Loretta Tobin's tall, polished figure stops traffic - literally. She is standing in the middle of a central London street with cars speeding towards her. Has the pressure of her new CEO role got to her already? Not a bit of it. In fact, this exercise in traffic-dodging is simply a demonstration of Tobin's single-minded pursuit of her goals - in this instance, getting a decent range of pictures to choose from for her PRWeek profile.
We meet a day before her 14-year anniversary at the agency she joined when it was regional powerhouse Harrison Cowley. That firm became European network Trimedia following a merger 20 months ago and the 39-year old has much to be happy about. She set herself a goal of making CEO by her 40th birthday - and last month she did just that, replacing Paul Kelly and assuming control of the 170-strong firm.
She may now be in charge, but she does not intend to introduce any radical changes to the way the company is run. Rather, she plans to make a few ‘tweaks', such as diversification of its work - although, as a staunch opponent of ‘marketing jargon bullshit', she would probably not describe it as such. She explains: ‘Every client who comes to us wants to speak to people who know their sector. If we are heading into a recession, I want our bets spread. I want sustained, quality growth.'
Tobin hails from the West Midlands, where she has remained for most of her career, only moving to London last year after the merger. She still lives in Birmingham with her husband at weekends, and the
closure of Shepherd Bush's tube station near her London flat is unlikely to encourage her to spend much time in the capital.
Building a career away from the inward-looking culture of the capital has armed Tobin with the insights to lead an agency with a strong regional heritage, she claims. She has seen first-hand how stakeholder engagement has replaced media relations as the essence of regional comms. ‘Clients are coming to us and saying "who do you know in the local police force and in the health authority?",' she says. When clients are talking to regional teams, ‘accents can matter,' she adds. ‘It's important that agency and client personnel know the same people and drink in the same pubs.'
It is hard not to be charmed by Tobin's open and genuinely warm manner. She believes staff need space to learn, and claims not to reprimand people who mess up. ‘I don't beat people up if they've made a mistake. I think if they are any good, and they've got any integrity, they'll beat themselves up,' she smiles.
As a boss, she admits she is nosy. ‘I like to feel the pulse of the agency,' she explains. ‘It's an emotional business.'
Colleagues say Tobin gets excited over news, whether personal or professional. She recently introduced a ‘Daily Triumphs' email that alerts staff to national press coverage generated by the agency that day.
This inclusive mentality is remembered by her former colleague, Seventy Seven PR joint managing partner Alan Twigg. ‘She's a nosy cow, but in a good way,' he laughs. ‘She's always up for a chin-wag too.'
But despite her friendly exterior, Tobin has the steely edge her position requires. ‘There's never been any doubt she's tough,' adds Twigg. ‘She's always been ballsy.'
A tough hide is something Tobin acquired early on in her career. She recalls the disastrous UK launch of a Russian fashion company when she was a 20-year-old account executive. A press show was arranged and a pair of Russian models flown in to add glamour. Hours before the show, the models defected, vanishing into thin air and leaving Tobin to deal with a show with no stars and an irate Russian fashion boss.
Her ability to deal with almost anything that is thrown at her has given her a reputation for professionalism and toughness. CIPR president Elisabeth Lewis-Jones, who knows Tobin from the Brum PR scene, describes her as ‘upfront and transparent'.
‘I've never seen her have a bad day,' says Lewis-Jones. ‘She always remembers tiny details about people, and she always presents herself impeccably too. I can imagine clients buying into that.'
Talk to people she works with and one gets a picture of someone fiercely committed and loyal, who puts her heart and soul into her work. She is also, as Lewis-Jones puts it, ‘frighteningly organised'. Tobin laughs when she hears this and confesses she even drew up a spreadsheet to plan her wedding.
Now she has accomplished her ‘big goal' of becoming CEO before 40, one suspects she has an even more ambitious new scheme up her sleeve. Whatever it may be, it is a safe bet this Solihull girl will not rest until she has achieved it.
Tobin's turning points
What was your biggest break?
Moving to Harrison Cowley to launch The National Lottery in 1994. It gave me the confidence to tackle the most challenging of media situations - it was a rollercoaster of an account.
What advice would you give anyone climbing the career ladder?
Read, watch and listen to different media constantly. If that feels like an effort, then you should probably consider a different career. I always ask candidates what they read and which journalists they admire - and you can tell pretty quickly who has a natural passion for media and who is only reading Heat magazine.
Who was your most notable mentor?
Rajiv Wahi, who is now Cadbury's Asia Pacific regional president, was my first boss at Premier Brands UK. He gave me the opportunity to write the launch paper for Allinson biscuits, present it to the main board at the age of 20 and recognise PR as my career path.
What do you prize in new recruits?
A positive spirit, an open mind and a desire to make a difference.