John Mahony - The reputation evangelist

ReputationInc's founder is still preaching the value of corporate reputation, and others are starting to catch on. Alec Mattinson reports.

John Mahony: ReputationInc CEO
John Mahony: ReputationInc CEO

John Mahony is a man with plenty to say.

The co-founder of ReputationInc recently marked the agency's tenth birthday, but hearing his enthusiasm for the tasks ahead one would think it was his first day in the job.

A decade ago the former UK MD of Edelman took a 'leap of faith' to launch a boutique consultancy centred on strategic reputation management. It was a huge risk at the time, but ten years later the decision looks remarkably prescient as the rest of the industry has embraced the concepts at the core of his business.

Just last week, Barclays' CEO Anthony Jenkins sent a memo inviting staff to sign up to an ethical code of conduct or quit. For the boss of a major financial institution to have issued such an edict ten years ago would be almost unthinkable. Typically, Barclays is a ReputationInc client.

This principle is at the centre of everything Mahony and his agency stands for. 'An effective reputation strategy has to be in line with the business' DNA,' he explains. 'We want to see organisations recognising reputation as a business driver and central to their entire business strategy.'

Mahony, 50, is an engaging and passionate advocate of the value of reputation and readily unleashes his considered views on a myriad of issues and challenges.

It comes as little surprise, therefore, that Mahony is a born communicator. 'I grew up in a typically small Irish family of 11 children,' he jokes. 'You understand very young what it is to hone your message and get your sound bite in quickly.'

A storied profile could be written of his early comms career alone - from starting out as a press secretary in Australia with his path crossing fearsome Aussie PM Bob Hawke, to causing a diplomatic incident in the UK by inviting the Russian embassy to look at the latest western computer tech.

Perhaps his biggest break came when meeting someone he calls one of his 'guardian angels', Michel Ogrizek, who offered him the chance to run Edelman in Dublin.

However, it was a pretty inauspicious start: 'What he sold me at the interview and what I walked into were different things – it wasn’t a pretty operation.'

Undeterred, and given carte blanche to do what was necessary, he lead the turnaround and the business and such was his success that Mahony was drafted in to lead Edelman in the UK. But soon he reached a crossroads.

'Back in 2002 there wasn't much mention of reputation,' he explains. 'But we noticed a lot of the work was concerned with aligning comms strategy to business strategy and we thought "what if we had the courage to branch out and set up a management consultancy-style agency focusing exclusively on reputation management?"'

And branch out he did, along with colleagues Tari Hibbitt and Nigel Whittaker, to create ReputationInc. Pioneers of reputation management they may have been, but at times they were preaching a message clients were initially reluctant to hear.

'The early years were like pushing water uphill,' he remembers. 'Corporate relations directors weren't used to being challenged about they’d really thought about reputation strategy in a more holistic way.’

There was no sudden Euruka moment, but gradually key UK corporates like Diageo and Unilever began to buy into the message. And it is a message Mahony preaches just as resolutely today.

Mahony's early flair for reputation management saw him drafted in by Pierre-Yves Gerbeau, the French businessman at the helm of the Millennium Dome back in 2000.

Gerbeau simply effuses about Mahony's skills. 'He saved my career,' he says. 'I was a new born baby to this comms world and he taught me everything. He made me do things that made me want to punch the guy, but he was right as always.'

A 'loyal, honourable friend', Mahony helped Gerbeau through his sale of X-Leisure to Land Securities just last week. 'Everything with him has a big picture and a strategy. He has a phenomenal business brain.'

Of course, this is no longer a field ReputationInc has to itself. 'The biggest flattery over the past five years has been watching traditional PR agencies create mini-boutiques purporting to offer objective, insight-led strategic approaches,' Mahony notes.

'Purporting' seems to be the key word - Mahony is convinced there remains significant room for differentiation, and his agency's model has morphed to centre on four key areas. Insight - objective study of stakeholders' sentiment and behaviour; strategy - business-critical reputation objectives; capability - ensuring corporate affairs functions and CEOs have the right skills to drive reputation; and execution - following through with those strategies.

While most agency’s would stress the latter, Mahony spends more time talking of the other functions – pointing out the noticeably low-decibel environment in the open plan office, as the agency’s people are encouraged to think rather than hit the phones.

So after a decade on the cliff face of reputation management - where next?

Corporate relations functions are upskilling, Mahony notes, which will bring its own challenges. 'More and more intellectual property is heading in-house,' he says. 'For some agencies that functional development is a disaster - we think it's the foundation of our business. The more knowledgeable and demanding clients become, the more we have to offer them real insight on what will be critical for them in five years.'

What does that five-year time horizon hold for the agency itself? Mahony's quest is far from reaching its conclusion: 'Very few businesses have put reputation as a business driver in their strategy and the requirement to turn business leaders into reputation leaders is still in its infancy.'

He remains outwardly committed to independence, but he notes the agency is reaching another crossroads - whether it should continue to operate from its London hub or put down roots in more regions.

He talks of 'slower burn' growth - and it is something in which he is well versed.

Some 25 years after they met, Mahony married his partner last year. 'The moral of the story,' he says, 'is building a reputation is not something to be rushed.' In that sense, the first decade is just the start.

Mahony's CV

2002: Founder, partner and subsequent group CEO, ReputationInc
1999: MD, Edelman London
1995: MD, Edelman Dublin
1991: Director, McMahon Sheedy
1989: Account manager, Paragon Communications
1986: Press secretary, NSW Council, Australia

TIPS FROM THE TOP

- What was your biggest career break?

Stepping out of the PR agency world after 15 years into the world of reputation management.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

Mentors are like guardian angels that appear at critical moments. Michel Ogrizek, former European president at Edelman; the late great Nigel Whittaker, who taught me how to listen; and Diageo's Ian Wright, who made me understand having a healthy sense of humour in a crisis is business critical.

- What advice would you give people climbing the career ladder?

Reputation management opens up so many opportunities if you have an analytical mind and a hunger to learn. Always think broader when it comes to your career.

- What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

A passion for business strategy, an inquiring mind, impatience to succeed and a willingness to share knowledge, with a strong dose of humility and humour.

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