News Analysis: WS plans for life without Yelland

Former Sun editor David Yelland is the biggest name among a trio of sudden exits from Weber Shandwick. Ravi Chandiramani asks what's next for the agency

Heavyweight resignations at Weber Shandwick have begun to resemble buses - none for a while, then three come along at once.

Last week's revelation that senior vice-chairman David Yelland was defecting to Brunswick coincided with Europe vice-chairman Sally Ward's decision to take a career break.

Just a fortnight earlier, European health MD Fiona Hall was poached by fast-growing independent health shop Chandler Chicco Agency (PRWeek, 14 July).

The exits are, by all accounts, unrelated. Together they represent a huge blow to WS, but what have the trio brought to Britain's largest PR firm and what is the real impact of their departure?

Given his celebrity as a former Sun editor, Yelland's departure is naturally the highest profile. His appointment by WS in May 2004 intrigued the business media, being one of the most memorable cases of a journalist moving to the 'dark side'.

Yelland came armed with a contact book equivalent to a Who's Who of British society. At the time, he and UK CEO Colin Byrne appeared to be the PR industry's Tweedledee and Tweedledum; both New Labour sympathisers devoid of hair who hail from the North.

Subsequently, Yelland was appointed by Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy, and played a crucial role pulling in Coca-Cola and Wembley Stadium developer Multiplex, among other accounts. He has also served as a WS ambassador, attracting an impressive array of newspaper editors to speak at client events.

Slow-burning relationship
Yet the relationship between Yelland and WS never really moved beyond one of mutual frustration, and Byrne and Yelland are far from bosom buddies. The former is strident, the latter more taciturn, the antithesis of what many might expect of an ex-Sun editor.

One former-WS staffer says "there was a definite clash", adding that "Yelland's exit will destabilise Byrne in the eyes of his American bosses, because he made such a big deal of the hire".

Byrne wanted Yelland to advise across the spectrum of WS clients. But he gravitated towards corporate and financial work, expressing disinterest in consumer PR. Byrne now admits: "Despite David's success as an editor of a mass-market newspaper, I overestimated his enthusiasm for working with consumer and creative people."

Former colleagues and insiders also recount his disinclination to be a team player, having "too many airs and graces" to muck in. He is said to have failed to turn up to various client meetings, after personally pitching for their business. For his part, Yelland is understood to have been frustrated by the quality of WS consumer executives in pitches, having secured meetings through his contacts with CEOs.

Yelland is believed to have been on a salary of around £300k. One WS source said his costs were about the same as his personal revenue contribution, and that Byrne had been putting him under pressure to do more new-business work: "The halo effect of being an ex-editor fades and you must earn your keep. Byrne was running out of patience."

Byrne will not comment on this, but he does say: "WS is not about the odd star striker. No individual is bigger than the consultancy". He adds: "I worry about how David will fare in a highly competitive and unforgiving environment such as Brunswick."

Yelland joins Brunswick in October, working alongside senior partner Susan Gilchrist, who leads its consumer industries practice. Gilchrist hails him as "an outstanding individual" with "broad international experience". Yelland is thought to have been attracted by the prospect of advising on international M&As for an agency that represents a quarter of the FTSE 100.

Although Yelland's divorce from WS has not been visibly acrimonious, it does appear to be in the best interests of both parties. As for Ward's exit, she says "it's time for my family to have their share", and that she is taking "an initial six months out" after a 20-year unbroken spell in the industry.

She will relinquish her Europe vice-chairman role in September, but will keep advising clients Cadbury, Coca-Cola, Unilever and Mastercard until the end of the year.

Ward is widely credited for turning the UK consumer practice around since joining WS from Porter Novelli in 2001. She was promoted to her current role at the end of 2005. "When BSMG and WS merged, their combined consumer offering was in a sorry state, while the economic situation at the time was diabolical," she says. She is said to have built a robust team and structures, and on her promotion handed responsibility for UK consumer work to Scott Wilson.

Yelland raised WS's profile outside the PR community, while Ward bequeaths internal structures and a consumer team much stronger than the merged entities she took on. Byrne says neither will need to be replaced.

There is a strong case for holding that European health chief Hall will prove the biggest loss, and not just because strategic development director Neil McGregor-Paterson - number three in WS's healthcare practice - is also moving to CCA. Having joined in early 2004, Hall has arguably not been at WS long enough to build the strongest of teams.

And healthcare is where it is at. Although Sarbanes-Oxley prevents Interpublic-owned WS from releasing figures, sources close to the agency estimate that its 280 UK staff pulled in a fee income of £28m last year, representing five per cent annual growth and profit margins of just under 20 per cent.

Of this, healthcare (currently under Lucy Harper) is the fastest-growing practice, contributing £3m with 30 staff, showing that the division's growth is key to the agency's long-term success.

But David Brain, Byrne's co-CEO from 2001 to 2003, and now Edelman Europe president, says: "If Colin feels that he's lost a talented bench, he will replace it. He's too good a judge of character and talent not to do so."

Mirroring the industry at large, the tech practice led by Michelle McGlocklin is the next fastest growing, pulling in £3.5m with 35 staff in 2005; corporate and public affairs, led by ex-Sunday Times political editor Michael Prescott, made £6m with 55 staff; consumer under Wilson made around £4m with 45 staff; the financial practice, which incorporates Square Mile and is led by Ian Bailey, made £4.5m with 35 staff.

But WS continues to punch below its weight in the financial arena, not helped by Square Mile co-founder Tim Jackaman poaching WS staff and clients for his start-up, GJR. The 80 staff in Square Mile's regional offices make just over £4m. Byrne says WS UK has picked up 21 industry awards in the past year. Its seven-strong UK management team total 50 years' service.

The occupants of WS's UK departure lounge do not suggest an agency in crisis, rather a spot of turbulence. But the UK office's modest growth is said to lag that in Europe and globally.

Something needs to pick up if WS is to stay ahead of the pack.

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