It takes some guts to be in your early-30s and uproot yourself to
the other side of the world, especially when you’re a single mother with
no work contacts in your new country. Ogilvy PR Worldwide’s new UK
managing director Donna Zurcher refers to her decision in 1987 to swap
South Africa for her native UK as ’either brave or stupid’, but
acknowledges that it was a defining moment in her career.
Zurcher will be calling on her reserves of self-reliance in the coming
months. Charged with raising the fortunes of an agency whose income
dropped 18 per cent in 1997, she has joined at a crucial time.
In the 18 months since Bob Seltzer was brought in as the agency’s
president and chief executive, Ogilvy PR Worldwide has been in the first
stages of a European resurgence. The agency has always been strong in
the US and Asia but has traditionally not been a cohesive force in
Europe, with its largest office in London lacking the critical mass to
Seltzer’s appointment of former Burson-Marsteller UK MD Paul Philpotts
last March, and now Zurcher’s entrance, mean that the management set-up
is complete. Seltzer is keen that the European division of the agency,
with London taking a pivotal role, exploits its capability for handling
global pieces of business such as existing client IBM.
Zurcher is a wise choice for this role, being no stranger to crossing
cultures. Her childhood years were spent in a variety of African
countries, trailing after her hotelier father.
Within a few years of moving to South Africa with her family when she
was 18, Zurcher married an actor and had a son. The rest of her family
gradually returned to England, but she chose to stay.
She was a late convert to the world of PR. After her marriage ended she
began working for South African retailing group Trueworth, rising to
become manager of a large clothes store. A friend suggested she put her
organisational skills to use in PR, prompting her to scour the phonebook
for agencies, securing interviews with the three she rang on spec.
Zurcher ended up staying for eight years at her first agency, Concept
Communications, which later merged with TWS, progressing to the role of
director by the time she left South Africa. Her departure from her
adopted country was hastened, she says, by ’the escalating violence of
the place. I found that the politics were strangling me’.
But arriving in London in 1987, having left her son Jason at school in
South Africa, was ’tough’. She spent a year at Keene PR, then switched
to Good Relations shortly after Tim - now Lord - Bell bought it from
Tony Good. ’Because there was so much change happening within the agency
at the time, I learnt a lot about management,’ she says.
Former colleagues refer to the quality of her management skills. Howard
de Souza, director of Bell Pottinger Good Relations, believes that,
unlike many managers in agencies, her own self-confidence means she is
not threatened by ’young pups’. De Souza, who reported to Zurcher when
she was at Good Relations, also attributes her self-assurance to the
fact that ’nothing fazes her’. Zurcher thinks it was the constant
uprooting when she was younger that bred her independent character, but
admits to a bossy streak.
’I do like to take control.’
She has only been at Ogilvy for a week - all of it spent fighting the
effects of flu - but is already clear what her priorities are. ’Staff,
first. I’m a great believer in training people, giving them a decent
wage and encouraging them to stay with us.’
Attracting new clients, both international and domestic, is also a key
mission. Zurcher’s role as a client in her most recent job at US
interactive media broadcaster National Media Corporation means she has a
fresh perspective on this. ’We have to make sure that we are the kind of
people that clients like picking the phone up to speak to,’ she
1987: Managing director, Watson Lane and Keene
1990: Managing director, Lowe Bell Good Relations
1994: Vice-president global communications, National Media
1999: UK managing director, Ogilvy PR Worldwide.