The Harris name is part of a long PR lineage

2014 Paladin Award honoree Harris Diamond may have left the PR industry, but his namesake founder of McCann set up an ad firm in 1912 that was underpinned by classic PR principles

Harris Diamond
Harris Diamond
Last time I blogged about Harris Diamond the then CEO of Weber Shandwick and IPG’s Constituency Management Group was on the phone to me within 20 minutes of my scrawling being published.

He didn’t like the characterization of him I used in the headline, which prefaced a story concerning a legal battle that had recently concluded with rival firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies about client and employee poaching.

"This isn’t going to be an easy conversation," he said after I picked up the ‘phone. And, believe me, it wasn’t. I’m sure I wasn’t the first person to be on the receiving end of the ire of the now CEO of McCann Worldgroup, and I’m equally sure I won’t be the last.

Diamond is a man who commands respect by his very presence. And a previously boisterous packed roomful of senior PR executives uttered nary a word during his acceptance speech for the 2014 PRSA Foundation Paladin Award at the Bryant Park Grill in New York City on Wednesday evening.

The throng had braved monsoon conditions to come and hear from one of their own: someone who had left them 18 months ago to ascend the heights of the advertising industry at McCann having spent 25 years in PR and public affairs.

Colleagues and former competitors alike were intrigued to learn about the differences between PR and advertising and, as the traditional poor relations, to share in some of the reflected glory of a PR person who now tells their advertising peers what to do.

Diamond has turned around fortunes at the formerly embattled McCann, much namedropped in episodes of Mad Men, which he is helping reestablish as one of the behemoths of the creative agency world as it moves into its second century of existence.

At Cannes last year, he was able to celebrate the most-awarded campaign in the festival’s history: Dumb Ways to Die, produced out of McCann’s Melbourne office in Australia.

Observers noted at the time that this was, in essence, a smart PSA campaign that had been super-charged by some rocket fuel on social media. It was pure PR, despite having come from an ad firm.

And this was a theme Diamond was quick to pick up on in his speech. He explained that PR had taught him a way to see the world, to be inquisitive, to focus on clients and events in the world, and to focus on the issues that shape not just commerce, but also everyday discourse.

He talked about the way PR had taught him to probe broadly and deeply into the full range of issues that influence public opinion - and how they inform marketing strategy. "It required a mindset dedicated to understanding the full social and political context for business decisions because, as we all know, in PR we have to think at least five steps ahead in order to take the very next one," he added.

And he noted that this mindset is increasingly important in the world of advertising and marketing services: "You can’t be a successful marketer today if you don’t have that kind of broad and worldly perspective."

He said that, in a funny way, he understands the importance of PR even more than he used to: "Ironically, I’m probably a better PR guy as a result."

He observed that marketers want, and need, to know more about consumers, and they need to understand the total legislative and regulatory context within which commerce happens, plus the specifics of purchasing behavior. "The imperative to deliver thinking in a more integrated way is key to the success for all in the marketing services sphere," he added.

Attendees also discovered the irony of the fact that the founder of the McCann agency was also called Harris: Harrison McCann launched the firm in 1912 following stints at the New York Telephone Company and Standard Oil.

The mantra of McCann was ‘Truth Well Told,’ a guiding philosophy that believes all marketing must start from the premise that understanding the truth about consumer needs and products is the way to have an honest dialogue that bridges the gap with them. Harris [Diamond] noted that, had there been a PR profession at the time, Harris [McCann] would have been regarded as one of its founders.

With Diamond’s boss, Interpublic Group’s CEO Michael Roth looking on, there were many in the room who speculated whether the modern Harris may one day ascend to an even higher position within the IPG empire once 68-year-old Roth decides to hang up his boots.

If that should happen, there would be an even brighter glow of pride from the PR profession, who could then justifiably say PR has finally come of age and been accepted widely as the central discipline in marketing and communications that we know it is today.

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