In 1986, Hal Riney bought the San Francisco office of Ogilvy & Mather that he headed and renamed it Hal Riney & Partners; the new shop had 105 employees and billings of $85 million. Almost immediately the shop began to turn out award-winning work for its clients.
One example of the agency's work was a campaign for client E.&J. Gallo Winery's Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers, which ran about 90 ads over a three-and-a-half-year period in the mid-1980s. Each spot ran for about two weeks and featured the two recurring characters, only one of whom ever spoke, and a joke about starting a company. The commercials were directed by Joe Pytka. The Gallo name never appeared in the spots, which were condemned by a rival marketer as deceptive in that they hid the fact that the giant Gallo winery was behind the wine coolers, not some homespun, shoestring family vintner. Riney resigned the labor-intensive account in 1988.
The Saturn account
A major coup for Hal Riney & Partners was the 1988 acquisition of the $90 million General Motors Corp. Saturn car account. GM's decision to go with Riney surprised many in the industry who thought the agency was too small to service the start-up automaker, which would not even begin building cars until 1990.
The agency met the challenge in an unexpected way—by marketing the company and virtually ignoring the car. After pressure from Saturn dealers, the agency created ads focusing on real Saturn owners and what their cars meant to them. The tagline, "A different kind of company. A different kind of car," appealed to some consumers, who developed an almost cultlike devotion to the brand.
In 1999, the agency responded to the introduction of the larger "L" series with a new tagline, "The next big thing from Saturn." The agency had a hugely successful year in 1996, gaining about $200 million in new billings in nine months and increasing its total billings by almost one-third. Added to the agency roster were two technology accounts, Acer Group and Sprint Spectrum.
Riney's reputation for branding attracted Subway Sandwiches and Salads to the agency, which developed a two-pronged campaign approach, dubbed the "Smile and bite" ads, in 1996. The "Smile" component was a branding campaign designed to promote long-term sales and build image. "Bite" was an aggressive, promotion-driven campaign. The Subway campaign marked the first time the agency had used cable TV's segmented audiences to great advantage.
Cable TV also played a role in Riney's $100 million campaign for First Union Bank that portrayed a cold, harsh financial world. The campaign ran on news, business news and sports programs. Research showed that national awareness of the company tripled in the first few months of the campaign.
Hal Riney & Partners garnered two Internet clients at the end of the 1990s, with the addition of Discovery Communications' eToys and the Webvan home grocery delivery service. Riney's eToys work received citations as some of the best dot-com advertising in the 1999 holiday season.
Acquired by Publicis
In 1998, Publicis Groupe acquired Hal Riney & Partners in a move that proved beneficial to both parties. Riney, with 350 employees and offices in San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Atlanta, pushed Publicis into the ranks of the top 20 U.S. agencies, with more than $1 billion in billings. And Publicis gave Riney the international network it lacked. The renamed Publicis & Hal Riney continued to operate independently.
In 2002, Hal Riney announced his retirement from the agency he founded.
The year 2002 marked another important upheaval in the agency’s history as Saturn put its account into review and switched to Omnicom Group’s Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, an agency founded by former Riney creatives Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein.
In 2003, Kirk Souder, a founder of Southern California independent shop Ground Zero, was named president-executive creative director of the agency and took on the job of rebuilding the agency. CEO Scott Marshall who managed the agency through the Publicis purchase, left at the end of 2003.