Profile: John Saunders, regional president, Fleishman-Hillard

The regional president of Fleishman-Hillard tells Alec Mattinson about the CIA, Louis Walsh and motivating people to succeed.

Saunders: regional president of Fleishman-Hillard
Saunders: regional president of Fleishman-Hillard

John Saunders says he quite likes telling people: 'Don't mess with me, my pal is director of the CIA.'

As veiled threats to write a flattering article go, it is pretty effective. But Saunders' friendship with CIA director and ex-Bill Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta is just one of the many relationships - a word he keeps mentioning - he has built during his career.

The Dublin native, 53, has led Fleishman-Hillard's European practice for six years and took on responsibility for the UK in January, uniting Europe, the UK and Africa under his leadership.

He replaced ten-year incumbent Kevin Bell and is keen to go on record praising his contribution. Saunders' appointment, though, does signify something of a change in direction, with the agency keen to more fully align its European operations.

Saunders is refreshingly honest and readily acknowledges that F-H's UK business does not reflect its standing in other key markets, notably its top two position in the US. 'There are an awful lot of things right about here,' he points out. 'But are we the finished item? No. Are we the best firm in town? No, we are not. But we have a relentless commitment to getting it right.'

Although F-H is not as well established as Edelman, Weber Shandwick and others in the UK, Saunders insists this means there is 'huge opportunity for us in London'. He particularly points to closer integration with the Brussels and other European operations and, more widely, its Omnicom bedfellows.

Pointing to the work already undertaken with Ketchum on behalf of electronics brand Philips, he says: 'Integration is what clients want and we are very much more advanced down that road than our holding company rivals.'

Saunders has, in his own words, 'trodden the streets of Omnicom for many years' and has the laid-back demeanour of a man comfortable in his corporate skin. Witty and self-effacing, he retains a fierce commitment to the brand without evangelising.

A telling insight into his ethos comes when he picks out two sporting operators who had a 'huge effect' on him when he was a sports journalist - former Liverpool chief executive Peter Robinson and the Rooney family, which owns American football team the Pittsburgh Steelers.

He reveres both, not just for their success (praise indeed, coming from a committed Evertonian), but their quiet dignity, humility and ability to create enduring relationships throughout their tenures.

It is an approach he clearly attempts to replicate. 'Success on the field is entirely dependent on the people off it,' explains Saunders. 'To succeed, you need to populate your business with brilliant people and create an environment in which they are valued and motivated.'

Throughout the interview, he is a passionate advocate of F-H's people and is never more enthusiastic than when telling stories of his European team's socialising, playing and even forming bands together.

'I see my job as going out and finding the best people and fighting to get them as well paid as possible,' he explains. 'Like journalism, this business is for the most part made up of people not primarily motivated by money. People like myself have a huge responsibility not to exploit that.'

The X Factor judge and music impresario Louis Walsh has known Saunders for years and says: 'He built up one of the best PR shops in Ireland, a feature of which has been his ability to hold on to great people.'

Noel Penrose, global COO for brand consultancy Interbrand, adds: 'John is one of life's enablers. He is extremely generous and really tries to help people, so you always end up owing him a stack of favours.'

Saunders moved into PR in 1982, co-founding Pembroke Public Relations before establishing Fleishman-Hillard Saunders in 1990, which became fully part of F-H in 2001. He is candid about his early career move: 'I got married at 22 and developed tastes that were more expensive than my income in journalism.' And he was convinced he could do better PR than he had experienced.

Saunders reminisces about covering the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, as well as getting the Irish Taoiseach to arrange lunch for him at the White House. He also recalls landing on the USS John F Kennedy aircraft carrier, while representing Budweiser, and then being catapulted off at 300mph in a fighter jet, in addition to getting to know Clinton's chief of staff.

It is only lack of time that curtails the highlights - they are not remotely boastful, but have a warm affection for the people with whom he has crossed paths.

'It's pretty cool that little Johnny Saunders from Dublin personally knows the head of the CIA,' he muses. 'Although he hasn't been returning my calls lately ...'

 

CV

2011 Regional president, Europe, Eurasia, UK and Africa, Fleishman-Hillard

2007 Regional president, Europe and Eurasia, Fleishman-Hillard

2004 Regional director, Continental Europe, Fleishman-Hillard

1990 Founder, Fleishman-Hillard Saunders

1982 Co-founder, Pembroke Public Relations

1977 Presenter, RTE

 

JOHN SAUNDERS' TURNING POINTS

What was your biggest career break?

I had just started in the sports department at RTE as a freelance sub-editor when, for the first time in seven years, the broadcaster held auditions. Despite not being on the waiting list, I got an audition and was then on air daily at the age of 19.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Dave Guiney, a former Olympic athlete and outstanding journalist, taught me about showing compassion to others. My first client, the late Paul O'Neill of O'Neill's Sportswear, always challenged me by asking whether an activity I was proposing would sell any more tracksuits. John Graham, chairman of F-H, has been a mentor to generations of the firm's people.

What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?

A fanatical interest in going the extra mile for a client will see you go a long way. Err on the side of telling people what they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Flexibility, a willingness to make the tea and good manners - on top of being the brain of Britain.

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