I first talked to Robert Phillips in the 1990s while I was writing for Marketing magazine and he was co-founder and co-leader of Jackie Cooper PR, which arguably helped define modern consumer PR during that decade. It was famous for its work on brands such as Wonderbra and PlayStation, showing how earned media could be as effective as advertising when creative and clever.
But I got to know Phillips much better during my first stint editing PRWeek from 2005 onwards. By then he had co-sold JCPR to Edelman (2004) and was starting to rise up the ranks of that agency.
One recalls Edelman’s EMEA CEO at the time, David Brain, with whom I had worked right at the start of my career, excitedly pronouncing that Phillips was among the very few most impressive people he’d ever encountered in this business and that he wanted Phillips to run Edelman in the UK.
Phillips ended up spending nine years at Edelman, as UK CEO and then president for EMEA. Under his leadership, the UK arm of the world’s biggest agency caught up with, and in some senses even overtook, other established giants such as Weber Shandwick and Hill+Knowlton.
Phillips was certainly instrumental in turning Edelman’s Trust Barometer into one of the most powerful pieces of agency IP ever to exist, which it remains to this day. He did this by bringing into play, and to life, the crucial political-economic-media context of corporate communication.
During that period we used to catch up regularly over breakfast and occasionally chatted on the phone. He was always interesting, always entertaining; a brilliant mind and operator. He was invariably funny and gossipy too.
I have fond memories of flying out to Barcelona with him and David Brain on a business trip, which happened to coincide with my team, Chelsea, playing the Catalan side in their pomp in the Champions League at the famous Camp Nou.
As you know, Phillips was a Manchester United fanatic, but was knowledgeable and passionate about other teams too. Throughout the trip, we talked about politics, philosophy, business and sport. His energy and intellect were second to none.
Eventually, in 2012, he resigned from Edelman rather suddenly. He said he had seen the light – had probably got bored, as perfectionists tend to do – and wanted to try other things. He also appeared to have fallen out with the firm’s global boss and owner, Richard Edelman.
Today Edelman plays that down and talks fondly of Phillips, whom he clearly admired and valued hugely for nearly a decade. Upon hearing the news earlier this week, Edelman told me: “Robert was a singular force and an inspiration during his time with us. He made such an indelible mark on this industry. He had strong views about this business as a positive force for good.”
But back then Phillips was increasingly feeling disenchanted with the PR business as it was and in 2013 formed a boutique consultancy called Jericho Chambers with George Pitcher, a charismatic vicar who had by then departed his role as comms director for the Archbishop of Canterbury. Pitcher had previously been a senior journalist on The Observer and had co-founded and later sold corporate comms consultancy Luther Pendragon.
The focus of Jericho Chambers was to build coalitions across business, government and civil society on subjects ranging from responsible tax to the future of work, adult social care and transport, infrastructure and housing. In short Jericho’s was a flat-structured advisory business, more concerned with changing how corporates actually behaved rather than how they communicated.
In 2015 he encapsulated his thinking by writing the controversial book ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’. The book was provocative because of its title – clearly a dig at the PR industry and Edelman – and yet the arguments were progressive and ahead of the time in terms of the paramount importance of authentic ESG.
Jericho continues successfully to this day and seemingly beyond, although without several of the early partners and advisors, with whom Phillips had fallen out. His visionary perfectionism, it seems, often made him difficult to work with.
The Reverend Pitcher, who came up with the name Jericho Chambers, left after less than a year, although he left his investment in for a few years. He told me this week: “I'll remember Robbo as a brilliant and funny friend down the decades, riding snowmobiles at speed across frozen lakes in Finland in 1992 and trying to get him and Jackie Cooper to merge their company with Luther Pendragon over hilarious lunches.
“As it turned out, working with him proved to be a whole lot more tricky – as you would expect with two autocratic big beasts used to doing things their own way – so that didn't last long. No one could accuse either of us of being a team player.
"But I'll remember the laughs and the martinis. And my thoughts and prayers are with Venetia and the family.”
Three years’ ago, Phillips was diagnosed with advanced cancer. And since then he had continued to be just as productive, energetic and outspoken, until a few weeks ago, when his illness finally took its toll.
Whenever I checked in on him, which probably wasn’t regularly enough, he remained positive, philosophical, combative, and forward-looking. He wrote some powerful pieces for PRWeek that continued to develop the vital debate around ethics.
The PR business, the media, the business world – and indeed all of us who worked with or spent time with Robert – will miss him enormously.
Phillips is survived by his wife Venetia and children Gabriel and Gideon. They have asked for stories, anecdotes and tales of wonder/defiance to be shared at email@example.com.
His former colleague and great friend, Chris Rumfitt, pays his own personal tribute below.
'The industry has lost a legend' – by Chris Rumfitt
We all know the word legend is overused, but sometimes it’s the only word for it. And sure enough, when my dear friend Robert Phillips passed away earlier this week, it was the word that the PRWeek headline writer immediately, and rightly, reached for.
Because a legend of our game is exactly what Robert was. For me, what made him so special was his rare combination of the cerebral and the creative. And it was that which gave him the breadth from the crazy consumer campaigns of his early career, through to the more thoughtful later work, working with major organisations to change opinion on issues around climate and tax justice. And yet, even on that stuff, that creative flair of the consumer PR guru never really went away – and the next big idea was always just round the corner.
When Robert wrote 'Trust Me, PR is Dead', it’s fair to say he put a few noses out of joint. Not least with me. I’d only just launched my own agency, Field, and having a guru writing that the very industry I was launching a business in was “dead” was, as I pointed out to him, “not especially f***ing helpful".
But of course he didn’t really think PR was dead. He was a PR man to his back teeth. And he knew that was a genius title to get attention. What he meant was the old, one-dimensional model of PR was dead, in an age of more activist and informed citizen-consumers who expect more from brands. He was right on that, and ahead of his time, as he was on much else. He executed integrated campaigns long before they were the latest buzzword. He was an early adopter on digital. And he was talking about purpose half a decade before most others.
The other thing Robert was, for good and ill, was an obsessive. Obsessive about his passions – Manchester United, Bob Dylan, cricket – and obsessive about getting things right.
He could be the most infuriating perfectionist. I recall a big pitch at Edelman where an hour before it started he decided I had used too many commas on the slides and insisted on going through them, one by one, to reduce the comma quota. Not the best use of our time, I humbly suggested to my then-chief executive. Then having sorted my commas, he started adjusting the blinds so there was just the right amount of light in the pitch room.
His other obsession was with some old-fashioned values, which may surprise people who knew him less well. He was an absolute stickler for manners, courtesy, behaviour. Because of this, he was kind and courteous to people, to a fault. I often felt like I didn’t live up to his standards on that score.
But my abiding memories will be about the way he backed people he believed in with a fierce loyalty. I was a great beneficiary of this, as he gave me the confidence to set up on my own. On Sunday after his death I managed to dig out the Delaunay placemat on which he sketched Field’s first ever business plan. I doubt I would have had the courage to leave the world’s biggest PR agency – a place I was very happy at – to start on my own without that wise counsel and fearless encouragement. I am, and shall always be, so very grateful for that.
The industry has lost a legend. And many people within it have lost a friend. For me, matchday at Old Trafford won’t ever be the same without the nervous nail-biting alongside me and then the “liquid picnic” on the train home. So thank you, Robert. Your life was too short, but you crammed more into 57 years than many do into decades longer. And you made a difference. To your family, and to your friends. To your industry and, through that, to the wider world. We will miss you.
Chris Rumfitt is founder and chief executive of Field Consulting