Connors, president and ceo of HHCC and one of two founders still with the agency, took all 300 of his employees on an overnight trip to the Equinox resort hotel in the Green Mountains of southern Vermont. The setting, with the rolling hills on the verge of full springtime bloom, couldn't have been more symbolic for an agency seeking both retreat and renewal.
A shop with a history of strong performance and a high flier for most of its existence, Hill, Holliday suffered through the loss of several key clients in 1992. It also witnessed the closing of one office and the dramatic downsizing of another. Connors' goal for the Vermont getaway was to put the hardships in the past, accentuate the agency's positives and focus everybody on Hill, Holliday's future. Judging from the mood at the affair, his attempt at celebration blended with regeneration achieved the desired effect.
Despite the previous year's losses of Infiniti, Hyatt Hotels and Motrin--accounts worth approximately $120 million in billings--the staff was upbeat as it gathered in a hotel conference room for a round of speeches. Agency chairman Jay Hill spoke briefly. Then creative director Fred Bertino, the man charged with restoring the edge to a department that once produced "Real Life, Real Answers" for John Hancock and "Rocks and Trees" for Infiniti, showed off a reel of new work that was well-received. "We've been good," said Bertino, "But we have to be great. The Hill, Holliday culture has begun to replenish itself again." To emphasize Hill, Holliday's renewed commitment to creative, Connors announced that Bertino would receive the additional title of president, HHCC/Boston.
The centerpiece of the affair, as is the case during every Hill, Holliday anniversary, was the impassioned speech by Connors, who remains the true engme of the place, in much the same way that Martin Puris is the key executive at Ammirati & Puffs and Jay Chiat is the cornerstone of Chiat/Day.
"In 1968," Connors said, "there were 100 ad agencies listed in the Boston yellow pages. We're the only one to survive under the same ownership. Every agency in those days had a philosophy. We had an attitude." Such an attitude was much in evidence at the agency through the good times. But the recent rough stretch brought a dose of humility to the arrogance.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Connors' admission that one of the low points of his career came last November when Nissan decided to consolidate its Infiniti business with lead agency Chiat/ Day. Connors did not try to blame the Infiniti loss on financial pressure at Nissan to cut costs (two agencies being far more expensive than one). Rather, he said, his agency lost the account because it never truly replicated the culture and chemistry of its Boston headquarters at the Los Angeles office responsible for the business.
But for all the difficulties, Connors said the agency has been able to generate enough business-- either from existing clients or from new accounts-- to make up for most of the billings losses. The agency also moved quickly to cut back on costs in the wake of client departures. That, combined with the shop's usual conservative fiscal management, meant Connors had to borrow on a line of credit for only four days last year--a startling announcement given the amount of business lost.
Connors said he expects substantial growth for '93, with a 20-30% jump in earnings. He also sees great promise in the agency's investments in direct marketing, sports marketing and other ancillary services.
But perhaps the brightest light on the HHCC horizon is a new car account. When Connors informed the assembly that Hill, Holliday had just been named a finalist for the $30-million Audi account, the staff responded with wild applause. "I'm looking forward to my first Audi and my last Infiniti," Connors said to peals of laughter and more applause.
Connors has long been known around Boston as a shrewd businessman and a savvy raconteur. Some in the city's ad circles even contend he has enough Irish charm to conjure billings out of stone.
And while Hill, Holliday may no longer be in dire need of those skills--the agency appears to be well on its way to regaining its footing--Connors couldn't resist trotting them out for a final motivational flourish. "The fight continues," he said. "The flame still burns. We are the best there is and we will be better tomorrow than today."
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)