Weber Shandwick: does Rachel Friend's shock departure point to unresolved issues at the UK business?

Rachel Friend's sudden departure from Weber Shandwick surprised many in the industry, but sources close to the agency believe "the writing was on the wall", despite the UK business achieving impressive results during her tenure.

Rachel Friend's departure from Weber Shandwick came as a shock to many in the industry
Rachel Friend's departure from Weber Shandwick came as a shock to many in the industry

Of all the industry leadership changes in the past few months, the departure of Weber Shandwick UK chief executive Rachel Friend was perhaps the biggest shock.

Friend was promoted to Weber Shandwick UK and Ireland CEO two years ago, having served as the agency’s London MD since 2015.

Her tenure at the helm had often been praised, including a swag of PRWeek Awards and seemingly solid revenue growth. Weber Shandwick was on the shortlist for PRWeek UK Agency of the Decade.

However, sources close to Weber Shandwick paint a less rosy picture and believe there are several factors that led to her departure.

These include a network that is streamlining its leadership ranks in Europe after the departure of former CEO Colin Byrne left 'a hole', as well as questions about Friend's suitability for the role, and whether Weber's performance has been as strong in 2019 as in prior years.

PRWeek wanted to explore what Friend's departure tells us about the future direction of the UK's second-biggest PR agency, and whether other high-profile UK departures from sister agencies in parent network Interpublic Group – not least, Golin – point to a wider trend at play.

Several sources close to Weber Shandwick have spoken to PRWeek on the condition of anonymity.

They say that although Friend was highly respected internally, her exit "wasn't too much of a surprise".

The post-Colin Byrne vacuum

Several well-placed sources tell PRWeek that Weber Shandwick failed to adequately replace former Weber UK and EMEA CEO Byrne, who left in March 2018.

One said that "there has been this kind of weird interim collaborative government across Europe" and "the decision on Colin's replacement was essentially dodged", even though there had been plenty of jostling for his position.

"When Colin left they should have brought in a really strong leader for Europe, and that person should then have been given carte blanche to have sorted Europe out, build the UK, all that sort of stuff," the source added.

"I think Colin always felt Rachel would be his successor, [but] I think Rachel never had the backing – for whatever reason – of 'the powers that be' in the US."

Another source said Byrne's departure was never properly managed and that he left "a big hole to fill" at a time when Weber Shandwick HQ in the US has had a growing influence on the UK operation.

At present, the highest-ranking officers of Weber Shandwick’s European leadership comprise EMEA and Asia-Pacific chairman Tim Sutton, EMEA chief operating officer Jonas Palmqvist, and the president of X Practice, Hugh Baillie.

There are several specialism and sector leads, such as EMEA corporate comms lead Greg Prager, ECD James Nester, MD of health Rachel Pay, SVP business development and growth Graham Cox, and MD of strategy and insight Patricia McDonald.

"Tim is now reporting to Susan Howe [global chief growth officer] in the US and doesn't even have a direct line into Gail [Heimann, CEO and president], which seems slightly strange," a source said.

"It's just a very weird scenario where you've got a lot of senior people, [but] no one really has the ultimate power to make decisions… I think, as a result, Europe – and to some extent the UK – has been kind of ticking along for the last couple of years."

The source speculated as to whether these moves are a sign of new global CEO Heimann starting to stamp her authority on the Europe operation. She was appointed to the role last summer, when Weber Shandwick’s previous chief, Andy Polansky, was promoted to chairman and CEO of its holding company Interpublic Group’s Constituency Management Group division.

"I think, for whatever reason, those difficult decisions haven't been made in the past couple of years. I know Gail has made quite a few shifts already in the US and I wonder if this is the beginning of her trying to sort out Europe," added the source.

Bennett backing

Just prior to these global leadership changes, Helen Bennett was promoted to UK managing director last May.

A Weber insider believes that, although Friend was well-regarded, there is a sense that Bennett had greater backing among the network's top ranks.

"You look at the UK CEO role and you kind of wonder exactly what that role is there to do," a source said. "I think Edelman has lost that kind of role, [and] various other networks have struggled to have that interim position, because London is by far and away the big cash cow for Weber in Europe, let alone in the UK.

"Once you lose that day-to-day management of London, it makes you ask: what is that role and what are the responsibilities of that particular person? I think Helen [Bennett] is somebody who does have the backing of people in the US, which is quite interesting."

On Friend's departure and Weber's future leadership, Heinmann told PRWeek: "We wish Rachel every success. The senior team she oversaw during her tenure — led by Helen Bennett in London and Heather Blundell in Manchester — has been key to driving growth and recognition for the UK operations for many years. Their strategic muscle and vision will continue to deliver impact for our clients and best-in-class workplaces for our teams."

Rachel Friend (front and centre, holding award) led Weber Shandwick to several industry accolades, including a successful PRWeek UK Awards campaign in 2019

A question of performance

It's important to place Friend's departure into wider context. There have been several senior exits in the past year, including managing director of integrated media Danny Whatmough, director of integrated media Stuart Lambert, and chair of consumer marketing Emma Thomson.

One source told PRWeek that Weber has been actively streamlining its senior management ranks, but the question remains: why?

Two sources with insider knowledge suggest its performance had not been as strong in the past year as it had been previously.

"Margins have been a problem," said one with knowledge of the matter. "Revenue looks good from outside, but has decreased significantly over the past three years."

Weber Shandwick lost some big clients in the past year. British Gas moved to WPP last year as its parent company, Centrica, shifted to a single-group 'integrated marketing operating model' called Team Nucleus. Vauxhall has also left the agency, which had been managing its social-media work.

"There's maybe a sense that the growth hasn't been quite as aggressive in Europe, and the UK and London, as it could have been," said a source. "The consumer business has, I think, been suffering a little bit recently."

Other parts of Weber, including Flipside and its healthcare/pharma arm, have "maybe masked some issues elsewhere".

If consumer PR has underperformed and other parts of the business are doing well, this could have raised questions about whether Friend – who has a strong consumer PR background – was the right leader to take the business forward.

In the past four years, Weber has substantially bolstered its digital capabilities with the acquisition of mobile and digital agency Flipside and social creative agency That Lot.

"Rachel's great, but she's very traditional PR, and if you look at what Weber's been doing over the past couple of years with [chief innovation officer] Chris Perry in the States and Hugh coming in the UK, the focus has been a lot on driving digital innovation," the source said.

"If there's going to be a criticism of Rachel, [it] may be that it's an area where she wasn't quite as knowledgeable and didn't have the same level of experience."

IPG 'tightening the screws'

Although not directly linked, Friend's departure is the latest in a series of PR agency leadership moves since Polansky took the helm of IPG's Constituency Management Group division.

These include the exits of DeVries global chief executive Heidi Hovland and Golin co-CEO and EMEA/APAC lead Jon Hughes, while Golin’s London MD, Bibi Hilton, has changed role to oversee the Unilever business across Interpublic.

The departure of Hughes, Hovland and Friend at least indicate that Interpublic's top brass will take decisive leadership action if they believe there is a business case to do so.

A former senior executive within IPG told PRWeek that Polansky is "a smart guy" and "tightening the operational screws".

"There is a lot of uncertainty politically and economically around the world, and group agencies have not performed as well as in previous years," the source said.

"These moves could be a way to run agencies more efficiently, removing senior managers that are probably not necessary."

Another industry leader said that holding group executives now require agency leaders that are more "commercially robust", rather than being outstanding at their discipline.

With more globally-led pitches and tighter margins, holding groups require greater focus, reversing the "buccaneering days" when groups were hoovering up agencies of all shapes and sizes in relentless expansion.

Weber's increasing investment in non-traditional PR, coupled with more challenging trading conditions for consumer PR, indicate that a new leadership approach with different skill sets could be the tonic the UK's second-biggest PR agency requires at this time.

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