In the early years of his career, Tim Sutton reckons he resembled a ‘talented but rather languid midfielder’ who drifts from match to match, doing just enough to get by.
If that analogy really is true then today, 25 years later, it is tempting to paint Sutton as a successful big club manager who has transferred to sunnier climes in search of a more relaxing lifestyle.
Except it would not be true. His Hong Kong move certainly means Sutton sees more sunshine than he did during his London years. But the 50-year-old is quick to point out that any perceptions of Asia as a PR backwater have been well and truly laid to rest during his 18 months in the region, overseeing the Interpublic Group CMG division that includes Weber Shandwick and GolinHarris.
‘The reality is that for most of the major PR companies, revenues from Asia remain fairly modest in proportion to size,’ admits Sutton. ‘You ask why you are going from a large business to one that is far smaller. However, when you look at what is happening now in India and China, at the Asian brands that are taking on the world, at the smartness of some of the work that is going on in digital, you soon change that perspective.’
Sutton’s departure from the UK, after a long and eventful career, raised few eyebrows. ‘It was a brilliant move for him and Weber Shandwick,’ says Edelman Europe CEO David Brain, who worked with Sutton at Paragon Communications in the 80s. ‘He had done the Europe job for a while and he is genuinely curious about the world.’
This can probably be traced back to Sutton’s own rather cosmopolitan heritage, including a childhood spent partly in
India, and a Greek lineage in which he takes obvious pride. It is the kind of multicultural outlook that should help him manage affairs across the bewildering diversity that characterises Asia-Pacific.
Still, for all his evident charm, it would be risky to simply classify Sutton as a superior diplomat. ‘He is probably one of the cleverest people I have worked with,’ says Four Communications international MD Ray Eglington, who worked for Sutton at Charles Barker Associates. ‘But he would leave his brilliance to the last minute on many occasions.’
Sutton has been around the block enough times to have witnessed some of the industry’s defining debates over the past 30 years, and remains fiercely principled. A telling anecdote has him sacking his entire team one Friday afternoon at Charles Barker for decamping to the pub, before common sense prevailed over the weekend.
Even if that episode is a one-off, it illustrates a management style that has helped him oversee some of the industry’s biggest hitters: Colin Byrne, Nan Williams, Alun James, Jackie Brock-Doyle.
It also demonstrates a passion for work that, by 2007, needed rekindling. ‘I was beginning to go through the motions. I wasn’t scared enough,’ he says. ‘I knew very little about Asia and was suitably terrified. If you think you’ve got a reputation in one part of the world, it counts for nothing over there.’
Temasek Holdings, the Singapore government-owned investment company, is one of Weber Shandwick’s key clients. It provides a good example of Asia’s global-thinking trend, with its expanding interests outside Asia. For Sutton, Temasek’s growth reflects an increasing pluralism that can only benefit savvy communicators. ‘Because of that, you are beginning to see the growth of practices such as public affairs and corporate issues.’
The relentless pace of growth in Asia brings its own challenges, not least in terms of talent, where turnover at agencies can be quite brutal. Sutton is trying to address this by rolling out an internal talent programme at Weber Shandwick.
‘Anyone who has been in the business as long as me could bore you with how long it took in those days to learn and get promoted,’ he says. ‘So we are trying to raise the bar and be more long-term and responsible in how we develop that.’
Sutton admits he has had to temper his natural impatience to better operate in a region where it does not always pay to be too forthright. But it seems clear the Englishman is revelling in his new role. He seizes on another sporting analogy to explain just how he can effectively oversee so many agencies across so many markets.
‘I am a bit like one of those ageing tennis players,’ he jokes. ‘I don’t quite have the running legs that I used to but I have a highly developed sense of where the ball is coming and where to hit it next.’
Tim Sutton’s turning points
What was your first career break?
The first was joining Paragon Communications in 1985. I suddenly realised that having talent without heart and commitment was actually a waste of time. My other lucky break was a wonderful client I had for ten years – Sir Michael Bishop at British Midland. I learned far more from Michael than he ever learned from me.
What advice would you give people climbing the career ladder?
If you are unsure about whether your current job is right for you, either increase your commitment by 100 per cent, or leave. Don’t sit half-heartedly on the fence.
Who was your most notable mentor?
I owe an awful lot to Michael Hingston, chairman and founder of Paragon Communications. Michael taught me that tireless striving for excellence is always its own reward. And that mediocrity is corrosive.
What do you prize most in new recruits?
High intelligence because you just can’t fake it. And, paradoxically, a healthy amount of self-doubt as to whether they are intelligent enough.
2007 Chairman, Weber Shandwick Asia-Pacific, CMG Asia-Pacific
2004 Chairman, Weber Shandwick Europe, CMG Europe
2002 Director, Orpheus Group
1997 CEO, BSMG Europe
1995 CEO, Charles Barker
1991 Head of corporate, Charles Barker
1985 Account executive, Paragon Communications