Life After Jack

The Unlikely Tale of Hill Holliday's Comeback

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Last June, when Jack Connors stepped down as chairman of Hill Holliday, the agency he co-founded, no one was betting on the firm succeeding. The 2005 erosion of its FleetBoston account gutted the Boston-based shop of its biggest client, boring a hole it had struggled to fill. So Mr. Connors' departure was to some nothing less than the end of a proud, street-smart agency. It "caused people to wonder whether they were going to survive," said Judy Neer, president of Pile & Co., the Beantown search consultancy.
One of Hill Holliday's recent coups was joining P&G's roster doing in-store work to promote Dunkin' Donuts-branded coffee.
One of Hill Holliday's recent coups was joining P&G's roster doing in-store work to promote Dunkin' Donuts-branded coffee.

Just over a year later, one thing is clear: There is life after Jack.

During that time, Hill Holliday has quietly pulled off one of the most successful resuscitations in an agency world that's littered with once-famous shops struggling to remain relevant. A new-business rebound, after a few barren years, has pulled in brands such as Chili's, Toys "R" Us and Novartis' Diovan, as well as business from Bank of America and Verizon Wireless. In a major coup for any agency, Hill Holliday joined Procter & Gamble's roster, doing in-store work to promote the Dunkin' Donuts-branded coffee distributed under license by P&G.

Moving forward
Credit the surge to a few things: stable management, some key talent additions -- and the acknowledgment that any attempt to install a new Jack Connors wasn't what was needed, even if it were possible.

"I knew all along that there was one Jack and there was not going to be another one; I knew I wasn't going to serve that role," said Mike Sheehan, who took over as CEO in 2003.

If you don't know Boston, it's tough to understand the influence of Mr. Connors, who is wired into every nook and cranny of the business, political and social communities there. Any business would struggle with the loss of such a figure, and ad agencies in particular often have tough times finding next-generation leaders once the founders leave.
New business
Account movements this year
  • AOL
  • Bank of America: global wealth and investment management business
  • Chili's
  • Novartis: Diovan
  • P&G: Dunkin' Donuts
  • The Rockport Co.
  • Toys "R" Us
  • Verizon Wireless: national local/retail
  • ACE Ltd. (resigned; conflict)
  • LoJack (didn't defend)
  • Smith Barney (resigned; conflict)

Mr. Sheehan, for his part, is clear that he doesn't want to return to a time when Hill Holliday is recognized for one particular individual.

"I don't want Hill Holliday ever to be known for one person," he said. He credits a whole team of leaders with the ad agency's bolstered performance, including Kevin Moehlenkamp, who joined as exec VP-chief creative officer from McCann Erickson's Boston office. Other key members include Baba Shetty, exec VP-media and interactive, who came to the agency in late 2005 via Fallon, Minneapolis; Karen Kaplan, a 25-year Hill Holliday veteran who was promoted to agency president in June; and Lesley Bielby, who was named exec VP-strategy in 2006 and leads the network's planning department.

Pile's Ms. Neer said the fact that the new management team was assembled before Mr. Connors' departure has been key. "I think that group has learned how to work with each other," she said.

That's paid off with a bulked-up client roster. Winning Bank of America's global wealth and investment management business was particularly sweet, considering that it was BofA's 2004 purchase of Fleet that left Hill Holliday out in the cold. In 2005, Interpublic lost the consolidated BofA business to Omnicom Group, but last year Hill Holliday grabbed some of it back. And more is said to be on the way.

Perseverance pays
Some say Mr. Connors had a hand in that one, since BofA Chief Marketing Officer Anne Finuncane -- a Hill Holliday vet -- is known to be a Connors devotee. But skeptics were put off by a torrent of wins that's increased billings at the shop by 25%, according to executives familiar with the agency. Interpublic doesn't disclose the performance of individual shops, but these executives said the always well-managed firm -- even during its swoon it was profitable -- has improved and is posting top-line growth in the 15% to 20% range, excellent for an agency its size. According to Ad Age estimates, last year's revenue was $120 million, up 10%.
Hill Holliday CEO Mike Sheehan
Hill Holliday CEO Mike Sheehan

"The management team, with Mike and Karen leading the charge, is ... finally gaining some traction, and it's fairly stable," said Peter Gerritsen, principal, A-Team Advertising Advisors, Newton, Mass. "It seems like their pitch rate is getting up there, and it wasn't for awhile."

Another thing that hasn't hurt is Hill Holliday's heritage as a shop built around getting business results for clients.

"I think of them as a business helper," said Steve Sullivan, senior VP-communications for Boston-based Liberty Mutual. "Hill Holliday has gotten into the nuts and bolts of our business in a way unlike I've seen from most agencies," and "they are very well-regarded within the business units here at Liberty because they understand the business."
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