Profile: Sally Costerton, chairman and CEO of Hill & Knowlton EMEA and president of the PRCA

H&K's EMEA chairman Sally Costerton is determined to shake up the industry during her time as PRCA president. David Woods reports.

First lady of PR: Sally Costerton
First lady of PR: Sally Costerton

[Photo: David Tett]

Sally Costerton is arguably the most senior woman in the UK PR consultancy business, given her election to president of the PRCA last October, and her main role as chairman and CEO of Hill & Knowlton EMEA.

'I have been lucky in the support and opportunities I have had,' she says of her rise to the top. 'And I have never experienced sexism in my career. I was ambitious and I wanted this.'

Although headlines at the end of last year showed women making up an ever greater proportion of the boards of UK firms - up to 13.6 per cent in 2010 compared with 11.5 per cent in 2008, according to the European Professional Women's Network - the PR sector remains bottom heavy for women. Females take the bulk of account executive level roles, yet in the majority of cases do not make it to the top.

Costerton, 46, is troubled by this: 'There remains the perennial question of why there are not enough women in agency leadership roles in the UK. I want to see more. As they enter their thirties, they should be going for head of comms roles.

'Then just as they are getting good they make the binary choice to have babies. This is a fact, not an excuse. We have flexible working tools and women can't use children as a barrier. They need to network and learn from other women. I got this because I wanted it - they have to want it too,' says Costerton, who has two children herself.

It is easy to be fooled by Costerton's warm and friendly demeanour - she jokes about having her hair 'set' at the hairdressers in preparation for the PRWeek photoshoot - but her ferocious drive is evident when discussing her new role as president of the PRCA. She believes her two-year tenure is ample time to make the changes she believes are essential for the industry.

'The CIPR president only has one year in office,' she says. 'This is not enough. But in two years I plan significant progress.'

Her plans include increasing awareness of the value of PR among decision-makers in business, engagement with legislators, and ensuring the industry has a strong voice. She also wants to see a better ethical approach, a raised awareness of PR as a career choice, and the positioning of PR at the heart of social media.

The CIPR has allowed agency members into its ranks and the PRCA is taking on in-house members. Despite this crossover Costerton says there is room for both organisations, but ultimately the industry needs 'one voice': 'PR is a dynamic industry and surprisingly resilient. I'm comfortable with the PRCA and CIPR coexisting and there is good dialogue between the two - but we are one industry and we need a mechanism to talk with one voice.'

The recent scuffle between the PRCA and the Newspaper Licensing Agency cemented the bond between Costerton and PRCA director general Francis Ingham, whom she describes as 'incredibly edgy'.

Costerton's plans for the PRCA would leave most people with little time to breathe but she is not resting at H&K. Currently visiting two countries every week, she is planning aggressive growth for 2011.

Working with UK CEO Richard Millar, Costerton intends to make the EMEA business more 'client centric' using a matrix model that was trialled in the UK during 2010. She says: 'We are breaking down our silos so the client can see results where and when they need them.

'We are going to align our practice to suit demand and update the website accordingly. In the UK we have split into sector groups to focus on core areas - I want us to be the best agency with no borders.'

Millar says of Costerton: 'Sally is well networked and a passionate advocate for the H&K brand. She wants to see the agency in its rightful place leading the debate on the future of the industry, and applies that zeal to the challenges faced by her clients.'

And although findings from accountants Kingston Smith in December showed headcount at H&K fell by more than 12 per cent in 2009, from 285 to 250, Costerton is aiming for significant profit growth this year and a focus on smaller markets as well as major EMEA players. The changes will also be accompanied by a new training programme for EMEA staff.

The future looks promising considering that, since the matrix model was adopted, H&K claims a 70 per cent success rate when pitching for new business.

No one could deny Costerton is a role model, having raised two children and maintained a work-life balance to boot. 'I couldn't have done any of this without my husband,' she muses. 'He is supportive and tells me what I need to hear.' But when PRWeek asks Costerton if her husband is in fact 'the Denis to her Mrs Thatcher', she just laughs: 'I haven't heard that one before.'

2009: Chairman & CEO EMEA, Hill & Knowlton
2006: Chief executive UK, Hill & Knowlton
2004: Head of technology practice, EMEA, Hill & Knowlton
2003: Head of corporate comms and technology, UK, Hill & Knowlton
1999: MD technology practice, UK, Hill & Knowlton
1995: MD Abacus and main board director, The Argyll Consultancies
1988: Main board director, The Quentin Bell Organisation
1986: Account executive, Wedgwood Markham Associates

Sally Costerton's turning points

- What was your biggest career break?

It was after graduating from university when I was working as a PA for a small property PR consultancy. During my time there I spotted an opportunity to get some face time with clients, ran with it and never looked back. Ironically, I started at the agency because I failed to make it on to the graduate scheme at H&K. When one door closes, look for the one that's slightly ajar.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

Trevor Morris at Quentin Bell was a huge influence in my early career and taught me the basics; Crispin Manners at Kaizo taught me not to be frightened of the numbers, and I am privileged to benefit from a range of our senior colleagues here at H&K who inspire me every day.

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

Based on my own experience I would say to think laterally about situations. Be open-minded and curious.

- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

As above, being curious is a good thing and very undervalued, as well as having empathy and seeing things from someone else's point of view.

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