Earlier this year, Miles Young stood up in front of a room full of business executives and declared that media relations was dead.
On its own, the statement might not raise too many eyebrows. Perhaps what made it more incendiary was that it came from a bonafide adman like Young, in front of an audience comprised largely of PR people.
Young, who has spent the last two years as global CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, appears to enjoy being provocative. It is probably not overstating the case to call it the defining feature of a modus operandi that has led him to one of the world’s biggest agency roles, overseeing 18,000 staff and 120 countries.
“He doesn’t provoke because he is trying to be a social irritant,” says Chris Graves, the Ogilvy PR CEO that Young hired in 2005. “He does it because he is a deep thinker. You just never rest on your laurels.”
And the PR industry is, increasingly, a target for Young’s restless intelligence. Whilst the 56-year-old is, as WPP CEO Martin Sorrell told the Holmes Report, “the classic Ogilvy gentleman with brains”, he has ultimate responsibility for Ogilvy PR, the world’s eighth-biggest PR firm. So when Young decides to skewer a few of the PR world’s sacred cows, it is probably worth sitting up and taking notice.
In doing so, Young has helped to shine a light on the uneasy co-existence between public relations and its peers in other marketing and communications disciplines. The Ogilvy CEO denies that PR is a “black sheep” within his agency, but admits that within the broader industry this remains the case. “There is an inbuilt protectionism within the PR industry,” he notes, going so far as to call it “a preciousness, which I suppose comes from fear.”
We are located on a spacious balcony at the Majestic Hotel in Cannes, overlooking the Cote d’Azur. “Let’s commence battle,” says Young before the interview begins, even as the location seems to deter any thoughts of a gladiatorial showdown. That is in keeping with the Englishman’s manner; the sharpest salvos are softly delivered and a mildly professorial air helps temper a competitive streak that is as fierce as any in the industry. “To me, this business is like warfare,” he muses at one point.
As a keen student of military history, Young undoubtedly understands the value of thorough preparation. He is well versed on the public relations backstory, pointing out the historical distinction between disciplines arose because of the PR industry’s attempts to build its own ideology. “In doing so it built a porcelain battlement around itself,” he explains.
He views the Stockholm Accords, the PR industry’s attempt to define its mission, as a futile bid to “defend a patch.” The risk, he notes, is that a lack of self-confidence will ultimately undermine any desire for a central role in the digital world.
The notion that an adman will dictate the PR world’s terms of engagement in the digital arena is anathema to many public relations people. But Young does not appear unduly afflicted by self-doubt. And - to be fair - he has often appeared ahead of the curve, whether it is by spying the potential in Islamic branding, launching a Chinese FDI practice in the US, or even investing in Chinese contemporary art and sculpture.
This tendency, rather than any professional loyalty, may be why Ogilvy PR North Asia CEO Scott Kronick calls Young a “visionary.” Kronick points out that it was Young’s idea to ally Ogilvy with Beijing’s Tsinghua University, helping to forge a public affairs offering that has reaped rich dividends in China.
In contrast with some of his peers at other big agencies, it is rare to find any second-guessing of Young within Ogilvy’s ranks. “I feel that we are in right hands,” says Kronick, while Sorrell commends his performance as “brilliant.” Yet Young’s leadership style is difficult to characterise, clubbing together big-picture thinking with an unerring eye for detail. “I like to navigate between worrying about whether the menus are properly printed to worrying about whether the work being presented is good.”
Young calls this manner “involved”, falling back again on martial imagery to explain his style. “I don’t think you can lead in any other way but the front,” he says. “You are leading people, you need to create morale, and have strategies of attack and defence. You often have inadequate resource and munitions and need to make the best of it.”
Young’s political background may offer some clues to this approach. In the Eighties, se served as a local Tory councillor in London, an experience - he says - which attuned him to the “moods of electorate.”
Ogilvy is no democracy but Young points out that this made him “conscious of one what can’t do.” “You can’t run organisations from a minority position. This is the Blair lesson: Even if you have a strongly different point view, that has to reach out to the heart of the agency.”
That experience must be proving useful, because it is not just PR people who are in Young’s crosshairs. He has made deliberately controversial comments in front of advertising audiences, calling the campaign model “witchcraft”, and advocating that marketing firms move from being agents to publishers. “Having a point of view makes you more interesting and believable,” says Young. “I don’t mind being deliberately provocative if it creates some fermentation in the system. Without that, culture becomes really official and sterile.”
This often seems to be Young’s biggest fear for Ogilvy, that it becomes too colossal to to fulfil David Ogilvy’s vision of 360-degree communications. In that context, the agency’s PR unit is growing in importance, but Young would still prefer to see the discipline operate in a more globalised manner. This is no idle wish; Young spent 13 years running Ogilvy in Asia-Pacific and considers the region his home. Since taking on the top job, he has appointed fellow Asia veterans Tham Khai Meng and Graves to global roles in the US.
“Globalism in the past was really Americanism under a different name,” he says, adding that most agencies remain “Anglo-Saxon-centric”. “At the moment, it’s not a huge competitive disadvantage, but in the future it will be.”
Another gently struck blow. You imagine that the adman in Young would approve the inversion of a well-worn adage. Capitalism really is war with the gloves on.