Michael Stewart, a PR man who means business

The former comms director at McKinsey & Co has big shoes to fill but big thinking to offer in his new role at Edelman. John Owens reports.

The art of client management: Michael Stewart
The art of client management: Michael Stewart

Coming from an industry with fee levels for which PR agency heads might consider selling their mothers, it is little surprise that Edelman's new European boss Michael Stewart has a penchant for thinking big.

McKinsey & Company, the biggest fish in the management consultancy money pit, was recently reported to charge US$165k (£106k) a week for a senior team of four, according to the FT, and commands a level of influence in the boardroom only dreamed of in PR.

Stewart, the former McKinsey comms chief, was hired as Edelman's European CEO in April to replace Robert Phillips after his shock departure last November. Stewart is convinced the comms industry must strive to sit at the same table as his previous employer.

'It is critical that we approach our work with a top management perspective,' he says in an American accent gently rounded by years of international travel.

'It is about understanding the client in the context of how they're operating. It's about having strong business acumen and knowing the issues that will affect their success, whether it's urban migration or changes in technology. The industry needs to get better at that.'

The 47-year-old is archetypal of the slick US executive. There is the immaculate side parting, the ornate silver cufflinks and pearly whites that threaten to catch a reflection in perfectly polished shoes.

He talks of his Edelman priorities not as someone with a vision forged in the cut-and-thrust of new business, but from the wider oversight of a business background.

'Edelman has got to a certain level where it is key to ensure the values of the agency continue to be spread among staff as it gets bigger. It's about how to create a knowledge management system,' he asserts.

Despite this big picture approach, he believes there cannot be one overarching strategy for the European offices. Instead he says 'it must be driven by each market'.

He believes the downsizing of the role immediately after Phillips left (oversight of Africa and the Middle East was handed to David Brain, CEO of APAC) will allow him to focus more intently on Europe and CIS.

He uses an argument based on focus: 'We have a strong anchor in the UK, but we need to get to scale in Europe by broadening and deepening our capabilities.'

Stewart may be a smooth operator, but the father of two is also engaging and friendly. The politically active Democrat outlines his back-story as a balance of ideological and business motivations in which words like 'operationalise' are closely followed by talk of a 'higher mission'.

This included taking time out of university to become international president at the AIESEC, a 100,000 member strong organisation fostering international work exchanges among students.

'Coming out of World War II, it valued integration and bringing young people together as a foundation for peace. It was an idealistic organisation, and having a social purpose has always been an important part of what I've done,' he says.

This 'terrifying' position of responsibility was one held in his early twenties and included having to decide whether to suspend operations in China after the Tiananmen Square massacre. It also involved dealing with an advisory board that included business magnate George Soros, meaning he developed 'a rare niche of being good at managing an organisation, and communicating its vision credibly'.

It was a niche he honed further, dropping out of a plum UN role to re-enter education and geek up on policy in an effort 'to stand toe-to-toe' with the real power brokers.

Stewart's career path included a stint at The Prince's Trust - he describes Prince Charles as 'unbelievably smart and engaged' - before arriving at McKinsey for his first full-time PR role.

So how does an organisation responsible for its fair share of firings, and which advised Enron before its descent into disgrace, fit into the social motivations that Stewart espouses? The father of two points to the 'strong sense of purpose' in advising businesses and the 'fact it is doing things that have great impact on the world'.

For such an ambitious man, the challenge of building up a comms team across Asia from scratch also had an obvious appeal.

It is credit to his 12 years at the firm, where he was also partner, that McKinsey global MD Dominic Barton still regrets Stewart's departure. 'He is calm, with an experienced leadership perspective, and was confident in saying "when" if we needed to talk to a client's CEO about a decision,' he says. 'You really valued his judgement.'

Stewart says he 'does not recognise' McKinsey's reputation for secrecy. 'Putting the ethics of your client relationship first is not the same as being secretive,' he counters.

There is talk of 'S' curves in careers, but the crux of his decision to move was that the challenges were running out and in Edelman he saw a business at an interesting point in its rapid ascent.

And though he draws strong lessons from his experience in management consultancy, he does share concerns it is beginning to eat the PR industry's lunch.

'Management consultancy work runs in parallel to ours, but the opportunities are there for us as PR agencies. These issues are fundamental to the management, and it will absolutely happen (that PR has a growing importance). That's why I am here.'

The fee envy may continue, but the fearful would be wise to take heed.

CV

2013 President and CEO, Europe and CIS, Edelman

2004 Partner, global director of comms, McKinsey & Co

2003 Director of comms, Americas, McKinsey & Co

2001 Director of comms, Asia, McKinsey & Co

1998 MD, Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum

1992 Deputy executive director, Centre for Our Common Future

1989 International president, International Association of Students in Economics and Commerce

1988 President, US, International Association of Students in Economics and Commerce

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Getting international experience early. Joining McKinsey to help build a global comms function from scratch. And being invited to join Edelman's leadership team at an incredibly exciting time.

Have you had a notable mentor?

I had outstanding mentors at McKinsey, I wouldn't want to single out one. And earlier in my career, Howard Paster, former CEO of Hill & Knowlton, provided me with counsel and support.

What advice would you give people climbing the career ladder?

Take the road less travelled: be willing to take risks and go outside of your comfort zone. And surround yourself with people who are smarter and more talented than you.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Strong business acumen, insatiable reading habits, broad interests beyond work, a 'we not I' mindset, positivity and spark.

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