As she hustled US twin superstars Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen through a hotel kitchen to avoid the paparazzi recently, Jackie Cooper thought: ‘I’m getting too old for this.’
This self-deprecating line (with expletive deleted) is typical. As celebrity publicist Max Clifford, who has known Cooper since the start of her career, recalls of her early days in the business: ‘Jackie was always going to be an operator.’
An operator is what she is. The entrepreneurial American Olsen twins are the sort of big-hitting consumer brand – like O2, Wonderbra, Dove and Xbox 360 – in which Cooper has specialised since setting up shop 21 years ago.
The pocket-sized version of her life story is this: she left school, spent six weeks with a PR agency, which she hated, then moved to Greenpeace, which she loved. She then went freelance before setting up Jackie Cooper PR in 1987 in a Bond Street office rented from Clifford. She brought bridal wear expert Robert Phillips on board and, after years of producing much-admired work for high-profile clients, the pair sold their company (now called JCPR) to US corporate outfit Edelman in 2004.
It is this last bit that does not seem to quite fit with the wild creativity for which JCPR was envied. Phillips is now CEO of Edelman UK, with Cooper its vice-chair and creative director. But the words ‘sell out’ were whispered in the PR community when the sale went through.
Cooper sets her jaw firmly. ‘We’d have sold out by not selling,’ she says coolly. ‘We didn’t have a hugely profitable company, and didn’t think we could move the company on [without selling].’
She continues: ‘We were pulling in £4m a year and clients were asking us to do more and more global work. We set up associations with like-minded groups around the world, but it didn’t work as well as it should have. We also had conversations with many other marcoms groups, but we couldn’t see how we’d have lasted beyond signing the deal. Edelman needed us as much as we needed it because of the equity [in the JCPR brand]. And Edelman is independent.’
Cooper barely draws breath. ‘There’s a lot of naivety about independence,’ she continues. ‘As entrepreneurs, we had to rep-ort to the bank, clients, Inland Revenue. People who talk about independence like that have never run their own business.’
Her lengthy answer illustrates a couple of things. One, it is probably fair to conclude that negative feedback has stung Cooper. Two, she sets a great deal of store by being truthful. ‘Honesty is really important. Clients and colleagues have to believe you.’
Ginny Paton, MD of Henry’s House and JCPR alumnus, can testify to this: ‘She can be very straight-talking. But Jackie is an immensely talented communicator.’
There is an element of yin and yang about Cooper’s relationship with Phillips, her business partner of 20-odd years, whose temper is the stuff of PR folklore. ‘You don’t know whether to hug him or hit him,’ she sighs. ‘He’s incredibly smart, very driven, a mixture of unbelievable care and unbelievable impatience.’
But Cooper has always been the instinctive one. ‘I’m only really as good as my antennae,’ she says. ‘I need to see the colour of people’s eyes to understand where we have to score with them.’
She is refreshingly candid about where her weaknesses lie. ‘Detail,’ she says emphatically. ‘I’m erratic, my head’s full. Analysis is different, I love that. Taking in the information, I have patience for that. But on detail I’m not an asset.’
It is an interesting distinction and chimes with Paton’s view of Cooper’s skill in taking in information, ‘getting to the nub of it and making it understandable’.
Cooper has plenty of scope for that at Edelman, where she runs its much-trumpeted content business and a Bollywood consultancy – although she mostly leaves travel to other team members. Her two daughters, aged 12 and eight, remain ‘the most important thing of all’.
Nearly five years on from the deal, the JCPR brand will survive within Edelman, she insists. ‘And it might grow,’ she adds. ‘The JCPR methodology and thinking has positively affected Edelman’s business.’
This is not to say that everything is perfect at the company’s new Victoria Street HQ. ‘I’m not skipping through fields of butterflies, tra-la-la,’ she adds. ‘But you are either a person who wants different experiences or you are not. I want to progress.’
For all her achievements, Cooper is not as secure as one might expect. ‘I’m always vaguely taken aback by it all,’ she explains. ‘I don’t feel particularly successful.’
Heaven knows why.
Jackie Cooper’s turning points
What was your biggest career break?
Greenpeace made me love PR, renting office space off Max Clifford taught me important lessons, and meeting Robert gave me a business partner.
What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
Meet everyone once. My dad told me to talk to everybody, as you just never know where that will lead for the future. Always have humility and be courteous. In our business there’s sometimes an expected brashness or arrogance – but there’s a difference between aggression and strength. The best advice is to listen.
Have you had a notable mentor?
I’ve been blessed to know people who have been immensely supportive. I knew David Mansfield when he was chief executive of Capital Radio, and John Rowley, who was my first freelance client. My dad is very important to me, and I have a ferocious New Yorker as a mother who would kill me if I didn’t mention her.
What do you prize in new recruits?
Care, enthusiasm and interest: experience you can gain, but you need interest to pick up what’s going on.