Diana Marszalek 16 Nov 2023 // 3:27PM GMT
After 15 years with Edelman, Jim O’Leary stepped down from his role as US COO and corporate affairs chair in January to join Weber Shandwick as the agency’s new North America CEO as part of a larger restructuring of senior leadership. In the time since, O’Leary has doubled down on his goal of making Weber Shandwick, PRovoke Media’s 2023 Global Agency of the Year, the No. 1 firm in North America. Doing that has included honing strategy and making key hires including two Edelman vets — Jordan Rittenberry and Sheila Mulligan to lead Weber Shandwick West and Central Region respectively — and senior advisors including Ashley Etienne, a comms strategist who has worked with presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. In an interview with PRovoke Media, O’Leary discussed his vision for Weber Shandwick and plans for becoming the top firm in North America. An edited transcript:
How did you come up to speed running an operation as large as Weber Shandwick North America?
During my first 100 days, I did the proverbial listening tour. I went to a dozen offices give or take. I met with clients in all those places. And I what I learned was exactly what you would expect from a company that works for half of the Fortune 500 and 40% of the Fortune most admired list.
I found exceptional talent, really supportive people, super-impressive client work — from the Barbie work, to the all the stuff we’re doing with Ancestry, Norfolk Southern on reputational crisis, and any number of things in between. And then the culture here is an amazing culture. It’s just a very human culture. It lives up to the hype.
Now that you’ve done that, what’s the plan?
Our ambition is to be number one North America. And the plan focuses on three strategic growth pillars.
The first one is about what we are seeing in corporate affairs. I would argue that the role of corporate affairs is more important than it’s ever been. The corporate affairs function is going through a massive change. So corporate affairs is a space where we are doubling down. And what I mean is the broad definition of corporate affairs — reputation, sustainability, public affairs, crisis & issues, capital markets and all the suite of services.
Second is health. I am blown away by the scale and sophistication of our health business here. We represent 2/3 of all major pharmaceutical companies. We recently won the Pfizer business. Our strategy on the health side is to build on the success of pharma and then diversify into emerging growth areas — corporate health, public health, health policy and health equity.
Third is what we are well-known for, our brand business. Our brand business is going to be making some continued growth focused on influencers and social given the market opportunity there.
We are in midst of transforming the business and I would say that our goal is to continue accelerating growth as you would expect. The business is building on a position of strength. Business is growing in solid single digits, and we expect even more robust growth next fiscal.
What exactly is that transformation?
It comes down to elevating top talent from within and bringing talent from elsewhere to strengthen the North American leadership team. We have talent that we have elevated from within such as Michael Wehman, who is our New York president, and some top talent from outside the firm. Those two combined have allowed us to reimagine our leadership team in North America. In addition to that we are honing areas including strategy and analytics, which is a key aspect of our transformation.
We also have an incredible track record this year of wins resulting from our transformation — things like Dollar Shave Club and the CDC in the public health space. We are also from a transformation perspective building capability that is driving growth. We have a partnership with S&P Global that leverages AI to link reputational activity to shareholder outcomes. On the corporate side we use Blackbird.AI to help combat misinformation and disinformation. We even use AI in our creative work.
Where are the openings for further expansion?
The challenges our clients face are actually opportunities for us and it’s a matter of capturing the opportunity. A lot of CEOs are relying on corporate affairs as issues increase. All this means corporate affairs leaders have jobs that are arguably harder — and that creates opportunity for us.
Health has been a major growth driver for our business over the last few years, throughout Covid and also in the wake of the pandemic. We anticipate this growth will accelerate in 2024 as we continue to scale our industry-leading pharma portfolio and expand even more into corporate health, health tech, health policy and public health.
Among top clients, we have a 98% retention rate, and average tenure of our relationships is 15 years. Our turnover rate is significantly lower than the industry average. Obviously, that is a reflection of our culture here.
You’ve hired Edelman colleagues. Tell us about that.
I am bringing in top talent from all over the industry in addition to elevating top talent from within.
Where do you see Weber Shandwick being a year from now?
Our work that we do here is really strong. We do it for some of the world’s leading companies around some of the most complex most issues. When you add those to together what you ultimately will see is great work with more clients, work that delivers business impact and creates value.