How far can a career in Public Relations take you?

When I was starting out in PR, all those months ago, my (long) answer to the question “where do you see your career going?” would go something like this:

Well, I’d like to get my head, concentrate on adding value and creativity to all my accounts and become an account director in five years. Then I’d like to move client side and be the marketing/communications director for a large technology company, become a product marketing manager and work my way up the company to Chief Marketing Officer and possibly even a CEO.”

I was a naive and ambitious 23 when I started my first PR job.

I’m not sure why I chose that particular path, not sure why I chose big companies to incubate my career, not sure why I chose to go client side, not sure why I felt the need to change streams from PR to marketing and I’m not sure why I felt that being CMO or CEO was so important.

However, looking back, I think (if it ever works – and it’s a big if) I would’ve made the right choices, and here’s why.

Looking at the two major marketing conglomerates that I’ve worked for — IPG which owns Weber Shandwick and GolinHarris (my former employer) and Omnicom which owns Fleishman-Hillard and iStudio (my current employer) — there’s almost no way that an account person can rise through the ranks from AAE through to CEO.

Holding Companies

IPG’s CEO is Michael L Roth, the former Chairman and CEO of The MONY Group Inc., a financial services holding company that provides a wide range of protection, asset accumulation and retail brokerage products and services through its member companies (from his corporate bio). In other words, a money man.

Omnicom’s CEO is John D Wren, an Arthur Andersen alum, of which very little is known (=I can’t find anything interesting on the first page of Google). He is also a money man.

In other words, they aren’t, and never have been, account staff. (I apologise in advance is either of these assertions are untrue.)

PR Agencies

By contrast, Weber Shandwick’s CEO is Harris Diamond, a former lawyer and account man himself. Fleishman-Hillard’s CEO is Dave Senay who has been with the company for 22 years and still services accounts.

Clearly, if you want to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 marketing agency, PR is not the starting place. Talent, drive and ambition not withstanding.

How come? Is it even possible to move from a PR agency, such as FH, up into the holding company, such as Omnicom? Do PR people lack the skills and/or capabilities to run a billion dollar publically traded company? If so, is there some sort of course I can take? Do I need to start using my middle initial more often?

Answers, as always in the comments.


6 Responses to How far can a career in Public Relations take you?

  1. Kyle says:

    Ed, interesting question. As someone who also worked under the Omnicom umbrella (Porter Novelli) and has managed agencies from the client side (Schwartz & Blanc/Otus) I’ve often wondered how the heads of those agencies and their holding companies reached their positions.

    Over time and after meeting some of these people I’ve come to the belief that it is truly a stratification in both skill-sets and preference. The holding company is there b/c it gives more value to their investors. We all know how hard it is to grow by a large percentage in this market over time, therefore to build true investor value you must accumulate other agencies, but avoid trying to mesh them together (for cultural reasons as well as competitive reasons).

    Leadership at a holding company must be able to manage large properties, work in a macro-level view with economic trends, and understand the overall impact of accounting methods on the business. They are, and should be (?), pseudo-investment bankers.

    At least for me that is not what I like to do, nor what I am good at and I would wager that the leadership at the holding company wouldn’t want to run the actual agencies that they ‘own’. But that does not leave me barren for management opportunities within the actual PR/Comms world….I hope 😉

    Enjoy the blog, keep it up.


  2. scottymac says:


    This is coming from a PR student……I too am “naive, ambitious”, and I’m only 22.

    That being said, it seems that most CEO’s would have a background in accounting or finance. Similar to Kyle’s point…..You have to know how the numbers work, because when it comes right down to it, isn’t that what it’s all about?

    Also, based on what I’ve heard, it seems that PR is still struggling (in some organizations) just to get a seat at the senior management table, making the road to the top even more difficult. Although, I’d like to think the holding company of a PR agency might look at things differently.

  3. Alan Chumley says:

    Interesting question. No simple answer.

    Historically, for better or worse, narry have the communicator with, largely, a social science sort of background and the business savvy type met in one person. (Huge over generalization acknowledged :)).

    Hey, let’s be real. You don’t go to PR school to be a CEO any more than you’d go to an agricultural school to be a dentist. Even the worst high school guidance counsellors would tell you that.

    For entirely too long (thinking way, way back here), though this has changed markedly and recently, a communicator with a business background (education, professional or just some savvy) was neither necessary nor encouraged.

    Encouragingly, however, that’s changing and I think that’s why we’re seeing graduate level programs intent on combining the two emerging: McMaster’s Master’s in Communications Mangement and the MBA in PR from Royal Roads.

    So, perhaps someday we may see the AE role lead to the holding companies.

    But, Kyle’s point is spot on. Is the CEO of a holding company what most communicators want to do? Or would heading up a communications firm (the boundaries/services of which are widening anyway as the traditional lines ‘tween communications disciplines erode) let you have a foot in both the business management and what it was that drew you (and others) to the PR industry originally?

  4. Isn’t communications what most CEOs should be doing if their company is to maximise its potential? Sure, you need to understand finance to count the beans and understand the legal and other perspectives involved in strategic management, but being able to build relationships with all the key constituencies is just as vital these days.

    I sat next to a finance guy on a flight back from Bulgaria yesterday who told me that he didn’t understand PR, but knew how valuable reputation was to his company and the need to ensure they had the best counsel on managing it. So why not have those skills at the top of the organisation?

    Communicators aren’t just mediators and I believe standard MBAs include reputation management and PR within their syllabus rather than creating separate communications qualifications at that level.

    Understanding law, finance and all the other aspects of how an organisation operates is as much about communications – working with words and numbers, people and problems. Come on guys, you can aim that high surely? Wouldn’t you be better than a bean-counter or legal eagle who has no ability to communicate?

  5. Ed Lee says:

    As always, a great discussion. I’m reminded of Shel Holtz’s words (lifted from here)

    “I once met the CEO of a Fortune 100 company who told me that the acronym stands for the wrong thing; it SHOULD stand for “Customers, Employees, Owners.” He said his primary job was representing the organization to these audiences. If he was good at that, investment, sales, and employee engagement would follow. And, just to make sure I understood what he was saying, he added, “That means communicating with these three audiences is the most important part of my job,” finishing off by noting that he had people reporting to him to handle the day-to-day, tactical work.”

    Communication, both internally and externally, is one of the most important things an organization can do. Why shouldn’t a business leader with their roots in PR be the one to lead it?


  6. Matt says:

    Thank you for posing this question. And especially for tracking the paths of the higher ups at IPG, etc. – I’ve often thought the same myself, i.e.: how do I get there?

    A March 26 LTE published in PRWeek, titled “PR pros must act as businesspeople first” addressed this question from a slightly different angle. I’m not sure you can link to it, because PRWeek is subscription-only, but you might find it helpful.

    Basically, the LTE stated that PR is what it is, PR – not necessarily the skill set needed to get to the C-suite.

    So here’s the next question I hope you’ll pose, for those of us with PR experience who are seeking the C-suite: what’s the next step?

    Do we go to business school and get our MBAs, and if so, how do we make our PR experience a selling point to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the MBA pack?

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