There was a time when BSMG Worldwide parent True North regarded public relations as a second-class citizen, and its Bozell and Robinson Lake Lerer brands languished, but that era is clearly over. With TN’s support, BSMG has established itself as a major player on both the U.S. and world stages in the past five years, and 2000 continued that trend as the agency grew by close to 35 percent—20 percent organic growth—to hit $180 million in worldwide revenues. New business has included several projects that are shared with other TN companies (Archer Daniels Midland, the Wood Products Council, SC Johnson) as well as many pitched and won solo: Ocean Spray and Marriott International in the marketing realm; the Council for Biotechnology Information for public affairs; technology leader Hewlett-Packard; General Nutrition and Bristol-Myers Squibb in healthcare; and Walt Disney’s Internet group.
New York and Chicago have continued to enjoy healthy growth, but it’s the Washington, D.C., office that has been leading the way as far as growth is concerned, despite the departure of Carter Eskew to join the Gore campaign. In his absence, Rennie Cooper and Lance Morgan have added to the public affairs and issues management business. The Dallas office, meanwhile, has been developing into a formidable player, with $7 million in revenues, strength in consumer marketing and technology, and a cyber PR and visual communications expertise that has become a resource for the entire agency. With the west coast offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco coming into their own too, BSMG is a lot closer to being able to offer consistency across the U.S.
BSMG now has wholly-owned offices in 16 European cities, as well as four key markets in Asia, and while it doesn’t yet have the coverage of a Burson-Marsteller or a Hill & Knowlton it’s beginning to look like a top-tier player in major markets. The U.K. in particular is impressive, with the former Charles Barker (consumer and corporate), GJW (public affairs) and most recently Square Mile (IR) combining to provide a strong full-service capability. Brussels is another strength. And with the acquisition of Scotchbook Communications in Hong Kong, the firm now has a presence in major Asian markets. The agency has begun to share work internationally, although the traffic is mostly one-way as U.S. accounts such as H-P and Arm & Hammer call on BSMG’s overseas resources.
The acquisition of The Financial Relations Board two years ago established BSMG as the leader among the major agencies in the investor relations field, complementing the firm’s heritage in public affairs, issues management and corporate reputation management. But BSMG has also been developing a reputation for the quality of its creative work, in the consumer marketing arena, for clients such as Dunkin’ Donuts, MilkPEP, and Oscar Meyer, in the business-to-business sphere, where clients include Ingersoll-Rand and Unisys, and now also in youth marketing with the introduction to the U.S. of a new specialist unit, Slam. The healthcare group continues to grow, and the appointment of new global healthcare leader Laura Schoen should add further momentum, while the technology practice, including the former Benjamin Group, serves a blue-chip client roster including Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, and Toshiba.
Under the leadership of Harris Diamond and Jack Leslie, there has been remarkable continuity at the top of the organization, with veterans such as Andy Polansky and Barbara Molotsky growing into expanded roles, and a new generation including Gail Heimann, Rene Mack and Sheri Benjamin adding depth. New hires have included Laura Schoen, brought in from Euro RSCG to head global healthcare, Len Biegel, a veteran of the Washington, D.C., market who adds a new dimension to the crisis management practice; Mitch Stoller, formerly of Shepardson Stern & Kaminsky; and Howard Opinsky, formerly press secretary in the McCain campaign.
When BSMG acquired The Benjamin Group three years ago, management expressed hope that it could learn from the smaller firm’s unique workplace culture, developed in response to the difficulty of recruiting and retaining top talent in the hyper-competitive Silicon Valley market. At the time, BSMG was a laggard when it came to both professional development and work-life initiatives—including a program it calls Body, Soul, Mind, which reimburses employees for physical fitness, cultural, and charitable activities—but there are indications that the agency is changing: its U.K. operations were honored by Parenting magazine, and in the U.S. the firm has introduced a host of initiatives: tuition reimbursement, career counseling, mentoring and reverse mentoring, exchange programs.
KRC Research, which has its roots in the political campaign arena, has expanded beyond that niche and now offers expertise in branding, the new economy, and reaching diverse audiences. It has become particularly adept at helping clients use research to deal with a rapidly changing external environment, tapping the perceptions of internal and external audiences to discover disconnects and points of commonality. Meanwhile, the creative group is developing new products designed to enhance its offering, including I3 (Ideas to the Third Power) and research studies into global corporate citizenship and lifestage data. Where the agency has been most successful, however, is in applying a political campaign approach to marketing communications.
BSMG’s most eye-catching work has come in the public affairs arena, where it is involved in some of the most pressing issues of the day: the tobacco settlement, through its ongoing assignment with Philip Morris; antitrust issues, through its expanding Microsoft relationship; and healthcare costs, through its image building campaign for PhRMA; genetically-modified foods, through its work with the Council for Biotechnology Information. The latter project illustrates the resources BSMG can bring to bear. The firm began with research, developed a tested messages, created a nationwide information program, and continues to monitor the issue, applying its political campaign approach to a major public affairs issue, while supplementing PR with an educational website and issues advertising. BSMG also handled crisis work for Bayer, Wal-Mart and Royal Caribbean, while in the corporate reputation arena the firm works with General Electric, still America’s most respected company.
If there’s a tiny cloud in the otherwise blue skies of BSMG’s transformation, it’s the fact that brand remains less potent than the offering. The decision to eliminate the Bozell and Robinson Lake Lerer & Montgomery names can’t be faulted, since the former was lackluster to say the least and the latter had all departed to start new ventures, but the BSMG moniker remains unfamiliar to many clients—the agency is not nearly as familiar as its size suggests it should be.
BSMG has forced itself into the top tier of agencies with some strategic acquisitions and some impressive work, but its future depends on what True North wants to do next. The most likely scenario is a sale, either to a European agency (Publicis owns 9 percent, Havas is interested) or to one of the U.S. giants such as Interpublic. Any such deal would either allow BSMG to combine with another existing operation or at the very least provide cash for more rapid expansion. As long as the current leadership team is intact, the future looks bright.