Last Chance for Publicis & Hal Riney?

Execs Claim Shop Faces Merger Unless it Can Get Talent, New Biz

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Publicis & Hal Riney is at a crossroads: The storied shop needs a creative mastermind and some signs of new business life or it risks being merged into a sibling agency.

"They will either get a big name and try one more time" or be folded into other Publicis organizations, said an executive familiar with the situation, though the agency denies both claims.

The legendary San Francisco shop, originally Hal Riney & Partners, has lost a significant portion of its billings since 2002, when auto brand Saturn left for Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. Most recently, it lost a shootout with Goodby for assignments from Hewlett-Packard, a client the two shops shared.

The agency now has just two cornerstone accounts: Sprint's business-to-business advertising and health-care provider WellPoint.

Legendary adman Hal Riney founded the San Francisco office of Ogilvy & Mather in 1977 and bought back the agency in 1987, naming it Hal Riney & Partners. Starting with clients such as the E.&J. Gallo Winery and later adding Saturn, Sprint, First Union (now Wachovia) and Subway Restaurants, Mr. Riney built an agency that had $700 million in billings and 360 employees at the time of its sale to Publicis in May 1998.

Executives at Publicis & Hal Riney denied they were looking for a creative director. "That's factually incorrect," said Karen Francis, agency CEO. She said she recently spoke with Publicis Groupe Chairman-CEO Maurice Levy about long-range plans for the shop. She did not elaborate on the plans.

Nor is the shop facing abandonment of its nameplate, Ms. Francis insisted. In fact, the agency refers to itself informally as Hal Riney, a Publicis Co. And clients routinely refer to the agency as "Riney," she said, adding that use of the name prevents confusion with other Publicis shops-particularly Publicis in the West, Seattle-when the shops compete in pitches.

It's a way of showing that the agency is "distinct and different" and is now putting together disciplines that will allow it to offer the integrated communications for which Mr. Riney was known, she said.

Publicis could not easily fold the shop into its Publicis North America operations because Publicis in the West, Seattle, handles T-Mobile, a conflict with the San Francisco agency's Sprint account. Fallon, however, is one possibility.

Mr. Riney has his own opinion about the agency's decision to emphasize his name.

just blocks away

"Frankly, I think these sorts of things work much better when the person whose name they're using is dead," Mr. Riney said. "I mean, it's a whole lot to easier to attribute all kinds of proprietary, handed-down wisdom to dead people, i.e., Burnett, Bernbach, Ogilvy, et al.

"But I'm not sure it works as well when the real legendary advertising savant is simply no longer with organization but still sitting on his butt 10 or 15 blocks away. I mean, if anyone wants to know what I think about building brands, they don't have to call a company just because it's got my name on it. Hell, they can still just pick up the phone and ask me."

Jamie King, managing director, said the shop has $800 million in billings, citing clients such as Univision; AAA of Northern California, Nevada and Utah; and beer, wine and spirits company Foster's Group. Another executive familiar with the agency said the shop is down to about 100 employees with significantly lower billings.

Mr. King also denies the shop is looking for a big-name creative. Jon Soto, executive creative director, runs the shop's day-to-day operations. His partner, Jae Goodman, left earlier this month to become a creative director at CAA Marketing, part of Creative Artists Agency, and is not expected to be replaced. Instead, the agency is looking to hire creatives in additional disciplines to round out its range of offerings, Mr. King said.

Over the years, the shop has spawned some of the city's most famous ad agencies and admen, including Goodby Silverstein. "At a time, it was the best place to work in the country. I would never have been able to do what I've done if I hadn't worked there," Jeff Goodby said. His partner Rich Silverstein and former partner Andy Berlin also are Riney alums.

Greg Stern, whose agency, Butler, Shine & Stern, is located across the bay in Sausalito and was founded by three Goodby Silverstein alums, said while Mr. Riney is an institution in San Francisco, "the soul of the shop has been gone."

Harold Sogard, partner, Goodby Silverstein, said it's misleading to emphasize the Riney name. "As an alumni of Riney, it's sad to see its decline," Mr. Sogard said. "It's not just that Hal's gone; what he stood for is gone."
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