Profile: Michael Murphy, CEO, Grayling

He may be much-travelled and profiled, but Grayling's new CEO now has fresh global objectives, finds Arun Sudhaman.

Michael Murphy
Michael Murphy

Michael Murphy might just be the most profiled person in PRWeek history. This is the fourth time in 21 years that the Scotsman has endured the flashbulb and interview treatment, ensuring he must be familiar with the routine.

The 55-year-old is too self-effacing to let this show, even if a lengthy photoshoot is eventually navigated with a flicker of impatience.

Murphy's first PRWeek profile was in 1989, when he sold his Glasgow agency to Shandwick. At that time, aged 35, he expected to spend the rest of his working life in Scotland. 'It's what I thought I wanted,' he admits.

Events could not have turned out more differently. Murphy instead embarked on a 20-year run that led him to Asia and London, taking on senior roles at Shandwick, Trimedia and now Grayling.

The reassessment of his career ambitions has had fairly dramatic consequences for Murphy. To his first boss Gordon Casely, who hired him as a press officer in 1975, his success comes as no surprise. 'He was a reporter for the local paper and I was impressed by his sense of fairness, but he was the original terrier with the bone,' says Casely, who heads Aberdeen agency Herald Strategy.

Murphy retains a fondness for the Scottish market where he cut his teeth, but is blunt about the benefits of working abroad.

'Scotland has lots of challenges as a nation, but one of the things we do quite well is travel,' he points out. 'One thing that does disappoint me is that people are less willing to up sticks and move. If you are young and don't have ties, you should just go: it's a wonderful experience.'

Another person who is probably thankful for Murphy's change of heart is the man with whom he has now worked for 19 years: Huntsworth CEO Lord Chadlington. Indeed, Murphy is often viewed as Chadlington's hand on the tiller, or hatchet man, depending on which formulation you prefer.

'This is a very demanding industry,' says Chadlington. 'Michael keeps everything in perspective, realises that whatever happens, one must keep going. And he does so with good manners and humour.'

Chadlington's latest task for Murphy may be the toughest. He has been entrusted with transforming the 'new' Grayling - created from a merger of the agency with Hunstworth siblings Trimedia and Mmd - into a genuine global contender.

There is no shortage of pressure involved. Chadlington has outlined that one of the key factors in his sudden decision to whittle Huntsworth's 26 agency brands down to four was to better compete for global business. Murphy downplays the goal, but Grayling has clearly been earmarked to take on bigger competitors such as Edelman and Weber Shandwick.

'I'm confident we will win global assignments quickly,' states Murphy. 'Will we necessarily win a global client in 40 to 50 countries? We will, but that might take a bit longer.'

Not too long, if Murphy's goals for the new Grayling are any clue. The agency earns about $150m in global revenues, but Murphy wants a 'doubling and tripling of the business'. There are several similar-sized agencies that could profess to similarly grand ambitions; naturally, Murphy believes Grayling is different.

'It's to do with ambition and passion. It's the fact that Huntsworth has access to external shareholder funds and a lot of these firms don't,' says Murphy. 'I've never known Huntsworth to hover for very long - you won't find Grayling hovering either.'

In Murphy, Grayling will be led by someone who is familiar with this terrain. Previous stints heading Shandwick and Trimedia resulted in impressive growth, driven by leadership qualities he lists as being 'fair, tough and occasionally impatient'.

All of that is underpinned by exceedingly good manners and a refreshing willingness to listen. 'My colleagues might laugh at that notion of me, but I genuinely listen and I'm able to suss out situations quite quickly. I don't know if it's something you're born with or something you learn.'

Murphy will need all of this emotional intelligence to help ease a merger of agencies with sharply different footprints and cultures. He is clear that no particular region will dominate the new Grayling. 'The opportunity for me to work in Asia for five years before I worked in London opened my eyes,' he says. 'That makes me very sensitive to the fact that the best ideas are not always invented in London or New York, but can come from anywhere.'

'In the end, it's a tough old business world and you have to make difficult decisions,' says Murphy, before adding, 'but you have to make the right decisions.'

 

MICHAEL MURPHY'S TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

It came at the age of 25, when I worked in-house as head of PR for a major brewer and was approached by Scottish advertising agency boss Grant Forrest to join his fledgling PR consultancy. Within weeks, I found myself running the business and built it up to be the largest in Scotland.

- Three notable mentors?

My parents, for teaching me the value of hard work and money, and Peter Chadlington. You cannot work with him for 20 years and not learn a huge amount.

- What advice would you give to someone climbing the PR career ladder?

Always recognise that no matter how experienced you are, you will make mistakes. It is not a problem as long as you learn from them. Secondly, listen more than you talk. In this business, we are all too fond of our own voices.

- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

People who are streetwise, have tons of common sense and are very aware of our changing world and what is going on in it.

 

CV

2009: CEO, Grayling

2004: CEO, Trimedia International

2001: CEO, The Hatch Group

1999: Deputy CEO, Shandwick International

1998: CEO, Shandwick Europe

1994: CEO, Shandwick Asia

1993: Head, Shandwick Hong Kong

1983: Founder, PR Consultants Scotland

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