Cohn & Wolfe UK CEO Scott Wilson on moving from journalism into PR
21st October 2015
I was never a precocious child. Piano lessons were cast aside in favour of kicking a ball around the park. But I’d always wanted to be a journalist. And, at 13, I fetched up in rural North Oxfordshire being paid to write. It was the early 1980s and I took on the role of “village correspondent” at the Banbury Guardian. There was no hungrier newshound tramping those village streets. Paid 2p a line, the smell of news-print was in the blood. If I’d not arrived, I wasn’t looking back.
Fast-forward through the hazy days of university, a history degree and New Model Army, and journalism found itself an enthusiastic new recruit. First, as cub reporter on the now defunct Banbury (Northampton) Herald & Post. Then two years as an indentured trainee on the broadsheet Reading Chronicle. Emboldened with NCTJ qualifications and a shorthand notebook in my bag, the next stop was the bright lights of Birmingham and the Post & Mail. Here, any lingering aspirations to be the next John Pilger were firmly extinguished. Cajoled and hectored by a succession of gnarled but brilliant news hacks, I was tutored in the craft – forget art – of news and feature writing. It was working on the Sunday Mercury – still one of the UK’s few regional Sundays – that foundations for a future career in PR were also firmly laid. For when there is no news agenda to follow, there is no greater creative discipline than being forced to devour trade magazines, the small ads and obscure bulletins in search of a story. It became a religion and we do it for clients today. And every day.
I never decided to move into PR. Too many flawed telephone encounters with sweet-sounding young Home Counties PROs told for that. If anything, PR found me or, to be totally accurate, PR agency Countrywide Porter Novelli found a vaguely presentable young reporter it was prepared to stick in front of clients for media and crisis training. I had entered a new world with an entirely new lexicon. Strategy, stakeholders, consumers and pitches. In the blink of an eye, I’d signed on the dotted line and kissed the journalism dream goodbye.
Since then I’ve been incredibly lucky. Four fabulous years in corporate communications at Porter Novelli mentored by some truly brilliant and patient practitioners, and then an offer from the inimitable Sally Ward to join her at agency Weber Shandwick. Always a smooth talker, Sally offered me a promotion to director; guaranteed fun and excitement. Only in consumer not corporate. I took the bait and, thankfully, was never found out! Weber Shandwick was a brilliant firm, brimful of talent and experience. It’s also unashamedly a fantastic PR business and it was here, initially as director, then MD of the UK consumer practice, that I learnt to love the business of PR. Building a team, hiring the right talent, delivering great work, and building rock-solid client relationships. Exhausting but never dull, it was frenetic, fulfilling and fun.
Roll forward to 2010 and after eight years at Weber Shandwick, I needed a fresh challenge. A train set to call my own. Cohn & Wolfe had always been an agency I had admired but, back in 2010, its UK operation had been facing difficulties. Like me, the agency needed a new start. In some ways we were made for each other. Five years on, and Lady Luck has stayed faithful. Cohn & Wolfe UK has doubled in size and this year will deliver its fifth successive year of double-digit growth. But numbers of course are effect, not cause. The agency has transformed, along with its client base and quality of work. Cohn & Wolfe London has moved through the divisions and is now competing – for talent and leading brands – in the highest echelons of the industry. Reputation always lags performance but the market is now catching up. Our work is putting C&W London on the map and even former C&W alumni have taken note. I know because they tell me.