'Fleishman is one of the top two agencies in the world': An hour with John Saunders

The native of Dublin and CEO of the world's third-largest agency sat down with PRWeek in New York to discuss his two years at the helm of FleishmanHillard.

What was your first priority when taking over FleishmanHillard in late 2015?
Having spent all of my career in Europe and never having lived in America, I had the unique task of becoming intimate and more familiar with our business in America. We had much more talent in the organization than I thought we had, but I also felt that we had structures in place that were getting in the way of us being as effective as we needed to be.

What changes have you put in place?
Years ago, I saw the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and had dinner afterwards with its conductor, Sir Simon Rattle. I said, "Is this the best orchestra in the world?" And he said, "We are on those nights when we play together, because every member of our orchestra is a virtuoso performer." We have all these virtuoso performers throughout Fleishman, but when we play together we are unbeatable. But do we do that all the time? That is the biggest change we have endeavored to bring about, and I think we’ve had a lot of success.

Omnicom’s PR firms saw an organic revenue drop of 0.4% in Q3. How is Fleishman doing?
This year and last year will be the two best years in the history of Fleishman. We will not quite match the performance of last year, but that’s because one of our companies [GMMB] does a huge amount of political work. There is no national election this year as there was last year. We will pick up in the midterm year of 2018.

In reference to Omnicom Group CEO John Wren’s "hunters and farmers" comment, do you consider yourself a farmer or a hunter?
I don’t care for labels. I don’t care what people call me. John Wren has been a phenomenal leader for Omnicom. Clearly he is not happy with the growth and what has been going on among the PR companies. I take his comment on the chin and in the motivational spirit it is intended to be.

Wren said he is adjusting leadership at Omnicom’s PR firms. Are you planning any executive changes?
Our leadership team is called "The Cabinet." This year, we have an 18-member cabinet that runs Fleishman. People are only appointed for one year. I will be making changes to that cabinet at the end of the year. We shake it up and give other people an opportunity. I don’t want people to think they have to be in their 50s before you get the breakthrough. You can have the breakthrough at a much younger age if we think you’re ready for it. We appointed a lady in her early 30s who is in charge of our relationship with General Motors. Some people feared she was too young, but the client embraced it and loves the vitality of it. More and more, we are doing that. But we are not ageist. If you have the energy and willingness to change, I don’t give a monkey’s if you’re 85. We just need to stay relevant.

How has the creation of Omnicom PR Group affected your firm? Are you working more with other agencies such as Ketchum or Porter Novelli?
We had a head start and continue to work closely with Ketchum on Philips. I have great relationships with Porter Novelli CEO Brad MacAfee, with Ketchum’s Rob Flaherty and Barri Rafferty, and Marina Maher. While we are going to compete aggressively with one another, it’s a big, new world out there. No matter how big any of us might think we are, we are small in the grand scam of life. Having more partnerships through Omnicom makes us really strong. We did a pitch this week where we partnered with a number of other Omnicom companies. That hugely advanced what we were able to bring to the table. I am hoping in this case it will be a winning formula. We are all great supporters of our own brands but we need to get over ourselves. What is important here is what the client wants.

PRSA New York has called on all PR firms to release information on the diversity of their workforces. Will you do this?
We will be transparent and cooperative on this. But this is not just a numbers game. I want to make sure everybody who works in any of our companies feels that Fleishman is incredibly inclusive. I want us to be the most inclusive firm in our industry. I want us to be a company where none of these conversations are relevant anymore because everything is seamless. This has to be much more than welcoming African-Americans into the white man’s world. This has to be about creating a new paradigm between us all where I know more about other people’s cultures and I appreciate them. It’s not about them fitting in with us or with me, it’s about me fitting in with them. It’s a big priority throughout the year for us. We are setting out specific goals about where we want to be by 2020. Our statistics are impressive. But so what? It still has a long way to go.

With sexual harassment in the workplace leading the news, how are you communicating to staffers about this issue?
I have communicated directly to all our staff that whether it is sexual harassment or any form of bullying, there is no place for it in our company. We also have an independent confidential line people can call at any time. It is manned all the time and has been in place for several years. If it includes an allegation against me, it will be brought to the right people and won’t be suppressed. It will be treated seriously and addressed straight away. I have been a victim of bullying myself in my career, so I like to think I am sensitive to it and it would trouble me deeply if I thought anyone was uncomfortable coming to work at Fleishman.

Can you elaborate on your bullying experience?
I’ve had people take everything I and others feel that is good about me and tell me all those things are a problem. The end results seem to be to help you to lose personal confidence. You have to believe it is the bully who has the problem. In the two occasions in my life where this has happened I have taken it on but not before a lot of sleepless nights and [being] upset. On the diversity point, being Irish, I have many times come across being the butt of very cruel jokes about the Irish. I’ll go to a football match in England and they will call me "Paddy the Irishman." I find that funny because it is said in a warm way as a joke. But someone else saying it might make me uncomfortable or be offensive.

What are your main focus areas?
I fear waking up to find all the staff have left and they’ve gone somewhere else. I look at [the business] like a stool with three legs. I have to keep Omnicom shareholders, clients, and staff happy. Each one is dependent of the other. At the end of 2017, based upon our client and employee satisfaction surveys and our business performance, I would say we are in a very good space. I would confidently say Fleishman is among the top two PR firms in the world. We are increasing vacation, have introduced paid maternity and paternity leave, and our staffers who have pets can take the day off to go to the vet or to bereave for their animals if they die.

Earlier this year, Fleishman instigated a global client leader initiative to align business priorities with its largest clients. Any updates?
Our satisfaction rates are up, our revenues are up, the whole relationship is really enhanced and we are going to deepen that throughout the organization and the period ahead. We’ve done this with our top 10 clients, and eventually want to do this with our top 50 clients.

What are your plans for 2018?
I said Fleishman is one of the top two agencies in the world. I will leave it to [Edelman CEO] Richard Edelman and [Weber Shandwick chief executive] Andy Polansky as to who wants to be the other one. I have great respect for what they do. At the end of 2017 by any measure of how you want to score the performance of an agency, Fleishman is in really good shape as a firm. We are looking at 2018 with well-founded optimism.

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