Putting a few Byrning questions to the main man at WS

Posted on: 2013-02-25 in How To   |   Tagged: colin byrne pr leadership weber shandwick

The B2B PR Blog speaks to Colin Byrne, CEO, Weber Shandwick, UK and Europe (@CapByrne)

NameHow did you get to be in charge of a PR agency?    

I started my career as a music journalist, and quickly realised there was no money in it so I started looking for something where I could use my writing skills and my interest in what was going on in the world. I seized an opportunity to join the press office at the Automobile Association and my PR career started there.

I ended up working for the Labour Party at a time when Thatcher had Bell and Saatchie & Saatchie. Peter Mandelson had been appointed as comms director and I wrote him a letter after reading an article in the Guardian. It worked. It was an opportune time – when politics and branding and professional communications were coming together for the first time. I spent a few years with him and then went to work for The Princes Trust.

I joined Shandwick in 1995 to set up a public affairs department in London and took over the UK business as CEO in 2001. In 2008 I became CEO of the European business as well.

What’s been your proudest day on the job?

When we became the first London agency to win a Cannes Lion in 2009. Cannes is the true festival of creativity. I was also proud of being named agency of the year in 2012 but every day brings little successes as well.  

And what’s been the lowest point?              

I don’t like losing clients or pitches and I don’t like losing people who I have invested a lot of time in. We have put a lot of effort into employee retention programmes and are passionate about giving people the opportunity to move around the world. Our people go abroad to get real international experience and then bring it back to share with the rest of their teams.  

What have you learned about HR management?

People management is first about accepting that we are a meritocratic industry – no one has a monopoly on good ideas. I’m passionate about keeping to a flat agency structure where everyone has an equal opportunity to develop creative ideas.

In terms of recruitment, I believe in hiring ‘T-shaped’ people – that’s people who have a deep knowledge of an area but a broad interest in the world – unless you have those two facets, you’re not going to succeed in this field: in our industry you have to be responsive to day-to-day events in the world.

It’s also about recognising that we are a very diverse business that can benefit from broader and broader experience. In the past we have recruited people from fashion bloggers to documentary makers. In ten years, the most successful people in the industry will be story tellers and we’re looking to recruit those people now. We look for people with an interest in the world and the communications skills to tell a story. The specific PR skills can be retrofitted.

You’re running the one of the UK’s largest PR consultancies, but you don’t have any formal financial training. How did you get yourself up to speed?

I learned financial management instinctively. I took an English degree, which qualified me to be a poet. But when you’re directly accountable to a holding company quoted on the NYSE you have to have a certain level of financial literacy.

You need to understand business finance to deliver PR services at any level. Our clients don’t hire PR people to produce press cuttings. They hire them to have an impact on their organisations. As communicators we need to be able to understand the business of the client. That’s not press coverage. It’s selling stuff, making stuff, influencing ideas. If I could change one thing in our industry it would be that people who come into the consultancy business should work client side first. You have to understand the business that the client is involved in – you have to have read their annual report and understood it.

I make a point of educating people about the financial side of the business and about agency management. I’m open with staff and feed back to them monthly on the performance of the business. They need to understand that profit translates into an ability to build and invest in stuff. This is particularly important now where agencies are throwing people out or making them redundant.

Who do you learn from?

There’s opportunity to learn everywhere. I recently had a 22-year old as my mentor teaching me Twitter.

People like me have to constantly learn from small agencies. If you look at the big international agency set you see very interesting businesses, but a lot of the innovation comes from the smaller consultancies in the industry. We recently hired someone who had previously set up her own agency in Romania. She won a Cannes Lion and has a 13-strong team.

Last year when we lost a big account to an agency I had never heard of, I made a point of meeting the head of the agency to understand how they did it.

So do you think smaller agencies have the edge?

No. This country is obsessed with little boutiques. A new, young agency enjoys the freedom to focus more on the creative and less on hanging on to their existing clients, because they are all in growth mode. But it’s a short-lived advantage. But how many boutiques have 100 people in Beijing like I have? It’s swings and roundabouts. As a large agency, we have to think about leveraging the power of our strength and thinking like a small agency. But we can also invest in things that small agencies cannot – like the 15 PhDs in our healthcare department.

What does 2013 hold for Weber Shandwick EMEA?

In terms of EMEA, we hope to grow in a number of existing markets, as we have for the past two years. In 2011 when Europe was mired in recession we grew 10% in the UK and 10% in continental Europe. Even Spain grew.  But we also want to expand into markets which interest our clients, in the Middle East and Africa for example.

Another big focus this year is digital and content creation, which needs to be completely integrated into PR.  

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About this blog


The B2B PR Blog is a resource for both PR professionals and people working in B2B industries on how to devise and implement successful B2B PR campaigns. The blog is managed by B2B PR specialist Heather Baker, founder TopLine Comms, an inbound marketingB2B content marketing agency and proud HubSpot partner agency and takes contribution from anyone sensible in the industry with something intelligent to say.  Follow Heather on Twitter @TopLineFounder or contact the B2B PR Blog editorial team via email on [email protected].


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