Profile: Colin Byrne, CEO Europe, Weber Shandwick

The CEO Europe for Weber Shandwick has a contact book to die for but does not suffer fools gladly, finds Arun Sudhaman.

It is not often that Trotskyism is invoked as a guiding philosophy in the PR world. But then, perhaps Colin Byrne is not your typical agency head.

'Left-wing, Northern and working class' is the Weber Shandwick Europe chief's description of himself. 'I used to be a Trot when I was in college,' he adds. 'I always used to be attracted by this idea of permanent revolution. You have to wake up each morning and refight the battle for the business, for the clients, for the share of voice.'

Byrne, who recently celebrated his 15th anniversary with Weber Shandwick, has been fighting this battle for 30 years now, ever since he abandoned his dreams of becoming a music journalist and succumbed to the lure of the private sector. Along the way, he was plucked out of relative obscurity by Peter Mandelson, becoming the Labour Party's chief press officer for three heady years in the run-up to the 1992 election.

A succession of in-house jobs followed before Byrne joined Weber Shandwick, or Shandwick as it was then known, in 1995.

In 2008, he was handed the keys to Europe, making him surely the only regional agency CEO to festoon an office wall with posters of the Sex Pistols and Jimi Hendrix.

'This sounds incredibly corny, but I have tried to bring that friendly rebellious ethos to Weber Shandwick,' says Byrne, in possibly the first attempt to integrate PR agency management with punk music.

In all seriousness, Byrne, 53, may have a point. He describes the situation when he took over Weber Shandwick ten years ago, in conjunction with current Edelman EMEA chief David Brain, as 'f****** nuts'.

A bevy of disparate agencies needed to be melded into one cohesive whole, a process that was not painless.

'Partly, the way I run this place is based on the negatives I saw when I first arrived, when there was that internal rivalry, people being protective and incredibly snooty about what they did versus what some of their colleagues did,' he points out. 'Secondly, it's more fun.'

Byrne's approach appears to have reaped rich dividends. Weber Shandwick's presence in Europe has grown, underpinned by a London office that is the agency's largest in the world. Along the way, Byrne has managed to cultivate a reputation that combines charisma with a fierce combative spirit.

'He can be scary sometimes,' admits Weber Shandwick Asia-Pacific chairman Tim Sutton. 'He does have a kind of broody young Marlon Brando presence to him. But there's no side to him and no resentment afterwards - it's quite refreshing.'

'It's a bit weird to say this about someone running a big agency, but I'm quite a loner,' says Byrne. 'I don't believe you have to be a gadfly to be successful in PR.'

Evidently not, but Byrne is also known for having what Sutton calls 'a contact book to die for'. This is coupled with an ability to reinvent himself with which few others in the agency world can compete. 'He is one of the best learners in the business,' says Sutton. 'It's very impressive.'

Byrne, for his part, attributes his success to 'passion and loyalty'. 'Let's face it, there are a fair proportion of tossers in this industry, which is quite ironic when you think it's about trust and relationships,' he adds. 'This business may be about personalities but, you know, f*** that. At the end of day, Shandwick became big and successful by being good, not by hiring people who are always being photographed in nightclubs.'

One wonders if Byrne counsels his clients to be quite so outspoken with the media. There is an undercurrent of point-scoring that runs throughout his comments, amply demonstrating that his competitive streak remains undiminished.

'These people who criticise big agencies as not being creative or entrepreneurial - it's just bullshit,' goes one monologue. 'How did we get big? We haven't bought a Jackie Cooper or whatever. We've not been in the acquisition business for ten years - my big focus is being different.'

Byrne is certainly different. But all of the brooding intensity should not obscure two very important facts. The first, as his former co-CEO Brain puts it, is that 'he is a big softie'. And the second, says Google EMEA director of comms and public policy DJ Collins, who worked with Byrne for several years, is that he is a formidable communications professional.

'I don't believe Colin has ever got the recognition he deserves,' says Collins.

Not that Byrne, one imagines, is too concerned about plaudits. 'I couldn't give a stuff about all that.' It is probably wise not to argue the point too much.

 

COLIN BYRNE'S TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

There have been three. Firstly, bullshitting my way into my first job in PR on the back of my editorship of a student newspaper and a failed attempt to be rock journalist. I found a sympathetic ear in my first great PR boss Barry Walsh. Second, writing to Peter Mandelson, getting invited for interview and ending up as his deputy on Labour's communications and working with Tony Blair. Third, being entrusted with the leadership of Weber Shandwick by Harris Diamond.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

Mandelson. The greatest political strategist of his generation, a master of ideas and great fun to work with. I owe him a lot. It was also Mandelson who suggested I talk to Shandwick after nearly 15 years in-house. Before that, I had never considered consultancy.

- What advice would you offer to anyone climbing the career ladder?

Do get a mentor and don't be a jerk.

- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Passion, creativity, ideas, intelligence, an interest in the world around them and potential for loyalty.

 

CV

2008 CEO Europe, Weber Shandwick

2003 CEO UK & Ireland, Weber Shandwick

2001 Joint CEO UK, Weber Shandwick

1997 MD, Shandwick Public Affairs

1995 Associate director, then director, Shandwick Consultants

1994 PR manager, National Farmers' Union

1991 Communications director, The Prince of Wales' Business Leaders Forum

1988 Chief press officer, The Labour Party

1987 Press officer, The Labour Party

1983 Press and campaigns officer, National Union of Students

1981 PR assistant, The Automobile Association

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