PROFILE: The town crier of the internet - Larry Weber - Founder, W2

Weber Shandwick founder Larry Weber is the consummate PRO, slick without seeming smarmy, and clearly attuned to his audience.

Larry Weber is almost 24 hours late for his PRWeek interview. Thanks to the worst ice storm the east coast of the US has seen in years, he spent hours at Boston airport while his UK minions frantically rearranged his schedule. When he finally arrives, the Weber Shandwick founder is still wide awake. As it turns out, Weber is 'not much of a sleeper'.

It is a good thing too. As he reels off the projects he is involved in - from his recently launched W2 Group, to his next book, to an upcoming web radio show - it is clear he will not be getting a good night's sleep until around 2017. 'I have got another ten or 12 years left - so that is the last thing I am doing!' he promises.

Fifty-two-year-old Weber is the consummate PRO, slick without seeming smarmy, and clearly attuned to his audience. He speaks in superlatives: everything is the 'biggest', 'first' or 'best'. He has a habit of dropping the name of whoever he is speaking to into every other sentence as if to remind his employees that they are more than a cog in the wheel. It is a bit of old-fashioned business school etiquette that has not gone unnoticed.

'In an organisation of more than 250 people on two continents, he still addresses each employee by name, remembering something relevant to say to them,' remembers Waggener Edstrom lead digital consultant Ged Carroll, who started his career at The Weber Group. 'In other agencies I have worked at meeting the boss is like an audience with the Pope. With Larry you are catching up with a colleague.'

As one would expect from a man with his CV, Weber is on first name terms with the great and the good of the PR industry, the media and the tech world alike. He counts Rupert Murdoch as a business acquaintance and internet pioneer Sir Tim Berners-Lee as a friend.

In fact, Weber has been credited with marketing the early incarnation of the web to big business after Berners-Lee first started developing the tool in the 80s. Radio host and Open Source blogger Christopher Lydon calls him 'the town crier of the internet transformation', dubbing him 'World Wide Weber'.

When talking about the digital revolution and emergence of social media, Weber is in his element. His authority on the topic is undisputed - his most recent book Marketing to the Social Web went into its third printing last month and is being translated into Russian.

He is not afraid to talk the book up either, signing a copy for PRWeek unprompted, and laughingly deriding the efforts of his industry peers ('Have you read (Burson-Marsteller CEO) Mark Penn's book? It's not as good as mine!').

'He is genuinely excited about the power of comms and technology, and was like a kid in a candy store during the dotcom era and later with web 2.0,' says BT Retail head of comms Zoe Arden, who joined the Weber Group in 1998 and became UK MD.

'He has always been ahead of the curve when it came to using technology in comms. His WeberWorks was the first intranet and extranet, making agency activity completely transparent. He was delivering real web 2.0 comms while most people were still theorising about it.'

So by the time marcoms multinational The Interpublic Group (IPG) bought The Weber Group in 1996, Weber had already predicted the approaching dotcom boom. Interviewed by PRWeek in 1997, Weber said that his agency would provide 'virtual press rooms' long before his competitors understood what that even meant.

As the dotcom bubble deflated, Weber concentrated on acquisitions for Interpublic, buying 23 companies in three years. He also merged his agency with Shandwick, then an also-ran ranked behind the 'big three': Burson-Marsteller, Hill & Knowlton and Fleishman-Hillard. By the time Weber left in 2004, Weber Shandwick was the top agency worldwide.

Having built one of the world's top PR outfits he left his role at the upper echelons of Interpublic to start again. His fledgling W2 Group, which includes the recently acquired Racepoint PR, focuses on digital PR.

While the future of PR is certainly digital, Weber warns PROs not to rush in. That, he explains, is the only way to avoid misguided stunts such as Edelman's 'astroturfing' disaster on behalf of client Wal-Mart, or its failed Facebook page, co-opted by angry users who wanted to discuss the retailer's anti-union policies.

'I told Richard (Edelman), "You talk a good game but this is not something you just barge into!"' says Weber. 'You must be completely transparent when you create content. What is wrong with being a PRO? Nothing. You can be a PRO but tell them you are a PRO!'

Weber adds PROs must tailor their language to a web savvy audience.'Do not say a car is the best car in the world. Say it is green, or safe, or focus on its design. We need to find what we are good at: content, as opposed to an advertising or sales angle. The internet is a great platform. PR people my age wait until something happens, then react. Now all marketing is a 24/7 business. PR is a verb now, not a noun.'

His first project this year is to host a weekly web radio show, Webmaster Radio, where he will interview a well-known industry figure every Tuesday ('at 5pm British time', he says, never one to miss a plug). His list of interviewees includes Berners-Lee and Murdoch.

He hopes to add PRWeek owner Lord Heseltine to the schedule, as well as some 'young, hip PR people'. 'The thing that gets my juices flowing is being around young people,' he explains, smiling. 'I cannot be the expert on everything!'

CV
2004: Founder, chairman and CEO, W2 Group
2000: CEO, WS Worldwide, then chairman and CEO, Interpublic Advanced
Marketing Services Group
1996: Chairman and CEO, Weber PR Worldwide
1987: Founder, The Weber Group
1983: PR director, Humphrey, Browning, McDougal

TURNING POINTS

WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST CAREER BREAK?

I think I had three career breaks. The first was winning the Lotus account when I was 32. The Weber Group and the software industry were just babies and we soared. Second, launching HTML, or the web, for Sir Tim Berners-Lee and realising everything would change. Lastly, Interpublic buying The Weber Group and giving me the cash and authority to build Weber Shandwick.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE SOMEONE CLIMBING THE CAREER LADDER?

Studying the new media landscape intensely is the single most important thing. They need to understand they are at the core of what marketing has become: the influence of opinion through content. It is not all about writing anymore; there is a whole new visual dimension to embrace. Secondly, just work hard, and know what quality is.

WHO WAS YOUR MOST NOTABLE MENTOR?

The late Dr Michael Dertouzos, founder of the MIT lab for computer science, as well as Harry Figgie, founder and CEO of the first leveraged buyout firm, who was my 'business school'. In PR, Harold Burson. Finally, I am in awe of great journalists. Read them and watch them.

WHAT DO YOU PRIZE MOST IN NEW RECRUITS?

Creativity and great analytical thinking. Also a sense of wonder and fun.

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