the organisation and I also felt like a fish out of water.
You’ve worked in the France, Japan, the US. Is there really such a thing as truly international communication?
I think there is. There’s two things that drive this issue of global vs local. One is an individual’s experience and interests. If you’ve only worked in one market and you’re only interested in one market then you’ll tend not to look beyond the border of that market. The second is technology. For me it’s impossible not to get up and think how it fits together globally.
A lot of global comms heads perhaps don’t have that local experience though, in particular in diverse countries. Do you think that’s a handicap?
Do I think it’s an asset? Yes. It’s not essential because I’ve met people who do great because they are curious, intellectually smart and they understand how the world works. If I was recruiting a global head of comms and I had two people with identical academic qualifications I would probably go for the person who had lived and worked more extensively overseas than the person who had stayed in one market. Even though it’s easier now to remain in one market and run the world.
Do you have a retained agency-of-record?
No we don’t. We have some work at the moment within the Omnicom Group with TBWA – they are actually running our Alliance blog for us. We went with an ad agency subsidiary of theirs in France. We had discussions with big external firms about reputation. I could see us in the future working on selected projects. I don’t think we need a retained agency. We’re not a consumer brand, we’re really talking about influencing journalists and analysts. People don’t buy a Renault-Nissan, they buy one of our five brands.
But people invest in Renault-Nissan.
That’s exactly right. The corporate play is important so there’s no reason why we would not work with an agency in the future on specific projects or maybe even on a retained basis. I’ve not ruled it out.
From a corporate level, what would you say are the key comms challenges facing you in the next couple of years?
I’m a big believer in integrated comms. A lot of people are calling it the new profession. I really think what’s going to happen in the next five to 10 years is the emergence of a new profession, which is going to be an integrated comms function. You’re still going to have areas of specialisation – you will have people who are marketing specialists or above-the-line or strong on digital. But I ultimately believe it will come into integration.
I was talking to a PR audience this week, and I could see people looking at me like I’m some kind of traitor and selling them out to marketing. I said to them, this is our golden chance. For so long, marketing has led, has had the big budgets, has owned the brand. Now, the set of skills that a comms professional has are going to be more in demand than they’ve ever been. If you’re a CEO of a company and you’re figuring out how to communicate with all of your stakeholders, I think the only way you’re going to do that is to work together. If I as a PR guy aspire to run an integrated department, which I would love to do, I’m going to need to also take on some different skills, such as above the line communication and market analysis and customer segmentation. But why not?