The test of time

Matthew Arnold learns why some longstanding PR accounts are so successful.

Matthew Arnold learns why some longstanding PR accounts are so successful.

When Al Golin cold-called McDonald's founder Ray Kroc 45 years ago, he could hardly have known that it would prove to be the start of a partnership that would span nearly a half-century and see the two firms grow from their humble Windy City roots into global empires. "It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things," says Golin. "He said come on over. And after a half-hour, he said you can start Monday for $500 a month." Golin/Harris is still the lead agency on global PR for McDonald's, which has gone from a handful of Chicago-area hamburger stands to one of the world's most visible brands. "Relationships evolve, and ours has remained extremely strong," says McDonald's SVP of corporate relations Jack Daly, himself a Golin/Harris alumnus. Though hardly the norm, examples of longstanding relationships between companies and PR agencies abound, from megaliths like Merrill Lynch, which has retained Burson-Marsteller for 29 years, to small businesses like New York's Gotham Bar and Grill, which 17 years ago served as the founding client of what was to become Magnet Communications. As a rule, the PR industry makes for fickle partners. Many businesses review their PR contractors regularly to bring in fresh ideas or simply to keep their costs down. Turnover at companies and agencies keeps many accounts in constant flux, as incoming executives seek to mark their territory or trusted agency hands depart. But sticking it out has its advantages. Agencies that work on accounts over years and decades can serve as custodians of both a company's history and its brand integrity, and the absence of a steep learning curve can shave hundreds of hours off agency billings. "By maintaining the relationship, we have another party that understands the intricacies of the brand, the life cycles of our product and our strategies," says Amy Kiss, brand manager for Reckitt Benckiser's Woolite, which has been handled by Brushfire Communications since 1987. Brushfire SVP Valerie Warner has looked after the account from the start, seeing its ownership and management change hands several times and helping usher its evolution from obscure niche product into a premium brand cleanser with an array of uses. "At this point, I'm the archives," says Warner. She doesn't take Brushfire's longevity on the account for granted, though. "Each year, we look at it afresh," says Warner. "We don't just look at it as soap." Keeping things fresh is the key to making longstanding agency-client partnerships work, says Andrew Sobel, a sort of advice columnist for the business world who has authored Clients for Life and the forthcoming Making Rain. "It's not unlike marriage," says Sobel. "If all people treated their partners like they were newlyweds, the divorce rate would plummet." To guard against complacency, Sobel recommends thoughtful rotating of staff through the account. Companies with long-term agency partnerships say they also value the openness allowed by the bond of trust they have with their agencies. "You can build a much more open relationship in the longer term," says Ken Sternad, VP of PR at United Parcel Service, which has used Edelman for 14 years. "Much more forthright and constructive." On the flip side, however, agencies and their long-term clients must avoid the sort of clubbiness that leads partners to overlook obvious flaws. "Loss of independence is obviously a very big issue right now, in terms of the use of outside professionals," says Sobel. "The longer you work with someone, the harder it can be to step back and say, 'No, we wouldn't recommend that.'" The difficult business environment of recent years has put a strain on some long-term partnerships while enhancing others. Spending on PR is down sharply at many companies, even as the workload has gone up, and crises can expose blind spots in agency coverage and precipitate break-ups. UPS, for example, shifted its US communications business from Edelman to Fleishman-Hillard to ramp up its reputation management following a damaging 1997 Teamsters strike. But the company kept Edelman on for its international business, based on the strength of its past work. "We were looking to do things differently, and we liked the new thinking Fleishman brought to reputation management," says Sternad. "We didn't value Edelman any less than we always have, and they continue to run other parts of our business." Steady hands, after all, are hard to come by. "It sounds corny," says Burson-Marsteller chairman Harold Burson, "But the very simple fact is that institutional and human relations are founded on the same basic qualities like integrity, trust, and all those good things our mothers taught us." --------- Five relationships that go back a long way McDonald's Agency Golin/Harris Length 45 years In 1957, a friend of Al Golin's told him of a new business prospect, Ray Kroc, who was building a local chain of inexpensive restaurants. "You might get in on the ground floor," Golin recalls his source saying. That tip has proven prescient. Golin/Harris has seen its client grow from a dozen Chicago-area burger joints into a global giant with more than 30,000 restaurants, while Golin's own staff grew from 10 to 800, with offices around the world. Together, they forged the company's early association with community charity and established the McDonald's brand as a beacon of corporate social responsibility. "In those days, it was unheard of for a company selling low-price food to get involved in community work," says Golin. "We just did it because it felt good." Golin remains lead agency, having coordinated PR for the 2002 World Children's Day celebrations to benefit the Ronald McDonald House Charities. Many Golin alumni have been integrated into the company over the years, including McDonald's SVP of corporate relations Jack Daly, senior corporate communications director Cathy Nemeth, and VP of corporate communications Bridget Coffing. Merrill Lynch Agency Burson-Marsteller Length 29 years Burson-Marsteller first went to work for Merrill Lynch in 1973, when the company's then communications chief, John Kelly, sought the agency out ahead of a major launch for which he didn't have the internal resources on hand. The launch, as it turned out, was that of the Merrill Lynch's Cash Management Account, which is today the leading brokerage house account with more than five million customers. "That relationship continued over the years," says chairman Harold Burson, "as we worked closely with senior management, and also with their private client group." The agency has since seen the firm through five CEOs. The sixth, Stanley O'Neill, took the helm last week. It has also shared staff with Merrill Lynch: Burson alumnus Bob Horton moved over to serve as director of brand marketing for Merrill Lynch's US Private Client business, which Burson picked up in 2000, and West Lockhart became VP of communications and PR. California Dried Plum Board Agency Ketchum Length 24 years When the California Dried Plum Board hired Ketchum to promote its produce in 1979, dried plums were better known as prunes. The Reagan years were a boon to the growers, as Ketchum and the Board pitched prunes to newly health-conscious, fiber-hungry consumers, while news of the President's colon cancer raised awareness of the fruit's cancer-fighting properties. But those years were followed by a bust, as prune eaters aged and younger consumers came to identify the fruit with the elderly. "We had an entire generation of people that had never tried prunes," says Board marketing director Peggy Castaldi. Based on research by Ketchum, the Board came up with a bold gambit - rebranding the prune with the daintier moniker "dried plum." After gaining approval for the name change from the Food and Drug Administration, the Board went ahead with the plan two years ago, and it proved successful, generating a storm of coverage and arresting the decline in sales. Arbitron Agency KCSA Length 15 years While KCSA has served as agency of record for radio ratings and media research company Arbitron since 1987, the agency's lead on the account, Henry Feintuch, has worked on the business since 1982, when Arbitron was owned by Control Data Corporation and Feintuch worked for Manhattan IR firm Booke & Company. When he joined KCSA, Arbitron followed him over. "When I'm wearing my Arbitron hat at KCSA, I feel every bit an Arbitron employee," says Feintuch. The agency has seen Arbitron come into its own over the years. In the mid-1990s, Control Data Corp. split, and Arbitron became a part of its service arm, Ceridian. Then, two years ago, Ceridian spun off Arbitron as a public company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. KCSA also helped the company navigate a crisis when it bowed out of TV ratings and cut 800 jobs. As Arbitron has introduced new products and more accurate tracking devices, KCSA has expanded its brief to include PR as well as IR. United Parcel Service Agency Edelman Length 14 years The relationship between Edelman and United Parcel Service is both a testament to the power of the bonds between agency and longstanding client and a cautionary tale illustrating how those bonds may weaken when confronted with a crisis. Edelman's share of UPS' PR business has been sharply scaled back over the years, but the agency continues to handle the company's international account. Edelman was UPS' first agency of record, winning the account in a 1988 pitch against Ketchum and Hill & Knowlton. "After all the presentations, we said those are the people who are still going to be handling the account hands-on 10 years from now," says UPS' VP of public relations Ken Sternad. But following a disastrous 1997 strike by the Teamsters union, UPS made reputation management its top priority, and hired Fleishman-Hillard to handle its primary US corporate account. Edelman has helped the company navigate its global expansion, and Sternad speaks warmly of the agency, noting that he still has Edelman deputy chairman Michael Morely on his speed dial.

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