Cannes, my fifth year, some thoughts

Personal highlights:

Celebrating two more Lions with Weber Shandwick and Prime colleagues against the backdrop of a beautiful Cannes sunset atop the Radisson Blu.



Unilever CMO Keith Weed’s keynote on Marketing for People. Check it out. Even included a spoof of one of his own campaigns.

Marketing for people


Prof Brian Cox onstage. Little to do with marketing really. Just like him. Northerner and former band member – “Things can (Cannes?) only get better” – who puts sexy into science. What’s not to like.


Hanging with Sasha Wilkins aka Liberty London Girl and seeing all that prolific tweet action happening live.



Watching Entourage leading man Adrian Grenier, UN Women’s inspirational Elizabeth Nyamayaro and Keith Weed join my agency’s president Gail Heimann to talk #HeForShe . Adrian was kind enough to send a photo get well wish to my poorly daughter,


Catching up with my old mate David Brain, APAC CEO of Edelman, after too long.

Viewing the work and particularly that tackling the tough issues and challenges, from FGM to child abuse, from climate change to hunger and poverty, from Nazis to gender stereotyping.



Low lights:

Getting up at four thirty to flee Cannes to beat the threatened blockade of the airport by striking taxi drivers and spending five hours drinking shit coffee in one of the worst airports I know. Though I did make a friend in the marathon lounge bum numb.


The incongruity of earnest discussions about Millenium Goals and global poverty on luxury yachts and in the midst of Mad Men excess

global goals pano

The crassness the night after the inaugural Glass Lions (celebrating gender equality campaigns),  awarding the PR Grand Prix to Always’ #RunLikeAGirl campaign, and at an event chaired by Save the Children’s Gender Equality Ambassador to celebrate the Millennium Goals (which include one on gender equality and tackling gender stereotypes) of some PR twit deciding to dress girls in skimpy frilly dresses as pastiche cinema usherettes to show us to our seats.



PR still not making the cut through in the Lions – more below.

So, five years since my first trip to the Cannes Festival. Then as a juror where I met my colleague and Prime creative supremo Tom Beckman and one of my favourite creatives and former colleague Gabriella Lungu. My London office won its second Lions, though most entries and winners were from advertising agencies.

Much breast beating and clothes ripping ensued in the PR world – why were we so uncreative, why were those bastards in advertising invading our space etc. I took the opposite view and wrote in my blog at the time that PR agencies should see Cannes as an opportunity to look at and learn from what advertising did so well. We were the newcomers stealing the drinks at advertising’s house party. They had been doing Cannes for sixty years.

Five years on I am a bit more sanguine. One juror trumpeted Cannes as a success for PR this year, because the majority of entries in the PR category were from PR firms. Yes but, I countered, the vast majority of Gold Lions winners were still ad agencies, or ad agency ideas further amplified by PR. Ah, that’s because they have deep pockets to fund pro bono campaigns for worthy causes that win big. Yes, but, you chose them as winners.

And if success is simply based on the number of agencies shelling out entry fees as opposed to winning recognition for the work, well that’s like the time I worked on an election campaign about which Campaign magazine declared “Labour won the campaign – but lost the election.”

Rather than pass the buck and put some good old fashioned spin on the issue, I think it is time for the PR agency world to accept that while we have upped our game on creativity since Cannes opened its doors to us, and we have broadened our intake to include advertising and digital creatives, we are still too often not in the lead on creative ideation. We often use our considerable skills to generate engagement and buzz and shares and likes around a creative idea – but all too often it is someone else’s idea.

(My lovely friend Gabriela is back in advertising where her edgy thinking is plugged straight into the heart of client engagement.)

The truth is that many of our industry’s creative ideas are just not big enough and break through enough. As Keith Weed said in his keynote, in the engagement era it is not enough to just grab people’s increasing short attention. You have to emotionally engage them with ideas and content they want to share (and, I would add, act on). And the PR Lion winning campaigns that engaged us this year, including the PR agency executive jury who voted them Golds,  were still largely not from PR agencies.


PR: what’s changed and what’s still needs to change, part 3

Welcome to the third instalment of my reflections on twenty years in a PR agency, what’s changed and what’s still needs to change

20 years in a PR agency this month – my agency Weber Shandwick in its various forms, and in various specialist, domestic and international roles – and 31 years in PR. In all that time, the most change has been in the past five years or so.

The Cannes Festival of Creativity, FKA The Advertising Festival, which kicks off today in earnest, opened its doors to our industry 6 years ago. Suddenly we were in the bigger world of bigger ideas (and bigger budgets). After a slow start we are holding our own. Last year a PR agency, Edelman, co-won the Grand Prix for the first time. (Proud to say that currently we are the most Cannes Lions winning PR firm in Europe.)


Digital and particularly social media have driven the pace of change. It has changed how we think of our approaches to communication. More engagement, less broadcast (even though, as I point out ad nauseum , our founding principle as a discipline was dialogue).

Creativity at the forefront – though less the creativity of whacky “free media” attracting stunts and photo opps and more the creativity of innovation and helping clients tackle the really difficult issues, seize the bigger opportunities and break through the online white noise and really engage with customers and citizens.

A real focus on measurement and ROI as we move from being a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants discipline to one that talks more about business impact and less about the volume of press clippings.

Creative technology (worth reading the post by our creative tech chief Patrick Chauphan on the Weber Shandwick EMEA blog) increasingly enabling us to bring our ideas to life rather than them ‘living’ on a flip chart in a brainstorm room.

Embedded image permalink


Diversifying our intake to include people from advertising, media buying, filmmaking, research and analytics, medical PhDs, computer programming, animation etc.

The PR agency world of today is a much faster paced, intellectually ambitious and curious world than it was 10 or even 5 years ago. It’s an enjoyable ride.

So what does that mean for people trying to break into the PR agency world today?

Firstly, you have to live the digital life, not just study it and be literate in case studies and have a moribund Twitter account. This year we have recruited more proven creative content creators in our trainee intake than ever before, whatever their academic background. I want to hire the next Jamal Edwards, not just the next Alastair Campbell.



Secondly, get literate in numbers, analytics, measurement.

Thirdly, balance your internships to include time with in-house teams, not just at agencies. Less and less career PR agency folk have spent time in house. You need a balance and to understand what goes on client side. Clients are seeking like minded partners not just service vendors.

Fourthly, look up from the college library computer screen and get curious about the world around you, the issues that are driving debate about business, culture and society. Those are the cross-winds clients are trying to negotiate. No brand exists in a cultural or societal vacuum. Preferably don’t just observe, participate. We have trainees joining us who have helped run non profit campaigns, taken a personal lead on issues.

Fifthly, brush up on your emotional intelligence. Listening is a greater skill in PR than being able to talk the hind legs off a donkey.


The pace of change in PR has never been faster. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

What’s changed and what still has to change – part two of my blog reflecting on 20 years this month in a PR agency


When I ran Shandwick Public Affairs back in the late 1990s, I once threatened to fire a staffer for referring to colleagues in the consumer practice as “the girls on roller skates”.

But in truth the guy had probably never met s consumer PR, let alone studied the work. In those days Shandwick was a relatively loose collection of different branded businesses in offices scattered across London, with no connectivity on clients or via technology, and little incentive or the knowledge to collaborate.

I set about wooing the heads of other businesses, most of whom were initially bemused by lunch invites from, and interest shown by, this suited creature from Planet Politics.

But it worked and I started to acquire tech clients and consumer brands by talking about something most of us take for granted, though clients often still see our industry as lacking – integration, fuelled by collaboration.

When I became UK CEO in the early noughties, I did my first talk to our consumer team. I said that it was wrong to regard politics as “corporate”, then a byword for spin doctors in suits and ties. Politics was consumer PR in its most naked form – trying to aggressively earn consumer preference for a brand that will govern many aspects of your life for years to come, not one brand of car or credit card over another.

For all the modern failure of political spin in a digital and politically disengaged world, modern political communications until recently did understand things that brands have learned from and now usually do better – the importance of insights and research, strategy, and seamless integration of messaging from the bumper sticker to the speech soundbite.

Collaboration takes trust, understanding, mutual respect and encouragement, and leadership from the top of agencies. Any senior people I have fired at my firm I have not fired for failure to hit numbers in the short term, but for failure to collaborate.

Fast forward to today. 90% of the clients in my London office use more than one practice area or specialism. That is true across our network. Companies are increasingly converging consumer brand and corporate brand, often under the same CCMO – Chief Communications & Marketing Officer. That’s the way their world is and agencies, or at least those with multiple disciplines and specialisms, have to work in the same seamless way. Nothing pisses clients off more than agencies playing the P&L barrier game.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking the niche specialist agencies. I like to learn from them and some of the PR leaders I admire are running them.  Indeed while convergence and integration is a trend, so is niche specialisation, either in industry verticals or sub-sections of those verticals like clean technology, consumer or corporate or digital healthcare, but also in niche services like employee engagement and sustainability.

Ten years ago niche agencies knocked multi-practice agencies as “generalists”. Quite how having fifty trend and brand and lifestyle savvy consumer specialists, with access to planners and creatives and data scientists, made my firm less consumer specialist than an independent firm of thirty consumer specialists, was never something I understood. It was bollocks then and even more bollocks now.

Of course the great thing about PR coming to Cannes six years ago is we now see the new wave of integration – across the marketing disciplines. Ten years ago the PR agency would be called in by the advertising agency to write a press release about their latest lovely ad. Now PR agencies are equal partners, if not the lead creative partner for the client. (I don’t want to understate it. Last year we partnered with Marketing Week magazine in the UK on a survey of CMOs on the state of client-agency relationships. The majority still saw the ad agency as their lead partner, but then proceeded to moan about them on things like engaging content creation and strategic thinking. A challenge but also an opportunity for PR agencies.)

So integration is a reality and collaboration is good and our industry is a better place where it happens.

Twenty years in PR agency land. What’s changed, what still needs to change?

Hello. Welcome to my sorely neglected, emotionally needy blog. It thinks I spend too much time with Twitter. I love it really.

Twenty years ago this month I took up my first PR agency role. I have been with the same firm in its various states of merger and evolution, and in various roles, ever since.

As an industry we are rightly talking a lot about our evolution, and I have done my fair share of panel discussions, conference keynotes, university and business school talks on the subject.

I thought it was worth reflecting on what has changed, and what has not changed fast enough, in a couple of blog posts this month.

Here’s the first.

Best wishes



Prior to joining my PR agency as an associate director in the fledgling PA practice  in June 1995, I had previously held a variety of in-house comms and campaign roles, having given up my dream of being a new wave music journalist ( running a fanzine in those pre-blog and website days involved a lot of glue and cutting and pasting, and selling your wares to queues of drunk punks in the rain outside grotty clubs – the glamour!), with the AA, the NUS, The Labour Party, in local government, The Princes Trusts and The National Farmers Union (an appointment which sparked my first PR Week headline, “Farmer’s Boy”).

It was a heady time of political change. I had never thought of a PR agency career, liking the influence I had as Peter Mandelson’s right hand guy in Labour communications, and trekking the world with The Prince of Wales’ entourage and press pack. I had used a PR agency and thought they were a useless bunch of smug suits.

But there I was in Christopher’s restaurant in Covent Garden, with Tom – now Lord – McNally, then head of public affairs at Shandwick, the largest independent PR firm in the world at the time, not just offering me a job but advising me what salary and car I should ask for. I came away in a daze, being used to modest public sector and non-profit salaries and lunching off the expense accounts of journalists.

I think and talk a lot about PR agency evolution. I find it fascinating. Despite the headline of my friend Robert Phillips’ recent and interesting book, the PR industry is a living, breathing, growing and fast evolving one, expanding its influence and broadening its intake at every turn. If occasionally suffering bouts of self doubt but rightly doing some intelligent introspection (and Robert’s book, “Trust me, PR is dead”, is part of that).

In terms if what has changed in my twenty years in the consulting industry, and almost 35 years in the industry in its various forms,  first is most definitely a move from  “who you know” to “what you know”.

(I realise this is a broad generalisation. In areas like lobbying, financial PR, political comms, publicity, contacts remain important, but contacts without content and context are a short lived asset.)

Back then our worth as senior PRs was measured by the fullness of our black – contacts – book first, our ideas second.

Having been used to being sought out as an informed and – mostly – reliable and “tirelessly available” (in the words of The Independent’s Don McIntyre in a profile he penned of me – political comms was a 24/7 pager-driven affair even in those pre-Twitter days) senior source, it felt uncomfortable to be selling myself on who I knew in politics and the media. The FT had helpfully described me as “a reasonably sized moth around the Blairite flame” (it was 1995, two years before I had the pleasure of working for my old boss Peter Mandelson on New Labour’s landslide election campaign).

But there I was on a sofa in Shandwick International’s HQ sat next to its then UK CEO, seeking his anointment in my new, and much better paid, job. He didn’t ask me what strategic insights I had learned over the years, what PR experience I would bring to his firm. He asked me  if my political contacts were as good as he had been led to believe.

I swallowed my pride and told him that the previous weekend Peter Mandelson had been best man at my wedding and Tony and Cherie Blair had sent flowers. I was in.

I tried from the start to take a different tack. Public affairs was seen as a pretty dodgy branch of PR back then, with no real ethics code and it’s reputation battered by “cash for questions” type media exposes. At the height of Blair’s untouchable majority, William Hague’s – the outgoing defeated Tory leader – deputy press secretary came to see me about a job. Priti Patel, now a doughty Asian woman minister around David Cameron’s cabinet table.

My Labour staff thought I was mad to entertain the idea of hiring a Tory. No other firm was. The hot currency were spotty arrogant researchers to backbench Labour MPS and someone who proudly told me at interview that they had done Gordon Brown’s photocopying. I didn’t  listen and hired Priti on the spot. Why? Not because of her contacts who were then – how things change! – deep in opposition and pretty useless to our clients. No. Priti turned up with her pager clipped to the lapel of her Chanel jacket. That told me she was my kind of tough, proactive, 24/7, blow the doors off press officer and ideal for my media division rather than the lobbying team.

As the media and our industry have been revolutionised by digital & social media, as noise levels rise, channels multiply, attention spans shorten and generational expectations change (hello Gen K/Z ), the ‘what you know’ rather than the ‘who you know’ has become more and more important.

It’s not that relationships are not important. Far from it. Journalists remain important to many if not most clients at one level of their communications. But there are less of them, with less time, and so many more routes to reach and engage target audiences. I always encourage trainees to read print media get to know journalists, go take a tour of a newsroom. But that’s just part of it.

The shift from contacts value to content & creativity premium has also allowed us to bring fresh, different minds and ideas and experience into the industry – more ‘T-shaped’ people with a deep specialist knowledge (sustainability, food science, clean technology, channel planning, sports etc etc etc) but a broad interest in the world of popular culture, innovation and current affairs in which our clients are now framed.

To be continued…