Feldman brings client focus, discipline to GCI Group

As CEO of GCI Group since 1997, Bob Feldman strikes a balance for the firm by putting as much focus on running the business side efficiently as he does on serving GCI's clients.

As CEO of GCI Group since 1997, Bob Feldman strikes a balance for the firm by putting as much focus on running the business side efficiently as he does on serving GCI's clients.

Ed Meyer, CEO of Grey Global Group, met Bob Feldman in the summer of 1996 while keeping his eye out for up-and-comers he might like to poach. A year later, when he initiated a search for a CEO of GCI Group, he says, Feldman was his first choice. "The more people I saw," he says, "the more I became convinced that my first instinct was right." Feldman's path has been parceled out between three firms over his 26 years in the business. There has been some recent industry conjecture about where Feldman might land or how GCI might change if the sale of Grey to a bidder yet to be named happens. Meanwhile, Feldman maintains it is business as usual at GCI. Brooklyn-raised and educated at Utica College in New York, he began his career at Burson-Marsteller, building his skills on the large Owens Corning business. Harold Burson, who was CEO during Feldman's tenure, calls him "a first-rate guy who did a terrific job for us," citing his work on that account in particular. "I learned a couple of lessons from [Owens Corning]," Feldman says. "Sometimes the best accounts to work on are the least sexy brands. We did some terrific stuff [on that account] that I think was really state-of-the-art. Others that were sexier, household names were nightmarish clients." The other lesson was to take good care of longstanding clients. "I don't want them ever waking up and thinking we take their business for granted," he says. Pam Pollace, VP of corporate communications at Intel, has been working with GCI for six years for consumer media outreach. GCI recently invested in a forum with key agency staff and Intel to brainstorm some new approaches. "What Bob brings to the conversations that he and I have," Pollace notes, "[is that] he's very open to new thinking and understands where we want to take the function." When Ketchum approached Feldman, the opportunity to head up the firm's New York office proved too enticing to forgo. Ten years at that firm were punctuated with successful wins of such clients as American Express and the formalizing of the agency's "best teams" approach, which pulled in talent across disciplines to service business. It's a philosophy he still espouses, one that has become increasingly embraced across the industry. "You need an organization that breaks down barriers and people who understand that it's part of the DNA," Feldman explains. "Agencies have historically managed to create lots of barriers to doing something that ought to be so simple and obvious." Among those who know him well, Feldman is highly regarded for his keen intellect and strong motivational skills. "He's one of the sharpest minds I have ever worked with," says Rob Flaherty, Ketchum senior partner, who has known Feldman since 1977 and worked with him at Burson before being hired by him at Ketchum. "He's very fair. He looks out for you. He makes people feel good about the work they're doing." Though content at Ketchum, Feldman found himself courted by Visa USA to head up marketing. Tempting though it was, he was drawn to Meyer's offer to take up the reigns at GCI. Jack Bergen (now at Siemens) had held the top post until 1997, and an internal committee of three executives had been running things in the interim. "We all knew this was a wonderful way to bring people together, but a lousy way to manage a business over time," Meyer recalls. "It was a way to give me time to sort out my thoughts." Meyer says it was time well spent. "[Feldman] is a very inspirational leader, by far the best man we've had running the business. He brought up the disciplines and client focus. That has allowed us to develop into a first-class organization." The acquisition of Austin, TX-based Read Poland in 2001, Meyer says, has been one notable highlight, affirmed that same year when the office won the Dell business in the US. Feldman attributes the success of that to the fact that GCI and Julian Read "shared, healthy respect for the history of Read Poland, as well as a commitment to dynamic change going forward." Feldman brought in Jeff Hunt, another former Burson colleague, to work with Read and eventually take over the office. Hunt's early training with Feldman has endured to this day. "You catch yourself at moments in front of clients when you say something and you think, 'That's Bob,'" says Hunt. "He sort of ingrained things in you during your early days." The acquisition of San Francisco-based Kamer-Singer in 1999 has not been as successful. The office lost both principals and has turned over several GMs since. Feldman attributes many of the problems to the general market conditions that followed the purchase. Sam Singer, now president of Singer Associates, who calls the experience "instructive for all of us," says Feldman is "a dedicated professional and great PR strategist." Though known for his self-confidence, Hunt says, Feldman wants to share the spotlight and becomes annoyed when others don't "step up." Decorating his office is a series of photographs he took on an African safari. Grimacing in good humor at the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that a profile headline should read, "Feldman hunts for big game," he proceeds to give credit for the pictures to the new camera he bought for the trip. He clearly enjoys being part of organizations that are in a state of positive transformation, as he says was the case at Burson and Ketchum. Fundamentally he is an agency guy, where he says "you are much more in control of your destiny." But it is obvious that he also seeks to flex his intellectual muscle over running the business, and not just servicing clients - puzzling out the best ways to propel the firm to the next level. In that context, it's easy to see why the ongoing challenges for GCI keep him engaged as the firm strives to compete against more established brands. "We need to pursue a strategy with great clarity and passion," he stresses. "So when clients get to know us, they are compelled to retain us." Bob Feldman 1997-present GCI Group, CEO 1987-1997 Ketchum, various levels to EVP 1978-1987 Burson-Marsteller, entry level to SVP

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