Hank Dye's first client was Martha White Foods. It was also his
first agency job, in the new PR division of a Nashville advertising
"It was a pioneering time for PR in Nashville," Dye remembers. "I really
was a child."
The year was 1966. Dye is now CEO of Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence. One of his
most important clients is still Martha White Foods, which has changed
hands five times in its history. "Through all that, you might say that
we have been the consistent factor," Dye says. "The protector of the
icon, of the heritage."
The ties that bind
Loyalty can be fickle in the PR world. Annual contracts and reviews have
become standard. Some clients today seem to search for PR counselors,
only to drop them before long. In a recent example, Sun Microsystems
abruptly ended its four-month relationship with Eastwick Communications
But PRWeek's search for accounts that have lasted 20 years and longer
was unexpectedly fruitful. Burson-Marsteller has held on to Unilever for
28 years. ALR in Dallas has worked with Rev. Billy Graham for two
decades. Publicis Dialog has helped the California Table Grape
Commission since 1979.
Andy Polansky, now President and COO for Weber Shandwick Worldwide in
North America, was an AAE in 1981, when BSMG was retained by
Ingersoll-Rand. And Ketchum CEO Dave Drobis pitched the Potato Board
account 30 years ago - and it's still a client.
Long relationships are not restricted to PR, though. For 28 years,
Edward Howard & Co. has handled IR and some PR for Cedar Fair, an Ohio
amusement park operator, even after the company went private in the
Cedar Fair became an NYSE limited partnership company, and Edward Howard
has found that the account has fluctuated between his being very active
and merely consulting on isolated projects.
Throughout the changes, the firm has tried to be flexible. "Our policy
has always been we are willing to work with people when it is not that
active, but when it appears there is an opportunity for things to
change," says Pat Gallagher, SCP with Edward Howard.
In fact, lengthy accounts rarely, if ever, retain the shape of the
original relationship over the years. Hank Dye began working on the
Martha White Foods account just before the company went public. He found
himself learning all about IR, with media interest primarily restricted
to trade publications.
"As they went public, you had disclosure requirements," Dye recalls.
"But The Wall Street Journal wasn't waking up every morning wondering
what was going on with this small company in Nashville." Dye's role
evolved as the company was bought and sold five times, and he and the
firm he started in 1980 became the true repository of the brand's
In 1953, one of Martha White's sales representatives discovered a
bluegrass group called Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain
Boys. The group was enlisted to promote the company's flour and corn
meal through tours and appearances on the Grand Ole Opry. Dye sometimes
even traveled with the band on the tour bus.
When Pillsbury became the brand's parent company, its southern ties
But Dye stuck with the brand, and Pillsbury is now committed to
restoring Martha White's prominence in the bluegrass and country music
scene, and recently helped the Grand Ole Opry celebrate its 75th
anniversary. "There were some years when the owners lost sight of that
opportunity," Dye says.
"But there is a brand team now that has rediscovered that."
The agency's understanding of the heritage has been a significant factor
in this revival. "It could have been lost," says Raquel Beckett,
associate marketing manager for Pillsbury. Beckett says the brand
inspires miraculous loyalty figures among consumers in the south. "Part
of the reason that we have been able to succeed in the marketplace is
because the agency has kept a lot of that knowledge over the years."
A personal touch
Having a personal connection with the client can help ensure
Wally "Famous" Amos has known Chris Rosica, president of his PR firm
Rosica Mulhern, since he was a baby. "I've kind of landed this role
because Wally likes having me there," Rosica says. "He's my champion and
he trusts us implicitly."
Amos says that the rapport he enjoys with John and Chris Rosica is
He trusts them to set up events without too much consultation from
John Rosica was also responsible for bringing Amos and Literacy
Volunteers of America together, a relationship that has proved hugely
successful both to the cause of literacy, and to boosting Amos'
John Rosica recalls their first meeting with LVA. "We were so different
from anything they had seen before," he says. "Wally came in with his
hat and his cookie shirt on and I was wearing my corduroy jacket and
pressed jeans. It was frightening for them."
More terrifying for LVA than the hip clothing was the prospect that PR
would damage the integrity of their product. Rosica had to work to
reassure the organization that their intention was to reinforce the
integrity of the organization. Literacy events related to Famous Amos
have taken place in libraries across the country ever since.
While John Rosica says he would not even consider working for a client
that he does not like, or that does not seem to like them, some others
agencies have less personal relationships with their clients. Laura
Walcher has worked for Diane Powers of Bazaar Del Mundo for 25 years,
and while she does not characterize her as a "friend," she says she has
"much respect and affection for her."
The Bazaar was Walcher's first client when she started her own agency,
and it was not always easy learning the nuances of her profession
through the client work. Powers had only been running the Bazaar for a
relatively short period of time. "We just had to each establish our
responsibilities," Walcher explains. "She had to adjust her vision of
what I could and should be doing. Sometimes it had to be adjusted up,
She recalls her "knees knocking" when she was required to provide the
occasional "reality check" to her client. But she was excited by Powers'
vision, and as they got to know each other, the relationship
Walcher knew she was finally establishing herself as an important part
of the team when, about four or five years into the account, she found
herself being brought into strategy sessions for events at a much
Clients and agencies alike have experienced growth, mergers, and
"At the time (we started working with them), MS&L was D'Arcy McManus &
Masius," recalls William O'Neill, executive director of communications
operations for General Motors. "I would say the strength of the
relationship is that it has evolved, been flexible, and changed over
time. There is no question we will be working with MS&L in various
Agencies can also expect to experience lean times with their clients
when the account spans two or more decades. But standards must be
maintained, even when money is tight. "When we get a budget cut, they
get a budget cut," explains Jack Mitenbuler, business services manager
for Dow AgroSciences, which retains agency Bader Rutter. "I don't
imagine it's a lot of fun for them, but they have managed just
Bader Rutter also offers continuity to Dow, not in a sense of extending
the heritage of the brand, but serving as a solid resource for the
in-house PR staff. Communications jobs at Dow AgroSciences are often
training vehicles for sales representatives who are moving up through
the corporate ranks. The system is mutually advantageous. Corporate
employees learn to appreciate the PR function, and Bader Rutter is able
to build relationships with people who move on through the
Mitenbuler also thinks that PR agencies need to be willing to make their
opinions known, even when they don't agree with the corporate line. "You
have to be able to fight with each other," he says, citing one Bader
Rutter staff member who is particularly good at stimulating strategic
"This guy will play the foil, the devil's advocate, and will fight and
challenge and argue."
Perhaps most importantly, an agency should never be complacent in its
achievements. Fleishman-Hillard's extraordinary 48-year run with
technology and engineering giant Emerson has been characterized by
increasingly difficult and rewarding challenges. In 2000, the firm
helped Emerson reposition itself in the network power space, helping the
media and investors understand that the company is no longer just about
the motors that made it a well-known brand.
When Kathy Button Bell, Emerson's chief marketing officer, took her
in-house position two years ago, she was given the opportunity to
rethink the agency relationships. However, she wasn't about to let
"They keep getting better as we need them to be better," she says. Bell
is also gratified that Emerson has been able to forge relationships
across Omnicom, including DDB and Interbrand. "It makes a difference
being able to keep it in the family."
Bell says the by-product of a good long-term account is trust. "Because
of the length of this relationship, we feel more confident taking risks
with them." she says. "We know they are not just the new guys who are
trying to make a name for themselves."
BAZAAR DEL MUNDO
Length: 25 years
Laura Walcher launched her own PR firm (later Matthews/Mark) when her
boss, the Bazaar del Mundo's regular PR council, resigned. It was easy
landing her first client, but proving herself to Diane Powers, founder
of the Bazaar, was difficult. "She was new in her business, and I was
new in mine," Walcher reflects. "It took me a long time to work out my
relationship with her. But I was determined to make it work." Gradually,
Walcher assumed greater responsibility in planning events, including the
successful Cinco de Mayo festival. Walcher is now helping Powers fight a
regulation that will put her contract to run the Bazaar up for bid this
year, required because it is located in the Old Town San Diego State
Agency: Bader Rutter & Assoc.
Length: 20 years
Ron Bader is "a real firm taskmaster," says Jack Mitenbuler, business
services manager of Dow AgroSciences. "He is a good businessman, and he
is buttoned up. And that is the same general behavior you see from the
client services team." Bader's culture is one factor that helped it keep
the pest management company, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, a client for
two decades. One recent account highlight was the successful promotion
of Sentricon, a termite control product. Pest control operators were
recruited and trained as media contacts to create awareness for the
Length: 48 years
Fleishman's Emerson account started so long ago that no one is quite
sure how it all began. "My understanding is that it stemmed from an
internal employee communications issue," says Mark Polzin, SVP. The list
of those who managed the account in the past reads like a history of the
agency itself, including Robert Hillard and the firm's current CEO John
Both companies are based in St Louis, and the brands have grown
together, with work spreading to Asia and Europe in tandem. Emerson's
chief marketing officer took her job two years ago, and had the
opportunity to look for a new agency. "Instead, we've grown the
relationship," says Kathy Button Bell. "They look for the best
opportunities for us, not just to get our name in print."
FABULOUS FOX THEATER
Agency: The Headline Group
Length: 20 years
Claudia Gaines Patton's first client was the landmark Fabulous Fox
Theater in Atlanta. The former schoolteacher, now CEO, spent her summers
promoting rock shows, and approached the theater's newly hired GM Edgar
Neiss when she started her firm. "He was going to design a lot of new
series for the theater and was going to really shake things up," she
remembers. "He said he'd give me a whirl." Patton's first project was
promoting The King and I with Yul Brynner. Neiss compares the
relationship to family. "It was sort of a growing up together. Sometimes
business relationships are like that."
Agency: Rosica Mulhern
Length: 20 years
Rosica Mulhern made Amos Famous. John Rosica was the national promotion
director for RCA Records when he met Wally Amos, a former agent with
William Morris, known for his homemade cookies. Rosica started working
for Amos' company (now owned by Keebler), and then launched his own
agency. Cause-related marketing in conjunction with Literacy Volunteers
of America helped make Amos an icon, recently featured on A&E's
Biography. But it's the personal relationship with John Rosica and his
son Chris (the firm's president) that is paramount. "It's a total trust
thing," Amos maintains. "If they left, I would not be there."
FUJI FOTO FILM USA
Length: 20 years
Richard Edelman, CEO, and Jody Quinn, EVP, made up the original pitch
team for the Fuji account, to handle PR for the company's first Olympic
sponsorship in Los Angeles in 1984. Edelman has been agency of record
ever since, focusing primarily on product work, before moving on to
corporate positioning as the digital imaging market beckoned. Quinn says
there is comfort in the relationship's familiarity. "But you still need
to keep it fresh," she warns. "A potential pitfall is a partnership that
is willing to just ride it out, instead of finding ways to keep it
Agency: Originally the PR division of ad agency D'Arcy McManus & Masius,
became Manning Selvage & Lee in 1985
Length: 21 years
The PR arm of D'Arcy MacManus & Masius (later Manning Selvage & Lee)
helped launch the innovative Pontiac Fiero in 1980. The result was a PR
smash, with 80,000 orders taken before the first ad ran. MS&L's remit
has evolved, and the firm's continuity amid GM's flux is an asset.
"We've been responsive to their changing needs," says Stan Stein, GM of
MS&L's Detroit office, "whether it is media relations, crisis council,
or any lowest level request." William O'Neill, GM's ED of
communications, says longevity requires anticipating what's next. "It's
bringing in what the client doesn't even know it needs."
MARTHA WHITE FOODS
Agency: Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence
Length: 35 years
Martha White Foods, producer of corn meal, grits and other staples of
Southern life, is ubiquitous in the region, but unknown outside it.
Parent company Pillsbury sees DVL as a crucial tie to the brand's rich
"That has been very clear to everybody," says Raquel Beckett, the
company's associate marketing manager. "It was hard for Pillsbury to
understand a regional brand when they acquired it." DVL stuck with the
account, even when corporate interest in the brand's ties to the Grand
Ole Opry and bluegrass music waned. But now the Martha White Bluegrass
Express Bus Tour is back on the road. "In the past year, we started
going back to those roots, to nurture its relationships in the South,"
Agency: Hill & Knowlton
Length: 27 years
Two executives from Mazda approached Hill & Knowlton in 1974 with a
problem. "They said we have 100,000 vehicles sitting in the ports and we
can't sell them, can you help us?" says Ron Hartwig, GM of H&K's LA
H&K accepted the client with one proviso: In order to be effective, the
firm would have to be involved in strategic planning for the company's
future vehicles. "And indeed, they brought us under the tent," Hartwig
says. Until Mazda developed its own in-house teams, H&K served as its
primary PR department. H&K helped the company find a US manufacturing
base in Detroit, where it held the first-ever press conference in the US
by a Japanese company.
Length: 28 years
Financial companies didn't think much of PR in 1973. Neuberger Berman,
an asset management firm that specialized in individual investors,
changed its attitude when it repositioned. "They were about to offer
money management services like pension plans to organizations," recalls
Alan Towers, president. "In order to support that effort, they decided
to use a PR firm for the first time." Since that successful transition,
Towers says the firms have grown together, but both retain a mutual
entrepreneurial spirit. "They didn't want to work with a large PR firm,"
he maintains. "They recognized the advantage of what a small firm that
really needed their account could do."