Scott Wilson: Giving talent a chance

The CEO and MD EMEA of Cohn & Wolfe has launched a two-year graduate programme to attract new blood to PR, finds John Owens.

Scott Wilson: 'The agency needed full-scale change because it had lost its way'
Scott Wilson: 'The agency needed full-scale change because it had lost its way'

When Scott Wilson first worked for his local newspaper, he was treading a similar path to that of thousands of other cub reporters before him.

Keen to make his way in the world of media, he knew his patch well and mined it for stories. His path was similar, except for one thing; at the time, the Cohn & Wolfe UK CEO had not even become a teenager.

'Since the age of about nine I wanted to be a journalist. I was a bit precocious, so when I was 12, I asked the editor of the Banbury Guardian if I could be the paper's village correspondent and got the job,' says Wilson. 'I must have been one of the youngest correspondents around and when I had the opportunity to go to the printing press, I had to take my mum because I was too young to go alone.'

This gives a hint of the work ethic of a man who has overseen the recent launch of a two-year graduate programme at the agency.

'It shows the business is growing up, progressing and professionalising,' says Wilson. 'It's increasingly important that PR professionals are able to talk in the language of integrated marketing.'

He does not lack ambition for what is a well-established agency. Having joined Cohn & Wolfe at the end of 2010, he freely admits the UK business had seen better days, having lost key clients and senior staff.

Wilson says that he was initially given 'carte blanche', something that allowed him to employ what he called an 'iron hand in a velvet glove' and make dramatic changes to those around him at the top level. 'The agency needed full-scale change because it had lost its way and was not in a healthy state,' says Wilson. 'It was immediately obvious to me that we had some great clients and great people, but they were not getting the support they needed.'

At the approachable end of business-like, Wilson sits sideways on his chair during PRWeek's interview, happy to chat and quick to offer help where he believes it may be needed.

But one soon senses that this is not a man prone to letting his guard slip.

When asked about his predecessor, Fiona Noble, who joined his former employer Weber Shandwick after a somewhat acrimonious exit from Cohn & Wolfe, with one hand tugging on a cufflink he says simply: 'I have never met her. I have no opinion of her.'

And just weeks after the launch of Cohn & Wolfe's public affairs practice, C&W Political Counsel, Wilson is also tight-lipped about the current lobbying register issue.

What is clear, however, is that he is held in high esteem. College Hill managing partner Chris Woodcock remembers his 'boyish charm coupled with a reporter's grit and determination' when he started at Porter Novelli.

Meanwhile, ex-colleague and longstanding friend Sally Ward, CEO at Porter Novelli, describes a pragmatic Northerner with a dry sense of humour, adding: 'You will get 90 per cent of journalists who turn into PR people who are not necessarily very good. Then you get the ten per cent who are the best you have ever worked with. Scott is one of those.'

Graduating from the University of London with a history degree, Wilson worked for several local newspapers before joining the Sunday Mercury in Birmingham to cover motoring.

This is the period of his life that quickly brings a nostalgic smile to his face, but in those days the ambitious youngster, who originally had a 'jaundiced' view of PR professionals, saw that the 'ladder I wanted to climb up was quickly disappearing'.

It was his motoring role that led to him securing some freelance work for Porter Novelli, when the agency wanted someone with media auto sector experience to help with its pitch in a Brussels boardroom for the Toyota Yaris brief.

It was to be a career-defining moment. After his 'massive decision' to swap sides and an introduction at the deep end, he worked around the clock to catch up with his new colleagues.

After four years at Porter Novelli, Wilson was poached by Weber Shandwick. Moving through the ranks, he oversaw the rise of Viagra as a brand and was elevated to the MD role, where he sought to reposition the firm as a 'core consumer shop'.

Although respectful towards his former employers, he becomes more candid: 'Weber Shandwick was a brilliant machine, but it could suck the blood out of you.

It was a brilliant business, but sometimes, I would say, not a brilliant PR business.'

If that time did drain him, it is not apparent in his manner today. Confident but understated, one senses he is not one to fuss over an issue, no matter how big it is.

This becomes truly evident towards the end of the interview, when a question about not having enough time to pursue hobbies leads somewhere unexpected.

Wilson, a father of two, briefly hesitates before explaining that his six-year-old daughter Edie was taken to Florida at the end of last year after it was discovered she had a brain tumour.

She is recovering, he says, adding that he is looking forward to some imminent time off work to spend with her.

'It's hugely important to take time off to focus on what really matters,' he adds.

No-one would not begrudge him the break. But at only 43 years old and with plenty more plans brewing for Cohn & Wolfe, do not expect Wilson to step out from the fast lane any time soon.

CV

- 2010 CEO and MD EMEA, Cohn & Wolfe

- 2009 Joint MD consumer marketing EMEA, MD consumer UK and Ireland (among other titles), Weber Shandwick

- 2005 MD consumer marketing UK, Weber Shandwick

- 2002 Head of consumer healthcare; head of media; consumer director, Weber Shandwick

- 2000 Associate director, corporate, Porter Novelli

- 1998 Senior consultant, Porter Novelli

- 1994 News reporter/feature writer, Birmingham Post & Mail Group

- 1991 Reporter, Reading Chronicle

- 1990 Trainee reporter, Herald & Post (Northampton)

TIPS FROM THE TOP

- What was your biggest career break?

Being accepted as an NCTJ indentured trainee at the Reading Chronicle. What is talent or ambition without opportunity? At Cohn & Wolfe, we have recently launched a graduate programme and I am very proud of the fact that 80 per cent of our first intake started with us as paid interns.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

Two: Bob Haywood, the ex-news editor at the Birmingham Post & Mail for teaching me the craft that is storytelling and news writing. Christine Woodcock, managing partner at College Hill and ex-client services director at Countrywide Porter Novelli, for teaching me the art of PR consultancy.

- What advice would you give to people moving up the career ladder?

Success = delivery over expectation.

- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

An irresistible combination of show-pony and pit-pony.

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