Polansky: A class act who leaves big shoes to fill

The announcement that PR legend Andy Polansky is retiring in June marks the end of an era at Interpublic Group - and in the PR industry in general.

Andy Polansky (on right) and family
Andy Polansky (on right) and family

It’s a mark of the esteem in which Andy Polansky is held in the PR industry that I can’t think of anyone who’s ever had a bad word to say about him.

Yesterday’s news about him stepping down in June prompted a deluge of tributes and warm responses, not only from within the halls of Weber Shandwick and Interpublic that he has walked for the past 38 years, but also from the wider industry.

And those tributes were clearly genuine, not canned testimonials from the HR playbook.

“Andy will be missed,” said Richard Edelman. “He's a really complete class act, and his people love him. He brought distinction to the industry and realized we had to do a lot more than classic PR. He's the ultimate client guy and to me that's the ultimate compliment. Andy is as humble as the day is long, and I have nothing but the greatest respect for him.”

“This is the end of an era,” said BCW CEO Donna Imperato. “Andy is the greatest contemporary leader in our industry — bar none. There are few leaders I’ve admired in my many years in communications as much as Andy. He was always a fierce competitor but also a friend and a great human being. Here’s to Andy’s continuing success and happiness.”

And MSL US CEO Diana Littman said: “It has always been clear, from my time in the industry, that Andy is a very special leader – one who believes in advancing the public relations discipline and all the talent within it.”

The chairman and CEO of IPG Dxtra and PRWeek Hall of Famer’s impending departure marks the last in the “holy trinity” of men who helped build what is the modern Weber Shandwick and the second-largest PR firm in the world from humble beginnings, in Polansky’s case as an AAE at Bozell & Jacobs PR in 1983.

Harris Diamond retired from his position as chairman and CEO of IPG’s McCann at the end of 2020, having handed over the reins of CEO at Weber Shandwick to Polansky in 2012. Weber chairman Jack Leslie announced his retirement last fall and leaves the firm in March.

Additionally, long-standing Interpublic Group CEO Michael Roth retired at the same time as Diamond, having led the holding company since 2005. He was succeeded by IPG’s COO Philippe Krakowsky.

As Edelman, who last year expressed his intention to continue for another decade, added: “I feel like the last man standing.”

For those calling for the traditional cadres of older white men who traditionally ran PR and advertising businesses to step down and pass on the baton to a more diverse cohort, well, I guess you are partly getting your wish.

That will hopefully result in a new generation of leadership that better reflects the demographics of modern America. But, within that process, don’t ever underestimate the contribution Polansky’s generation made to the establishment of a firm base on which to build a new diverse future.

Polansky’s enduring and defining business relationship at Weber Shandwick was with Gail Heimann, who succeeded him as CEO when he moved upstairs in July 2019 into the Dxtra role (then known as Constituency Management Group [CMG]).

"I have such high regard for Jack and Harris, who have been long-term business partners of the same generation, so it's natural that you'll see people retiring around the same time,” Polansky told me yesterday. “But my closest partnership was always with Gail.”

In a memo to the company yesterday, Heimann said: “Andy has spent more than half his time on earth — that would be 38 years — at IPG; most of the years have been devoted to building, supporting and leading the organization we know as Weber Shandwick.

“Andy's vision, unwavering devotion to colleagues and clients and his commitment to doing the right thing – always, even when it's hard – took us from humble beginnings to the powerhouse we are today.”

He has left Interpublic’s PR firms in good shape, with Heimann establishing her imprint atop Weber and Matt Neale clarifying the leadership at Golin after a confusing few years with a trio of co-CEOs in charge that Polansky quickly rectified when he took wider control at Dxtra. Other IPG PR firms such as Current are also thriving.

"We started the leadership transition [with Gail] at Weber Shandwick two and a half years ago,” said Polansky. “Golin is set to continue to do great things in the marketplace under Matt [Neale] and Gary [Rudnick]. We've never been in such a strong position in our core PR businesses."

In terms of Polansky’s Dxtra role, which involves overseeing IPG’s specialist marketing agencies including Octagon, FutureBrand and Jack Morton as well as the PR division, he says he’ll be working with Krakowsky between now and the end of June to “see what we do and land at the best way to structure things moving forward."

There doesn’t appear to be any obvious successor to Polansky at Dxtra, but that hasn’t always been a specific role. In the gap between Diamond moving to McCann and Polansky taking over, CMG was overseen by CFO Frank Mergenthaler, who also retired at the end of 2019, and Krakowsky may decide there’s no need for a direct replacement.

Amid all the talk of Polansky being humble, devoted to clients and colleagues, doing the right thing and being a great human being – all true by the way – don’t for one moment think he couldn’t be tough when necessary and fight aggressively to achieve business aims and outcomes. You don’t get to achieve what he has and rise to the top of a $1.1 billion organization without demonstrating those qualities too.

Polansky (top center) with Weber Shandwick's Indonesia team in Jakarta.

As leader of PRWeek’s editorial function I had numerous testy exchanges with him if he thought we were misrepresenting a story or some aspect of coverage of his beloved agency and its people. But, just as with his predecessor Harris Diamond, once you had thrashed out the issue and come to an agreement no grudges were held and cordial relations would resume immediately.

I did get one over him once that I like to remind him of. PRWeek reported the loss of one of Weber’s accounts and included Weber in the headline of the article in addition to the winning agency.

Polansky was immediately on the phone demanding “since when do you put the losing agency in the headline.” I was relieved on doing a quick search that we had done exactly that a few years earlier when Weber initially won the account and was able to point that out to him. “Oh, OK then,” he said. And we moved on.

While the pandemic has been a time of reflection for everyone, Polansky says he always planned to retire around this stage, possibly putting the date back a little to ensure the business coped with the tough circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic.

He has certainly enjoyed the chance to spend more time with his family, who were staying with him for chunks of the lockdown, and having dinner together every night.

"I've spent most of my working life traveling the world and now I want to spend more time with my wife Maria and our family,” he said. “I started 38 years ago as an assistant account executive at Bozell, a predecessor to Weber Shandwiick - it's been an amazing journey."

Heimann concluded her thoughts on Polansky thus: “For now, I just want to say to Andy — the-guy-down-the-hall-with-the-giraffe-in-his-office, my business partner and friend — thank you for everything.”

I would echo that and reiterate that he has always been fair and a pleasure to deal with, a supporter of the entire profession, as well as PRWeek. He is without doubt of one the most admired and inspirational people in the PR industry and he will be missed.

Imperato’s description of Polansky as the “greatest contemporary leader” in the industry and this being the “end of an era” are telling indeed. But he himself has always been one who concentrated on moving forward and taking the business to the next level. It will be up to others to take this inspiration and build that new era.

Polansky's hobbies include boating.

He is still a young man and I wish him well in his retirement when he will get to spend a lot more time on his boat and playing pickle ball, as well as no doubt finding many positive ways to continue to lend his expertise and contribute to nonprofits, boards and whatever other challenges catch his eye down the line.  

These are indeed big shoes to fill.

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