Publicis Groupe's Publicis & Hal Riney, hit by two major account losses representing more than 40% of billings, is in the midst of a pitch for the $160 million Hyundai Motor America account right on the heels on the loss of General Motors Corp.'s $300 million Saturn Corp. account, a brand Mr. Riney nurtured from inception, and the $60 million account of merged banking client First Union Corp. and Wachovia Corp.
'Done well with heart
"I'm 47 years in the business and none of these things bother me as much," said Mr. Riney, who turns 70 in July but works five days a week as chairman of the San Francisco shop. Both Mr. Riney and agency President Scott Marshall, who has headed day-to-day operations for the past six years, say they plan no changes to an agency built on the premise of "Great ads done well with heart build brands."
"Riney is Riney," said Mr. Marshall,
Messrs. Riney and Marshall declined to comment on Saturn. But one executive close to the agency said in retrospect the shop should long ago have parted with Saturn, which has lost much of its independence inside GM and is "a very different client than the one [Riney] went to work for."
'Our father of advertising'
It was little consolation that Saturn went to Omnicom Group's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, a San Francisco shop founded by a creative team Mr. Riney himself originally paired and then supported financially in their early years when they set up their own agency. "He was our father of advertising," said Rich Silverstein, agency co-chairman with Jeff Goodby. "We would not have been as successful had we not learned from Hal."
Mr. Riney in 1976 opened Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide's San Francisco office and bought it back 10 years later. Buoyed by successes such as the Bartles & Jaymes work for the E. & J. Gallo Winery, Riney within two years pulled off the Saturn coup. His West Coast ad style, combining a filmmaker's eye for detail with humor and a tug at the heartstrings, upstaged Madison Avenue. Advertising Age named Riney its 1993 Agency of the Year.
After years touting independence alternated with flirtations about possible sale, Mr. Riney sold the agency with $700 million in billings and 360 employees to Publicis in 1998. The agency picked up Sprint PCS, with billings in the range of $400 million, and the business portion of Hewlett-Packard Co. account, shared with Publicis' other offices, and rode the dot-com wave up and down. In January, the shop reported billings of $825 million. That included Saturn's and First Union's estimated combined billings of $360 million. Riney executives declined to state the current number of employees; about 100 staffers were said to be dismissed following the Saturn loss.
With that loss, "the balance of power shifted officially" to Goodby Silverstein, said a veteran San Francisco ad executive.
The Saturn pitch further tested the camaraderie among the city's creative family. Goodby executives were miffed by Riney's immediate dismissal of employees on Saturn, concerned incomplete projects were "rudely" transitioned before the new agency was up to speed.
And last fall, Goodby executives believed they had a gentlemen's agreement not to plunder each other's HP business. Goodby executives viewed a process ending in a creative shootout over the positioning of a merged HP and Compaq -- which Riney apparently lost -- as an attempt to steal the account. Mr. Riney denied that, saying, "We were asked to approach some other part of that business."
Mr. Riney, with his buyout contract complete, said his one regret is not keeping his name as the sole one on the door, the way Publicis allowed Minneapolis shop Fallon to do in a later acquisition.
Now some wonder how Publicis Chairman-CEO Maurice Levy, after agreeing to buy Leo Burnett Worldwide parent Bcom3 Group, will move his chess pieces, perhaps one day turning Mr. Riney's shop into a branch of Fallon or even Burnett.
"What advantage would that have?" Mr. Marshall said. "That is a business question that has no good answer."