While the Asia-Pacific region recovered more rapidly from the ravages of the global economic crisis than other parts of the world, no other firm returned to growth as quickly or an impressively as Fleishman-Hillard, which saw regional revenues rise by about 30 percent in 2010, fuelled by the addition of two new offices (Jakarta and Bangalore) and a new practice (adding the Vox Global Public Affairs brand to its Tokyo office). The year got off to a strong start when FH (along with other Omnicom agencies) picked up a global assignment from Royal Philips Electronics that drew on the resources of 10 offices in the Asia-Pacific region for corporate, consumer and healthcare support. Other new business highlights included a pan-regional assignment for JPMorgan, an integrated campaign for the Australian Coal Association, work for Deutsche Bank on Korea and for Fujitsu and Sony in Japan, and a major issues management project for Abbott in China. With close to 350 people across the region and a client list that includes Asian giants such as Huawei and Tata as well as western multinationals Emerson, P&G, AT&T, Motorola and British Airways, the firm is now close to the pack of better-established agencies (Burson, Edelman, H&K, Weber Shandwick) challenging for the number two spot in Asia.
From a single start-up office in Beijing in 1994, Fleishman-Hillard has expanded steadily across the Asia-Pacific region, constructing one of the strongest and most far-reaching networks in the region. It made acquisitions in Singapore and Hong Kong in the late 90s, as well as opening offices in Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Tokyo. Over the past 10 years it has added offices in Sydney and Melbourne (2001), Seoul (2002), Guangzhou (2003), Mumbai (2007), Delhi (2009) and in 2010 added new offices in Jakarta and Bangalore—as well as an affiliate agreement with leading Brisbane-based agency Rowland. The firm now has a formidable footprint in China, with 100 people across its three offices; continues to be the leader among western firms in Japan, where its branded operations are supplemented by Blue Current and now Vox, and has been expanding its presence in Australia, while the Tokyo, Seoul and Singapore offices in particular recorded an outstanding year in 2010.
Fleishman-Hillard is one of the largest public relations firms in North America, where it has fee income in the $300-350 million range, about 60 percent of its worldwide revenue, and it also has more offices throughout the US than any of its competitors. There’s strength in every part of the country: the central region includes the headquarters office in St. Louis, a major Kansas City operation, and strong teams in Chicago and the Twin Cities; the mid-Atlantic features a strong Washington, DC presence; the East includes New York and Boston; the West includes a powerful presence in both LA and San Francisco; the Southwest continues to offer formidable competition in Texas; and in Canada, the firm has a network of five offices that may be the best branded operation run by one of the US-based multinationals. The European business, meanwhile, has continued to grow. The UK operations are its largest in the region, with about 125 people and strength across all major practice areas, but Fleishman also has an increasingly formidable presence in the region’s two other key markets: in Germany, it has consolidated its Frankfurt, Berlin and Munich offices under a single leadership structure; while in Brussels there are close to 50 under the leadership of Caroline Wunnerlich. FH is also among the market leaders in some secondary markets, including Ireland and South Africa.
Traditionally, technology has been the largest part of Fleishman-Hillard’s business in Asia, but the past few years have seen the emergence of a better balanced portfolio, with corporate and consumer making a larger contribution. Like most firms, FH saw its digital offering grow considerably in 2010, with revenues doubling and key clients including P&G, Mercedes-Benz, Bristol Myers-Squibb and Huawei. The firm enjoyed strong double-digit growth in corporate reputation management, with employee communications and litigation communications making particularly notable contributions. There was growth in key sectors such as healthcare (up by 70 percent) and technology (40 percent) as well as in the retail arena. The public affairs practice was another impressive performer in 2010, with the launch of the Vox Global brand (already a five-office network in the US) in Tokyo, and high-profile work in Korea (around the G20 Summit) and for clients such as Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Saudi Aramco.
One key to Fleishman’s impressive performance over the past few years—with the exception of 2009, the firm has been averaging 25 percent growth since 2007—is the strength and stability of the regional leadership team. Lynne Anne Davis was named regional president a decade ago, and has guided FH from challenger to champion. She is supported by a team that includes COO Peter Ng, managing director of client service Joanne Wong, managing director of reputation management Beth Boswell, managing director of digital integration Napoleon Biggs, and a formidable line-up of general managers including Li Hong (president of China), Shin Tanaka (Japan), Rachel Catanach (Hong Kong), Walter Jennings (Australia) and Tarun Deo (who runs Southeast Asia and India).
The tenure of the senior leadership (an average of seven years with FH) is a reflection of a deeper culture that has improved employee retention—even in the notoriously difficult China market—in recent years. One key is the firm’s impressive professional development budget (three percent of regional revenues), which funds a curriculum that offers a senior level Leadership Institute for Managers (with a Harvard-style case study approach to strategic management); a Digital Academy that ensures new media skills are infused throughout the agency; a wide range of professional development activities under the FH University banner, with a “Train to Fly Higher” theme.
While many firms have been talking about the opportunity that emerging Asian companies present to multinational PR firms, Fleishman-Hillard decided to go one step further, conducting research into “The New Asia Champions” that was presented an the World Economic Forum meeting in Dailan early in the year. The research examined perceptions of Asian companies and the communications challenges they face as they seek to build both brand and reputation capital in global markets. The firm also unveiled its latest Digital Influence Index, expanded to include the Chinese and Japanese markets, looking at the role digital channels play in forming opinions and building trust.
One of Fleishman-Hillard’s biggest regional campaigns saw the firm provide support for the Seoul G20 Business Summit Organizing Committee, managing the participation of close to 600 media from around the world and generating more than 4,000 pieces of coverage in Korea alone. The firm was also retained by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government to revitalize its Brand Hong Kong campaign, an effort that saw increased awareness and favorability in key global markets. In China, the firm supported TCL to maximize the value of its sponsorship of the Asian Games, and in Hong Kong the firm continued to generate excitement for client Melco Crown Entertainment’s City of Dreams, promoting its latest extravaganza, The House of Dancing Water.
One of the criticisms levelled at Fleishman-Hillard in its home market is that it takes a relatively low-key approach to marketing itself. That’s not a charge that can be made in Asia, where Davis has worked tirelessly to make sure that FH has a share of voice at least as strong as its market position. That’s reflected in a number of awards for the firm’s work in Japan, Hong Kong, Korea and Malaysia last year. Biggs, the agency’s digital guru, has been particularly visible at conferences discussing word-of-mouth and social media, and global CEO Dave Senay is a frequent visitor to the region, maximizing his presence with high-profiles speeches and media interviews.
The past five years have seen Fleishman-Hillard gain ground on the market leaders in the Asia-Pacific, and the firm is now a credible competitor for any major pan-regional assignment (as well as for global assignments requiring a significant Asian footprint). The firm has moved to address its weakness in India, opening three offices in three years, and while its operation in the sub-continent is still relatively small, it has enjoyed success at the high-value consulting end of the business. The next priority presumably involves a presence in Thailand and Vietnam, and building out some strategic capabilities (its Communications Consulting Worldwide offer and the Vox brand) into other major markets.