GolinHarris CEO Fred Cook on specialization and today’s news consumers

May 1, 2012

Last June, GolinHarris introduced g4, the Chicago-based global agency’s new model to meet the demands of the emerging digital media world and changing consumer marketplace. GolinHarris leaders broke away from traditional agency silos, transitioning employees from working as generalists to one of  four types of specialists. With g4, the agency changed job titles from old standbys such as senior account executive and vice president to new monikers like social media specialist and community manager.

As Fred Cook, CEO of GolinHarris, put it, clients are “desperate for holistic ideas that can be communicated across multiple platforms.”

On June 2, Cook will be the keynote speaker at the West Virginia University P.I. Reed School of Journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) graduate program’s annual INTEGRATE conference.

Cook recently talked to Tactics about g4’s progress and the state of today’s digital consumer.

GolinHarris introduced g4 in June 2011. How would you sum up the progress during this past year?

I am blown away by the progress that we’ve made. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished in 10 months. We’re measuring this on several criteria. One is employee satisfaction — our employee survey scores this year were higher than ever before.  The other is on client satisfaction.  We re-did our entire client survey around the model, so we’re questioning clients on insight, ideas, engagement and integration.  We’re also measuring new business, and that’s been effective.

It’s easy to say,  “Well, this is the way we’ve always done things.” How do you overcome that fear of getting people out of their comfort zones?

Some people here were skeptical about what we were doing — even in our senior management. However, there were also people who were enthusiastic. So you had these go-getters who couldn’t wait to do this. And then, you had people who were skeptical and reluctant to change.

If you move at a pace for the go-getters, then you leave the other people behind. If you change at [the] pace of the skeptical people, then the pace is so slow that nothing ever happens.  You have to find a balance in the middle that makes everyone uncomfortable. It’s too fast for some and too slow for others.  We ended up with a middle ground … that made a lot of people uncomfortable. [Laughs]

There isn’t any one way that you can change and make everybody feel like it’s a good idea. So you bring everybody along — you spread the discomfort.

How did you introduce the new model to staff?

Rather than secretly figure this all out and just launch it on one day as a big surprise, we brought people into the process so they were part of seeing how the sausage was made.  We held focus groups and meetings, and we had calls.  We tried to keep people apprised about where we were, which raised a lot of questions, and probably slowed the process down a bit. But in the end, it made everybody feel more comfortable. We focused on making sure our current employees felt good about where we were headed.

How does the g4 model change the type of PR professionals that you hire?  What are you looking for in job candidates today?

The hiring process is getting more specialized. Now, we’re hiring people with very specific skill sets. Since we’ve changed the model, we’ve hired a number of people who we would probably not have hired before because they weren’t generalists.

How do students need to prepare themselves for this type of integrated marketing approach?

The simple answer is to specialize. It’s too complex now for somebody to be good at everything. I encourage people to figure out what their passion is and to specialize in that, whether it is in the technology part of the business or the research or the creative element.

So try not to just go through school taking a little bit of everything, which is sort of how it used to be. I’m encouraged … that a lot of schools that I’ve been to lately are already giving [a] very specialized curriculum to their students.

What trends do you see in how people consume media?

I was with a client [recently], and we were talking about the generation of people in their teens and early 20s who are the youngest wave of consumers. The idea of  “media channels” is not something that is part of their mindset — it’s just information coming at them. In our business, people traditionally ask, “Is it print? Is it owned? Is it bought? Did they get it on the Internet? Did they get it on radio? Did they get it on TV?”

The younger generation now has an agnostic point of view. When they’re viewing a video on YouTube, or they’re seeing something on TV or they find it on Facebook, they’re not making a distinction between what channel they’re tuned into.  And half of the time when they’re watching TV, they’re also on Facebook, and they’re switching back and forth between these things on their smartphones and iPads.  The distinctions that we’ve lived with in terms of media channels are now nonexistent, and that calls for integrated marketing campaigns.

Then, there’s what we call real-time marketing.  We think this is the next big thing, and it is this idea that the interaction between social media and traditional media is this ongoing dynamic that happens every day, all day long.  In our Bridges [the agency’s multimedia engagement rooms], we’re looking at traditional media, print, broadcast and social media all as one entity.

The way the platforms interact with a story will cross back and forth over a period of a few hours.  And … your decisions that you’re making about what to say and where to say them aren’t planned — you’re doing this on an instantaneous basis.  This is the big area for integrated marketing. It’s real-time marketing, not something you plan six months from today.  It’s something you see trending on Twitter and you turn that into a broadcast story on “CBS  This Morning,” which then ends up in the Chicago Tribune the next day.

So those old questions in marketing — did you read about it in the newspaper? Did you hear about it on the radio? — don’t even mean anything anymore. [Laughs] Now, it’s like, “I don’t know. I just heard about it.” 

West  Virginia University is a PRSA university partner.


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