Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos builds its dream team—and the clients come

You can go home again.

Mike Sheehan had been executive creative director at DDB Worldwide for about a year and had just moved into a new condo on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive when, one afternoon last spring, he found himself in Boston’s historic Castle Island district with his former boss, Jack Connors. The two were strolling under the granite tower of pre-Civil War Fort Independence in the shadow of the city’s skyline.

“I knew we were getting serious when we started our second lap around,” says Sheehan. Sure enough, Connors, chairman and CEO of Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, wanted Sheehan to rejoin the shop as chief creative officer, replacing Fred Bertino, who had left to run the Boston office of Dallas-based Square One. Sheehan would also share the president’s title with June Blocklin, who was being promoted from client-services director.

“It was not a decision I made lightly,” says Sheehan. “I liked what I was doing”—overseeing McDonald’s campaigns at DDB.

But Sheehan’s personal ties to Connors, his roots in Weymouth, Mass., and his belief that Hill, Holliday was on the rise sealed the deal. Soon, he was back at the shop he called home for five years in the 1990s.

“We put a whole bunch of things in order,” Blocklin says of the past year. If the agency falls short of its growth goals now, she adds, “We won’t have any excuses.”

In many ways, 2000 was a historic year for Hill, Holliday, Adweek’s New England Agency of the Year. The shop seemed to sign senior personnel and notable accounts almost weekly and launched numerous campaigns, including several national repositionings, for a variety of clients.

Ruth Ayres joined from TBWA Worldwide as new-business director and chief marketing officer. Bill Heater, the agency’s leading creative star a decade ago, returned from his eponymous boutique to work on Fidelity Investments. Kristi Argyilan arrived from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, as media director.

The agency, which Connors sold to the Interpublic Group in 1998, boosted billings to $610 million and revenue to nearly $92 million, 12 percent gains in each category. (Numbers were adjusted to reflect the spinoff of the agency’s interactive and exhibition-services units.)

Significant business wins included the $40 million Northeast retail account of Verizon Wireless (shared with the New York office) and the $20 million Lycos business.

The creative output also significantly improved. The agency dropped Fidelity’s longtime pitchman, Peter Lynch, and tagline, “Fidelity helps you invest responsibly,” and developed a broad repositioning for the client’s mutual funds. Its first work for FleetBoston included a commercial promoting the bank’s sponsorship of Major League Baseball. The 30-second spot focused on a boy, Samuel, who insists his family and friends call him Pedro in honor of Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez.

A repositioning for Dunkin’ Donuts used the line “Loosen up a little” with humorous scenarios, such as holiday carolers who babble as they fill their mouths with coffee and doughnuts. Laurie Kiely, director of integrated marketing for the Allied Domecq unit, praises the effort as “a brand transformation” platform designed to bring the chain national visibility as it expands into new markets.

Work for John Hancock Financial Services (one ad with a subtle lesbian theme), Voter.com and Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities were also highly regarded.

At 58, Connors, who sets the overall strategy and is the liaison with key clients, has no plans to step aside.

The next step, he suggests, is to maintain 20-25 percent growth for the next several years and “extend the Hill, Holliday brand.” And with the right senior managers finally in place, he may even cut back on his Fort Independence recruiting excursions, too.