Warren Johnson: Time to take on the world

The founder of W Communications is planning expansion in the US and Russia, but first wants another PRWeek gong. John Owens reports.

W Communications' Warren Johnson
W Communications' Warren Johnson

Even within the relatively youthful world of public relations, W Communications head honcho Warren Johnson has packed a lot into his 36 years.

From climbing the ranks at Freud Communications to becoming a property developer and brokering film deals, his CV speaks of a man in search of his place in the world.

But sitting in an office space punctuated by sharp stabs of colour and design - above hang modernist icicles and luminous, brash artwork - he appears to have finally found a vehicle to match his drive.

'I recently had an offer to acquire the business for a nice amount of money and it made me think what my ambitions are,'

he says. 'I realised, and it was devastating to discover, that I like working and I am having a really good time doing what I'm doing.'

It seems the industry is taking note. When we meet, Johnson is preparing to join some of his 24 staff in attempting to show the PRWeek judges that the agency should win the Best Small Agency title to add to its Best Global Campaign gong last year.

The agency's clients range from Toyota to Hendrick's Gin, but some of its most defining work has been with that most traditional of media beasts - newspapers.

With the workaholic's rushed Pret A Manger sandwich in hand, after firing out stats showing the growth of the agency, he explains how the W ethos came to be shaped by an in-at-the-deep-end brief with The Independent.

Johnson is friendly and easy to talk to, but beneath the charm it is not hard to discern an intense energy and focus.

Describing W Communications' involvement in the Indy's Campaign for Democracy, which sought to bring back old-school campaigning ahead of the 2010 general election, Johnson enthuses with the passion of a current affairs aficionado.

'We had ten events in a soap box format and it was phenomenal, so you had things such as Ed Balls getting into a heated debate with a BNP candidate,' he says.

'It was a big project and we're a young agency, but having delivered it and worked on a daily basis with broadcast news and editorial teams it proved a formative moment for how we work with the media.'

Non-traditionalist Johnson is nonetheless adamant that some in the PR industry are missing a trick if they think the dead tree press is, well, dead.

'There's a sense that the PR industry needs to think more like the advertising industry, but I don't agree with the removal of the media as part of that process. A lot of agencies don't talk to journalists any more and if you remove that you remove your reason for being at the top table.'

Asked about the future of W Communications, Johnson's ambition is clear. There are plans to open the firm's first overseas offices in Russia and the US as part of a long-term international expansion, but that is not to say it is all about a relentless drive towards growth.

A recent project is W Ventures, which focuses on investing profits into causes the agency believes in, and resulted in more than 100 hours of pro-bono work with the Teenage Cancer Trust.

Looking back on his career, a common thread runs through the MD's thinking. 'I've always been quite entrepreneurial and had these ambitions to own my own business,' he says.

A party promoter at university, Johnson was originally going to follow in the footsteps of his City-based father, but found a work experience placement not to his tastes.

It was a similar story for a brush with the advertising industry, which he says in parts is 'archaic'. As it was, he ended up getting taken on board by Mike Morgan at The Red Consultancy. Morgan, CEO at Red, remembers a youngster who 'was wearing far too many rings at the time but had a lot of great energy and a natural feel for comms'. Morgan adds: 'He always stood out as someone different, and is one of those restless individuals who thrives on having too much to do.'

Within a few years, and after a stint in Australia, it was off to Freuds. The fit makes sense - Johnson is charming, driven and it is not difficult to imagine him as a highly effective networker.

'My real experience with Matthew Freud,' he says, 'was his ability to cut through the nonsense and having a sixth sense for how the media really worked. He always maintained you needed leverage in the media.'

But the old business itch needed scratching, and he left to go into property, then the world of film. When Johnson talks about the lessons he learned during these times it feels almost as if the path back to setting up a PR agency was inevitable: 'My interest in PR was reawakened. I had gone away and come back with fresh eyes. If you work at a big agency long enough, you get a bit indoctrinated and it felt in the industry that there were a lot of the same people doing a lot of the same things.'

Although someone who appears not to be easily satisfied, Johnson seems to have found his niche.

Married and with two boys whom he walks to school most mornings, he appears content. Well, almost.

'I want us to be a bigger, better, shinier version of what we are now. We have to keep on moving and evolving,' he says. With that, he takes his leave, rushing out to try to wow the PRWeek Awards judging panel. Not for the last time, one suspects.

CV

2009: Founder, W Communications

2006: Partner, Home Factory & Vivacity

2001: Senior account manager, rising to board director, Freud Communications

2000: Account manager, ATTIK, Sydney

1997: Assistant account executive, rising to senior account executive, The Red Consultancy

TIPS FROM THE TOP

- What was your biggest career break?

Failing to get into the advertising industry as a graduate, which allowed me to discover the PR world. Having worked with advertising agencies, I can see so clearly why they didn't believe I was right for the job.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

Mike Morgan, who gave me my first job in the PR industry. I still speak to him to this day, 14 years on. Also, Gaby Zein, who hired and mentored me at Freuds. She helped me successfully navigate the Freuds landscape.

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

Focus on the career of your boss and the rest will follow. You need to consider the whole career ladder and your boss doing well is instrumental in you doing well.

- What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Hard work and enthusiasm. These are the two things you can't train.

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