Profile: Avril Lee, CEO of Ketchum Pleon

The new UK head of Ketchum Pleon says increasing diversity is the key to the firm's future success. Matt Cartmell reports.

Avril Lee: New Ketchum Pleon UK CEO
Avril Lee: New Ketchum Pleon UK CEO

From her glass-walled office, Avril Lee is considering her priorities for Ketchum Pleon since she took over as UK CEO this February. She has one immediate concern: diversity.

'I don't believe the industry reflects the wider society we are in,' says Lee, 43, as she seats herself at a charming retro coffee table purchased from nearby Spitalfields Market.

'It's not right and it's not good for business,' she continues. 'If we get more diverse talent, the work can only improve. If we don't have these people, how can we understand these groups?'

Her passion for diversity may stem from her own background. Born to 'good, solid working-class' Chinese-Irish parents in inner-city London, Lee grew up learning to 'roll with the punches' while sporting a 'mohican bob with razor-shaved sides and too much eyeliner' around 1970s Camden Town. Not your average Home Counties PR girl, then.

Ketchum Pleon's London chairman David Gallagher agrees, and suggests it is her heritage and background in healthcare PR that makes her perfect for the role: 'She has a fresh perspective on just about everything and is a stickler for decisions based on data and evidence. Or maybe it's the fact she is the mother of a young daughter and never loses sight of the fact that work is a big part of life, but not the biggest.'

Lee replaced Gallagher, who has taken the newly created chairman role while continuing to serve as president of Ketchum Pleon Europe. Her new role means that Lee has taken over responsibility for day-to-day operations of the London office.

So what does this mean for the division of labour with Gallagher? 'You tell me,' she laughs, somewhat bewildered, before swiftly jumping back on-message.

'He's there to support me,' she says more diplomatically.

While she insists the transition has been smooth, she explains it is time for the firm to take a 'natural pause' to see where it can improve. Lee suggests any changes would be more 'evolution than revolution', before cringing at the cheesiness of the line.

The key to the future, Lee says, is increasingly diversifying the firm's offerings, as Ketchum continues to cluster digital, advertising, broadcast, research and measurement, events and field marketing divisions around the central PR product.

'We don't want to find ourselves on a burning platform,' she says, referring to recent negative commentary about the ad industry's troubled business model, which may be losing attractiveness among clients.

Ketchum is renowned for its own CSR work with local communities and in Africa. Despite this, Lee has a surprisingly blase attitude to ethics.

'For instance, would I promote cigarettes? I'm a real anti-smoker, because my parents smoked. But they're not illegal, so why shouldn't the brands have their say?'

Equally, she does not criticise agencies that promote 'dodgy' regimes: 'They've got a lot of experience of working in these areas, and these people have a right to be heard.'

Lee has worked in the PR business for 19 years. Fresh from studying biochemistry in London, she joined the employment market in the middle of the previous recession. With no decent jobs around, she worked in a doctor's surgery helping to convert files to electronic format. From there, she applied for a job at comms agency Munro & Forster to be the chairman's PA.

A keen brainstormer, Lee says her colleagues often depend on her to come up with the more creative elements of a brief. 'I'm naturally an energetic person,' she says. 'There's no point in being negative.'

Kineticfuture MD Karen Moyse hired Lee during her days at Hill & Knowlton.

She remembers Lee for her 'wicked sense of humour'. 'You need to prove yourself - and she has high standards - but then she is a loyal supporter, for life, through thick and thin,' recalls Moyse. 'Avril is a person who always wants to innovate. She has a relentless determination to make something new and exciting happen. It's a rare combination.'

Lee lives in north London, although she has risen from Camden Town to the leafier climes of Belsize Park. But despite her new role, she is not ruling out the idea of moving her family abroad if the right job opportunity comes up. 'I'm very global in outlook,' she says.

Lee still recalls her favourite moment in PR: working with a professor to turn deeply technical science language about HIV into lay messages. Or, as she puts it: 'Something to help people and give them guidance.'

'Sometimes you realise you are reaching millions of people,' says Lee thoughtfully. 'It's an amazing feeling.'

2011 CEO, Ketchum Pleon UK
2007 Deputy CEO, Ketchum Pleon UK
2006 European head of Healthcare, Ketchum
2004 MD, Healthcare, Ketchum UK
2003 Deputy MD, Healthcare, Ketchum UK
2001 Deputy MD, Chandler Chicco Agency
2000 Board director, health and pharmaceutical practice, Hill & Knowlton
1996 Account manager to senior associate director, Hill & Knowlton
1995 Senior account executive to account manager, CPR
1993 Account executive, Munro & Forster Communications
1992 PA, Munro & Forster Communications
1990 Practice manager, Primary Care NHS


- What was your biggest career break?

It was getting my first PR job during the 1990s recession. But once in, it was joining an international, multi-service agency for the first time.

It changed my view on the impact PR could make, the global nature of what we do and gave me a whole new perspective on the agency world.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

Karen Moyse, my old boss, then and now sets the standard for leadership. Her energy, clear thinking and belief in what can be achieved is inspirational. She leads from the front and demonstrates professionalism no matter what the situation.

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

Agency work is changing - everything is faster and smarter - so be flexible, think beyond what you do now, try new things and embrace social media.

- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

The old cliches stand, as they are truisms. Be a team player and come with solutions, and muck in. And if you really want to get on, you will need to go above and beyond the day job.

Click here to PRWeek about your career turning point.

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