"I'm going back to school in two weeks," said Mr. Phillips, 58, noting that he'll be attending Burson-Marsteller University, or BMU, to learn about his new company, a major arm of Young & Rubicam.
Not that he needs schooling in operating in the top levels of management-Mr. Phillips was chairman-CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide until 1992, spending 28 years with the company. Since leaving O&M, Mr. Phillips has been a management and marketing consultant in Santa Barbara, Calif.
He was a student there as well. Already a licensed pilot, Mr. Phillips wanted to add a multiengine instrument rating. "So I did that," he said, "and I also became an aerobatic pilot in that time period and flew competitions six times a year."
He even had a business called Biplanes West, running rides up and down the beach.
ON Y&R BOARD
Mr. Phillips also has been named to the Y&R board and is a member of the Burson-Marsteller operating committee. As chairman, he succeeds Harold Burson, who becomes founding chairman.
Mr. Phillips has been charged with devoting much of his energy at Burson to something called perception management.
"My vision of the public relations business was that it was a sort of ad hoc type of organization," Mr. Phillips said. "Tom [Bell, president-CEO of Burson-Marsteller] feels company reputations should be managed just like a brand, that it should be more of a pro-active stance as opposed to crisis management. I think [perception management] makes sense, and it could reposition the public relations business."
Mr. Phillips feels there's potential for growth and change in the PR industry as a whole.
"My perception is that the industry has been floundering for a number of years," he said. "I think it needs to be contemporized and brought up to date. We have the potential to reinvigorate the business."
'WORLD-CLASS BRAND EXPERT'
Mr. Bell said Mr. Phillips is a perfect chairman for Burson.
"I think Graham, by reputation, is one of the best marketing executives in the world," Mr. Bell said. "To have a world-class marketing and brand expert is a nice complement to my background, which is corporation communications and public affairs."
"His major focus will be external, with our key client relationships around the world, so that we can create more value for our clients-and to help us develop new relationships," Mr. Bell added.
Mr. Phillips said perception management is crucial to corporate strategy for all Burson clients.
"However hard these corporations try to run a flawless operation, there are always going to be errors," he noted. "But if you have a strong, credible reputation and you've managed that well, then I think the chances of damage are far reduced whenever these errors take place, and they inevitably do."
Mr. Phillips feels his ad agency background will serve him well.
"O&M spent 28 years teaching me to think strategically. That's what David Ogilvy was all about," Mr. Phillips said, adding that his "biggest challenge [at Burson] is to get the message out, to get to the people who have the power and authority."