HONG KONG — Edelman is aiming to return to growth in Asia-Pacific via a series of senior appointments that constitute a new leadership strategy under CEO Stephen Kehoe, who took charge of the region 15 months ago.

Speaking exclusively to PRovoke, Kehoe outlined why he hopes nine senior appointments will usher in a "new breed of thinkers" that can help the world's largest PR firm recover after declining by more than 10% during the first half of this year.

Kehoe was named Edelman Asia-Pacific in mid-2019 to reverse a regional slump which has seen revenue settle at around $105m during the past couple of years, before Covid-19 hit. But he noted that the firm is "11-12%" ahead of its Q3 forecast, giving him confidence that the newly-strengthened leadership team can deliver a return to growth by the second half of 2021. 

"I can't say the recovery has happened, but it's looking strong," said Kehoe. "We are back hiring against the growth areas of the organization. I don't want to get overly confident but it gives us a glimmer of hope."

Central to those hopes are a series of regional leadership appointments, that begin with Australia CEO Michelle Hutton joining the Asia-Pacific executive committee as regional vice-chair.

"It is a senior leadership position that focuses specifically on how we better integrate our services between creative, strategy, digital, data and analytics across the board, which is the counterbalance to the big PR business in Asia," said Kehoe. "The second piece is to focus on culture and people. Michelle has been one of those leaders who has called us to task when needed, to deal with the mental strain."

The new role sees Hutton work alongside longterm Asia-Pacific COO Bob Grove, who will continue to oversee the firm's client servicing and operations. Kehoe noted that the regional Asia-Pacific leadership team had become "lean", reflecting a series of senior departures that included senior executives Rupen Desai, Jonathan Hargreaves and Iain Twine, as Edelman streamlined its global practice oversight

In addition, Edelman Asia-Pacific has brought back two senior executives from the US, with Will Collie returning to Australia and Sanjay Nair moving back to China. Collie, who was previously GM of Southern California, becomes vice chair and head of client growth, while Nair retains his global technology chair role and adds oversight of the firm's Asia-Pacific sectors. 

Hutton, Collie and Nair join three other appointments that were previously revealed by PRovoke: Yvonne Koh to lead regional corporate; Matt Collette to oversee digital; and, Kellogg veteran Rebecca Boustead to lead food and beverage. 

In addition, Kehoe named former NBCUniversal talent development director Jasmine Bahen as chief talent officer for Asia-Pacific earlier this year, and is also actively recruiting an executive to oversee strategy in the region. 

Kehoe believes the new appointments will underpin a more agile approach to working across Edelman's regional network. "I'm surrounding myself with a really strong set of practitioners, sectors specialists, client specialists — who represent that new breed of thinkers who want to think without borders as we tackle client issues," he said. "Asia-Pacific is a region which is the complete opposite of homogenous in many ways.

"It can be quite a challenge to find people who operate with this 'no borders' principle," he added. "The pandemic has probably accelerated our focus, and has lent itself to a much more agile way of working. What it gave me the encouragement to do is figure out what kind of leaders we needed for the future."

In terms of geographic leadership, there has been less change under Kehoe, although the firm has replaced its country heads in Japan and Taiwan. Kehoe also believes Edelman is well placed to overcome the challenges it has faced in the critical markets of China and India.  

"In China, we are seeing the strongest pipeline we have seen for a year, right now," he said, referring to the returning confidence of China's corporate sector, along with demand for public affairs services because of geopolitical trade issues. 

After previously entrusting regional leadership to advertising veteran Jesse Lin, Kehoe's own background in corporate affairs may prove better suited to the times in which we live, given the resilience of that side of the business amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

"No doubt, corporate and advisory services have been up," he said, while also noting an upturn in terms of employee engagement, trust advisory and the healthcare and F&B sectors.

In terms of new business, furthermore, Kehoe pointed to assignments for Heineken in China; the Wonderful Company in India; the Singapore Tourism Board; Sunkist in Hong Kong; HPE; and, the Singapore Prison Service.  

Those campaigns, said Kehoe, provided evidence of the firm's broader global strategy to navigate the "middle ground between PR and advertising", particularly as advertising budgets come under sustained pressure in 2020.

"Our traditional clients are now recognising the opportunity to position themselves as a real partner to marketing," said Kehoe. "This was the exception that proved the rule a year ago; it's now become a trend. CCOs recognise that through the power of earned storytelling they can bring real results and as a result tap into bigger budgets. 

"We've certainly seen advertising budgets go down," he added. "In the meantime, [clients] are curious about the power of earned storytelling. It feels more authentic, but it places a greater onus on us in the PR industry to figure out new and better ways to tell stories that capture imagination. We've got to take the case for that to marketing clients within our portfolios — part of doing that is working with CCOs to help them see what success looks like."