PROFILE: Sheldon gets down to the boutique business

After two decades in large pharma companies and large PR agencies, Phil Sheldon is embarking on a new PR life at healthcare boutique Lippe Taylor.

After two decades in large pharma companies and large PR agencies, Phil Sheldon is embarking on a new PR life at healthcare boutique Lippe Taylor.

"Ladies...focus!" Phil Sheldon commands, but it takes six raps of the marker pen on the oversized flip pad before he once again has control of the room. It's just before lunch on a Tuesday, and Sheldon is leading a meeting to work through an initial creative approach for a new client. He's fighting a losing battle - his briefing topic covers "sexual well-being," so the former GM of Hill & Knowlton New York is having to compete for attention with an impressive range of adult toys. Even Maureen Lippe, the founding partner of his new agency (and so, technically, his boss), has dissolved into hysterical schoolgirl giggles as her partner, Gerald Taylor, massages her head with "The Tingler." For Sheldon, it's a long way from the multimillion-dollar-billing world of firms such as H&K and Porter Novelli, his agency alma maters. At first, his background - which includes four years at big agencies, 17 at mammoth pharmaceutical companies, and even a spell in a Vietnam MASH unit - seems too big for a boutique like Lippe Taylor, just as his towering height seems too big for the tiny boardroom. But it quickly makes a lot of sense: Sheldon apparently opted for a palate cleanser after 20 years in the world of big-ticket companies. From the day he found himself a speechwriter at drug maker Upjohn back in 1981 (he had been a teacher and labor negotiator in Michigan up to that point), he lived in a world of high-profile launches such as Depo Provera and Xanax, 75-person corporate communications teams, and massive industry consolidation. Upjohn's 1995 merger with Pharmacia - and the retirement of Sheldon's boss, VP of public affairs Robert Padgett - prompted Sheldon to leave corporate communications in 1998. His first few years in the agency world were happy - he speaks fondly of his days in the PN healthcare division, working with Helen Ostrowski (now CEO of the agency) and Kathy Cripps (now president of the Council of PR Firms). "There were some great teams there," he says. "I learned how to run accounts, and it was interesting being part of a big company like Omnicom." He felt comfortable in the large-agency environment, and jumped at the chance to move into a general management role offered by H&K two years later. But just as he took the job, "the crunch hit," he recalls. Suddenly, Sheldon was no longer coordinating healthcare campaigns, but trying to steer the agency through a devastating economic period. "You had to evaluate people, try to keep the best, reorganize," he recalls, shaking his head. "It was tough, a struggle. With any big corporation, there's pressure on earnings. No one is in the business to lose money." It was during this time, of course, that Martin Sorrell, CEO of H&K parent WPP, was explaining poor quarterly results by admitting that his investments in PR and public affairs were not going to steer the operation through a stormy economic sea after all. The need to reign in costs was filtering down through all of WPP's businesses, meaning that many people in Sheldon's position were dealing with issues decidedly less pleasant than client programs and staff hires. Reaching what Sheldon calls a "mutual impasse," he quit the agency without having lined up another job. When a headhunter showed him a brief for the MD job at New York-based Lippe Taylor, Sheldon saw an opportunity to try something new - get back into PR, but at a small agency. To some, it seemed an odd move given his corporate background, but in a way, he'd had the experience of a small firm - in its heyday, Upjohn employed 75 PR people before it cut staff and outsourced to agencies. But Lippe Taylor was different: boutique in feel, and catering to women (who, he says, are responsible for 85% of all buying decisions). Yet, says Maureen Lippe, president of the agency, "This is the renaissance man of PR. He's strategic, passionate about his business, so creative (which was unexpected), and totally understands and loves women." Sheldon concurs with this last accolade; in fact, after his big launch program for Tampax's new Pearl product, he proudly claims that there's nothing he doesn't know about the female anatomy. And through his years of working closely with the healthcare industry, Sheldon has seen and enjoyed the increased openness with which consumers are discussing personal well-being - led, he says, by women taking responsibility for their own health. "Healthcare is almost more of a hobby now," he says, pointing to his own generation - baby boomers - as the driving force behind the massive interest in the area. "I'm one of them," the 56-year-old Sheldon explains, "and it's the largest buying population out there. With computers, the information is even more accessible, so they're even more demanding and want even more information." It's this heightened awareness, and convergence between old-fashioned healthcare issues and consumer issues - such as in the field of nutraceuticals and vitamins - that makes Sheldon so obviously happy to be at a small agency. For one thing, he argues that the separation between different practices in larger agencies makes them less capable of handling convergence areas. And he still gets to work with big clients such as Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Kmart, and Sara Lee. It's just that at Lippe Taylor, he also gets to make a living by discussing adult toys with a bunch of smart women. ------------ Phil Sheldon 1971-1981 High school English and journalism teacher and labor negotiator, Portage Public Schools in Michigan 1981-1995 The Upjohn Company: various jobs, starting as speechwriter and rising to director, worldwide human health public relations 1995-1998 Director, worldwide human health public relations, Pharmacia & Upjohn 1998-2000 EVP, New York healthcare practice head, Porter Novelli 2000-2002 EVP, GM, Hill & Knowlton, New York 2002-present MD, Lippe Taylor, New York

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