Fresh from new successes, Riney eyes int'l growth

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Hal Riney is riding high in the saddle again, his agency lassoing almost $200 million in new billings in nine months.

Those wins--which have increased Hal Riney & Partners' total billings by about a third--have included two technology accounts, Acer Group and its Acer America Corp., and Sprint Spectrum, that might not normally have found their way to his door.

LOOKING FOR A PARTNER

San Francisco's most famous adman now has his eye on finding an agency partner for international assignments, building a new unit capable of profitably handling start-up companies and even heading in new directions creatively.

And, of course, he maintains that his agency, with billings now approaching $600 million, is not for sale.

This time, Mr. Riney is no longer the lone ranger. He's accompanied by a posse of talented deputies including agency President Scott Marshall, who Mr. Riney tapped a year ago after two earlier failed attempts to establish a line of succession at the agency, freeing it from its reputation as a one-man shop.

"Scott is somebody I've been needing for years," Mr. Riney said. "I've had a terribly hard time finding a partner in the past. I think I finally have got one right."

EARLIER TRIES

Mr. Riney's earlier attempts at "getting one right" involved a collaborative effort between former agency President Tony Houghton--who eventually left to return to Leo Burnett USA, Chicago--and National Creative Officer Joe O'Neill.

Subsequently, Mr. Riney tried an in-house team management structure that ended with the departures of Mr. O'Neill and Director of Business Development John Yost. Mr. O'Neill is now a partner at Messner Vetere Berger NcNamee Schmet-terer/Euro RSCG, New York; Mr. Yost co-founded San Francisco agency Black Rocket.

"A number of people who were working here wanted to see if they could [manage the agency] themselves," Mr. Riney said. "I let them take a crack at that. I sort of sat there and watched. I don't think they were successful."

So far, the signs are that Mr. Marshall is having more luck.

"We've made a lot of progress, and we've got a long way to go," said Mr. Marshall, an affable Southerner who calls people "amigo" and likes to evoke imagery of the West; on the wall behind his desk hangs an intimidating set of steer horns. He once took a shot at entrepreneurship by founding a company called Scattergood, which developed and marketed a CD on how to be a cowboy.

WORKING HARD

But behind his Western proclivities there's a workaholic who spends only 4 hours sleeping each night and reads five daily newspapers and as many magazines as he can get his hands on.

Mr. Marshall came to Riney after a stint at Cole & Weber, where he helped build the Seattle agency's creative reputation. And, with Corporate Media Director and Exec VP-Managing Director David Verklin, he's overseen an impressive new-business run at Riney.

The creative team of Executive Creative Directors Dave O'Hare and Steve Sweitzer, from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and TBWA Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., respectively, say that from their perspective, Mr. Marshall is doing all the right things.

Mr. Marshall "made a promise to us," said Mr. O'Hare, telling the two creatives, "I can do anything and I will do anything [to support you], but I can't do the work."

Mr. Verklin, meanwhile, has a reputation as one of the nation's top agency media executives and has applied that prowess to new-business pushes with Mr. Marshall.

A DIFFERENT APPROACH

During the Acer pitch, Mr. Riney showed up on a plant tour. Although he presented several ad campaigns that might have been considered "Riney-esque," for their folksy, emotional style, he later presented a different type of creative and opened the door for the current campaign, with its humorous, 1950s look.

Mr. Riney's "broad-stroke wisdom has helped," said Tom Henry, director-marketing communications at Acer America. "But the Hal component has been neither a plus nor a minus. I didn't expect him to be working on this business."

Instead, what sold Mr. Henry on Hal Riney & Partners were the agency's other players, particularly Mr. Verklin.

"These people know how to brand," said Mr. Henry, himself an agency veteran who was with Lowe Marschalk when that former shop had a San Francisco office.

"They do all disciplines well," Mr. Henry said. "But David Verklin was the driver."

Mr. Marshall has discovered how to sell the story of Riney's flagship account--Saturn Corp.--to new-business prospects. It's a tale of integrated communications from the ground up that helped form the marketing of the successful General Motors Corp. import-fighting auto brand.

"That case can stand up to any business case in the country," Mr. Marshall said.

A CULTURAL REVOLUTION

But the Saturn story is pitched as more than a recitation of cars sold and the ads that went with them. A slick slide show uses quotes from Saturn Chairman Skip LeFauve ("It's more of a cultural revolution than a product") and Mr. Riney himself ("We are not just selling a new car. We are building a new brand").

For Riney, the Saturn story proved more than a case study about marketing cars. It taught the agency how to manage business far from San Francisco, primarily through sophisticated communications technology.

But technology alone can take the agency only so far, Mr. Riney acknowledged.

"I think there are some limits on growth if your main agency is in San Francisco," he said. "I think, in the future, we've got to figure out what we're going to do to be able to manage our business in other countries."

Mr. Riney noted that three or four of his clients need international capabilities, including Saturn, which ended up picking local agencies for Japan and Canada; Alamo Rent A Car, which is using another agency in Europe; and Taiwan-based Acer Group, which will be needing agency help in the future in other markets.

"One of these days, we'll form an alliance of some kind," Mr. Riney said.

Mr. Marshall has begun to explore alliances, perhaps something similar to the arrangement Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., has with Interpublic Group of Cos. for Nike in Japan, though he says he's uncertain how successful that effort is. In that case, McCann-Erickson Worldwide employees work for Nike but report to Wieden.

NO IPO

Still, speculation continues that Mr. Marshall was brought into the agency to polish it for sale. Mr. Riney says he wouldn't consider an initial public offering despite the high valuations placed on agencies such as CKS Group, which went public this year.

"I can't imagine why anyone would want to do that," Mr. Riney says of IPOs.

Both he and Mr. Marshall say they're having too much fun to consider working for somebody else, even in today's seller's market and at a time when Hal Riney & Partners is one of the few substantial independent agency names around.

It's not all fun in the Riney empire, however. The Chicago office, Hal Riney & Partners/Heartland, recently lost longtime Exec VP-Creative Director Jonathan Harries when he unexpectedly left for Foote, Cone & Belding.

The Midwestern operation is also in the throes of a review for the $85 million Subway Sandwiches & Salads account, initially resulting from a dispute between franchisees and management over regional vs. national media buys.

There also is apparently some disquiet on the office's Bally's Fitness account.

PROBLEMS ELSEWHERE?

Many of Mr. Riney's contemporaries wonder whether the troubles in Chicago aren't symptomatic of the entire operation.

"Flavor of the month" is how one agency veteran described Mr. Riney's teaming with Mr. Marshall and the shop's creatives. One area executive wondered "how long Mr. Marshall will be able to control Hal."

Another wondered whether Mr. Riney ever will be able to make the commitment he needs to bring in a partner for global accounts. He compared Mr. Riney's attempts at alliances with a very jittery groom.

"He walks down the aisle, just can't say `I do,' and runs from the church," the executive noted.

STILL STRONG

Still, Mr. Riney's place at the heart of the San Francisco ad community, raising the bar not only for his own agency but others as well, remains strong. Rich Silverstein, co-chairman and creative director of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, who started out with Mr. Riney's shop when it was Ogilvy & Mather--Mr. Riney bought O&M's San Francisco office in 1985--said he is as cheered by the agency's recent successes as he was when he worked there.

"I would see his hands typing on the Underwood and think, `Good, the old man is still working'," said Mr. Silverstein, and he feels that way today.

Copyright September 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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