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Holmes Report

Generalist best known for its brand-building work

Rick French, 919-832-6300, Raleigh


In the 70s, Pittsburgh-based Ketchum blazed a trial for firms with their roots in smaller public relations markets, opening an office in New York and eventually establishing itself as one of the best PR firms in the nation. In the 80s, Fleishman-Hillard, headquartered in St. Louis, followed suit. It’s a little early to be including French/West/Vaughan in such exalted company, but the Raleigh-based agency has grown in less than a decade to become one of the largest independent PR firms based outside a major market, with fees of close to $11 million; it has attracted a client list that includes blue-chip names such as Wrangler, Jack Daniels, Ford and American Honda—which presumably could get big city agencies to jump through hoops to land their business—and now it has the beginnings of a New York presence.

                Having parted company with Joanna Cumberland—now back out on her own—the firm made two acquisitions in New York: Jody Donohue Associates, a nearly 30-year old firm best known for its work with premium lifestyle brands such as Givenchy, Ferragamo, Almay, the Italian Trade Commission, and Swatch; and BurtonLuch, a 20-year-old agency noted for its international work in the luxury home category for clients such as Bosch, Thermador, Armstrong, Sony, Marimekko, Pierre Deux and 3M.

                Rick French launched what was then Richard French & Associates in April of 1997, with a focus on brand-building public relations. But it quickly grew to offer a broader range of services. While consumer product marketing still accounts for more than half the PR fees, the firm has a substantial healthcare practice ($2 million in fees) and clients in business-to-business, corporate communications, and public affairs. The latter businesses are small but significant, indicating the firm’s burgeoning expertise in corporate governance to investor relations and crisis communications planning and preparedness.

                The firm has been successful at growing existing client relationships. Several of its larger clients—Wrangler, Ford, the International Gemological Institute, SunTrust Bank, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, Cardinal Health, Brick Southeast, Speedo and Brinker’s—have been with it for five years or more. But it’s also a formidable new business force, with wins over the past 12 months including VF Corporation, which named FWV its corporate agency of record; Coca-Cola, for the Nestea brands and project work for several other non-cola products; Diageo, for the Bulleit Bourbon brand; HCA, for project work; Pfizer, for a Medicare public education campaign targeting seniors; and Berkshire Hathaway, for its Justin Boots owned-brand.

                FWV has also stepped up its commitment to people. A university-style continuing education program features courses taught monthly by a combination of the agency’s senior executives and outside speakers, and several of the firm’s middle managers have formed a “Culture Club,” responsible for ensuring the agency’s culture is maintained despite its rapid growth. The firm also has a long history of giving back to the community, allowing employees to nominate organizations they would like us to support financially and with pro-bono agency services. And CEO French has been active in the industry at a national level, and at a local level was a vocal supporter of “sunshine” regulation to close loopholes in the state’s lobbying laws.

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