Havas CEO: Self-professed 'Carrie Bradshaw of PR' talks trends, targets and future of PR

Alex Benady goes 'hyperlocal' with Marian Salzman, the all-seeing, all-doing wonderwoman of PR.

It would be easy to imagine that the CEO of Havas PR North America has a crystal ball, but her talent for spotting trends and sending them global is based on sound pattern recognition and a skill for packaging forecasts so they elbow their way on to the news agenda. 

Are you by any chance a metrosexual? Or perhaps you are a beached white male? And if so, are you also a brand slut? Is it possible that you suffer from food angst and do you ever worry that cellphones are the new trans fats?

Even if the answer is no to all of the above, the chances are you know exactly what they are about because they are pithy, attention-grabbing summaries of recent consumer trends that in varying degrees have entered the culture as phrases in their own right.

They are all the coinage of Marian Salzman, who has been described as "one of the world’s top trend spotters", to which accolade you can add "purveyor of ultra-premium quality soundbites" and, since 2009, CEO of Havas PR North America.

Many people can gaze into the future, but what makes Salzman exceptional is the combination of insight and ability to package and brand her forecasts so that they seem to elbow their way almost effortlessly on to the news agenda.

Take the portmanteau word ‘metrosexual’. She did not invent it – it was first used by British journalist Mark Simpson in the mid-1990s. But it was her use of the word in sketching the commercial opportunities (particularly in cosmetics) that would arise from men becoming softer and more feminised that brought it to global mainstream use. So talking to her is an exhilarating experience as she delivers a constant stream of cultural insights and thoughts, often favouring neologisms and portmanteaus.

Commercial agenda

Although it is not normal journalistic practice to quote someone’s own publicity, her own website nails her perfectly. "Salzman certainly has a brilliant knack for spotting trends before they go mainstream – one commentator dubbed her ‘an octane-fuelled, 100-ideas-a-minute bunny’," it says. With a lack of modesty that is slightly uncomfortable to British ears, she goes on to describe herself as "a charismatic power blonde (think Carrie Bradshaw mixed with Hillary Clinton)". Yes there may be a paradox in a leading female thinker describing herself in terms of her hair colour, but she’s bang on the money. The combination of power and populism, high and low culture, big business and gossip is her calling card.

In conversation it may sound like she is just letting her imagination rip and saying whatever comes to mind. In fact, her words and insights are disciplined and carefully aligned with her commercial agenda – or yours if you happen to be her client. She means what she says and is quite prepared to put her money where her mouth is.

So one of the trends in society she thinks will be significant in the coming 15 years is the growth in popularity of secondary cities: "One thing I am aware of is the move away from big cities. Second- and third-tier cities are really flourishing. In the US, if you are coming out of university today you want to live in Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon; or North Carolina. You are much less likely to want to go to New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles because there are more opportunities to create community and quality of life."

How fascinating, you think, how true. However, it is not just an interesting remark but a guiding principle for the future of her business. It is the basis for the strategy she is going to use to refocus Havas PR’s fortunes in North America after a particularly bruising 2014.

While competitors such as Edelman were growing by eight per cent, Havas’ revenue remained flat at around $45m-$50m (£29.5m-£32.8m), according to PRWeek estimates. The main issue was the loss of the Sanofi diabetes business.

"We [Havas] don’t keep a P&L for our PR assets. We report to the country or speciality divisions in which they are domiciled. It makes it much easier for PR services to be added to a big account because nobody is pulling numbers away from the country lead," she explains.

It was Havas PR’s worst performance since she took over. She says the company sets high performance targets and it clearly stung her to have missed her targets: "You are expected to perform so I knew going into the new year that we had to do a whole lot better."

Her response was to revert to what she knows. She stopped acting like a CEO and started acting like a trendspotter. "I’m a trends person so I literally practise the trends. This year we went hyperlocal. We stopped focusing on the generic big, global, multinational accounts and practised the idea that you act global and think local. I decided to go to look for accounts in those markets where I don’t have massive competition," she says.

Local empowerment

As a result of this analysis she opened an office in Phoenix, Arizona last November which she says has been exceptionally successful: "We are already at seven figures. We know we can double that over the next 12 months but I don’t think we will get much bigger than that."

It has not been easy. She has had to roll up her sleeves and get personally involved: "I effectively became assistant account executive on new business. I was the person who attended to every detail, who ensured that every file and folder is ready and every social media audit is done properly.

"You stop focusing on everything other than client service and client satisfaction and growth. And you diversify your growth to make sure you are never overexposed on one or two clients." She admits going to a secondary market was a bit of a gamble for Havas but it has paid off handsomely. "We went in and got lucky with the people we hired. We focused on delivering absolutely top-quality work, we took on enough pro bono to showcase who we are and we funded that growth ourselves. By month three we were making money. Together for 2016 we project at least $7-8m in Providence, Phoenix and Pittsburgh which are the backbone of our regional offer."

But geography is not the only way that Salzman is reorganising Havas for the future. Typically, agencies are organised around industrial or commercial sectors. So you might have a healthcare practice or a financial services practice. Instead, Salzman wants to rebuild her business around consumer trends.

The first of these is the US’ only PR business built around gluten-free food. "We have started and have the business to prove this can work," she says. She has won assignments from healthy ice-lolly firm Ruby Rockets, has helped launch CLVR bars for Ricklands Orchards and says she has other clients in the gluten-free space.

"We are going more and more to a local empowerment model where we are going to have about half a dozen to a dozen growth pods." Healthy eating is one. Climate change, trade associations and Hispanic businesses are other potential consumer-based speciality practices.

These commercial predictions are not simply "dreamed up out of my head", says Salzman, "they are the product of a two-part science of pattern recognition and data analysis of what leading-edge consumers are saying and doing. They are good for five or six years.

"So, no, I can’t forecast what will be happening in 2030. After all, we are talking about the behaviour of people who are only ten years old now. We know that the infusion of young people with their values and beliefs and expectations will help to rewrite the rules of how an agency responds to changes in the market." However, Salzman is prepared to speculate on the form of PR and PR agencies in 15 years. She argues that the nature of PR will be determined partly by the nature of consumers, but also by the mediascape.

"I don’t know if there is even going to be news media as we know it. Established media will be thoroughly and completely reinvented. The titans of media will (still) make a lot of money, but they’ll be very different."

She argues that news functions will be taken over by bloggers and citizen journalists, and that softer strands such as sport, fashion and entertainment will be taken over by the content creators. "Maybe Manchester United will be a media company offering passion around football?"

She certainly sees the current trend for journalistic and PR skills continuing to merge: "The whole question of what is a journalist will change dramatically because brand journalism is going to be the new normal. So you could equally write for PRWeek… or Harvey Nichols. You’d bring your same acumen, same skills, same voice. But you’d see it through the Harvey Nicks filter."

She points to Refinery29, a US fashion, style and beauty website for women that follows a newsletter format. The website includes content for specific cities. "What is it? A media company, an agency? They have seemingly original content on their site, also paid content, and they organise events around their readers. They really have a radically different model.

"So what will be the effect on agencies? Will there be PR agencies in 15 years? It’s a really good question." She suggests that whatever form they may take, they will be far more integrated with other marcoms disciplines as they combine in different ways in different agencies: "I see PR agencies thriving, but not necessarily in their current form. Perhaps local marketing agencies will ladder up to something bigger than themselves. Buying media will be marketing. Owned media will be marketing, but news crafting will be earned. They say in the US that all politics is local. I’m going to say all PR is local also," she says, returning to her own commercial agenda.

Pink profession

When it comes to the agency networks, she thinks that this "mass localisation" will be balanced by "mass globalisation". As a result, regions will matter less – which is a strange thing to say if you are a North American CEO of an international network. One of the possible new agency hybrids, however, will almost certainly be the PR/media agency cross.

"PR agencies and media agencies are going to become much more aligned. It’s not going to take 15 years but five. More and more media buying agencies will be merged with PR agencies. Mark this spot," she says, but denies that Havas is already hatching such a plan.

"If I were ten years younger and was going to start my own firm my eyes would be on selling to media agencies where it became the extension of a persuasion campaign of all sorts.

"Media agencies have moved into the content space and PR agencies have long been in the business of content and messaging. The alignment is clearer than with creative agencies," she argues.

Finally, she thinks that by 2030 PR will be – or ought to be – a lot less feminine. The dominance of the PR industry by women may not be a good thing.

"You are going to see that PR has become so pink that there’s going to be a backlash. We need to be very, very attuned to the idea that women will have rewritten gender rules. You can’t have a pink profession because that’s not the way the world works. Half the buying public is still male.

"We need to worry about consumer products more linked to maleness. We are a two-gender society with a lot of ambiguity in the middle. So just like we can’t have science being the domain of men, we can’t have comms jobs the domain of women."

It sounds like she may just be predicting the resurgence of the beached white male.

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