Whether they're called 'outsiders' or 'insiders,' top agency CEOs render labels meaningless

A new CEO is always interesting, particularly one coming from another line of work.

A new CEO is always interesting, particularly one coming from another line of work.

But though it would have been nice to see what more Tom Nides would have done at Burson-Marsteller, it is rather shortsighted to simply characterize him as an "outsider," just as it is mistaken to believe that agency CEOs are merely "insiders" within a minor, incestuous industry.

Surely it is anathema to any PR executive to imagine that a major car manufacturer, for example, would reject the advice of a senior, experienced counselor merely because he works "outside" that industry. Even in an era of increasing specialization, there are experiences and lessons that are applicable by merely grappling with crises, disclosure, regulatory issues, political agendas, and competitive threats. Agency executives, more than anyone, should be careful about delineating themselves, or those in other businesses, in that way.

The other problem with that "outsider" tag is that it implies that Nides was from a "real" business background, while the senior agency ranks are filled with mere communicators who had P&L responsibilities thrust upon them. In fact, the successful agency CEO today, in many cases, has proved himself or herself to be an architect of innovation, and clearly embroiled in real-life business issues. Most - if not all - kept their jobs not because they were nice people, but because they performed against business expectations, in many cases those set by publicly traded holding companies. It is worth noting, too, that not every CEO managed to hang on to his job.

Good leadership has delivered a more resilient business model to the market. Take a look at what Donna Imperato has been doing to reinvigorate Cohn & Wolfe as one example. Beyond the CEO, too, the senior level at many agencies is becoming increasingly stocked with superior individuals from both within and beyond the agency world.

Business is better for PR firms, but that's only one side of the story. Three agency CEOs have been raised to significant holding company roles, namely MS&L's Lou Capozzi, Weber Shandwick's Harris Diamond, and Hill & Knowlton's Howard Paster. Each of these roles is delivering some kind of synergy across disciplines, and is not merely designed to bolster the PR presence.

At a time when "the big idea" may come from any marketing quarter, and clients are more willing to be challenged about their long-held beliefs, PR leadership at the holding-company level is critical.

The PR agency CEO may yet prove to be fertile recruiting ground for companies, too, as evidenced by Bob Feldman's new role at DreamWorks Animation. Feldman, an "outsider" to the entertainment world, has already been grappling with issues both industry-specific and related to the public company's shareholders - neither discipline being directly relevant to his job at GCI Group's helm.

Meanwhile, Richard Edelman's recurring speaking slot at the World Economic Forum at Davos is just one example of thought leadership opportunities that are becoming increasingly populated by those in the senior PR ranks.

By characterizing Nides as an "outsider," agency leaders are by default defining themselves as "insiders." The truth is: Great PR is about being both.

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