Steve Earl is a man with a plan

In a nod to his naval ancestry, it is rare for the Zeno Group MD to enter into any venture without a clear sense of direction. Lynsey Barber reports.

Zeno Group MD: Steve Earl
Zeno Group MD: Steve Earl

It could be said that a thirst for comms is in Steve Earl's blood.

The UK MD of Zeno Group reveals he has traced his ancestry back to Lord Nelson's signalman on HMS Victory - the man responsible for delivering the message 'England expects that every man will do his duty' to rally the troops before the Battle of Trafalgar.

The claim to fame, which he swears is true, also illustrates his natural flair as a storyteller. Perhaps it is this narrative skill that makes his journey from wannabe journalist aged ten to the head of a growing European business sound so astonishingly linear and smooth.

Having forged a career as a journalist, moved into PR and handled agency launches, mergers and two earn-outs, the 40-year-old had already packed a fair bit into his career before leaving Speed Communications for Edelman offshoot Zeno last year.

But far from taking things easy, Earl remains hugely driven and as ambitious as ever. Hence the appeal of a new challenge at Zeno. 'It's an exciting time to be in PR,' he says. 'Things are changing so fast that it can be relatively scary sometimes, but it's a great time to be in the industry.'

He adds: 'I still get a kick out of turning information into stories, putting together a plan and making that commercially viable.'

Long-time business partner Stephen Waddington, now digital and social media director, Europe at Ketchum, says Earl is the hardest working person he knows. He hails Earl as someone who 'gets shit done' when there can be a tendency in the PR world to overcomplicate things - something he credits to Earl's days as a journalist.

Zeno, the Chicago-headquartered Edelman-owned agency, went international in 2012. It aims to offer clients a boutique agency feel within local markets but with global capabilities.

A tricky balancing act? 'A boutique culture is hard to do globally. We're trying to crack that,' he admits.

Initially asked if he might have some ideas for the agency's European growth, he turned up with a three-year colour-coded business plan. 'Maybe they were expecting something more conceptual,' he laughs.

The secret to Earl's success has always been having a plan.

Single-minded in his pursuit of a journalistic career, he was submitting stories to his local paper by the age of 13. At 14 he was doing work experience for them, which involved a group of angry travellers throwing bricks at him, and by 21 he was night editor at a daily regional paper.

'Everyone I've worked with will attest to the fact that I rarely go into anything without a clear plan. Even if it's a mental one I haven't shared yet, there's always one there.'

This stretches into his personal life too - he made spreadsheet-based wedding plans for parental sign-off and even threatened a global conference call of guests.

He does, he insists, stop short of arranging his CDs into alphabetical order.

At Rainier, the agency he founded with Stephen Waddington and Tanya Lepojevic while still in his twenties, the plan was always to build it up over three years with an eye on buying it out.

The budding entrepreneurs took an equity stake in the European venture of US firm Rainier backed by founder Stephen Schuster, thus minimising the risk.

'The worry was more about how would I feel if it all went wrong more than my personal financial peril,' he reflects.

'We worked on a classic seven-year economic cycle. There was always a window that we could get out of and do something else. Having a business and running it for the rest of our lives wasn't the aim and if we hadn't developed the business we'd move on,' he says with a complete absence of sentimentally.

It did work out though, and eight years later they sold the business to Loewy Group, at the time in an acquisition spree, where it later merged with the firm's sister PR agencies to form Speed.

With Zeno Earl has come full circle, embarking on a journey that has strong echoes of his previous path - though this time it is on a global scale with the backing of a more established agency.

Being a large but independent firm means they have the freedom to do things that other agencies cannot, he claims.

It would be a 'tall order', he points out, for even the most entrepreneurial person to pursue such aggressive growth plans with their own money, and 'a challenge' for a listed group.

This aggressive growth centres on establishing London as a hub for Europe with a focus on consumer, health and tech sectors, and then enhancing operations in other countries, specifically France and Germany.

'We want to spend three years on organic and acquisitive growth, then see where it takes us. There's also a bigger tenyear plan from Richard (Edelman),' he explains. The group will only acquire 'the right kind of agency for the right reason', not 'just a bolt on'.

Earl acknowledges he has to navigate new challenges such as linguistic and cultural differences of a multinational European agency. But he brings to Zeno 'the scars', as he puts it, with a track record of developing an agency, getting the right team together and knowing what does and does not work with acquisitions.

It seems the signalman is heading into battle once again, colour-coded plan no doubt in hand.


2012 MD Europe, Zeno Group

2009 MD, Speed

1998 MD, Rainier PR

1997 Account director, Weber Group

1995 Account executive/account manager, A Plus/Brodeur Worldwide

1992 Chief reporter/night news editor, Shropshire Star


What was your biggest career break?

Not getting shot, twice, when I was a journalist in the shires ... for different reasons ... both by farmers. It's the risks of being a local news reporter, having to traipse through fields following a lead for a news story.

Have you had a notable mentor?

I've had many. In particular: my mum; Jonathan Simnett, who was my boss at A Plus/Brodeur Worldwide; Bill Jones and Will Whitehorn, both from my days at Loewy; now Barby Siegel, Zeno Group CEO. And of course Stephen Waddington.

What advice would you give people climbing the career ladder?

Try not to slip? Actually be confident, defy expectations and be fearless.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

The three legs of the PR stool: hard work, a good brain and an obsession with all kinds of media.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in