Analysis: Golin/Harris fights on despite the downturn

Golin/Harris International has put its trumpeted European expansion plans on hold. But, in an exclusive interview with Holly Williams, recently appointed global president Fred Cook insists it is just a temporary measure

Eighteen months ago, Golin/Harris International's mantra for Europe was 'acquisition, expansion and growth'. The appointment in February 2001 of former BBC director of public service marketing Sue Farr as EMEA managing director, was meant to herald a period of ambitious launches and takeovers.

A year-and-a-half down the line, the picture is very different. The economy has since nose-dived to unexpected levels while global advertising and PR revenues are in a tailspin. Parent company Interpublic has taken a knock, as has the bulk of the marketing sector, and Golin/Harris has been forced to put its grand acquisition plans on hold.

Farr, realising her original remit to lead a surge of growth was somewhat hampered by this decision, left the company two months ago (PRWeek, 16 August).

While Golin/Harris's financial outlook has changed, its goals for Europe have not. Its recently named president Fred Cook, who was promoted to the US-based role last month, says Europe is still its 'number one priority'. He was speaking fresh from a three-day meeting with staff at Golin/Harris London and the group's network of 12 European affiliates.

He says Golin/Harris still aims to launch three more offices in the next year or so, but organic growth looks more likely in the current economic climate: 'Market conditions have restricted the speed at which we will be rolling out more offices, but not our desire,' says Cook, who replaced the agency's former president Dave Gilbert - a victim of Golin/Harris's cost-cutting measures when the recession took grip last year.

'The acquisition activity has slowed, but we have a targeted plan and are locked and loaded for the future when things pick up,' Cook stresses.

It remains to be seen if an agency, which is predominantly seen as a US-led group, can achieve the same kind of growth and local brand awareness across Europe without making a tranche of acquisitions. Golin/Harris may be a top ten agency in the US, but at number 23 in the UK, according to the 2002 PRWeek Top 150, the firm has its work cut out joining the UK premier league.

It is seen in the industry as being somewhat overshadowed by its mighty sister agency Weber Shandwick - the world's largest PR agency which has unrivalled global reach. Former insiders suggest - irrespective of its size - that WS is treated as the favoured brand by parent Interpublic, although Golin/Harris is indignant at the suggestion it plays second-fiddle to its PR sibling.

Either way, Cook says size has never been a preoccupation: 'There's a different philosophy at Weber Shandwick. Its value proposition is its size, and the heart of our main proposition has never been that we want to be seen as the biggest, just the best.'

He adds that, likewise, league table rankings come second to staff and clients' needs. 'We want to grow in London and in Europe, but where we rank is not a key criteria. We want to grow at a rate that is good for our business and gives new opportunities for our people.'

Cook's tone is very different to that of Golin/Harris bosses 18 months ago, when acquisitions were talked of as the preferred model for growth.

Now he says the group is focusing on expanding existing global client accounts, growing specific practice areas - through moves such as the hiring of Barbara Box as worldwide director of healthcare to boost the practice globally - and putting time and resources into their affiliate relationships.

In acknowledgement of the fact that securing local business is vital to raising awareness of the Golin/Harris brand across Europe, Cook explains: 'Our plan is a combination of expansion of existing relationships in the US and new business.'

Now with Farr's former deputy MD Barry Leggetter in charge of the UK business, Golin/Harris is aiming to build a number of disciplines, notably its troubled public affairs operation, which has seen several staff leave and has been without an MD since the departure of Ceri Evans earlier in the summer (PRWeek, 31 May), and healthcare.

Both of these are also focuses for Europe, but on a global basis, Golin/Harris is aiming to build its consumer marketing presence and continue to put resources into tech, which Cook is adamant will eventually pick up.

Asked what they see in store for Golin/Harris in the coming years, Cook says: 'Our future vision looks a little like our past. Our focus has always been on serving fewer clients but doing a better job of it.'

This seems to be the key to Golin/Harris's ethos. It may not have the sheer mass of agencies such as WS, Fleishman-Hillard or Hill & Knowlton, but it does maintain a commitment to quality, return on investment and giving clients access to the agency's senior team. A retrospective view, perhaps, but one which signals a desire to get back to the fundamentals of client service until the markets recover.

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