The Agency Business: Keeping an agency viable - even after the founders move on

When new leadership takes over at an agency, as Beth Herskovits discovers, the best way to keep everyone happy while adjusting is to not abandon the agency's culture or core values

When new leadership takes over at an agency, as Beth Herskovits discovers, the best way to keep everyone happy while adjusting is to not abandon the agency's culture or core values

When the founder of an agency steps down to make way for the next generation, the new leaders must determine the agency's brand and key assets for the future. And when that agency's work has become synonymous with its founder, the incoming principals must find a way to imbue the firm with new character - without alienating clients and media contacts.

In 1925, Edward Howard was one of the pioneers of the industry. His Cleveland-based firm still carries his name and his legacy, even though none of the Howard family members has been affiliated with the firm since the 1960s.

"We have been able to do what many PR firms have not been able to do, which is stay in business," says CEO Kathy Obert, who notes that no small factor in the agency's success has been its "continuity of culture and service."

Obert recalls contacting the wife of the firm's founder after she took the reins in 2000. "I think the core values that Ed Howard had in 1925 are the values that we have today," she says, adding that while logos and tag lines have changed, the agency still takes on the same types of clients and has the same expectations for its employees.

"That culture is a very important part of the job," she notes.

Martha West, VP of marketing, says the agency is undergoing yet another rebranding - but she describes it as creating a guide for employees.

"It's easy to get distracted when you say you want to be all things to all people," she says. "It really does [help to] stay true to your legacy."

It's a familiar way of thinking to the management team at New York-based Kitchen Public Relations, founded by Donald Kitchen in 1992.

"I think the key to a good succession is to identify people who feel they have a stake in the company and make sure that the culture and philosophy of the company don't change too much," says MD Anne Steinberg, who was also the agency's first employee.

"We didn't want to change who we were and the services we offered," she adds. "We have very conservative clients and a very conservative business, [and we also keep] in context that we are a media relations company that's very b-to-b."

On the other hand, sometimes the addition of new leadership allows an agency to refocus its mission. For Sarasota, FL-based Clarke Advertising and PR, new principals allowed it to move from a generalist shop to one that focuses on the baby boomer generation.

When founder Tim Clarke sold the firm in January, "he was really saying, I've gotten it to this point, but this is as far as I can take it," says CEO and principal Bill Pierson, who left his Denver-based agency to purchase the firm.

COO and principal Patricia Courtois notes that the agency's staff has created a new brand through community involvement and support for Sarasota's cultural institutions.

"We're probably more involved than Tim was," she says. "We've taken the brand to a whole new level of community involvement."

The second-generation principals whose firms retained the names of their founders emphasized the amount of equity in that brand - and the assurance that the name provided to clients and media contacts.

But for Gaye Carleton, changing the name of her agency was a key part of her exit strategy, which is still about a decade away.

Fourteen years after founding New York-based Carleton & Co. PR, she decided it was time to "infuse a new energy into the agency" by renaming it Mantra, Empowered PR.

"It was terrifying to rename," Carleton recalls.

But, she explains, "I felt that the name didn't communicate a spirit or a distinction for the agency. I was also contemplating how I would keep the agency if I left. I had to get rid of the name."

Carleton bolstered the renaming with a new logo and office design to focus on Eastern philosophies. But she also notes that the new name - rolled out one month before the 9/11 terrorist attacks - resonated with clients.

"People were looking to add spirit to their lives," she says. "What we were doing is PR that has a spirit in an industry that traditionally has no soul."

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Maintaining a brand during a succession

  • Plan an exit strategy well in advance so there is time to familiarize the next generation of leadership with the agency's culture. This is especially important when the firm is sold to a manager who has not risen through the ranks as an employee.

  • Consider the agency's core values - the types of clients, accounts, and staff that are important to the firm's mission. Visual representations of an agency (such as its website or logo) will change with the times, but the underlying culture can still be maintained.

  • Whenever possible, keep account teams in place to minimize the impact on existing clients, who might be worried about how a leadership change might affect their relationship with an agency.

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