PROFILE: Leader of the pack

The prospect of joining Cohn & Wolfe on the verge of a merger leaves Fiona Noble unfazed, reports Kate Magee.

Fiona Noble
Fiona Noble

Fiona Noble flicks back her long blonde hair. ‘Going from being absolutely pivotal to knowing nothing about anything is quite a sobering exercise,' she says, her skyscraper heels elegantly pacing the floor of her new office at Cohn & Wolfe.

Noble will have to get up to speed quickly. The 44-year-old has just taken the helm at the WPP-owned agency, which lost some high-profile clients and saw a string of staff exits last year. Her widely respected predecessor Jonathan Shore has also left a big pair of shoes to fill.

As PRWeek revealed last week, Noble will also oversee the imm­inent merger with GCI, which will make the agency the 11th largest in the UK with an estimated fee income of £14.25m.
Noble scoffs at the suggestion that she might be concerned about achieving the ambitious targets WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell is said to demand.

She says she is going in with her ‘eyes wide open' after her previous experience at WPP - as Hill & Knowlton marcoms MD - and believes her three years at Freud stand her in good stead. ‘Am I concerned at coming into a business that will be judged by its success? Absolutely not.'

Fiona NobleBut she does have a task on her hands. She admits there have been problems with Cohn & Wolfe, but believes that the group is addressing these in a credible manner. ‘It was not a good year for technology but it has been addressed in a robust way,' she says.

‘The AxiCom acquisition is a way of re-establishing ourselves in that important market.' But Noble is not keen to discuss her plans for the agency; she is getting to know the business first.

Former H&K chairman David McLaren believes Noble has the courage and charisma to make the merger successful. ‘She has guts, sparkle and intelligence and she will have grown up at Freud. When the pressure was on at H&K she was magnificent and took personal responsibility for turning things around,' he says.

Predictably, Noble remains extremely tight-lipped about her three years at Freud Communications, which she has just left. ‘I'm absolutely not going to tell you any of that,' she says with finality.

But she does concede that Freud is not the most industry-friendly agency. ‘Culturally Freud doesn't take much interest, in the nicest possible way, in what the rest of the industry is doing.' This is something she will now need to relearn.

Noble began her PR career by accident when she accepted a graduate trainee job at Biss Lancaster, mistaking it for an advertising agency. But PR stuck, and she left the agency 16 years later as board director.

Her former boss, Biss Lancaster chairman Graham Lancaster, praises her professional social skills and says she was an inspiration to her team. ‘She is a very optimistic person who never looked on the dark side,' he says.

It was Lancaster who arranged for Noble to follow her then-husband to Dubai to head up a newly acquired office and integrate it with the parent company.

She credits her time in the region with suppressing her desire ‘to have a pre-formed opinion', and giving her a more measured approach to business.

The working environment introduced her to a more flexible management style. The Middle East also taught her the value of relationships in business. After several apparently constructive meetings stalled, a potential client said: ‘This is all very interesting. I know what you'll do with the brand. But I don't know you.' A stark contrast with the more ‘transactional' way business is done in the West.

It is this personal approach that brought her to Cohn & Wolfe after a call from the agency's global CEO Donna Imperato. ‘Senior people get headhunted all the time,' says Noble. ‘But here was the global CEO of this network saying: "We've heard a lot about you, we want to talk to you." My head was saying no, but I was intrigued.'

She has been back in the UK for six years, and lives in Holland Park with her three children and partner Stefano Hatfield, editor of thelondonpaper. ‘We always have feisty debates at home around stories,' she laughs, although she claims never to have sold a story in to him.
Noble likens herself to a chameleon.

Indeed her well-spoken tones show no trace of her Scottish roots. Nor do they ref­lect her time in America as a teen where, she confesses with a smile, she was a cheerleader. With her animated manner and striking looks, it is not hard to imagine.

The ability to adapt served her well in the Middle East, and one suspects it will come in handy now she has left the Freud bubble.

2008 CEO, Cohn & Wolfe
2004 MD, Freud Communications
2002 MD marcoms, Hill & Knowlton
2000 MD (Dubai), Bain Euro RSCG
1984 Graduate trainee to board director: head of consumer, Biss Lancaster

What was your biggest career break? Being offered a job at Biss Lancaster (now Euro RSCG Biss Lancaster) in 1984. Thinking it was an advertising agency, I accepted and thought I would give it a few months to see how it worked out. Twenty-four years in the industry later...

Who was your most notable mentor? He's not a mentor in the classical sense, but the person I have learned the biggest lessons from is Matthew Freud. He has a compulsive drive to reinvent and challenge everything every day, and do it with brutal honesty, whatever the repercussions. While often exciting and liberating - and at times simply plain exhausting - the result is never just average.

What advice would you give someone climbing the PR career ladder? Two bits of advice. First, never forget the client; it's the work that matters. Second, work with people who ask you tough questions.

What do you prize most in new recruits? The ability to walk fast. Not very cerebral, but at least it makes one look purposeful.

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