Starting from a relatively small base—it still has fewer than 100 people across Europe—GolinHarris has made impressive progress over the past 12 months, putting in place the infrastructure it needs to grow in Europe and adding talent, while picking up enough new business to suggest that it could be a threat to its longer-established competitors sometime soon. Major new assignments came from SCJohnson (in Brussels, the U.K., and France); the Federal Centre for Health Education, Continental AG and Rentenbank in Germany; WPX, Dr. Foster, Creative Brief and IVIS in the U.K.; and Revlon and Hyundai in the Arab world.
GolinHarris has been in Europe for more than 20 years, since its acquisition of consumer public relations powerhouse Welbeck. But lack of investment by a succession of parent companies has been a constant problem, and it’s only over the past two or three years that firm has begun to build out a genuine European network. This time last year, Golin had two European offices: the U.K., about 35 people devoted largely to tech, business-to-business, and consumer tech; and Germany, where a team of about 15 specializes in corporate and financial communications. But over the past 12 months it has opened in France, Spain and Brussels, and added a Middle Eastern operation of 15 people, headquartered in Dubai with a small office in Jeddah. Obviously, the firm does not have the critical mass in EMEA of most of its rivals, but it appears to be committed to turning itself into a serious competitor.
In the U.S., GolinHarris remains the market leader in Chicago, and is among the strongest national firms in L.A., where two anchor accounts—Nintendo and Toyota—are located. The Washington office has been growing in strength, and the Texas operations have been performing well. The obvious weakness is in New York, where the recent appointment of Jennifer Cohan as managing director gives reason for optimism. In the Asia-Pacific region, the Hong Kong office is particularly formidable and there are three new offices in mainland China (Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai).
In the U.K., technology accounts for about 60 percent of the firm’s business, although its practice structure includes specialists in business and technology (with sub-specialties in media and analyst relations); consumer (where a portfolio of consumer tech clients is being supplemented by a growing number of mainstream consumer brands); creative industries (led by Kara Day and working with professional service firms in advertising and related disciplines); and most recently employee communications, through the firm’s InsidEdge unit. In Germany, the firm is strongest in financial and corporate communications, with a strong specialization in IPO support and annual report design, while the Brussels office is focused (naturally) on public affairs. Tech is still clearly the backbone of the Golin offer in Europe, but the firm will look to build out all these practices across Europe over the next few years.
The European leadership team at GolinHarris is almost entirely new. Zoë Arden, who leads the U.K. office, joined a couple of years ago from sister company Weber Shandwick; Sophie Ravier started the Paris operation just a year ago; Sam Rowe, who heads the even newer Brussels office, also joined from Weber Shandwick. Benedikt von Westphalen, who runs the firm’s German operations, is the lone veteran: the firm for which has worked for 15 years was acquired in 2000. Other key additions over the past 12 months include Denise Doran, formerly of Weber Shandwick, Edelman and Eli Lilly, as consumer director in the U.K., replacing the departed Leigh-ann Wilson.
“People are our priority,” is the first of Golin’s six values. The firm implemented an extensive professional development programme last year, offering more than 70 courses on topics ranging from negotiation techniques to account management to strategic thinking to new business pitching. Golin has also been aggressively promoting its exchange programme (with two exchanges between London and the Chicago headquarters), and offers a six-week sabbatical to employees with more than five years with the firm. There’s also a community service initiative that goes beyond donations, encouraging employees to get involved in issues they care about: examples range from anti-bullying campaigns to forest protection.
Innovation will be a key to Golin’s ability to compete with much larger firms in Europe, and it has been developing leadership initiatives in two areas. The first is the company’s “change” unit, which specializes in corporate citizenship and cause branding, and has been working with Oracle to promote the company’s involvement in education issues, sponsoring an annual Maths Marathon and helping managing director Ian Smith secure a spot on the British government’s task force on education. The other is employee communications, a developing strength in the U.S. under Keith Burton, which recently expanded into Europe, where Chantal Bowman leads the InsidEdge practice.
For global client SCJohnson, GolinHarris has been working across Europe, managing issues and reaching out to political, media, and industry stakeholders to ensure the company’s voice is heard in policy debates affecting its business. Another global account is the Florida Department of Citrus, and again Golin has been active in Europe, bringing together 40 journalists from across France, for example, to learn about the benefits of Florida grapefruit. The Paris office also handled the introduction of the Olympus m:robe camera/MP3 player. The German office, meanwhile, has managed an ongoing brand-building campaign for Cotton USA, designed to take market share from Egyptian cotton and is working with Continental Tires to leverage the company’s sponsorship of the 2006 World Cup. In the Middle East, the firm has been working with Revlon, with a programme built around the “Arabian sultry look.” And in the U.K., highlights include creating the Remix Cube music festival to introduce Olympus to young, hip consumers; marketed designer fire safety equipment for Kidde; and helped BA World Cargo be named Cargo Airline of the Year for the first time in almost 20 years.
Given its size and track record in Europe, the GolinHarris brand is not nearly as strong here as most of its multinational peers, while in the U.S. the firm is still recognized primarily for its work in the consumer sector. So there’s a lot of work to be done. But Golin was active in awards competitions last year, earning recognition from the SABREs (for Clark’s Shoes, Kidde, and Jack Morton) and from the U.K.’s PR Week awards (Jack Morton) and PRCA Frontline awards (Morton and Hitachi).
GolinHarris chief executive Fred Cook appears to have given the firm a competitive edge many felt it lacked, and the newfound aggression is evident on this side of the Atlantic too, as GH expands its European network with new offices and a broader range of offerings. The most significant European accounts—SCJohnson is one example—still seem to be U.S. exports, but the firm is clearly building the infrastructure to compete without the assistance of the U.S. parent. It still lacks the critical mass and track record of its larger peers, but another couple of years like the last one and it will be a force to be reckoned with.