After seven hectic years at the heart of one of the UK's highest profile and best-loved brands, Flic Howard-Allen might be forgiven for wanting to take things a little easy.
She left the frantic intensity of her role as Marks & Spencer's director of comms to return to Hill & Knowlton in June, but any suggestion that she is looking to slow down will be laughable to anyone who meets her. Doing anything by halves is simply not in her nature.
Howard-Allen, 49, had a material role in the turnaround of the once creaking high street institution M&S under its CEOs Luc Vandevelde and Stuart Rose.
'M&S is one of the small number of companies on which everybody has a view,' she says. 'I did not turn my phone off for seven years, including holidays.'
She is attempting to unplug herself from her mobile a little more these days, but concedes it is not yet going to plan: 'I tried to turn it off last night, but panicked and couldn't do it.'
Howard-Allen is as stylishly dressed and comfortable in front of a camera as her history in fashion PR would suggest. A relaxed professionalism pervades her conversation. She rarely strays off-message, hinting at the focus, drive and steely determination that has enabled her to flourish among some of the industry's biggest hitters.
She describes her approach to life and work as one of 'relentless dissatisfaction'. 'Great job last time, now how can we do that better?' she explains.
It is a characteristic recognised by Clair Forster, head of corporate comms at M&S: 'Flic is always driving for improvement and challenging people to go one better. She is a great role model and ensures that no-one is able to rest their laurels.'
Paul Myners, financial services secretary at HM Treasury and former chairman of M&S, says her key strengths go above and beyond the attributes usually associated with comms professionals. 'Flic has an extraordinary ability to operate strategically and command respect of senior business people,' he says.
Her time at M&S was characterised by her close working relationship with Rose. Her office was two doors down from the 'inspirational, albeit extremely tough' Rose, who imparted to her some of the most valuable advice of her career: 'If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck - it probably is a duck, so just get on with it.'
It is also clear she is resolutely unflappable. She claims to have not read Rose's comments this year dismissing the idea that there remains a glass ceiling for women in business. She effortlessly bats the question away. 'It's tough for anybody at the top, male or female,' she says.
Now outside the 'emotional' world of M&S, she talks of spending more time with her three teenage sons and obtaining a successful work/life balance.
But she rejects outright the suggestion that moving back to the agency at which she spent 13 years before leaving for M&S is a backwards step.
Becoming head of client services at H&K sees her take up a 'minister without portfolio' role, according to Richard Millar, H&K's UK CEO. She will effectively be the agency's gun for hire - unattached to a group and able to aid any part that feels it can benefit from her expertise.
'This role enables me to work across a huge variety of clients at a level I have never had the opportunity to do before. This is a move onwards for me, not back.'
Sally Costerton, chairman and CEO EMEA at H&K, describes her as the 'ultimate cross-discipline communicator', and it is notable that Howard-Allen has refused to be pigeonholed as purely a retail specialist. 'To be a director of comms you need to be able to navigate your way across all the disciplines or you will not survive for very long,' she notes. At M&S she was responsible for PR across the retail products range, but also financial media relations, personal finance products, internal comms and public affairs.
She was also behind M&S' Plan A - now making a profit - and rejects the idea the recession should cause re-evaluation of CSR: 'If companies are using less, consuming less and recycling, they will save money.' To her, CSR is a central plank of modern business strategy - she plans to do pro-bono work in the sustainability sector.
As one of the industry's most respected communicators, Howard-Allen is unlikely to rest on her laurels. She talks passionately about the challenges ahead and it appears inevitable they will be faced with the same zeal that has raised her stock to its current lofty level.
In fact, the only thing that might be taking it a little easier is her exhausted mobile phone battery.
FLIC HOWARD-ALLEN'S TURNING POINTS
- What was your biggest career break?
Becoming a graduate trainee at Charles Barker. It was a fantastic opportunity to really understand the business in a systematic and measured way, rather than picking it up on the fly.
- Have you had a notable mentor?
I have been incredibly lucky to work with some amazing people at H&K, such as Karen Moyse, Marie Louise Windeler and Sally Costerton. And equally amazing people at M&S such as Stuart Rose, Paul Myners, Steve Sharp, Justin King, David Norgrove and non-executives such as Jeremy Darroch, Steven Holliday and Martha Lane Fox. What a privilege to work with people of that calibre.
- What advice would you give someone climbing the PR career ladder?
Work with the best people you can. Work hard and learn as much as possible.
- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?
Intellectual rigour, the ability to work hard and operate successfully in a team. People who work in teams are capable of amazing things. I do not believe any one individual can do it by themselves.
Tell PRWeek about your career turning point at prweek.com.
2009: Client services director, Hill & Knowlton
2002: Director of comms, Marks & Spencer
1988: Joined Hill & Knowlton as an account director, left as MD of its corporate division
1984: Assistant to account manager, Charles Barker
1983: PR assistant, WHSmith