Analysis: Edelman looks to Brain for stability

Edelman has seen a raft of top-level changes, including the poaching of David Brain from rival firm Weber Shandwick and the departure of its UK CEO after just a year in the job. Ian Hall asks what the future holds for Europe's largest independent agency

As hot seats go, there are few senior roles less sizzling in the European PR industry than that at the helm of Edelman's European empire.

In three months' time, former Weber Shandwick joint chief executive David Brain will take the role of European president and CEO at Edelman, where high-level comings, goings and restructures have left one former staffer comparing the environment to a 'roundabout'.

Brain's role is the one turned down by former president of international operations Alison Canning, who departed after two years in the role in July (PRWeek, 18 July).

Edelman's UK operation is also no stranger to staff churn, with CEO James Thellusson - the third UK chief executive in nine months - quitting last week (PRWeek, 26 September) after one year at the helm.

Deputy CEO Stuart Smith and healthcare director Nigel Breakwell have since taken over as UK joint general managers, reporting to Brain and European COO Hugh Gillanders, both of whom report to international CEO Richard Edelman in New York.

Brain, who is now on gardening leave from WS, plans a tour of the ten countries and 350 employees - as well as clients - when he takes control in three months' time.

At a strategic level, Richard Edelman has previously said the agency's global plan was to 'boost the amount of non-US business we get by exporting it from the US' (PRWeek, 18 July), but he insists that, although US-led growth is most applicable for sectors such as pharma, this is not the sole method by which Edelman plans European growth.

Spelling out the areas on which he wants Brain to focus, Edelman says the priority is to secure more work in what he terms 'big issue' areas, specifically 'obesity, trade and intellectual property protection'.

At a sectoral level he mentions a renewed focus on 'areas we are strong in', citing tech, pharma and brand marketing as examples.

Smith and Breakwell, who refer to their promotions as a 'natural progression', play down the overall significance of top-level turmoil, with Smith insisting that, despite the recent 'turnover of top management, the underlying strength of the business is excellent'.

This week they launched what they refer to as a 'classic 100-day plan and review' for Edelman UK, where the agency's current strengths are widely acknowledged to be in corporate and healthcare PR.

One former staffer describes the agency as having 'retrenched' around these two specialisms, pointing to the cutbacks over the past two years in the financial and consumer teams.

Consumer PR head Jill Rennie, who left three months ago (PRWeek, 11 July), has yet to be replaced, and it is widely thought that Brain, Breakwell and Smith will prioritise the UK consumer PR team as one for swift remedial action.

One former insider cites the failure to tempt Beverley Kaye, the former CEO at sister firm PR21, who quit last month (PRWeek, 5 September), to take an Edelman role as a 'lost opportunity'.

In respect of Edelman UK's day-to-day operations, one former staffer of both Shandwick and Edelman believes Brain will aim to develop further cross-practice working, and that his experience integrating BSMG into Weber Shandwick will make him well-placed to drive such integration forward.

As for Brain's core European remit, Edelman says Brain will concentrate on the 'big markets' - France, Germany and Brussels.

Fuelling speculation that acquisitions are likely, Edelman says: 'I am prepared to put more investment in - that's the great thing about being a private company: we can do this in a recession.'

But how long will it be before there are further top-level changes? After all, when Thellusson joined last year it was widely believed that the instability would come to an end.

Kaye will only say: 'David, hopefully, will be the man to bring stability and calm back to Edelman.'

One former insider gives Brain '24 months' and says 'a lot of soul-searching' is required to prevent what the source refers to as 'ever-changing traffic lights'.

Thellusson is more generous, saying: 'I suspect David will initially focus on uniting the team behind a strategy and business develop-ment programme that will further unlock the brand's potential in Europe. What's more, I'm sure he'll succeed.'

Edelman, who is attempting to convince WS global CEO Harris Diamond to release Brain early from his gardening leave, confidently says: 'David is here for the long-run.'

But considering Canning only lasted two years and Thellusson just half that time, recent history may not be on Edelman's side.

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