PROFILE: Gary Stockman, a digital vision to wow the UK

Considering he arrived in Heathrow a couple of hours ago, Gary Stockman looks remarkably fresh.

Gary Stockman
Gary Stockman

He is also quite cheerful, despite the economic storm clouds that seem to have followed him across the Atlantic.

‘When I'm here I feel as if I should apologise to everyone for the US economy,' he laughs, although he says he remains ‘optimistic' about the wider business environment. ‘I'd be more worried if I was in a discipline other than PR,' he adds enigmatically, more of which later.

The new global chief of Porter Novelli (PN) is on his first European tour since he took over the 100-office agency in January. Last night he was in the Netherlands, talking to clients and staff, and today he is visiting PN's offices in Bayswater, London.

He looks fit and slim for his 46 years and emanates none of the all-too-common American-in-London corporate swagger.

Fortunately he seems to take this observation as a compliment. ‘Since joining PN I've gained an appreciation of the issues outside the US. In fact I love that interaction,' he responds with a cautious smile.

Gary StockmanStockman is one of the new breed of global agency heads; digital evangelists who find themselves running international PR machines. Indeed, Stockman inherits more than 1,000 staff across 60 countries. He takes over from Helen Ostrowski, who bec­omes the network's chairman.

It is a privileged position, but also a major challenge. PN remains a serious player in the US market, with ten offices there. But in the UK, particularly, it lacks profile and identity; especially when one considers the success of its previous incarnation here - Countrywide - just a decade ago.

To give UK boss Jean Wyllie her credit - and she is now promoted to PN's president for EMEA - the agency appears to have turned round its fortunes over the past couple of years, but still has some way to go.

‘The UK is a market and a gateway for us,' explains Stockman. ‘It is particularly strong in tech, healthcare and corporate reputation but digital is the key here.'

He also admits PN has not marketed itself as effectively as it should have done.

So what differences are we going to notice under his leadership?

Stockman is quick to respond: ‘The pace of change will quicken under me. And over time clients will be able to tell. I want growth, but the right kind of growth.'

He expands: ‘We need to focus on the core of our business, which is strategic planning and research; digital, in mindset as well as in a tool; and managing corporate reputation, which encompasses CSR, int­ernal comms and crisis management.'

These priorities are a pretty good summation of the industry's growth areas. But how does PN prove it does these better than anyone else?

‘The difference comes in the execution,' insists Stockman. ‘Few deliver these things in a meaningful way. Our answer is to be completely media neutral and focused on the important stakeholders.'

He admits this means some ‘difficult choices' in terms of the shape and structure of the agency, but does not go so far as to suggest major restructuring or job cuts.

‘We've been trying to adapt to this for a while. Our approach has been to partner with specialists rather than developing them in-house. For example, we created PN Entertainment two years ago with Los Angeles-based The Rose Group.'

But does it actually mean employing different types of people? Stockman smiles as we hit on the heart of his vision. ‘Yes, absolutely. We're now looking for a more diverse set of skills: digital experts and ex-advertising people, with knowledge of planning and audiences.'

And PN is putting its money where its mouth is. Over the past month it has hired Matt Morrison from Tribal DDB as global head of digital planning and one of advertising's best-known trend spotters, Marian Salzman, as chief marketing officer.

Encouragingly, Stockman is one of a growing contingent of senior PR people who see PR having a ‘natural advantage' in the new digital world, particularly at a time of economic prudence: ‘PR can provide real depth in understanding, and communicating to, audiences. It is an empathetic discipline. It can also speak with one voice.'

Stockman's distinguished career has ricocheted from coast to coast in the US. He began as a business reporter on The Buffalo News before moving into PR at Saphar & Associates in New York state.

But then he shifted across to Silicon Valley in California to work for tech shop Copithorne & Bellows (C&B), where he enjoyed the dotcom boom.

Here Stockman's tale slips into American vernacular: ‘In 1995 I thought I was late to the party, but actually ended up catching the wave. It was a case of fruit baskets. Prospects were begging us to take their business. It all got a bit frothy.'

But after marcoms giant Omnicom bought C&B and merged it with PN, Stockman moved to New York City to take a promotion. ‘It was colder and the commute isn't great from my home in Connecticut, but it was becoming a global role,' he says.

Stockman is clearly fiercely ambitious, and happiest when talking about his core subject. ‘There has never been a more int­ellectually challenging time to be in PR,' he enthuses. ‘I get my buzz talking to staff and clients about where this business is going.'

With that Stockman leaves us with his distinctive mix of PR-speak and Americ­ana. ‘My priority for Porter Novelli is to take more provocative thought leadership positions - along with all the basic blocking and tackling.'

CEO, Porter Novelli
2005 President, Porter Novelli
2002 CEO, Porter Novelli Americas
2000 COO, Porter Novelli Americas
1995 Partner, Copithorne & Bellows
1986 V-P and director of account management, Saphar & Associates

What was your biggest career break?
Moving to Silicon Valley in 1995 to join Copithorne & Bellows, a tech public relations firm. I joined a great company at a unique time, and I benefited hugely.

What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder today?
Young people joining our discipline should recognise how applicable and important their skills are. They have grown up with modern communications channels, and things such as social networking are second nature. I would encourage young people to leverage the digital knowledge they have acquired and put it to use at work. And I would encourage companies to make it easy for young people to make these contributions.

Who was your most notable mentor?
I've had several clients who collectively taught me the fundamentals of true business partnership. How an agency can function as an extension of corporate staff, how business relationships should be mutually beneficial, how the best clients and agencies get the best from one another.

What do you prize most in new recruits?
Three things, in order of increasing priority: level-appropriate skills, hunger to learn, and passion for what we do. We can teach the first; the other two not so much.

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