Robert Phillips stands six feet tall. Edelman’s new UK CEO says he looks smaller because of his short legs. He’s right, and the effect is that his size sort of creeps up and surprises you.
But then 43-year-old Phillips is full of surprises, despite his modest claims that he is ‘ever so dull really’ and ‘not the sort of guy there is much to say about’.
For example, he began his career promoting Italian bridal ranges. ‘In my final year at university in 1986 my father, who was involved in the fashion industry, passed away,’ he reveals. ‘I found I had some Italians on my doorstep asking for help with a bridal range they were bringing into the UK. And that’s how I became a PR man.’
Within six months, Phillips met long-time business partner Jackie Cooper and Jackie Cooper PR (JCPR) was born – so called because Cooper was better known and Phillips’ father once told him never to put his name on a company lest it go bust. The agency, such as it was in its early days, picked up department store Sears as its first client and went on to create some on the most iconic consumer campaigns of the last 20 years, including ones for Wonderbra and Playstation.
In 2004 JCPR was sold (at the time some claimed it had ‘sold out’) to PR leviathan Edelman. After a bumpy first year, the two agencies gradually began to fit and, as of April, formally merged. Last month Phillips replaced incumbent UK CEO Stuart Smith and now finds himself in a smart new office.
‘The lavender has to go, and I’m still getting used to the phones,’ says Phillips, before requesting something from an assistant via mobile phone. ‘The first thing any CEO sorts out is catering. Do you want good coffee or awful coffee?’
Phillips is actually very friendly, despite his reputation for occasionally being one of the more fearsome members of the PR industry. He says he has calmed down immensely in the last three years, even more so than in the last 10, and openly admits he could be a bit of a bear in his early days.
‘Edelman’s European health CEO Kate Triggs told me to listen more,’ he says. ‘That sort of advice, and time, has mellowed me.’
Phillips says he agrees with PRWeek’s recent description of him as ‘hardworking and intense’ (PRWeek, 27 April). He can also see why Edelman Europe CEO David Brain described him as a ‘PR savant’ in the same issue.
‘I think that pretty much encapsulates me,’ he says. ‘PR is a full-time job; you’d be crazy to switch off. The only time I properly switch off is when football is on, which is why Manchester United matches are sacrosanct.’
Those who have worked with Phillips in the past recall all-night sessions reworking pitches the day before JCPR was due to present to a client.
‘There’s always a lot to do,’ argues Phillips. ‘The reason Jackie and I started up our business is because we wanted to make a difference – we cared.’
But why does he care so much? ‘We thought PR would be the discipline that changes the world,’ he reveals. ‘And it’s starting to.’
Former O2 marketing director Will Harris, who still works with Phillips through mobile phone service Rebtel, describes Phillips as an ‘insomniac, incredibly bright and miles ahead of the curve’. He goes on to say if Phillips were ‘not such a nice bloke, these traits would be annoying’.
Phillips acknowledges he has work to do in his new role. Although Edelman boasts an impressive client list, he feels it does not punch its weight in terms of recognition of its work. But two weeks into the role, he’s already making a difference.
‘Our “mash-em-up” programme is under way; getting PROs to work in different sectors of the business helps them grow as individuals,’ he states.
Phillips has clearly not lost any of his energy. He reveals that the appointment letter he recently wrote to the 200-plus staff in Edelman took ‘45 minutes to write and two hours to edit’ and delivers his agency manifesto.
‘Edelman is hot in the UK but not known to be hot,’ he says. ‘Now that needs to change.’
CV - Robert Phillips
CEO, Edelman UK
Sells JCPR to Daniel J Edelman
Founding partner (with Jackie Cooper) of JCPR
Launches his own agency JPA