Scott Wilson chats with us about pressure, passion and perspective

Role: UK CEO and Managing Director EMEA Organisation: Cohn and Wolfe, Scott Wilson was featured in the 2015 PR Week Global Power Book. As part of our #PRProSeries, Janie Emmerson, MD of Communications at Hanson Search, interviewed Scott to find out how he made it in the industry.

Why did you get into communications?

That’s an easy one. As a teenager, I was a dyed-in-the-wool wannabe journalist. It was all I’d ever wanted to do. After doing a History degree, I got on the first rung of the classic ladder through regional newspapers and was set to pursue a career in journalism to the bitter end. I think I got to the age of 26 or 27 when a friend of mine who was working at an agency (it was Countrywide Porter Novelli) invited me in to play the role of ‘the journalist’. Obviously as a working journalist you can get a very jaundiced view of what PRs are actually about. However, suddenly I was sitting around a table with a client (I believe it was the then Kraft Jacobs Suchard) and the CEO was looking at me, saying “Well, what do you think?”, and I thought “cracking!” I was working on Sunday newspapers at the time so had Mondays off, and the agency just kept on giving me work. I had a conversation with the MD back then and she said “you won’t be able to cope with the amount of work we can give you, so do you fancy changing to our side permanently.” 

To be honest I had never really given it much thought. Looking back, I’d love to say that I had this great foresight that print journalism was in terminal decline, but that was honestly not the case. It just gave me the opportunity to do freelance work and see what agency life was like. Journalism was a passion, but I’d started to have some concerns over things like the lack of creativity. That was a long time ago, and looking back, moving into PR was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made.

What personal attribute has most helped you succeed in your career?

Because of the relentless pressure of the job I’d like to think I have high emotional intelligence or a high EQ, though whether my team would agree with me is a separate point. I think it is important though; you have to stay very close to your team. Finding the right people – collaborative, forward thinkers, prepared to take risks – is absolutely essential. The talent that you bring into the business, particularly at the senior end, will make or break the business. Also important is the fact that I still love the work, as does Donna Imperato, the CEO of Cohn and Wolfe. We stay close to the clients, the work, the business, and I think that is not the case in every agency I’ve worked. That has always been the culture of this firm. Lastly, there’s always the element of being willing to gamble. I think that I’m a gambler at heart in some respects… we have over-invested in certain parts of the business, and it’s paying off.

Also important is the fact that I still love the work, as does Donna Imperato, the CEO of Cohn and Wolfe. We stay close to the clients, the work, the business, and I think that is not the case in every agency I’ve worked. That has always been the culture of this firm. Lastly, there’s always the element of being willing to gamble. I think that I’m a gambler at heart in some respects… we have over-invested in certain parts of the business, and it’s paying off.

What would you say has been the biggest challenge that you’ve overcome?

Professionally, I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve never really had a year where I’ve had a tough time with the numbers. The challenges in terms of work being gratifying, I think key is being able to come into a business and convince yourself you can do it; making that leap – that is the biggest challenge. Especially if the business is not in good shape. To make that kind of move you need to have the inner strength and conviction that you can do something in the right timeframe, and of course time is never on your side. It’s a heady mixture of excitement, fear and bravado. And finally, you convince yourself that you can do it. 

I also think that agency life generally – and I’m not just talking about people working at senior levels – is tough. Nobody really knows what will happen next. Our clients look to us, but equally have their own challenges and doubts. It’s a brilliant business to be in if you want that excitement and the constant new challenges but it is relentless.

In recent years, my single greatest challenge has been the impact of the personal on the professional. My daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2011 and it was obviously difficult to focus on the business, indeed to focus on anything else, when that is going on at home. Thankfully I was blessed with having an incredibly supportive boss and colleagues in the UK, Europe and across the world, and it is testimony to the entire team that the business has continued to thrive. Given all of this, I also think I have a different perspective about the job – it’s no less important to me but it is a different perspective and I’ve tried to use that as a positive in the way I work.

Who would you say has been the most inspiring person you’ve worked with?

There have been lots of people, but I would have to say Donna Imperato, C&W Global CEO. I say Donna because she’s the living embodiment of the fact that that you can retain the passion for the work and for the clients, and not become far removed from the day-to-day. Colin Byrne (CEO of Weber Shandwick) is another. He was a great example of durability and staying on top of your game. We don’t share a professional background in that he was always more public affairs than I was, but I think anyone who can run a machine like Weber Shandwick deserves great respect.

Right at the beginning, there was also Chris (Christine) Woodcock, a former MD at Porter Novelli. As an ex-journalist coming into an agency environment, Chris was essentially my mentor and we clicked. For whatever reason, she was prepared to give up her valuable time and teach me the fundamentals of public relations and client service. For that alone she was fantastic and one of the best practitioners I have ever worked with.

What is the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?

Right at the start of my agency career I remember being told by a PN colleague (it was Ray Eglington, now one of the owners of Four Communications) that, regardless of the situation and regardless of whether you’re an assistant account executive or the CEO, you should never forget that you’re a consultant. Also important is having a high quality threshold. You’re always under pressure – but ultimately, it’s about delivery beyond expectations. If you can do this consistently, you won’t go far wrong.

In ten years’ time, what do you think will be the biggest change in the global communications industry?

Ten years is a long time. Too long. I’m no soothsayer and sadly I don’t own a crystal ball. I think the fact that that question is so difficult to answer is probably because it’s challenging enough to plan for changes that will happen in the next 12, 24 or 36 months. One thing to think about is the broader industry debate about the value of the term PR. Ultimately, I think it depends on understanding someone else’s appreciation of the term as it takes you either into a world of digital and integrated marketing or down a road into ‘media relations’ which is increasingly a road to nowhere. Personally, I take the view that the word PR just doesn’t reflect the core of what we do, so that’s an issue.

What would you say are the three words that best describe you as a communicator?

‘Considered’. I’d like to say ‘Smart’. And ‘Resilient’.

Apart from your current role, what would be your dream role within communications?

That’s a toughie. I guess by the normal order of things, the next job up is either Donna’s job, or, outside C&W, a global CEO role. For now, I’m simply enjoying my current job which is ever changing and provides a great opportunity to continue learning. Thinking more widely, I’ve never worked in-house before, and whether that’s by accident or design, I really don’t know. It’s a tough question.


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Posted on 23.03.2016

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