Profile: Ben Morton, GM, Middle East and Africa, Edelman

Ben Morton, GM for Edelman Middle East and Africa, tells Arun Sudhaman why he is relishing a return to his old stomping ground.

Ben Morton
Ben Morton

For four years, Ben Morton held what many would call the toughest comms role in the UK. Few readers will need reminding of the various PR issues that have bedevilled Heathrow Airport, which Morton oversaw as the head of comms.

It was an organisation that appeared to be in permanent crisis. 'Lots of places have a crisis manual sitting on a shelf gathering dust,' says Morton. 'Whereas we had a crisis team that was used the whole time: it was part and parcel of the job.'

Morton admits to a measure of 'culture shock' when he first arrived at Heathrow in 2005, thanks to the goldfish bowl nature of the job. 'There was nowhere to hide.'

Yet he survived, even thrived, at the airport. It seems reasonable to assume that those cultural skills will come in handy in his new role overseeing Edelman's presence in the Middle East and Africa.

'After a while, you got used to getting a lot of media clippings about you every day,' he points out. 'It prepares you for any job you will do after that.'

Good preparation, yes. But surely Morton will miss the adrenaline rush that accompanied his every move at Heathrow? 'It might be quieter, but it's nonetheless interesting,' says the 43-year-old diplomatically. 'It may not be such an adrenaline rush on a day-to-day basis, but I'm a bit older now, so I'm appreciating different opportunities.'

Ensconced in Edelman's plush London offices, it is easy to imagine that the relentlessly positive Morton is rather enjoying the relative opulence of his new surroundings. There is an undercurrent of resolve, though, that should dispel the notion that Morton is simply looking for a quiet life.

Morton's new boss, Edelman EMEA CEO David Brain, refers to his new charge as a 'grown-up'. Indeed, given the impressive nature of Morton's CV, the hire may have raised eyebrows. There is grandeur in the title, but Edelman's Middle Eastern and African presence currently amounts to one office in Abu Dhabi.

'I wasn't looking for an agency role,'

admits Morton. 'But I was looking for an international role, particularly in an emerging market. Edelman seemed a great opportunity to build a business, not only in the Middle East, but also back into Africa, where I have spent a lot of time in the past.'

The lure of Africa is something that Morton finds difficult to resist. He first worked there in 1995, when he moved to South Africa to establish Bell Pottinger in the country. North Africa then became a particular focus when he joined the Commonwealth Development Corporation in 1998.

'He has a tremendous feel for the developing world - he's a natural at it,' says Bell Pottinger veteran Mark Turnbull, with whom Morton led Bell Pottinger in South Africa. 'He likes the big challenge and has an instinctive dislike of the superficial and frivolous.'

'I'm a great optimist about Africa,' says Morton. 'There are a lot of opportunities and lots of these places haven't been so affected by the financial crisis as the rest of us have.'

There is plenty of work to be done, he agrees, before Edelman establishes its first outpost on the continent. The agency's Abu Dhabi office has been successfully built through its relationship with the Emirates' Mubadala investment vehicle.

Morton must maintain this critical relationship and eventually broaden its offering beyond the UAE. News of Dubai's financial crisis broke fairly soon after Morton began his new role, but he asserts that it never caused him to think twice.

'Had Edelman been based in Dubai, I may have considered my decision harder,' he says. 'I believe what's happened has happened and it's a good reality check for everybody.'

Morton appears instantly comfortable with his current working arrangement, which sees him rotate between London and Abu Dhabi. He puts this to down to an innate sense of wanderlust, honed by a father who travelled extensively.

'There's something inside people that makes them want to travel and experience new places,' he explains. 'You learn an awful lot about yourself and you take yourself out of your comfort zone. It's not just about comms, but about growing as a person too.'

Morton's extracurricular pursuits appear to confirm this appetite for self-improvement. He takes part in an annual charity event, last year canoeing for more than 27 hours non-stop, in aid of a Kenyan orphanage. He will be hoping that there is less punishment involved in turning his new employers into genuine contenders across such a vast, and diverse, geographic region.

Factored into that will be plenty of travel through London. Morton will be thankful, though, that his new relationship with Heathrow is much less stressful than his old one.

 

BEN MORTON'S TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

It would probably be in 1998, when I returned from South Africa to join CDC, the emerging markets investor. It was my first in-house role and it was at a time when CDC was transforming itself from a government development finance organisation into a private equity business.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

I have never had a mentor, but if I was to identify one person for whom I had enormous respect, it would be corporate and public affairs director Ian Hargreaves, who recruited me at BAA. He is highly intelligent and one of the best strategic advisers I have met.

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

My advice to anyone on the career ladder would be not to get stuck in a rut. The industry can provide you with some great experiences, but you need to work at it in order to move up.

- What do you prize in a new recruit?

I look for people who have had a diverse career, have interesting opinions, have a good set of values, are adaptable, enthusiastic and enjoy being part of a team.

 

CV

2009: GM, Middle East and Africa, Edelman

2009: Freelance, Foreign Office

2005: Director of communications, BAA Heathrow

2004: Senior adviser, international comms, SUAL

1998: Director of comms, Commonwealth Development Corporation

1995: Consultant, Bell Pottinger South Africa

1994: Head of financial PR, Hill & Knowlton

1991: Consultant, Shandwick Consultants

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