Dave Senay is putting PR on the map from St Louis to London

The FleishmanHillard president is using his global vision to help the agency break into new markets, finds Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou Smith.

Going places: Dave Senay says 'PR is often treated as the red-headed stepchild.'
Going places: Dave Senay says 'PR is often treated as the red-headed stepchild.'

Dave Senay is the archetypal all-American. Raised in St Louis, Missouri, where he has worked for nearly 30 years, FleishmanHillard's president and chief executive has a distinct mid-Western drawl, is a former sports star and likes his buzz words.

Having just steered his company through its first rebrand since 1985, bringing the distinctly New World-tinged strapline 'The power of true' to the agency's branding, Senay could be mistaken for a stereotypical, jargon-spewing, less-than-inspiring, by-the-book leader.

He is anything but.

Sitting in FleishmanHillard's UK headquarters, Senay, 57, has just been snapped beside a London cab adorned with the agency's new identity.

He uses it as an example of the company 'showing up in places that PR wouldn't usually show up', joking that the agency is finally starting to take its own advice.

'PR is often treated as the red-headed stepchild. What's that quote from Dirty Dancing? "Nobody puts Baby in the corner"? Well that's us, no one puts us in the corner,' he says with a broad smile.

And he is not bluffing. While being part of the Omnicom network means the agency can easily partner with advertising shops for client project work, it also means it can poach from them too.

Senay has taken his global head of strategic integration from ad agency TBWA, brought in the former head of planning from Leo Burnett Asia, and now his agency is turning up in pitches against ad shops and tech specialists such as IBM.

Not only is his competitive set changing, but the media landscape and the way people build relationships with brands is too.

'This is an era that demands unparalleled transparency and authenticity,' Senay says, emphasising the importance the agency has placed on talking to consumers correctly through digital and social means.

Nearly ten per cent of the UK business is now dedicated to content creation, with a strong emphasis on video.

The fast-changing world of digital comms seems a lifetime away from when Senay graduated from St Louis University in the midst of a 'bad' recession. He took a job that he could not stand but could not leave, as he had no money for a car and needed to be able to walk to work.

Three jobs later, he walked into FleishmanHillard's St Louis headquarters as an account executive and he and the agency have 'grown up together' ever since.

Given his relaxed demeanour, one might expect Senay to brush off the stresses of leadership, but he remains realistic and honest about the challenges of the role. 'The physical toll of this job and the psychological demands are immense,' he says, but it does not put him off.

The global and strategic focus of the company is what Senay sees as the mark of his era. He understands the importance of engaging with every part of his network and last year spent 135 days on the road, half of which involved international travel.

He acknowledges that the company needs a strong presence in New York, London, Tokyo and Beijing, and, while he has no plans to change headquarters, says: 'You can't be sat on your backside in St Louis and manage an 85-office network in 30 countries.'

Rob Flaherty, CEO of Ketchum, says of Senay's leadership style: 'I really admire Dave for the active leadership he brings to Fleishman. He's someone you can trust and count on to provide the integrity that has been part of the agency's brand from the beginning.'

One key to his success is his competitive nature. The third child in a family of seven, Senay jokes he was bound to grow up with a competitive streak given how sharp he had to be to get seconds or hand-me-downs.

As a young man he set records in swimming and played all-state water polo, but is reluctant to talk about his sporting achievements, because 'it sounds like bragging'.

'You've got to have a constructive outlet for your competitiveness and channel it into something good,' he says. He has channelled his into a passion for leadership and helping build his company and his employees' careers.

Despite his self-professed love of mid-Western values, as he looks out of the window of the Covent Garden office where a branded taxi is parked, Senay cannot help but admit to a longstanding love affair with London.

CV

2006 President and CEO, FleishmanHillard

2005 Regional president EMEA, Canada and central US, FleishmanHillard

2004 Regional president, EMEA and central US, FleishmanHillard

2002 Regional president, central US, FleishmanHillard

1999 General manager, St Louis office (HQ), FleishmanHillard

1984 Account executive, FleishmanHillard

1980 Director of public information, St Louis University

1979 Information specialist, Neighborhood Marketing Services

1978 Member relations assistant, St Louis Teachers' Credit Union

Dave Senay's turning points

What was your biggest career break?

I made a cold call to FleishmanHillard in early 1984, talked my way into an interview and eventually got hired. The rest, as they say, is history.

Have you had a notable mentor?

John Graham ranks the highest among them. Others include Joe Finnigan, who hired me at FH, Linda Mills and Bill Anderson, who taught me tons about building the business. I also have to tip my hat to a war horse of a PR man, the late Mike Blatz, who took me under his wing for four years at St Louis University.

What advice would you give people climbing the career ladder?

The people who aren't happy are largely so because they are spending an enormous amount of time either regretting the past or fearing the future, and they're not invested in what is going on at the moment. So go in and be committed. To reference Goethe, when you commit, providence moves with you. Stay focused and do the best possible at the job at hand.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Great character, intelligence, a combination of ambition and humility, a hunger for discovery, a strong work ethic and resilience.

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