Whenever she's not running the successful infant management
consultancy First & 42nd, you may find Alison Canning casting a
fly-fishing line across the waters of the River Teste in Hampshire,
waiting for a bite from a curious trout. If she takes the same patience
and touch she's shown in her professional life, the fish are at a
Canning's ability to wait for just the right moment has served her well.
After years of being wooed by senior management figures within the
Chicago-based Edelman empire, she finally succumbed last week. Edelman
has bought First & 42nd, the consultancy she founded four years ago, and
has simultaneously appointed Canning to its most senior global non-US
post - president of international operations.
Luring Canning proved quite a task for Edelman CEO Richard Edelman, who
says he has spent years trying to tempt her. Canning agrees: 'It's been
the longest courtship in history. He's tried to get me to London and New
York in the past. Eventually the deal looked right.'
One key to the deal was Edelman's acceptance that First & 42nd wouldn't
be absorbed into his firm - the world's fifth largest network. Canning
believes that would hve done her agency no favours: 'We're more than a
strategic PR company,' she insists.
'We cover responsible behaviour and HR. It's taken us three years to get
to the point where we have our intellectual property in line and I
didn't want the company to fritter away potential. Richard has given us
the chance to cultivate that potential, with a global infrastructure
For the time being, Canning will continue as MD of First & 42nd, though
she is now effectively chairman. Once a replacement MD is found, she
will devote 10 per cent of her time to the London consultancy and the
rest to Edelman, where she hopes 'to double the size of the
international operation in three years'.
But she sees more to the challenge than simply seeking to increase
'Edelman is on the map physically, but it hasn't got the same presence
up here,' she says, tapping her head. 'In some markets it's a strong
brand and in others it isn't. The challenge is about rebranding,
rebuilding, and repositioning on an international scale.'
If Edelman hadn't made this appointment - to the role vacated by agency
veteran Michael Morley earlier this year - others would have tried.
Since stepping down as CEO of Burson-Marsteller London four years ago,
Canning has had plenty of offers.
It's no surprise she is so highly regarded. She first caught the eye at
the highest level by founding Cohn & Wolfe as a B-M subsidiary and,
during a five-year spell, building it into a Top 30 firm. The UK CEO job
at B-M followed, where fee income rose by nine per cent to pounds 11m
during her tenure. When B-M announced a restructuring programme that
effectively did away with the need for national CEOs, she departed,
despite being offered other senior roles.
Though she says she feels no bitterness over her B-M exit, it is clear
feelings still run high.
She speaks of the 'greed' behind the decision to restructure and says:
'I walked away because I couldn't preside over something I thought was
going to be a disaster. If you take country focus out of a service
business it won't work. You don't recruit clients or staff from "Europe"
or "Asia" - you find them in cities and countries.'
Now that country-based management is back outside the US, she considers
London to have the advantage. Her perspective has changed since she
spent a two-year spell in B-M's New York office in the mid-1980s. 'At
the time New York was considered a vision of the future of PR. Now I
think there's nowhere better to work than London.'
Much as she sings the capital's praises, it was precisely the desire to
flee the big city that led her to take up fishing as a hobby three years
ago: 'A friend suggested it and I was initially dubious. Then I found I
loved it. I'm quite good actually,' she says.
Fly-fishing addicts often refer to their sport as akin to a
Indeed, she sees parallels with professional life: 'It's about the art
of knowing how to read the river, knowing where the fish will be and
what fly is going to make them bite, and most importantly, knowing how
not to let them go. I think there are a few parallels there!'
Fellow fisher and former B-M colleague Locksley Ryan says he's yet to
verify if Canning is as good with the fishing rod as she claims.
But he has no doubts about her professional expertise.
'Alison has one of the keenest PR minds around,' says Ryan, now a
partner at Brunswick. 'She can operate at board level and motivate a
team of people. There are not many top-drawer strategic consultants that
can keep all of the levers of communication in perspective. Alison
manages to see the wood and the trees.'
Founder/CEO, Cohn & Wolfe
CEO, Burson-Marsteller London
Founder/CEO, First & 42nd
President - internat'l operations, Edelman