PROFILE: Silverman's calm consistency stabilizes Ogilvy PR

During a tough time for Ogilvy PR's DC office, Marcia Silverman took the reins and helped the agency rebound with a brand-building strategy she remains committed to now as CEO.

During a tough time for Ogilvy PR's DC office, Marcia Silverman took the reins and helped the agency rebound with a brand-building strategy she remains committed to now as CEO.

When Jody Powell left the Washington, DC, office of Ogilvy Public Relations, the firm initiated a search for his replacement. In the meantime, Marcia Silverman ran the show on an interim basis. Powell, former press secretary to President Jimmy Carter, was clearly the Washington heavyweight who had helped put the PR arm of Ogilvy & Mather (O&M) into key rolodexes in the town known for insiders. But even with Powell's star power, there were others at the firm who also were making their mark - namely Silverman. It was WPP CEO Martin Sorrell who finally asked, "Why not let Marcia keep running things?" "It was a very difficult time for Ogilvy PR in Washington," recalls Sorrell, "and she was magnificent. She is very committed, good with people, and an outstanding leader. There was a lot of difficulty there, and she stepped into the breech." Despite losing Powell, Silverman and her team hung onto the clients, and she began her series of key management positions within the firm, culminating in her appointment two years ago as CEO, the successor to Bob Seltzer. PR was not her original plan. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, the Kentucky native moved to Washington, DC, and took positions at the National Journal at its inception, as well as at the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Her husband's job took her to New York - and the start of a new career. "The advertising agency my former employer [AFSCME] had used was J. Walter Thompson (JWT), and they had a PR division," she remembers. "I'd become friends with the ad types, and they suggested I speak to them." Silverman admits that at that time she didn't have the first idea what a PR firm actually did. "My sojourn at that agency was just getting used to things like billings," she says. When she first tapped the skills of the JWT media relations department for some client work, she was startled to find that charges were coming in. "I was saying, 'What is this?'" she laughs. "I learned the business there." When she and her husband returned to live in Washington, she was hired to work in the newly minted PR division of O&M. In the early days, the office had two clients - Edison Electric and MCI. When O&M won a big account with AT&T, there went half the business. "They called us from MCI and said, 'Congratulations! You're fired,'" she says. "We had to tap dance all over town, but we kept it going." In 1986, Powell took over the office and then, she says, "it really started to boom." As Silverman grew in the business, clients learned she had a real talent for media relations, which culminated in one of her most satisfying career moments. "The New York Times changed its editorial policy over acid rain, which was just what we wanted," she recalls. The point was to convince the paper to call for research into the causes of the environmental problem and not give into rash calls for retrofitting the entire utility industry without proper evaluation of the situation. "That was my story, and they agreed to it," she says. "We were able not to stop legislation, but to make it more intelligent." Silverman also counts the firm's work, with O&M, for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in its first government program distributing information about AIDS. The CDC was one of the agency's early pieces of government business. It was a significant account for that reason alone. But Silverman considers it one of the highlights of her career. "I've always been glad that this agency was involved from nearly the beginning in trying to get the word out," she says. "People forget that those with AIDS were pariahs, and nobody knew anything. I've always been glad that we were part of changing that." She cherishes the memories of Ogilvy's early days - "It was a sense of adventure in a start-up mode," she notes - but is thrilled to see how the firm has grown and continues to mature. She was appointed CEO in 2002, while Ogilvy was roiling in a dreadful market. The agency was left vulnerable because of the pricey acquisition of tech firm Alexander Communications in 1998, and it was the first firm to announce big layoffs in 2001. The agency finished 2001 down 26% from the previous year. Howard Paster, EVP at WPP, says Silverman "stabilized the situation [as CEO]. She took some difficult decisions, but built things up to where the margins are consistently strong." He attributes some of that, along with numerous other positive moves for the agency, to her steadiness, consistency, and her great way with staffers. "She's a very engaging boss," says Rebecca Tillet, director and team leader of Pfizer's US pharmaceutical PR, who worked for Silverman in the early '90s. "She was tough, very demanding, but you knew she was also going to be a safety net for you." She exudes friendly calm, and no one will admit to having seen her nonplussed or testy (though she may growl over a grammar error, Tillet adds). Her sense of humor is also well-known. Silverman hates to micromanage staff, saying that it thwarts potential. But she is aggressive in communicating her vision for the firm and no doubt has high expectations for how her team will reach it. "I want first-rate staff doing first-rate business," she says. "I don't undervalue small business, but our branding philosophy is important, and we also want to work for big brands. We're well on our way." Silverman was appointed to the board of O&M in 2002. Her commitment to the so-called 360-degree approach to building brands was cited as a reason at the time, and it's a strategy that Silverman is evangelical about. "Marcia is so wise about PR," writes O&M CEO Shelly Lazarus in an e-mail. "She brings invaluable expertise and insight to our board discussions. When the subject gets anywhere close to corporate reputation, government relations, or how to deal with the press, all eyes turn to Marcia." Marcia Silverman 1981-present Ogilvy Public Relations. Joined in 1981. Head of Washington, DC, office (1990-1999); president of the Americas (1999-2002); CEO (2002-present) 1979-1981 J. Walter Thompson Public Relations, PR account representative 1973-1979 American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, deputy director of public affairs (later director of women's activities)

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