Arun Sudhaman 15 Jun 2021 // 9:03AM GMT
Robert Phillips, who spent almost a decade at Edelman after co-founding iconic UK PR firm JCPR, played an irrepressible role in shaping the UK's 21st century public relations discipline. He died on Sunday 13 June at the age of 57, after a three-year battle with cancer.
Phillips was a passionate, generous and immensely funny individual — in many respects one of a kind — who rarely failed to make a profound impression on the people he came into contact with. And, during a 35-year career across the upper echelons of the UK PR industry, there were many, many people that Phillips touched. All of whom he could debate, challenge and occasionally infuriate, always with a glint in an eye that was just as focused on elevating the very notion of what public relations might stand for.
Phillips' PR career, perhaps befitting his boundless energy, began before he had even finished studying. He founded John Phillips Associates during his final year at the University of London, to which he transferred after falling foul of college authorities at Oxford due to apparent involvement in militant SDP activities. His father had passed away suddenly at the age of 51, and Phillips — as he put it in a 2007 PRWeek profile — found he had "some Italians on my doorstep asking for help with a bridal range they were bringing into the UK. And that’s how I became a PR man."
Within six months, a 23-year-old Phillips had met Jackie Cooper, forging a business relationship that would play a key role in defining the UK's emerging consumer PR scene. JCPR was described by PRWeek as “the seminal consumer brands consultancy of the Nineties and Noughties”, with two of its campaigns in particular — for Wonderbra and PlayStation — achieving iconic status as UK consultancies set global standards for the consumer PR sector.
In the process Phillips developed a reputation for being brilliant, sensitive and intensely hard-working. Those qualities do not always combine to endearing effect, but in Phillips' case they were tempered by a mischievous sense of fun ("the condom has split" he once told a former colleague of mine regarding an aborted Durex pitch) and a generous, honest outlook on life.
Unsurprisingly, they also helped propel JCPR to the attention of Richard Edelman, at a time when American PR networks were eagerly acquiring the cream of London's consumer PR scene. "But we haven't even kissed yet," was how Phillips enjoyed recounting his version of the initial conversation. Undeterred, Edelman bought JCPR in 2004.
It took three, sometimes bumpy, years for JCPR to be fully integrated into Edelman's fold, at which point Phillips was named UK CEO of the combined business. At a stroke, the merger gave him a canvas upon which he could truly bring to life the big ideas and themes that had come to dominate his thinking regarding the future of public relations.
In tandem with his EMEA boss David Brain, Phillips emerged as one of the key players in Edelman's remarkable transformation into the industry’s most disruptive and consistently successful force. Edelman's smart new Victoria office became a hotbed for some of the PR world's brightest talents, while the Trust Barometer was propelled into the stratosphere as far as thought leadership was concerned.
In particular, Phillips' restless intellect, described as "towering" by Brain, ensured that there was no comfort zone at Edelman. That applied not just to process and practices but, crucially, to the strategic end of the equation too. Phillips was adamant that such concerns were as relevant for consumer PR work as they were for issues management counsel; the rise of a new generation of UK consumer firms would ultimately prove him right.
Phillips also passionately believed that public relations could be a force for good. When naked climate change protestors descended on Edelman's London office in 2011, Phillips attempted to invite them in for a conversation, before realising that they probably needed to first be clothed. In 2009, he organised the first diversity and inclusion event this writer ever attended, at a time when such ideas were barely considered fringe in the UK.
And, at the height of News Corp's phone-hacking scandal in 2012, Edelman was called in to provide PR counsel, with Phillips advising, as ever, that full transparency offered the best hope of salvaging the beleaguered media company's battered reputation.
Through it all shone the fundamental belief that dialogue, ideas and debate could solve the most intractable problems. Phillips may have been an incurable optimist, but it was an infectious antidote to the weary, spin-laden cynicism that often pervaded agency corridors.
Ultimately, that attitude — combined with a feisty manner that rarely suffered fools, nor the bureaucracy they might entail — would meet its match when confronted with the operating practices and models of a globally networked PR agency. In early 2011 Phillips was finally installed as Edelman EMEA CEO following a lengthy search for Brain's successor. By late 2012 he had resigned, after taking on a global role prior to a restructuring of EMEA operations.
At the time, Phillips claimed there was "no hidden agenda", but his post-Edelman career revealed considerable disenchantment with the global PR agency industry. He formed boutique consultancy Jericho Chambers with George Pitcher in 2013 as an antidote to these ills, focusing his energies on building coalitions across business, government and civil society on subjects ranging from responsible tax to the future of work, adult social care and transport, infrastructure and housing.
To little surprise, Phillips did not exactly slow down after leaving Edelman. In addition to his new business, he also joined PRovoke Media as the inaugural co-host of our Echo Chamber podcast when it launched in 2013, proving to be a sage, indispensable ally during interviews with such figures as Harold Burson and Lord Chadlington. He became a visiting professor at Cass Business School and advised a range of businesses and organizations.
In 2015, Phillips published 'Trust Me, PR is Dead', a book that furthered his distance from the mainstream agency industry. Tellingly, the book turned out to be less of an assault on the industry than a romp through its author's mind, by turns funny, outspoken and restlessly intelligent. Perhaps it was impossible for Phillips to truly disavow the PR world, not least because of the numerous people he influenced, many of whom flourished as a direct result of his trust and leadership.
Three years ago, Phillips was diagnosed with advanced cancer. He faced the disease with his customary enthusiasm and belligerence, defying a diagnosis that initially gave him only weeks to live. He returned to our podcast later that year to discuss the tumultuous political era, providing a timely reminder of his exceptional PR acumen.
Phillips is survived by his wife Venetia and children Gabriel and Gideon. They have asked for stories, anecdotes and tales of wonder/defiance to be shared at [email protected].