Editors' Choice 2006: Who to watch

PRWeek picks who will be making headlines over the upcoming year

PRWeek picks who will be making headlines over the upcoming year

Individuals

Tim Dyson, CEO, Next Fifteen

The CEO of Next Fifteen is an entrepreneur, a blogger, and an industry critic. His company's acquisition of OutCast Communications gave Next Fifteen a profile beyond the Bay Area (the group is actually headquartered in London), even as its brands, such as Text 100 and Bite, have expanded rapidly over the years to become major players in the market. But Dyson's role at the top has been less clear, and so has the overarching strategy for this now formidable technology specialist group. Through his blog and the growing strength of his operation, Dyson's star is set to rise.

John Rendon, The Rendon Group

Even during a year when PR seemed to be everywhere in the mainstream media, the profile of John Rendon that ran in Rolling Stone was stunning. Last September, the Rendon Group began to work on its first communications contract on the ground in Iraq, a one-year Department of Defense deal totaling $6.4 million, "supporting the ongoing strategic communications efforts of coalition military forces in the country." This was just one more piece of action in what is one of the least disclosed sectors of the PR business. Yet in spite of the secretive nature of work (and the firm), in a politically charged environment, the generally promotion-shy shop and its principal seemed to have no qualms about opening up
to the magazine. Although his work is highly secret, Rendon insisted in the article that he dealt only in "timely, truthful and accurate information." It is safe to say that some might not believe that to be true. Now that he is out there, the pointed questions about what is
ethical, and whether the end justifies the means, will only increase.

Helen Ostrowski, CEO, Porter Novelli

As CEO of Porter Novelli, Ostrowski has guided the firm through a rebranding effort that should continue to gain traction externally over the next year. While working on initiatives in its traditional strengths, such as the new FDA food pyramid that was launched last year, PN also captured Mercedes-Benz as its US AOR, and continued its long-term relationship with Gillette. That company's acquisition by Procter & Gamble could prove a complicating factor in the union, but it has been a strong relationship to date. PN has had a reputation for continuity and diligence, but has not been the most high-profile firm among its peers. Now Ostrowski is also the new chair of the Council of PR Firms, at a pivotal time in its and her own firm's growth. A more public profile for this widely respected leader will advance the objectives of both.

Tom Kowaleski, global comms VP, GM

Oprah sure had fun giving away GM cars to every member of her audience in 2004, but 2005 had no such jolly bookend. Offering employee discounts to the general population was clever, but competitors jumped on that idea and it couldn't be sustained forever. News that the company would be slashing 30,000 jobs and closing 12 North American facilities has cast an enduring pall. Sales plummeted this year; the company, which lost $6 billion through November 2005, has suffered from soft sales of SUVs and trucks due to post-Katrina gasoline hikes. At the top of the PR ladder is Kowaleski, who will face enormous challenges this year in helping the company navigate its latest woes, and it is not yet clear if the cuts will impact the scope of his PR team. But GM has demonstrated a spirit of innovation in its communications, not least through its groundbreaking blog strategy. Kowaleski's task ahead is to continue those efforts in an unforgiving market.

Last year's picks

Mike Donohue
Against the odds, McDonald's has turned the tide on its reputation as a ruthless purveyor of fatty foods, making it the fast-food brand of choice, and choices.

Mark Dowley
As predicted, Interpublic snatched up a minority stake in Endeavor, which is now aligned with Foote Cone & Belding.

Aaron Kwittken
Kwittken left his post as CEO of Magnet, which is increasingly becoming the brand without portfolio, to start his own firm.

Caryn Marooney/Margit Wennmachers
By surrendering their firm's independence to Next Fifteen, OutCast's founders have chosen a way to expand and grow on their own terms.

Agencies

Hill & Knowlton
When London was chosen in June as the site for the 2012 Olympics, it was a victory not only for that city, but also for the PR firm that handled the bid. H&K has labored under a cloud for the past several years, and the London win was a chance to cheer. Will there be more in the future? There are some signs that it is possible, that changes taking place within the agency have had a positive impact. Key wins like VeriSign and Deloitte & Touche have bolstered agency confidence. Consistency in leadership of its New York office in the person of Tom Reno has finally put an end to the almost comedic parade of personnel in that position, and indeed talent has been a key focus for the firm for several years. The firm is exuding increased confidence, but there is still a task ahead in communicating that beyond its own walls.

Voce Communications
Launched in 1999, Voce managed to survive the downturn by focusing on a consultative model, particularly so that it could hang on to senior staff. Now on the growth track for the past two years, Voce has positioned itself according to its specialties, including one called Digital Advocacy. Working with such clients as Network Appliance and Yahoo, the firm is making its name as one that is truly steeped in new media, and not merely because the entire firm blogs. This year should be the time when Voce, led by president Richard Cline, starts to raise its profile and prove its mettle beyond its extremely loyal and rapturous client base. After all, this is the company that helped Yahoo launch its first foray into the blogosphere. That's the kind of credibility that many firms launching new-media offerings can only dream of.

The Jeffrey Group, and multicultural firms
This Miami-based firm specializes in marketing in Latin America and, through its Axeso division, Hispanic marketing, with a blue-chip roster of clients that includes FedEx, Toshiba, and British Airways. The firm is a leading example of the kind of niche player that still owns much of the multicultural market, along with others such as Latin Vox, Flowers Communications Group, and Lagrant Communications, and it specializes in marketing to Asians, Latinos, and African Americans. Some large firms with multicultural practices still struggle for their identity in this space. Deals with external firms are common for big agencies pitching business that requires a multicultural component. Competition will grow even more fierce for independents as large firms look to win back some of this business and keep the billings within their own practice areas.

Financial Dynamics
Avarice unabated, FD continued its acquisitive bent by buying Dittus Communications (which some called the surprise of the year) and Westhill Partners, and luring Harlan Teller away from Hill & Knowlton. Not all news has been good, as FD lost Abernathy MacGregor veteran Steve Frankel after just six months of leading its M&A practice. But key wins like the IPO deal for MasterCard have mitigated the setbacks. Conventional wisdom maintains FD will eventually sell to the highest bidder, but for now it is focusing on diversifying into such areas as public affairs and management consulting. This year is laden with expectations for what all this investment will bring. In a world where most clients never get publicly named, it can be hard to demonstrate success. But if there's a way, FD, led in the US by CEO Declan Kelly, will likely find it.

Last year's picks
Alan Taylor Communications

New clients including Levi's Signature Series and new hires including a former head of communications for Mattel have kept this firm on our radar.

Edelman
Check out the first page if you have any doubts. International expansion and growth remain things to watch going forward.

Chandler Chicco Agency
The healthcare specialist remains independent and is still winning business, but it has gone a bit quiet in the past year, while marking its 10th anniversary.

DeVries Public Relations
Madeline DeVries handed the CEO title to Jim Allman, is still big with P&G, and recently added a tasting room for client Gallo.

Media

Yahoo
Late last year, Yahoo announced a deal with Gawker Media that would integrate postings from the company's five popular blogs into its daily web content. For Gawker, with its eponymous blog serving as one of the snarky must-reads of the media set, the deal aligns it more closely to the mainstream at a time when companies like Yahoo have suddenly become traditional media. The implications for Yahoo, and the search engine landscape, are far greater. Competition for eyeballs, particularly the younger demographic, is fierce. Content has not been a major aspect of the business model for these companies in the past, but this move signals that a new frontier in the market is about to get breached. Yahoo has also over the past few years been quietly bringing in PR firepower from new quarters, including Voce Communications and OutCast Communications. The company's commitment to growth is bearing out on multiple fronts.

The New York Times
The venerable paper is testing all of the most challenging aspects of the media environment right now - from credibility to profits. Just when you thought Jayson Blair was as bad as it could get, the Judith Miller problem revealed even more cultural idiosyncrasies. Reams of analysis about the newsroom psyche, the leadership, and the cult of journalistic personality have finally shown that the Times, though it professes to turn its keen eye outward and reveal truth as no one else can, can be a victim of institutional myopia, just like any other company. And just like any other company, it is concerned about the bottom line. Newsroom cutbacks have been one feature of the reality of the situation. So has the elevation of certain columnist content to "Select" status, available for a fee online, whereas other content remains free. These two compelling narratives running though The New York Times right now make it an increasingly interesting case study on the pressures facing media organizations of all kinds.

NBC Universal, digital media and market development
Two words: Beth Comstock. As president of the company's digital media division, Comstock will, as she told The Hollywood Reporter, "seek to 'connect all the dots across NBC Universal in the digital area' - from the broadcast network and TV stations to the cable networks, television production and syndication, Universal studio and theme parks." Comstock came up through the PR ranks at NBC and then at GE. She was elevated to the long-vacant role of GE's CMO three years ago, and was a critical part of the company's realignment behind the theme of innovation, changing the company's long-standing and traditional tagline to "Imagination at Work." The fact that the company brought in someone of Comstock's character shows that it recognizes an effective communicator - one who listens and can make connections. Comstock's passion for innovation will play perfectly to the job. As the Reporter points out, "Like other industry rivals, NBC Universal has only just begun to explore its new digital options - something with which Comstock learned to assist at GE's disparate global businesses."

Last year's picks

Media
Media planners are definitely still helping clients navigate the new-media paradigm, but they are not alone anymore.

BuzzMetrics
Like media planners, firms like BuzzMetrics compete against bandwagon jumpers. But this firm's expertise is still a draw for coverage.

Newswires: PR Newswire and Business Wire
Efforts to diversify offerings are taking hold, but differentiation is still a challenge for the fiercest competitors in the business.

Medialink
A leading voice in the government VNR issue, the company also hired its first COO, Larry Thomas. More on Teletrax this year?

Corporate

NYSE
Though recently it became the focal point for the issue of animal rights over the proposed listing of a company that does product safety testing on animals, the real story is about how the New York Stock Exchange is entering a new era as it joins forces with electronic-trading system Archipelago and converts to for-profit status. It seems like only a short time ago that the exchange was in crisis mode, in the aftermath of Dick Grasso's 2003 exit and the subsequent move by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to force the former CEO to give back much of the compensation he had accrued during his tenure. Margaret Tutwiler, former US Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, joined the exchange in July 2004 as EVP of communications and government relations, following the installment of John Thain as CEO. She and her team are already facing challenges related to the transition, including layoffs and a recalibration to a profit-generating mentality.

Wal-Mart
The response to Hurricane Katrina was the best sign yet that Wal-Mart knows how to do the right thing, and the right way to tell everyone they are doing it. But the company still has a long way to go before it can claim its reputation recovery is complete. Jay Allen, SVP of corporate affairs, and Mona Williams, VP of communications, have been instrumental in getting the company to open up over the past year, including its very first media open day at its Bentonville, AR, headquarters. But greater transparency is one thing. The questions asked by such voices as the anti-Wal-Mart film, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, strike at the very heart of the retailer's business model, threatening to undermine relationships with customers and employees alike. With the marked increase in its PR efforts during the past year, including its retention of additional counsel, 2006 should be a testing time for the company's strategy of proactive outreach on all fronts.

Chinese corporations
When the China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC) launched a bid to purchase US-based Unocal, it struck a nerve in the American psyche. Concerns about national security, and the thought of a Communist country having a natural resource to leverage against the US, dominated much of the discussion. Similarly, Chinese company Haier launched a bid for Maytag, and found that Americans were decidedly skittish about the prospect of well-known US brands falling under the ownership of a foreign name. The fact that both deals ultimately fell through says a lot for the challenge facing Chinese companies, even though the financial ties that already bind the two countries together are far deeper than the average American may realize. Another critical aspect of the China story is the continuing maturity of attitudes towards branding and marketing, and what that progression means for American PR firms operating there.

Last year's picks

Burger King
While it's certainly getting attention, Burger King's greatest feat may be in making its ad agency, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, more famous than it is.

Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia
Her TV shows haven't performed and she still gets most of her press by talking about jail. The second act has yet to begin.

Chrysler
While GM roils, Chrysler continues to not only succeed, but also to impress even experienced auto reporters with its PR stunts and savvy.

Sanofi-Aventis
The drug company has been the target of recent criticism for running TV reminder ads, which will be banned as of Jan 1, 2006.

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