FleishmanHillard is pushing into advertising services, and it shows how public relations firms are encroaching on ad agencies


Early in the pandemic, FleishmanHillard laid off 60 employees and cut staff pay in anticipation of steep pullbacks in spend from clients.

Since then, the fourth-largest PR firm by revenue has restored those cuts and it now forecasts winning more than $160 million in new business, keeping new business flat with last year. Wins came from companies like Advance Auto Parts, March of Dimes, and the National Pork Board, and two dozen new clients were valued at $1 million-plus. 

All told, FleishmanHillard expects to overall revenue to decline but more important, profits to increase this year, per a knowledgeable source.

"Unless we mess it up for the next several weeks, this will be the best year in the history of FleishmanHillard," its CEO John Saunders said told Business Insider.

Saunders laid out how the Omnicom Group-owned agency has gotten through the crisis by growing in healthcare and technology, the bets it's placed on digital and creative, and why he doesn't mind his agency being considered boring.

FleishmanHillard is pushing into creative and research 

With help from a multimillion dollar investment from Omnicom, FleishmanHillard is pushing into creative services, the latest example of a firm encroaching on the work traditionally handled by ad agencies.

FleishmanHillard pitches its creative arm as a full-service offering that includes digital, social and experiential, and TV and video production, and it's been hiring creative directors for its account teams this year, including Colleen McTaggart, a veteran of FCB Chicago, and Dan Margulis, former head of creative at Doner Company.

FleishmanHillard also is leaning into influencer trends, merging its media relations and social & innovation practices and hiring Emily Duban from Weber Shandwick as its global platform lead, to help the agency apply the trend for its clients' benefit.

As clients demand PR agencies to show return on investment, FleishmanHillard is also building its research, analytics, and measurement practice, True Global Intelligence, hiring a new SVP of global intelligence in Chris Scotte. This unit has grown revenue by 26% in 2020, with 80% of its top 200 clients using it, a spokesperson said.

Read more: Public-relations giant BCW is entering into a new business building e-commerce apps and websites, and it shows how the lines between PR and advertising are blurring

Despite a pandemic-related revenue hit, FleishmanHillard had strength in technology and healthcare, crisis, and election-related work. Top performers were technology, representing 24% of revenue; and healthcare, 23%.

FleishmanHillard also picked up crisis work as corporations scrambled to respond to the pandemic, and similar to other firms like Edelman and BCW, has launched a diversity, equity, and inclusion practice called True Mosaic.

FleishmanHillard-owned but independently run GMMB netted more than $37.7 million in fees through work for Vice President Joe Biden.

A stable client base has also helped, with 80% of its top 10 accounts and 60% of its top 25 accounts having been clients for a decade or longer, Saunders said.

FleishmanHillard also established a new position in April called the client experience portfolio director to help account leads sell more services to its biggest clients.

While it looks for growth opportunities, FleishmanHillard still has a heavy focus on corporate work, helping companies with reputation management, positioning, financial communications, executive communications, Saunders said.

"It would be wonderful if we won more awards for creative work — we win some — but that's not the driver," Saunders said. "I remember John Wren [chairman and CEO of Omnicom] a long time ago said an analyst described Omnicom as boring but brilliant and he thought it was the greatest compliment ever paid. I've heard people say at times FleishmanHillard is boring, but it's brilliant as a corporate agency."