When Sally Ward was asked to find a new UK managing director for Porter Novelli she had no idea that she would end up taking the job herself.
The former Weber Shandwick vice-chairman had been out of the agency world for three years, running her own recruitment consultancy. She decided to accept the very role for which she was recruiting, after much persuasion from Porter Novelli bosses.
'It came like a bolt out of the blue,' says Ward, who greets PRWeek in her glass-walled office casually dressed in black jeans and cardigan. 'I said to them, "You don't know what you are asking. I would be giving up everything that I had created and a lifestyle that I was enjoying".'
But the draw of returning to an agency where she had spent six years previously was too great, and Ward rejoined in January 2010: 'The role had similarities with what I was brought into Weber Shandwick to do. I saw the opportunity to do that again in a different guise, for a business that is part of my DNA and feels like home.'
Ward took over the role from outgoing MD Jean Wyllie, who had been at the agency for ten years. Ward praises Wyllie for the job she has done and says it has provided a great platform for expansion.
However, Ward acknowledges the agency has been through a turbulent time, following major client losses and redundancies: 'Our technology division has had a tough time during the past few years,' she muses. 'The HP account was taken away, through no fault of our own, which had a huge impact on the technology team. It is in a state of flux and needs some attention and reinvigoration.'
Ward also points to the consumer and digital divisions as departments on which she is keen to focus and expand.
Returning to Porter Novelli has been enlightening for Ward: 'I was surprised at the calibre of people and clients here. There is a fantastic base on which to grow.'
Ward's previous agency career and time spent as a recruiter means she has invaluable knowledge of how agencies operate.
She says one of the agency's charms is its 'familial, fraternal environment', which she was surprised to find still existed.
But there is a danger that it can become too comfortable for staff: 'That sort of environment comes with a health warning. It can become a bit cosy and therefore not at the cutting-edge of everything.
'What you've got to try to do is keep that family, fun feel, but have a good dose of being very achievement-oriented with clients, and being ambitious, forward-thinking and quite thrusting.'
Ward is not afraid to get her hands dirty to extract the most from her staff.
She acknowledges that she had a reputation at Weber Shandwick for being tough, despite her friendly and approachable nature, but says she is just being fair: 'I expect a lot. I believe people genuinely enjoy working with me, but they know they need to perform.'
She says she is not afraid to make tough decisions and will root out any underperformers: 'I don't want to sound ruthless, but you owe it to the good people. I don't want anyone working their socks off until 10pm if others are not pulling their weight.'
She acknowledges there will be some late nights ahead 'because the agency has work to do', but she knows that overworking staff will not breed good results.
It is clear that Ward is speaking from the heart. She says she left Weber Shandwick in 2006 exhausted and in need of a change: 'It wasn't Weber Shandwick's fault. I was incredibly driven and hard working, and my family took second place. But I now have a better work/life balance. I would not have accepted this role if I was giving up everything and going back to that old life.'
Former Weber Shandwick colleague, Chandler Chicco Companies European managing director Fiona Hall, says Ward always kept a level head in a crisis and was known for being supportive of her team.
'Her open-door policy was genuinely appreciated by her team and everyone who worked with her. Even in difficult situations she maintained an air of calm, enab-ling those around her to continue to do their best,' says Hall.
Despite being a global agency founded in 1972, Porter Novelli has kept a deliberately low profile in the UK, which Ward is hoping to change: 'It's like we've been hiding our light under a bushel. We're a bit of a secret treasure. It's an incredibly young and energetic team and there's lots of new blood.
'I have a challenge to overcome some of those perceptions that might exist in the wider marketplace that are unfair. We've had a few knocks, but it's nice to put that behind us and enter a new phase.'
Perhaps, with Ward in charge, clients will buy into the agency as much as she has.
SALLY WARD'S TURNING POINTS
- What was your biggest career break?
David Brain and Colin Byrne inviting me to head the newly formed consumer practice just after the merger of Weber Shandwick with BSMG. It was like being given my own fledgling business with a great brand name and all the might of Weber Shandwick behind me.
- Have you had a notable mentor?
I learned masses from my first boss - Phil Staniforth, an absolute pioneer in creating news platforms for clients.
At the other end of my career, it can become difficult to find people who truly inspire you and from whom you can continue to learn. I found such a mentor in Tim Sutton, then chairman of Weber Shandwick EMEA. I have never learned (and laughed) so much as when I worked with him.
- What advice would you give anyone climbing the career ladder?
Put your hand up for everything; take responsibility and manage your own career; and recognise that when your face does not fit, it is time to move on.
- What do you prize in new recruits?
Tenacity to make things happen; creativity to deal with problems; and resilience, because when the going gets tough ...
2010: Partner, MD UK, Porter Novelli
2007: Founder, Plum Consulting
2006: Vice-chairman, Europe Weber Shandwick
2004: Deputy CEO, UK and Ireland, Weber Shandwick
2003: Consumer European practice head, Weber Shandwick
2001: MD, Consumer, Weber Shandwick
1996: Director, Countrywide Porter Novelli
1993: Deputy MD, Greenwood Tighe (now Leedex)
1986: Graduate trainee, Staniforth PR