When Paul Taaffe first stepped into Hill & Knowlton's London office
12 years ago, the network was, he says, a mere shadow of the global
operation it is today. More than a decade of restructuring and
refocusing has transformed H&K from a generalist agency striving to make
an impact overseas into the third biggest agency in the world.
Taaffe, whose has risen from UK chief executive in 1990 to global
president, admits the H&K he first joined was in a need of a facelift:
'H&K was safe and soft when I joined, but you can't say that now. It is
It reinvented itself in the 1990s and stopped being a generalist. We
picked the best specialist boutiques and tried to better them.'
There is, he concedes, work still to do - H&K is yet to overtake rivals
Weber Shandwick and Fleishman-Hillard International in global fee
But Taaffe says the agency, and indeed the PR industry, is facing a
Until now, H&K has been concentrating on international growth - it made
between 80 and 100 acquisitions during the past decade - and is now
ready for the next challenge: 'What's the difference between a $100m firm and a $250m firm?' Taaffe asks. 'That was part of the
problem - we got to the end of the 1990s and saw this enormous growth.
But the whole industry is at the next stage, and that's: where's the
Taaffe says measurement and evaluation is central to moving forward and
securing the real big bucks. 'Most companies know what they spend on
advertising, travel or entertainment, but almost no company knows
exactly what it spends on PR and communications,' he says.
'When they find out they say "surely we should be getting more for our
money" - but these companies don't know how to measure success. The
failure of measurement is why the value of PR is still not understood,'
While evaluation is something H&K has devoted resources to, launching
toolkits such as PRecision in 2000, its search for the ultimate
communications director-friendly solution continues.
Taaffe is frustrated that the lack of clear measurement guidelines
hinders the development of PR. But he hints at a vision for the agency
that he believes could open new budgets to tap into.
He suggests we could see a number of separate H&K brands evolving to
target customers outside of the communications director group, such as
human resources chiefs: 'There are a lot of people out there who have
brands to look after but aren't professional communications directors -
these people have communications problems and need organisation to help
resolve them,' he explains. 'The question is whether we do that in the
H&K name or separate standalone brands.'
Taaffe does not rest on his laurels. While he claims the agency has been
'rocketing along' - with five global clients increasing budgets while
the rest of the sector has seen fees slashed - he is keen for H&K to
'set the agenda.'
This determination is a reflection of his own ambition. Unlike many
PROs, Taaffe's career path has been calculated and consistent. While he
is now based in H&K's New York office, he began his career in
communications as a graduate trainee at FMCG giant Unilever, based in
Australia. Within six months he was promoted to head Unilever's entire
Australian corporate relations department.
After a move to the UK, Taaffe was MD of the then Shandwick Consultants,
heading financial PR, B2B and corporate comms.
Shandwick founder Lord Chadlington - now Huntsworth Group CEO - says of
his former protege: 'He's competent and showed that early on, taking on
I was sorry when he left because it was clear he had an enormous
At H&K, his progression has been steady, rising from UK boss to EMEA
president, before becoming global president four years ago.
Taaffe is ruthless in his quest to further H&K and cites a number of
improvements he aims to see during the next few years: 'We don't yet
have a world-class financial PR offer; we need more depth in our public
affairs offering, and a deeper consumer offering in Germany,' he says,
to name a few of his plans.
But independent agency heads hoping to cash in will be disappointed.
Acquisitions are to take a back seat, but Taaffe says Europe looks set
to be H&K's main area of growth, in particular targeting the
With expansion into new markets, recruitment and brand extensions on the
horizon, Taaffe is setting his sights high: 'At the beginning of the
1990s, H&K was complacent. Now it's hungry as hell.'
Another decade of change seems to be in store for H&K.
1982: Head of corp relations, Unilever, Australia
1987: Managing director, Shandwick Consultants
1989: UK chief executive, Hill & Knowlton
1998: Global president, Hill & Knowlton