Q&A With H&K’s Dan Bartlett: Trust is Important to a ‘Successful Growth Engine’

Photo: AP

There have been a series of leadership changes ever since the November announcement that Public Strategies and Hill & Knowlton would merge at the beginning of this year. Among those changes was Dan Bartlett’s move into the role of president and CEO of H&K USA.

Yesterday afternoon, we sat down at the H&K offices here in New York to speak with the former White House counselor to President George W. Bush about politics and his current PR life. After the jump is part one of that Q&A, focused on what it’s like in his role, how the firm is dealing with the change, and H&K’s prospects for the future.

You were the president of Public Strategies. How is that different from now being head of the merged H&K/Public Strategies?

It’s provided a much bigger platform to engage both our current clients and prospective clients. We’ve expanded our geographic footprint; Public Strategies is primarily a firm operating out of Austin, Dallas, Washington, and New York, although we do client work throughout the country and internationally. The physical footprint of H&K is much more significant. And I’ll also say that Hill & Knowlton has a storied history in parts of the public relations business that Public Strategies is not in.

But I’ve found the work to be – and we’re still in transition – but the similarities are reassuring in that both firms attract high-quality people who are highly motivated to do great work. I’ve also been very pleased to see how collaborative the two organizations are, already working together to help existing clients and to chase new business.

Since you’ve become CEO [of H&K], there have been some high-profile entrances, as well as some high-profile exits. How has all this change impacted the firm?

Any time you have a merger of two organizations, there’s going to be people who are attracted to it and want to join it and there’s going to be people who pursue other opportunities. What I have found is that there’s both internally and externally a lot of excitement. Fresh faces and new perspectives are always a good thing, particularly for companies that have been top-of-class for so many years and in so many markets. We’re seeing a lot of interest out there in the marketplace both from prospective clients as well as the prospective talent that want to come work with us.

The two highest profile exits were Paul Taaffe and Marylee Sachs. On the one hand, it’s normal for there to be change. But was there concern about two people who have been around for so long stepping down?

They were extraordinary contributors and leaders to H&K not only in the United States but globally. They will be missed. I think it’s also human nature that when there is change like this, people are going to pursue new opportunities. You have to applaud the work they’ve done. But I think people recognize that new perspective is a good thing.

In a post we wrote not too long ago, we quoted a former H&K exec [via PRWeek UK] who likened the merger to a “reverse takeover” of H&K. What is your response to those who think that?

We were both owned by WPP. The conversations that began last year were very collaborative in nature and I’ve never heard that term used or even be suggested.

WPP has great insight into the two organizations, the management teams, and the businesses and I think they saw a very complimentary offering from both our capabilities perspective/our client base and our talent base. They saw a happy marriage and I’m pleased to report that’s been the case so far.

What is the focus for H&K now and going forward?

Our goal is to be a trusted advisor both to our current clients and to our prospective clients, both here in the United States and round the world. If you’re able to establish that baseline of trust, that relationship can take you in many different directions, whether it’s to execute press relations, helping [clients] to market their companies or their brands or initiatives in a smarter more strategic way, [or] on the issues such as the evolution of digital. But at its core, we believe the most successful growth engine is to establish that relationship at the highest levels.

There are a lot of companies and firms like ours that speak of global capabilities. But what I’ve learned in this short period of time that I’ve been here is that there are few who can really execute that in a network that is truly one team.

I’ve been struck by not only the reach of the Hill & Knowlton team, but the collaboration and the reach that goes into it to make it seamless. Increasingly, clients are dealing with multiple issues across many geographies and across many practices. But there are very few firms that can legitimately say they can cover that waterfront. It’s something that we believe will be the reason why we see our growth focusing on how we can help companies with a global perspective navigate those issues whether they be challenges or opportunities across many geographies.

Tune in tomorrow for part two, focused on the political landscape and the outlook for the 2012 election.

[Image via Fox News.]