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Holmes Report
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Perhaps more than any of its peers, MS&L has significant potential for organic growth.

Holmes Report


In November of 2009, MS&L parent Publicis Groupe made the decision to bring together all of its public relations holdings (including Publicis Consultants in France and other key European markets and JKL in the Nordic region) under a single brand. That decision gives MS&L critical mass internationally and will presumably put the firm in a better position to compete for big global assignments, but its impact in the U.S., was minimal, although a closer relationship between MS&L and corporate and financial specialist Kekst & Company could yield future dividends. For 2009, however, revenues were down by about 11 percent. The firm continues to work with major multimarket clients including Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Nestle, Citi, GM, sanofi Aventis, and Underwriters Laboratory. Significant wins included assignments from BP, Ciba-Vision, P&G’s oral care brands, Nestle’s Gerber business, Delta Faucets and DeVry—more than enough to make up for the loss of the Philips business that got the year off to such a rocky start.
MS&L Group has 750 employees in 14 offices in North America. The New York operation is the strongest, with $100 million in revenues between the MS&L and Kekst and Company offices; but the firm also has a substantial presence in Atlanta and California (offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco), although the strongest growth in 2009 came in some of the firm’s smaller markets, notably Boston, Chicago and Seattle. The firm also has 250 employees throughout Latin America, with twin hubs in Brazil and Argentina (MS&L ranks among the top five in each market) and a 19-year track record of coordinating campaigns in the region and a Canadian operation in Toronto.
The consolidation of Publicis Groupe’s PR operations took 24 brands and brought them together in a single entity that has more than 2,500 employees in 90 countries around the world. Perhaps more impressive, more than 50 clients work with the group in 10 countries or more. The new MSLGroup has more people (more than 900) and offices (32) in the EMEA region than it does anywhere else, but it remains to be seen how well the powerhouse Publicis Consultants operation in France will work alongside the MS&L/JKL network; until recently, there was a rivalry—and not always a friendly one—between the two operations. The strongest operations are in the holding company’s headquarters country, France, and in the Nordics, JKL maintains a dominant position in Sweden, as well as Brussels, where JKL and Publicis Consultants will be able to offer expanded public affairs and government communications capabilities. And MS&L now has 15 owned offices, supplemented by 23 affiliate markets, and more than 500 people in the Asia-Pacific region, numbers than remain slightly unbalanced by the firm’s disproportionate strength in the Indian market, where Hanmer MS&L remains a powerhouse. China is the firm’s second largest market in the region, with 50 people divided between Shanghai and Beijing. There are another 10 people in Hong Kong and Singapore, and offices in Tokyo and Korea.
MS&L’s historical strengths are in healthcare—it is almost certainly among the top five in the sector—and in consumer PR. In the latter category, it has particular strength (close to $20 million in revenues) in the food and nutrition category, supplemented in 2009 by the integration of the former Publicis PR business in Seattle, including its famous test kitchen, and in beauty (thanks to P&G). A growing area of expertise is corporate social responsibility, led out of Boston, but the firm is expanding its broader corporate practice too, with crisis, issues and change management work. The consolidation also means that MS&L now has improved access to the financial communications expertise of Kekst—still the market leader in M&A communications in North America—and to a far wider array of digital and experiential marketing capabilities. And while MS&L has never been particularly impressive in the public affairs realm, it now improved access to specialist firm Winner & Associates in addition to well-respected crisis and issues capabilities of The McGinn Group.
When chief executive Mark Hass left the agency in April of 2009, many observers looked at MS&L’s relatively young U.S. management team and assumed the firm would need to look to one of its competitors for a replacement. Instead, Publicis Groupe veteran Olivier Fleurot (whose experience spans media and marketing but not PR) took the helm as global CEO, while Jim Tsokanos continued as president of the Americas region. He is supported by a leadership team that includes HR, learning and development chief Rita Masini; growth officer Karlenne Trimble; innovation leader Bob Bejan (from creative agency PBJS); and regional leaders Renee Wilson, Dan McGinn, Neil Dhillion, Joe Carberry, Joel Curran, Rob Baskin, and in Canada Gayla Brock-Woodland. Dhillon will also lead the public affairs practice, while Jeanine O’Kean—who joined from Ogilvy—will lead healthcare; Peter Harris heads the corporate group; and Steve Bryant runs consumer.
The new MS&L Group will stand for insight and foresight (using research data to inform strategic programming), pioneering digital work, creativity (a storytelling approach designed to active a brand’s stakeholder relationships), and influence (targeting the opinion leaders and other prominent influencers). Much of the firm’s internal communications and professional development activity in recent months has focused on these values. One highlight was a Creativity Greenhouse, part of the firm’s MS&L Academy leadership and development curriculum. The Generation Activation initiative, meanwhile, targeted 20-something employees and encouraged them to pick a cause and get involved.
Much of MS&L’s thought leadership activity has focused on social media, including a survey—in partnership with PR Week—that looked at marketers’ use of social media and the value they placed on it, and partnerships with sister agencies including Razorfish, Digitas and VivaKi designed to integrate best practices in social media. The firm also continues to emphasize a range of proprietary tools including the real-time reputation tracking tool Reputation Now; Multiloguer, a database of global influencers that serves as a campaign management tool; and IM MS&L, a research-driven approach to influencer marketing. Finally, in the wake of the firm’s 2008 Global Values Study, MS&L continues to expand on its Social Activism Marketing methodology, blending CSR, cause marketing and digital channels to spawn social movements.
When GM declared bankruptcy early in the year, it looked like bad news for the automotive giant’s PR agencies, but MS&L helped the company manage the process and was there for its post-bailout re-launch. Other high-profile corporate work included litigation support for the Massachusetts Turnpike Toll Equity Trust and thought leadership development for biotech company Genzyme. In the CSR arena, the firm handled interesting assignments including a cause branding campaign for P&G’s Crest; the development of a global CSR platform for Pfizer; and North American CSR support for Sodexo. Other interesting work ranges from serving as sponsorship agency for the CMA Music Festival and CMA Awards to earning digital media coverage of Evian’s roller babies to providing thought leadership for Deutsche Bank’s climate change expertise to assisting Citi with its internal communications. The firm also won one of the inaugural Cannes PR Lions for its work on behalf of P&G’s Always and Tampax brands.
Having retired the Manning Selvage & Lee name and unveiled a new identity for the firm in 2008, the shift from MS&L to The MS&L Group was a relatively minor one, at least in North America, although many of the firm’s operations continue to operate under their own brands. Some of those brands—Kekst in the United States, Publicis Consultants in France, JKL in the Nordics—are very strong in their local markets, and will likely be retained, even as Fleurot and his leadership team continue to emphasize the umbrella brand. The challenge will be to give the brand a prominence in the marketplace commensurate with its size and scale (by our calculation, the merger created a top five global agency) and to make it stand for something new and different.
Perhaps more than any of its peers, MS&L has significant potential for organic growth. Relatively few of its clients are truly global in nature, because until the recent integration of MS&L, Publicis Consultants, and several other more focused firms it lacked the infrastructure of its better-established rivals. There’s even more opportunity within the Publicis Groupe, which has not always encouraged its ad agencies to call on the expertise of its PR firms—something Fleurot is already changing. But there could be acquisitions too, particularly in the public affairs, technology and digital arenas.
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