Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos

Published on .

Founded in Boston, 1968; acquired Wang account, 1977; bought by Interpublic Group of Cos., 1998.

Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos was founded in August 1968 in Boston by Stevros Cosmopulos, George Jackson "Jay" Hill III, Alan Holliday and John Michael Connors. The four men had met while working at Boston's biggest agency at that time, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn.

Hill, Holliday started with billings of less than $250,000 but soon reached $1 million by working with various local businesses. The agency's breakthrough account came in July 1969 when Maine's Department of Economic Development picked it over a dozen New York and New England agencies for its $250,000 account. Hill, Holliday devised a witty campaign of small b&w ads exploiting the state's postal abbreviation, ME, using lines such as "Come up and see ME Sometime"; "Lover come back to ME"; and "Come to ME. My melancholy baby."

High-profile work

A steady influx of commissions from small regional businesses over the next few years fueled the agency's steady growth. The Howdy Beef Burger chain, a subsidiary of Dunkin' Donuts, added $200,000 to the agency's coffers in fall 1970. Howdy eventually went out of business, but Hill, Holliday's relationship with Dunkin' Donuts continued. Other high-profile work included the 1972 re-election campaign of Boston Mayor Kevin White, who was a close friend of Mr. Connors. When the agency worked with the Boston Globe, Hill, Holliday was obliged to stop all political advertising work. The agency ended 1972 with billings around $6.5 million.

As Maine tourism had turned Hill, Holliday into something of a boutique, another account—Wang Laboratories—would turn it into a powerful regional agency. In 1977, Wang Laboratories, based in nearby Lowell, Mass., was emerging as a leader in the computer industry.

Hill, Holliday convinced 25-year-old Wang that it could boost it name awareness from 4% of all U.S. managers to 20% if it gave the agency $500,000 for six weeks of network TV spots. The commercial, which debuted just before Super Bowl XII in 1978, was an adaptation of the biblical story of David and Goliath. Within six months, national awareness of Wang stood at 80%. The company found itself with instant credibility and the agency had a grateful client, whose spending at Hill, Holliday rose to $45 million by 1982.

In 1978, Mr. Cosmopulos resigned as chairman and co-creative director, although he functioned as a consultant until October, when he moved to another Boston agency, Arnold & Co., now Havas’ Arnold Worldwide.

Hill, Holliday's growth in the 1980s was almost exclusively due to Wang's growth. From 1978 to the end of 1980, total billings for the agency had tripled to about $45 million, and the agency had small offices in New York and London with plans for branches in Frankfurt, Sydney and Singapore. In July 1982, Hill, Holliday opened shop in Paris.

But Hill, Holliday stumbled as it tried to expand beyond its Boston base. In 1981, the agency formed Hill, Holliday International in London to build its billings from companies marketing outside the U.S., which stood at around $13 million by 1983. Like its parent, Hill, Holliday International was overwhelmingly dependent on billings from Wang, which in 1982 accounted for 90% of Hill, Holliday International's overseas billings and 50% of Hill, Holliday's domestic billings.

Wang's momentum sagged badly in the mid-1980s before Hill, Holliday could secure a solid international presence. Wang's losses grew to $70 million in 1987 and $90 million the next year. It filed for bankruptcy protection in 1992 and was bought by the Dutch company Getronics NV in 1999.

Wang's demise left Hill, Holliday International stranded. In an effort to build its London base, Hill, Holliday International bought Aspect in 1985 (becoming Aspect Hill Holiday in London) and another U.K. shop in 1986; in September of that year, the agency won Reebok International.

However, the biggest part of the Reebok account went to Ogilvy & Mather a few months later. That triggered an exodus from the London agency both of staff and clients amid complaints that the Boston office was too controlling.

Unwilling to surrender London, Mr. Connors hired an experienced London-based executive, Jennifer Laing, from Saatchi & Saatchi in September 1987 to rescue the operation. Ms. Laing used her contacts and knowledge of advertising in England to great benefit and after a year she and Max Henry, the creative director, became partners and the agency was renamed Laing Henry Hill Holliday. (A few years later Ms. Laing and Mr. Henry went independent.)

Attempts to build a viable New York office proved almost as rocky as the London experience. While the New York office went from billings of $5 million in 1984 to more than $60 million in 1988, a series of leadership changes and client losses (including Revlon and Royal Crown) left the office with $30 million in billings by 1990. Hill, Holliday bought Reichfeld-Altschiller from Omnicom in 1995, but Hill, Holliday/Altschiller could not secure more than one-tenth of 1% of the New York market.

Creative momentum

Meanwhile, as Wang was weakening, the agency gathered creative momentum on other accounts and attracted clients willing to sponsor ads that were showcases for creative brilliance. When Advertising Age named Hill, Holliday Agency of the Year in April 1986, John Hancock Financial Services was its largest client and sponsor of one of the most remarkable campaigns of the decade, "Real life, real answers." The agency's Hancock work won the Grand Prix at the Cannes International Advertising Festival.

In April 1988, the agency, now highly regarded for its creativity, was among three finalists vying for the launch account of General Motors Corp.'s new Saturn, the most anticipated new car since the Mustang. Hill, Holliday lost the Saturn bid, but its efforts were noticed.

In July, the agency won the $60 million Nissan Infiniti account. A year later, the first nine commercials for the luxury car aired and not a single spot showed the vehicle. Instead, viewers (who were presumably young, rich and spiritual) were invited to contemplate water, geese, trees, wind and lightning. The result was one of the most controversial ad campaigns of the decade and it drove the curious into Nissan showrooms by the thousands.

After the success of the initial Infiniti campaign, executives at Hill, Holliday's Los Angeles office struggled to create another winner, but to no avail. In November 1992, just days after the agency had resigned its Hyatt business, Nissan told Hill, Holliday it had lost the $75 million Infiniti account. The Los Angeles office shut down and not even the subsequent return of Reebok and Lotus to Hill, Holliday eased the agency's immediate troubles.

Anticipating his own retirement, Mr. Connors took steps to transform what was essentially a family business into an institution. In September 1996, senior managers became equity partners in the company's future growth and the agency began looking for additional partners.

This was not the first time that Hill, Holliday had considered such partnerships. Mr. Connors had first met with the Interpublic Group of Cos. in 1980, when Interpublic offered him and his remaining original partner, Mr. Hill, $6 million for an agency grossing $7.2 million on billings of $46 million. Messrs. Connors and Hill declined that offer but kept in touch with Interpublic.

Mr. Connors also met with Carl Ally, whose Ally & Gargano had gone public only to see its stock fall to $6 per share. The proposed partnership would have joined Hill, Holliday's business skills to Ally's creative reputation, while taking Hill, Holliday public in the process, but Ally's board vetoed the idea.

Finally, in spring 1998, three propitious events occurred: a bull market on Wall Street, the enactment of new capital gains legislation in the U.S. tax code and a remarkable rise in billings that brought Hill, Holliday's billings to $600 million, making it one of the largest and strongest U.S. agencies still in private hands. After approaches from Publicis S.A. and Havas, the agency accepted an offer from Interpublic. The acquisition, for an undisclosed amount, was announced in February 1998.

In mid-2001, Hill, Holliday, which had been part of Interpublic's Lowe Group, became part of McCann-Erickson WorldGroup through an Interpublic realignment.

In 2003, the agency had $102.6 million in U.S. revenue, a 1.6% increase over 2002 figures, according to Advertising Age. By 2004, the agency had five offices and 660 employees. Mr. Connors continued as chairman, though Mike Sheehan assumed the CEO title along with the presidency.

Most Popular
In this article: