Porter Novelli
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Porter Novelli

By far the smallest of Omnicom’s big three global public relations brands, Porter Novelli faces significant challenges if it is to continue competing for major national assignments.

Holmes Report


With some high profile client losses and subsequent layoffs (headcount was down by about 12 percent over the course of the year), Porter Novelli had a rough start to the downturn, and the year saw a double-digit decline in revenues. But chief executive Gary Stockman and chief financial officer Anthony Viceroy took decisive steps to control costs, closing a couple of smaller offices, and are confident that Porter will see a return to form in 2010. The firm continues to work with clients including HP (despite the loss of a chunk of business a year or so ago), Procter & Gamble, McDonald’s, Pepsi (some impressive digital work) and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. There was new business, meanwhile, from the American Lung Association, Bayer, Biogen, Petplan, Sharp, T-Mobile and Turner Broadcasting and at the end of 2009, the firm beat out several other majors to pick up the coveted Yahoo account.
Porter Novelli’s flagship New York office, led by Lisa Rosenberg, is a longtime leader in both consumer and healthcare communications. The Washington office—where Porter Novelli was founded—is home to a substantial social marketing and public sector capability, a midsize public affairs practice and a major hub for the firm’s creative work. The Chicago office has grown in stature in recent years, and the firm maintains a comprehensive presence in California, with offices in Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, offering technology, life sciences and public affairs expertise. There are smaller offices in Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Ft. Lauderdale, and Seattle, and north of the border in Montreal and Toronto. PN also has an extensive Latin American network.
In Europe, the firm lost business from three of its largest clients—BA, (which took its business in-house), HP (although the firm continues to do considerable work for the company) and Qualcomm—over the past 12 months, followed by EMEA region president Jean Wylie. It serves the region through a mix of wholly-owned offices and network members. The wholly-owned offices are in the U.K., where the firm has close to 100 people under new leadership following the return of Sally Ward; Brussels, where a team of 30 has historically focused on Belgian business but has developing EU and public affairs capabilities; the Netherlands; and Spain. Of the network offices, the most impressive include Farner Porter Novelli, the market leader in Switzerland. Through a mix of wholly-owned operations, strategic alliances and affiliates, Porter Novelli offers pretty comprehensive coverage of the Asia-Pacific region. India is arguably the strongest part of the Porter Novelli network in the region, with the PRactice Porter Novelli focused primarily on technology business. In China, Porter Novelli’s partnership with local marketing communications giant Shunya International is now in its third year, and the firm has operations in Taiwan and Hong Kong. In Japan, Focused Porter Novelli has 20 staff; in Korea, Korcom Porter Novelli has 20. In the southern Asia operation, there’s a team of 14 in Singapore, mostly focused on serving regional business, 55 people split between three offices in Australia, and another 23 in New Zealand.
Porter Novelli has a balanced portfolio of business across three strong practice areas: healthcare, technology and brand marketing. The latter—which includes depth in food and nutrition and fashion and beauty—was probably the fastest-growing in 2009, as more and more clients elevated the role of public relations in the marketing mix. The corporate practice has never been Porter’s strongest, and while the firm continues to do some interesting work in the corporate responsibility realm, 2009 was a difficult year for corporate work. The public affairs practice, meanwhile, is rebooting under new leadership, but has particular strength in healthcare regulatory issues. Porter also offers one of the top two or three social marketing practices in the country, serving an impressive portfolio of public sector clients. And digital and social media expertise is now integrated into campaigns across all practice areas.
There were some high-profile departures during 2009, including corporate practice leader Peter Hirsch (who left during a headline-making round of layoffs early in the year); public affairs chief Carolyn Tieger (who retired); and chief marketing officer Marian Salzman (who returned to EuroRSCG to head the U.S. public relations operation). All of that tended to overshadow the fact that the firm actually made some significant additions: healthcare public affairs expert Peter Pitts, who joined from MS&L; chief medical officer Barbara DeBuono, formerly of Pfizer; Kiki McLean, a veteran of several Democratic election campaigns, who replaced Tieger; social media experts Stephanie Agresta, Israel Mirsky, John Havens, and Joel Johnson; former P&G communications exec Michele Szynal who joined to lead the firm’s HP business; and Stephanie Koze, another MS&L veteran, who will head up the Shire Pharmaceuticals business. 
Despite the fact that 2009 was a difficult year, Porter Novelli made some significant investments in professional development through its Porter Novelli University program, with its focus on “growing leaders at all levels” of the firm. PN also sent 55 people from account executive level on up to private business school Babson for a two-and-a-half day course that combined Harvard Business School-style case studies with parent company Omnicom’s training program. And globally, the firm has been training people in its Compass methodology, and its “Big It Up” creativity process, and there has been a good deal of emphasis on digital and social media as well.
Over the past couple of years, Porter Novelli—led by director of strategic planning Michael Ramah—has invested significant resources in developing a proprietary insight-generation process (PNPoint) that is designed to combine “the power of immersion with the rigor of data” to deliver “intelligent influence” as part of the firm’s overarching Compass planning process. It’s an approach that helped the firm pick up the Yahoo business at the end of 2009 and helped to deliver a major brand insight for Monster. The firm has also formed a number of partnerships designed to expand its capabilities into new areas: with Crimson Hexagon, a start-up that measures online sentiment; Prime Research, a social media monitoring and measurement firm; and Team Epiphany, a multicultural event marketing firm.
Porter Novelli picked up a SABRE Award for its work on behalf of HP’s printer business, which focused on web-connected printing, and was also recognized for its work in the healthcare arena, helping Amgen and Pfizer educate consumers about psoriasis; on the consumer front with longtime client Gillette; for its digital work campaigning for votes on behalf the AOL “running man” during the presidential election; and in the financial communications realm for the launch of biotech company Oncogenek Pharmaceuticals. But the firm has done some of its most interesting work partnering with South by Southwest, a campaign that allows it to showcase its digital and social media capabilities and build relationships with leading digital influencers.
The negative buzz on Porter Novelli—which focused on high-profile client losses and layoffs in the first few months of the recession—has not abated, and the fact that the firm’s leadership has adopted a pretty low profile within the industry has not helped much. The result is lots of speculation about whether parent company Omnicom will seek to partner PN with one of its sister agencies, which has to be a distraction internally and an issue externally. As the firm starts to recover from the downturn, it will need to communicate more aggressively and differentiate itself more strongly to convince the market of its continued competitiveness.
By far the smallest of Omnicom’s big three global public relations brands, Porter Novelli faces significant challenges if it is to continue competing for major national assignments, and needs to expand and enhance its international operations if it is to be a serious global player. Before the recession hit, the firm seemed to be on the way to developing a clearly differentiated positioning; it needs to articulate that positioning more strongly, and to demonstrate that it is delivering against it.
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