Interview with Mark Hass: New MS&L CEO Hass mulls agency's goals for future

Armed with a competitive spirit and media relations savvy, Mark Hass plans to grow MS&L as he replaces the venerable Lou Capozzi as CEO. Here he talks to Keith O'Brien

Armed with a competitive spirit and media relations savvy, Mark Hass plans to grow MS&L as he replaces the venerable Lou Capozzi as CEO. Here he talks to Keith O'Brien

O'Brien: Did you think you would be running MS&L three years after the agency acquired Hass Associates?

Hass: Not at all. I'm not the kind of guy who has a game plan that goes that far. I wasn't even thinking of being acquired. I met Lou Capozzi, and we got along really well. I made the decision, almost instinctively, that this was a guy I'd like to work for.

O'Brien: Your agency's parent company, Publicis Groupe, recently created umbrella organization Publicis Public Relations & Corporate Communications Group (PRCC). Your predecessor as CEO, Lou Capozzi, was tapped to run it. How does the PRCC benefit MS&L?

Hass: It creates a structure for us to consolidate the PR functions. As we begin this process of consolidating and realigning, MS&L is a disproportionate beneficiary of that [consolidation]. Another opportunity is it raises the profile of MS&L within the group. There will be more opportunities to work with Saatchi, Leo Burnett, and Publicis Worldwide. In fact, we have become the go-to PR resource whenever those agencies need [PR] at the table.

[Publicis Groupe chairman and CEO] Maurice Levy is very committed to PR. When he talks about holistic communications, he really means it. I believe the creation of this organization, PRCC, is evidence of that.

O'Brien: What role does MS&L play in the holistic model of the parent company? Are clients demanding a holistic approach?

Hass: Clients are certainly demanding it. Every big consumer company recognizes that the space between traditional advertising - the 30- or 15-second spot - and traditional media relations is a vast one. Those companies need to figure out effective strategies to play in that middle. The way to do it is by taking what Maurice calls a holistic approach. If you have a marketing opportunity or problem, you put the marketing disciplines around a table and form a collective to determine how best to solve the problem or take advantage of the opportunity, rather than beginning with an advertising or PR focus.

O'Brien: Is MS&L proactive with holistic marketing?

Hass: We participate in that way with our big clients, even when the advertising partner isn't a Publicis Groupe partner. When I'm talking to a client that is about to organize or [brainstorm] a strategy, I look for a way to recommend putting agencies together. Does [that] always happen? No, but I think every big opportunity comes from the perspective where you ask, "How can we work as a larger group to solve the client problem?"

O'Brien: MS&L inherited a lot of international offices. How integrated are they into the corporate structure?

Hass: I returned from Europe a couple of weeks ago. One of the questions I ask [on the road] is what they think the MS&L culture is. Another is, "If there is one thing you wouldn't want me to change about MS&L, what would it be?" The answers I'm getting worldwide are very similar. They talk about the collaborative spirit in the agency and the eagerness to work across the boundaries of individual offices. When I ask [employees] about [our global structure], they say they feel like they're part of the organization and they have colleagues everywhere.

O'Brien: How do you feel your time spent in the Midwest will influence your new global role?

Hass: I never thought of myself as a Midwesterner. I grew up in New York, and now I'm coming back. I followed a newspaper career around the country, and it happened to end in Detroit. I spent a lot of time overseas; I spent months in Germany while on the transition team for Chrysler when they were acquired by Daimler-Benz. I felt like I brought a global view to Detroit. There is a way of doing things in the Midwest. There's a fundamental commitment to hard work and getting the work done in a practical way. I think it's part of the manufacturing and engineering culture of the region.

O'Brien: Are there any immediate plans for expansion this year?

Hass: I'm hoping that PRCC creates those opportunities for us. There is going to be a lot of consolidation that happens around [PRCC]. And there is an appetite for acquisitions as a result of this organization. I'm spending the first four months of my tenure as CEO actively listening. I'm in "receive" mode, instead of "broadcast" mode.

The goal is for this agency to be twice as large as it is in three to five years. You need to either grow or shrink; you can't stay the size you are. The other goal is for MS&L to be regarded as among the top five global agencies, not only for [potential] clients, when they're thinking about who to put their businesses out to, but for professionals, when they're thinking of where they want to work. I want [MS&L] to be on everyone's top-five list.

There is a set of values I ascribe to that leads to those goals. I [pursue] a very strong commitment to clients - I submerse myself in their businesses. I have a commitment to winning new business. I'm a very competitive guy. I have a commitment to innovation. I was an early adopter of the internet. A lot of my early success in the PR business was built around that early recognition of how the internet was going to change the way we communicate.

And innovation is not only the use of technology, but also ideas from other disciplines that could influence the way we do business. The fourth core value ... is that the way you win in anything is to play the right way. You have to be transparent as the leader, you have to be open and collaborative and get respect from your people.

O'Brien: With that growth, are you targeting any new sectors?

Hass: The biggest opportunity for this agency is to grow a world-class corporate practice, especially in New York. There's a huge opportunity to continue to grow the public affairs practice in Washington and California. We need to leverage a lot of consumer success we've had and bolster those capabilities. There are other capabilities that are missing from our portfolio, like Hispanic PR. We don't play in that, and we need that capability.

O'Brien: What do you think of MS&L's new brand?

Hass: I like the "Change Minds" brand. I like what it says to clients. But I think there is a disconnect between that brand positioning and the way our employees think about the agency. Those need to be connected.

O'Brien: Why keep the Hass name for MS&L's Michigan offices?

Hass: The reason the MS&L offices in Michigan are branded with Hass is because the name has meaning in the marketplace. As long as it has meaning in the marketplace, it makes sense.

O'Brien: As a former journalist, how do you see the current media landscape?

Hass: I think [media relations] is a core skill. Everyone in the business needs to be able to do it. [Media relations] is like being able to catch a ground ball in baseball. You need to be able to do it well.

When young people ask me for advice about the PR business, I say, "Learn the media, learn how to talk to the media, and work with them to become their partners." I had an advantage coming from the media because I already had relationships. A lot of people come into PR and don't want to do media relations. To that I say, "Then you don't want to work here."

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