For more than 20 years, Atlanta has been one of the most bankable
growth markets in the nation. During the '80s and '90s, the city's
upsurge was fueled by a dominating airport and a core of homegrown blue
chips like BellSouth, Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, and Georgia-Pacific.
Not to mention a cache of communications, technology and retail
innovators like CNN, First Data Corporation, Scientific-Atlanta, and
Home Depot. These companies anchored the region, substantiating it as a
hotbed of commerce, and stimulating the southward migration of many
Fortune 500 headquarters.
Then on a balmy September morn in 1990, world headlines screamed, "It's
Atlanta!" While every other metropolitan area was in the grips of the
Gulf War recession, Atlanta was awarded the 1996 Olympics, fueling a
boom through the first half of the decade. It was the ultimate PR coup
for a geographic desperate to improve its international business
With the technology boom also fomenting during this period, Atlanta was
preserved from a post-Olympic recession, and saw double-digit growth
throughout the decade. Certainly a second tier to Silicon Valley, but
still home to new-economy darlings iXL, WebMD, and a seraphim of others.
B-to-b and tech were the plays of the day and, riding the coattails of
both Alexander and Crescent Communications, almost every PR shop in town
was in an acquisition frenzy, and launching practice groups to address
the "new new thing."
Even though the big venture capital bucks did not cross the Mississippi
until late 1999, the Atlanta business community was fatter than a summer
tomato, and it was throwing green at PR. Of course, this same period
also witnessed the improvement of industry's lot in the marketing mix.
Finally sitting at the boardroom table and converting itself from a
source of ink to the brains of brand strategy, Atlanta PR grew an
average of 14% every year. In 2000, local firms grew a stratospheric
What a difference a year makes.
Perhaps the messy January headlines of the defection at Cohn & Wolfe
were prescient. The city's oldest PR firm was in deep trouble. Its GM
and top lieutenants were dismissed on the eve of their defection to
start up The Titan Network. More bad headlines followed. The VC vein had
dried up. iXL and WebMD imploded. BellSouth, Coke, Delta, and CNN
announced layoffs, and the seraphim of technology companies got their
No one is quite sure what's going on at the world's most ubiquitous
Last year, Coke's new CEO and chairman Doug Daft announced a "new era of
openness," and positioned Charlie Holleran as head of
In February of this year, the company installed Dirk Vande Beek, former
press secretary to Vice President Dick Cheney and global PR director for
Haliburton, in the top PR spot. By fall, they were both gone. Vande
Beek's departure happened almost under the radar. Daft's former
executive assistant Clyde Tuggle was recently given the mantle. The
final reshuffle of the company's communications function, now two years
in the making, is said to be forthcoming. The question remains as to how
this will affect Coke's agency relationships.
World headlines on a more recent September morn screamed a more ominous
declaration. Unfortunately, Atlanta was not to be spared the travails of
America's new war.
Delta Air Lines is the city's largest single employer. Despite the
federal government bailout, the company recently announced a staggering
layoff of 13,000 workers, and plans to cut $1.7 billion from its
Spokesperson Cindy Kurchesky says layoffs will affect the internal
communications group, adding, "We are looking very seriously at all
costs, including spending for PR." Hartsfield International, the
nation's busiest airport, is also home to UPS. The company, which
originally projected to carry 325 million packages this holiday season,
announced a 20% drop in revenues since September 11.
PR is flat in Atlanta for the first time in a decade. "Flat" is the spin
on the street, but when the final tally is released in the first
quarter, it may be written in red ink.
Belt-tightening has been most dramatically played out at the big
Ketchum and GCI Group have made their own headlines lately with layoff
announcements, but in truth, no one has been spared the ersatz
"right-sizing." The only heat being felt in the Atlanta PR market of
late is GM feet held to the fiscal fire. Executives are caught in a
squeeze play between the pressure to make a profit and proving ROI to
clients. If there is a sure bet in PR right now, it's in research.
"We're being asked to get our labor costs in the right proportion to our
revenue," says Jan Lewin, managing director of Manning Selvage &
She says clients are being much more conservative about their approach
to PR. "It's taking longer to get decisions made on budgets." Lewin is
among the most often referenced by her peers as an agency chief who
seems to have made a lot of right moves in the turbulence of both the
2000 boom and 2001 bust. Last year, she engineered the acquisition of
local workplace communications dynamo Deeley Trimble, and this year
bolstered MS&L's overall IR strength by brokering the buyout of LA-based
Porter Novelli GM Katharine Day Bremer was forced to be aggressively
innovative as a manager this year. "Our leadership team took a pay cut
that represented one full-time job, which we saved here," she says.
Three others were laid off. "We found ways that we could do those jobs."
Porter Novelli was a latecomer to the Atlanta market, opening its office
in 1997, and struggling to gain a foothold until Bremer was assigned in
1999. Projected last year as "one to watch," Bremer and her team won
both the American Cancer Society and BellSouth accounts this year.
(GCI-Atlanta had been AOR to both.) Bremer deftly partnered with 360
Thinc to win the latter, but with GCI currently trying to buy 360, the
dynamics of this relationship are to be watched over the next year.
Odds makers on Peachtree will be surprised to learn that news of Hill &
Knowlton's imminent death has been exaggerated, at least for now. Like
C&W, H&K has a storied history in this town. Many of those who did not
cut their eye teeth at the former, did so at the latter. While C&W's
downfall was a rapid arterial bleed, H&K's troubles have been from
leadership turnover, causing a chronic staff and client bleed. Hope was
on the horizon when Alan Ulman took the helm in 1998 and wrested PR
heavyweight Deb Spicer from BellSouth. He got the numbers back in the
black, and convinced headquarters to approve the acquisition of hot tech
boutique Socket PR this year - just before the bubble burst.
Ulman and Spicer moved on to Ketchum and GCI Group, respectively, and
clients and staff seemed to evaporate. H&K has moved out of its prime
midtown offices to Socket's Duluth premises, far outside the city's
famous Perimeter. All appearances to the contrary, however, the agency
is still competitive and operating under the H&K mantle. Socket
cofounder Beverly McDonald has been named GM, and she just announced a
new $1 million account win (Lucent Technologies - see news
story). A breath of life.
Consolidation is the word being whispered lately. Unlike the large-scale
acquisitions of the past five years, the sensibility is that we may see
mergers between independents. While surveying the landscape, nearly
every shop had an opinion about what was up for sale. Few admitted to be
entertaining options, though almost all were named at one point or
another. Generally speaking, there is restlessness among the middle
ranks, and it bears watching over the next few years.
Conversely, boutiques seem to be secure. Dowling Langley is a solid
public affairs shop, and Matlock & Associates is corporate Atlanta's
go-to firm for diversity. Creative consumer shops like Cookerly,
Hayslett Sorrel, and Hope-Beckham seem to have immutable reputations for
their work, and occasionally compete against the big agencies. Cookerly,
in particular, scored a coup when AGL Resources was up for bid, beating
out a few in the top five.
Recession and resolve
Recession is now the reality in Atlanta, and there is a back-to-basics
approach in the practice of PR here, as elsewhere. It is not, however,
something the Atlanta PR community is ill-equipped to handle. To the
contrary, some very smart positioning and resource management was
engineered by the top networked agencies. Ketchum, Fleishman-Hillard,
GCI Group, and MS&L have each built a cache of subject matter experts in
their Atlanta offices, and bolstered capabilities across the market
spectrum. Largely because of the respective leadership of Jane Shivers,
Karen Kaplan, Ken Willis, and Jan Lewin, Atlanta is the network leader
on many marquis accounts.
It is the de facto gateway to Latin America, and firms here are
significantly more competitive than their mid-Atlantic rivals.
While many of the technology scions have been acquired away from this
market, the biotech industry is being incubated by a strong coalition
between state and private sectors. Governor Roy Barnes initiated the
Georgia Cancer Coalition, and seeks to make the state a center for
research and treatment. Many of the most celebrated technology
innovators escape on their golden parachutes with their reputations
intact, and are still in residence along the Perimeter. Although early
retired, most are expected to make some play in the next few years.
Atlanta PR received a boost, too, when the PRSA held its annual
conference in the city in October. The success of the event was a
testament to the society's Atlanta chapter, and to the resolve of the
local PR community.
"Most of us have been at this game in this market for a long time," says
Claudia Gaines, president of The Headline Group, which, along with
Duffey Communications, has become a major factor in Atlanta PR. "This
recession is no more a norm than the recent boom. If you play smart, you
ATLANTA PR AGENCIES
Rank Firm Name Revenue (dollars) Increase Staff
2000 2000 (%)
1 Ketchum 20,583,000 31 140
2 Ogilvy PR Worldwide 11,580,500 45 60
3 GCI Group/APCO Associates 11,337,162 47 87
4 Duffey Communications 7,209,000 34 52
6 Cohn & Wolfe 6,465,000 35 37
7 Fleishman-Hillard 5,957,000 35 40
8 Manning Selvage & Lee 5,728,616 71 10
9 Porter Novelli 3,730,000 42 38
10 Hayslett Sorre 2,950,000 N/A 22
11 The Headline Group 2,724,217 17 30
12 Edelman 2,603,796 2 20
13 William Mills Agency 2,590,076 48 27
14 Deeley Trimble/Manning
Selvage & Lee 1,770,830 N/A 3
15 Golin/Harris 1,045,000 -27 6
16 Fletcher Martin Ewing PR 1,000,000 34 13
17 The Leatherbury Group 600,000 9 6
18 Text 100 54,690 N/A 3
Source: Council of PR Firms Auditing: No audit was required for
inclusion in the rankings. The CEO/CFO/principal was required to sign a
statement verifying the accuracy of the data and agreeing to possible
participation in a random audit. Disclaimer: While every effort has been
made to ensure the accuracy of these figures, PRWeek cannot accept
liability for, nor make financial guarantees based upon the information
in this chart.