When Edward Reilly acquired a small ranch in Costa Rica, he
intended to undertake a small reforestation project. Instead, the ranch
grew into a business, trading cattle, sugar cane, and rice.
He is still dedicated to the ranch, but Reilly's main job is trading in
the less-tangible communications business. Reilly is founder and CEO of
three- year-old Westhill Partners, a New York-based communications
"We're really just coming out of the blocks now with it all together,"
says Reilly, whose idea was to create an agency weighted heavily toward
senior consultants backed up by top research.
"I was thinking of a firm small in size, but big in terms of the
talent," he comments. The idea was to use Internet technology to
communicate with clients and others, especially during times of change
Reilly, 48, comes to PR through the research door. After serving in the
Marines and graduating as a philosophy major from the University of
Massachusetts, he did a brief stint at the Princeton Seminary.
Realizing that theology was not his life's calling, he went into
politics, working on the reelection campaign of New Jersey governor
He subsequently worked on other high-profile Democratic campaigns,
including the presidential bids of Michael Dukakis and Richard
In 1986, the market-research company he started merged with KRC
Research, which a few years later became part of Sawyer Miller
Consulting, the foundation of what was to become BSMG.
Harris Diamond, BSMG's current president/CEO, recalls one particularly
memorable business trip with Reilly when they were working with a Latin
American president in the mid '90s.
"We went to Colombia, and our car was robbed at gunpoint by men with
machine guns. We were in the hotel, petrified, and I remembered he was
in the Marine Corp, and I said 'What do we do?'" According to Diamond,
Reilly then confessed that his special skills lay with the Marines' golf
team. Fortunately, Reilly and Diamond were eventually given presidential
security men to help them leave safely.
While contending with thieves may not have been Reilly's strong point,
his career has seen some ferocious battles, from politics to consulting
for the phone companies during deregulation.
He says it was a fairly natural extension to move on to corporate
reputation work: "The skills of people who come from politics are more
relevant to corporations than are those of people who have been doing
the product program." (Reilly himself has no product PR experience).
After a stint as vice chairman and partner of BSMG, Reilly left to start
Westhill, and he brought in colleague and tech expert Joshua Gilbert
from BSMG. He added Richard Mascolo's research company Skunkworks
Marketing Lab, and then Deborah Hayes, the former director of media and
corporate relations at Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions. Hayes was
Gephardt's deputy press secretary, and first met Reilly when he worked
as an advisor on the presidential bid.
Then joined John Scanlon, the late legendary New York PR man, as well as
Lou Colasuonno, who had been editor-in-chief of the New York Post and
the New York Daily News, and then a principal at The Dilenschneider
"I intercepted (Scanlon and Colasuonno) when they were thinking of doing
their own thing," Reilly says. "John and Lou fit into the model I
envisioned of senior consultants powered with diagnostic tools."
But in May, just as Westhill Partners was preparing to come onto the
scene, it suffered a major loss: the death of Scanlon. Reilly, like
Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, used to receive a 7am call from
Scanlon every morning. When Scanlon didn't arrive at the 9:30am meeting,
Reilly jumped a cab to his apartment to discover the sad news.
Fortunately, the clients that Scanlon brought to the agency have
They include the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Alfred Taubman, the former
Sotheby's chairman. Westhill's other clients include HBO, Merrill Lynch,
John Hancock Financial Services, Vanguard Media, Guinness/UDV, and the
Versace family and company.
In harmony with Reilly's vision, Westhill is a flatter organization than
most larger shops. It has eight partners (who tend to be very hands-on)
and another eight to 10 senior account people, and a total of 45
Last month, Reilly started working with Scientific Games International
of Alpharetta, GA, which was having difficulty with its new contract to
provide lottery services for the state of Iowa.
"What impressed me most is that we're working directly with Ed and
(managing director) Laura (Murray)," says R. Steven McCarthy, SVP of
sales and marketing.
"There's no one else that I've had contact with."
In addition to emphasizing its senior people, research and technology
are important parts of the agency Reilly is building. The Web played a
major role in helping client Bob Kerrey, the former US senator, in his
battle over the facts about his actions in the Vietnam War.
"In a 96-hour period, there were 562 stories written about this," Reilly
says. To get Kerrey supporters - the SEAL team, people from the New
School, and US senators - on the same page (so to speak), Westhill put
up a protected site with talking points within hours of meeting
Reilly's challenge now is to subtly remind clients that Westhill was
never only about Scanlon, even while the agency mourns his loss. The
task is made tougher by the close relationship the two shared. "It's a
difficult period to talk about," admits Reilly.
1983-1986: Founding partner, MRK Consulting
1986-1989: Partner and CEO, KRC Research (which merged with MRK)
1989-1991: Partner, Sawyer Miller Group (KRC merged with Sawyer Miller
1991-1998: Partner and vice chairman, Bozell Sawyer Miller Group (Sawyer
Miller merged with Bozell to become BSMG)
1998-present: Founder and CEO, Westhill Partners.