Few moves in the healthcare PR industry have caused as much of a stir as Cherry Wood's departure from Athena Medical Communications late last year.
The feisty former MD had launched the highly successful agency and nurtured it since its conception in 1997. But last October she announced that she was planning to leave to set up her own agency.
The news came as such a shock to some because they mistakenly believed Wood owned Athena. In fact she was employed by majority owner LEC Communications. Omnicom has also owned a stake since 2000.
'I think people were surprised and wondered why I'd walked away from something that was so successful,' Wood says matter-of-factly. 'There was this urban myth out there that I owned Athena. I'm cross with myself for not leaving sooner.'
Wood's candour is typical of an open, upfront persona. She is warm and approachable, but will not be drawn into spilling the beans about her split with Athena.
'I loved my time at Athena and I was really happy for most of the time. The board of directors had quite a hands-off approach. Then, more meaningfully, there were times when it didn't. That got on my nerves and in the end I thought "right I'm going". In my naive, rosy-glow way I thought I'd be patted on the back with a thank-you for everything I'd done and a "good luck", but it wasn't like that.'
For Wood, aged 41, the real motivation to leave was to gain the control others believed she already had at Athena, by setting up her own healthcare shop, Liberation: 'I wanted to run my own show and do my own thing.'
Liberation opened for business in January and specialises in PR, medical education and advocacy aimed at the pharmaceutical industry.
While the agency will be a change for Wood, she admits there will probably be similarities to Athena and is not striving to make it markedly different: 'Athena was me to a certain extent because the way I worked was the way Athena ran.'
In some ways Wood is a contradiction. She says she is soft-hearted, but acknowledges her reputation for being tough and intimidating.
She is clear, however, that she wants to avoid the hierarchical structure at Athena in favour of a flatter organisation to avoid staff getting 'hung-up' on job titles.
She also does not expect to replicate Athena's success overnight: 'I'm not looking to have 50 people employed in two years. I just want to do a really good job.'
Wood has already bolstered the team with two former Athena staffers and has picked up work with pharma firms Bayer Schering and Chiesi, and industry trade body the ABPI.
With the restrictions binding her now lifted, she has started shouting about the new agency. She admits the phone is not ringing off the hook yet with people inviting her to pitch. But she believes this is down to her not having been able to tell the industry about Liberation.
Some may say attempting to start an agency in a recession is a brave move, and Wood confesses she did not see the recession coming when she handed in her notice early last year: 'By June the writing was on the wall about what was going to happen financially. But all I want to do is earn enough to live. I've always been confident that I would be able to keep myself busy.'
She disagrees with those who say the healthcare industry is 'recession-proof', but concedes it is the best sector in which to work during a recession. 'There are still pitches going on and people are still hiring,' she asserts.
Wood did not start off wanting to work in the healthcare industry but a chance job at Shire Hall Communications was where she developed her passion. For her, the rewards outweigh the criticisms of working for what some people still consider to be 'big, bad pharma'. 'Healthcare PR is meaningful,' she argues. 'We are doing some good work for people. Despite criticism levelled at the industry, it has done an enormous amount of work in R&D and education.'
While Wood continues to expand the agency, other healthcare PR professionals await her plans. Red Door Communications MD Catherine Warne, who worked with Wood at Shire Hall Communications, says of her former colleague: 'Cherry has become one of the most dynamic, honest, brave and vibrant people in healthcare. We hold our breath for what she is creating with Liberation.'
Cherry Wood's turning points
- What was your biggest career break?
I have had two. The first was in 1994 when I was appointed head of PR and created the UK PR department for Zeneca (now AstraZeneca). The second was when I was approached to start Athena Medical PR.
- Have you had a notable mentor?
I have worked with some great people. Notable mentors in the early days were Margot James (Shire Hall) and Neil Kendle (Fusion). On a personal level my husband, who works in the pharma industry, has always inspired me and my father is a great mentor.
- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
Believe in yourself. Don't look back and, perhaps most importantly, pride comes before a fall.
- What do you prize most in new recruits?
People who get on with the job, work hard and think on their feet. There's a perception that having a great degree means you'll go flying to the top of the career ladder. I'm more impressed by confident communicators who can think fast, work efficiently and who don't panic under pressure.
2009: Founder and MD, Liberation Communications
1997: Founder and MD, Athena Medical PR
1994: Head of PR, Zeneca Pharma
1992: Account manager, VoxPrism
1991: Account executive, Fusion Communications
1989: Secretary/junior account executive, Shire Hall Communications