ANALYSIS: <b>The Agency Business</b> National agencies noticing PR opportunities in North Carolina

Because North Carolina boasts a strong position in various industries, many PR firms across the country are moving to the Tar Heel State to take advantage of the market.

Because North Carolina boasts a strong position in various industries, many PR firms across the country are moving to the Tar Heel State to take advantage of the market.

An emerging PR market is a little like a hot new restaurant - there's the buzz, then there's the beef. North Carolina enjoys multiple varieties of both. Big-agency clients in the Tar Heel State are often served by offices in Atlanta, Washington, or New York, but homegrown agencies face increased competition nonetheless. Be they local firms moving to the national stage or global players staking local claims, North Carolina boasts several with staff rosters more sizeable than one might expect for a secondary market. The most recent entrant is Fleishman-Hillard, which since January has opened shops in Charlotte and Raleigh. "We looked over the landscape, and there aren't a lot of very dynamic and growing communities where we don't have offices," says Paul Johnson, Fleishman's Mid-Atlantic region president. Fleishman's just the latest national firm to notice North Carolina. With 23 employees, Gibbs & Soell's Raleigh office opened in the 1980s and approaches the size of the region's largest native agencies. Syngenta Consumer Products, which it won last year, is its biggest account in the state. Golin/Harris, meanwhile, serves the region's two largest companies - Lowe's and Bank of America. Golin rotated people from Chicago to serve the Lowe's account until last summer, when it posted a half-dozen employees in a Charlotte office. "A lot of people say Charlotte is the new Atlanta," says Scott Farrell, who leads the Lowe's account for Golin. Brodeur and Porter Novelli came during the boom, attracted by tech opportunities in Research Triangle Park (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill), then left during the bust. As tech firms, they weren't positioned to capitalize on the state's true strength - diversity. In fact, agencies exploiting different niches in North Carolina seem to pursue new clients without stepping on each other's toes that often. Strong industries in the state include:
  • Furniture. Although waning to some degree, High Point is still considered the country's furniture capital, and Edelman serves LaneVenture from offices elsewhere.
  • Banking and financial services. Charlotte has established itself as a Southern financial hub. Gibbs & Soell is looking there to help build its new financial-services practice.
  • Healthcare, science, and technology. The university-heavy RTP incubates all three. Gibbs & Soell also recently launched a healthcare practice and is seeking new business in the RTP area. Companies with interests there include GlaxoSmithKline.
  • Sports marketing. Golf is a big deal in both North and South Carolina (Edelman serves the Pinehurst Resort, for example). But it's hard to find a marketing firm of any ilk in North Carolina that doesn't have some stake in stock-car racing. Indeed, North Carolina is the epicenter of NASCAR. Campbell & Co., the Michigan firm that serves Ford, keeps people on the ground in Winston-Salem and Huntersville to support drivers on the Nextel Cup, Busch Series, and Craftsman Truck Series circuits. "That's where the lion's share of those series' teams and drivers live and work," notes racing group leader Greg Shea. Max Muhleman of sports marketing firm IMG/Muhleman Marketing says much NASCAR marketing activity doesn't fall clearly into the PR category, but PR firms still find plenty to do. Many companies sponsor racing teams or stadiums, so their PR people sometimes wind up trackside. Golin/Harris, for example, assigned three people to the NASCAR circuit because of Lowe's sponsorship deals. North Carolina's diversity goes beyond industries to geography. Historically, Raleigh firms haven't had much success in Charlotte and vice versa, says Richard French, president and CEO of French/West/Vaughan. Perhaps wisely, Fleishman opened offices in both cities, hiring local SVPs in each. The agency unsuccessfully courted acquisition prospects (including French/West/Vaughan) before hanging out its own shingles. Fleishman hired former French/West/Vaughan partner Britt Carter to lead the Raleigh office. Carter reports to SVP and GM John Falkenberry in Charlotte. Local firms recognize the value of their home state's diversity, as well. Capital Strategies, among the state's largest agencies, recently shortened its name to Capstrat to illustrate its broadening focus. "I think we were sometimes typecast as a public affairs or political firm, "says CEO Ken Eudy. The locals don't seem too concerned about the increased interest from national agencies. "Overall, there's more business available, regardless of the competition," says Muhleman, referring to improved business and economic conditions in the region. "The pie is bigger."

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