In its first year under the leadership of Fred Cook, GolinHarris sought to recast itself. Its mission statement emphasizes “long-term partnerships” (always a hallmark of the firm’s approach) and “bold thinking,” which is a newer emphasis. Golin has always enjoyed a reputation for creativity and client service, but it has not always been the most aggressive competitor in the marketplace. Now, there’s an emphasis on “winning” that permeates discussions with Cook and his leadership team, reflected in a series of new business successes—Amazon.com, Capital One, Jenny Craig, MBNA, Quest Diagnostics, Sony Ericsson, and Vivendi Universal—that compensated for the loss of the Visa business early in the year and the scaling back of the firm’s anti-tobacco programs for several states. At the same time, top tier clients (American Legacy Foundation, McDonald’s, Nintendo, Texas Instruments, Toyota and others) increased their spending significantly.
GolinHarris remains a (if not the) market leader in Chicago, where Scott Farrell succeeded Keith Burton as managing director, demonstrating the depth of talent in the office and freeing Burton to lead the new employee communications practice. The firm also remains 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 (now led by Gary Rudnick) have been performing well. The obvious problem is in New York, where the firm’s attempt to build a corporate and financial business were set back by the departure three years ago of Richard Wolff and where new leadership is needed if GH is ever to be a major player.
Historically, GolinHarris has been hindered in its attempts to expand internationally by the lack of support from a succession of parent organizations with other priorities. So despite having a presence in the U.K. market for the best part of 20 years, Golin is still more of a boutique than a powerhouse. The current U.K. firm is the result of a June 2003 merger between technology specialist The Weber Group and Golin’s existing U.K. operation, focused primarily on consumer. It’s a positioning new managing director Zoe Arden (who came from the Weber operation) believes she can leverage to give GH a unique status in the U.K. market, as a creative hot shop with access to global resources, taking advantage of the nimble, entrepreneurial culture and extensive operations in both the U.S. and Asia-Pacific, where the Hong Kong office is particularly formidable. By contrast, the Frankfurt office, led by Benedikt von Westphalen, specializes in corporate and financial communications, although it is building a consumer capability through its work on the Cotton Council International account. Expansion in 04 came from the opening of new offices in mainland China (Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai), Brussels, Paris, and Dubai.
The firm’s greatest strength is clearly its consumer capability, where it can match up with anyone in the industry and where long-standing relationships with McDonald’s, Nintendo, Toyota are now supplemented by fast-growing clients like Coors, Mattel, and Nestle. Golin doesn’t have a particularly strong name in healthcare, but two of its largest clients (Bristol-Myers Squibb and Ortho McNeil) are in the health sector, and its work on tobacco control issues gives it strong social marketing credentials. While corporate communications has not traditionally been one of Golin’s strengths, the new Insidedge employee communications group is among the best employee communications units in the country, and has been adding both staff (Allen Putman in New York, Rosabel Tao in L.A.) and clients (Dell, the FAA, and NASA) while working with other IPG clients such as American Airlines and Boston Scientific. Another new practice—called change—is focused on corporate social responsibility, drawing on the firm’s long history with the Ronald McDonald program. The public affairs group, under Lane Bailey, continues to grow in strength.
Founder Al Golin continues is still an active participant, taking on a roving ambassador role after the publication of his book (Trust or Consequences) a couple of years ago, and new president Fred Cook can draw on the experience of a strong leadership team that includes Ellen Ryan Mardiks and Keith Burton in Chicago; Lane Bailey in Washington; and Judy Johnson in L.A. New additions in 2004 included AOL veteran Alana Davis as senior VP in Washington; Samantha Sackin as SVP in L.A.; Rosabel Tao, who will lead the corporate practice in California; new Chicago SVP Craig Wood; and Steven McGuire, who will direct science and medical communications from Chicago.
GolinHarris has maintained its collegial culture through many changes, from its acquisition by Shandwick to its integration into Interpublic, and an international “Culture Club” panel meets regularly to make sure the unique work environment remains a source of competitive advantage. The firm has a comprehensive professional development program (more than 70 courses are offered to employees worldwide) and in the U.S. one of the strongest diversity initiatives of any agency, including outreach to the Black Public Relations Society and an internship program that encourages minority participation. The firm also boasts a major commitment to community service, working with Ronald McDonald House Charities, the Special Olympics and a host of local charities.
GolinHarris has created new branded practices focused on employee communications (Insidedge) and corporate social responsibility (change) and is clearly striving to establish a leadership positioning in each of these areas, with proprietary approaches that draw on the firm’s considerable experience. At the same time, a new measurement methodology, TLP (for Trust, Leadership, Preference) is being introduced, providing clients with an approach that evaluates each characteristic and benchmarks performance against relevant competitors.
Most of the firm’s high-profile assignments of 2004 were in the marketing realm: creating the Embrace Life Awards, celebrating women who have triumphed despite the loss of a spouse, for State Farm; introducing the first bank-issued American Express Card for MBNA; helping McDonald’s explain its commitment to balanced lifestyles; promoting sister company Jack Morton’s role at the 2004 Olympics. But the firm is increasingly being asked to handle critical corporate assignments too: helping NASA develop a single, focused message platform and communications strategy; developing a communications plan for the first 100 days of new Sprint CEO Gary Forsee; launching PacifiCare as a public company; aligning and mobilizing employees around a new business plan at Aventis.
One of two or three top-tier firms headquartered in the Midwest, GolinHarris has always enjoyed a strong reputation for client service and 2004 saw the introduction of a new approach to client-agency relationships. The firm’s CARE (Client Agency Relationship Enhancement) program brings in experienced consultants to provide relationship counseling, starting with an independent audit. The firm has also—like many of its peers—created a new client relationship management leader position to oversee key client relationships.
GolinHarris is one of a handful of firms with international reach, a client roster of big multinationals, but without the critical mass of its larger competitors, which means it can’t afford to try to be all things to all clients. The firm is hoping to distinguish itself on the basis of bold thinking and big ideas—a clear differentiation at a time when many clients have been conservative and risk-averse in their approach to PR and too many firms have been all too happy to oblige them with programs that match their lack of ambition.