Atifa Silk
May 31, 2016

Interview: Harris Diamond on how PR prepared him to lead McCann

THE ATIFA SILK INTERVIEW: How a background in PR and politics helps the global chief of McCann Worldgroup steer the network towards a multi-platform future.

While specialists will always exist, Diamond expects the industry’s disciplines to increasingly work together as teams.
While specialists will always exist, Diamond expects the industry’s disciplines to increasingly work together as teams.

With a solid background in politics and PR, Harris Diamond understands corporate business and the challenges his clients are facing. The chairman and chief executive officer of McCann Worldgroup has infused the network with new energy and new blood since taking on the top job in late 2012. Today, Diamond’s empire consists of 24,000 people in more than 100 countries, working for global brands such as Coca-Cola, General Mills, General Motors, L’Oréal, MasterCard, Microsoft, Nestlé and Reckitt Benckiser.

Our interview takes place at McCann’s offices in Hong Kong. Business, he says, is good—despite the economic issues surrounding China. In Asia, major clients are now talking to McCann about opportunities in the multi-platform world and bringing all the resources together. It’s easier when clients have confidence and trust in McCann’s overall ability to do that, he explains, but for now the network still works with other agencies. Concentration of business, he predicts, will change that in the client world over time.

Prior to joining McCann Worldgroup, Diamond was CEO of Weber Shandwick, which was formed in 2001 following the combination of BSMG Worldwide (which was acquired by Interpublic in 2001), where he was a founding partner and the CEO, and Interpublic Group’s Weber Shandwick.

He also served as CEO of IPG’s multi-discipline Constituency Management Group (CMG), which was created in 2004 and comprised companies in PR, sports marketing, experiential marketing and consulting/design. Earlier in his career, he served as a political campaign consultant, and advised foreign governments and political parties.

Atifa Silk: You started your career in politics. How did you get involved?

Harris Diamond: I started working in Democrat politics and I’m still, therefore, a Democrat. I began by doing campaigns around the United States, and eventually around the globe. I was a political consultant. It was a little by accident. I was working in corporations, and I got involved as a volunteer for local candidates running in Manhattan, and in the Kennedy campaign. The next thing I knew, I was running campaigns in New York and ended up working for a woman named Liz Holtzman, who was the first woman district attorney. We won, and that’s what got my career going.

Atifa Silk: Did you plan to stay in politics?

Harris Diamond: No. I worked in the District Attorney’s office for a couple of years. I was what they called a confidential assistant, which I enjoyed greatly. But then I went back ≈out to run campaigns again throughout the United States. And, eventually, with a couple of other people, I joined a firm that was running campaigns around the world. We handled the Israeli campaign, the Philippines for Aquino, and a lot of work in Latin America. At a time when democracy was breaking out around the world, we became a local consulting firm that was working for candidates. It was the beginning of the breakdown of government control, and it was, in the late 80s and early 90s, a good time to be a political consultant as a lot of change was taking place.

What we’re seeing increasingly is that corporations would, in a perfect world, prefer one entity that can come up with that idea and then exploit it on all the platforms

Atifa Silk: What led to the decision to move into corporate PR?

Harris Diamond: A guy named Bob Rubin was the vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs, but he was also a major Democratic fundraiser. Rubin later became secretary of the treasury, under Bill Clinton. Goldman Sachs had some issues; Rubin and I were talking one day, and he just asked what I thought about how they should communicate. Next thing I knew, I was working corporate public relations. It wasn’t that different from what I was doing previously. You have to remember that this was the era of post-Ronald Reagan, so it was the time when communications, leadership and talking to different constituencies were becoming understood, and that’s something that politicians, by definition, have to do. And so bringing that to the corporate world was relatively straightforward.

Atifa Silk: What did the corporate world look like at the time?

Harris Diamond: Corporate leaders were interested in trying to figure out how to talk to shareholders, how to talk to employees, how to talk to customers. And it was natural for my partners and I to evolve into people who could work with corporate leaders in doing that. It was also a time when America was going through great change in the corporate world: American businesses were restructuring, changing and, therefore, there had to be conversation with the workers, with communities, with elected officials, with regulators. And so to be able to bring in some of the political understanding of what it took to communicate was helpful. We were involved in lots of corporate battles at that time. Many corporations in America were really going through difficult periods, as they were trying to reinvent themselves. It was an interesting time to be in the business.

 

Atifa Silk: How did that define public relations of today?

Harris Diamond: Public relations became a field whereby corporations began to realise how important it was to enlist the support of different constituency groups. At the same time, they realised that they had to communicate much more directly than they ever had in the past, with consumers and influential people who would have an influence on their futures. It became a field that was increasingly important, in addition to consumer public relations, which had always been important. But, suddenly, the two together became more powerful.

I built a career in public relations and always believed that all of the fields worked closely together—that the end marketing in its best theory incorporates everything. If you think about what marketing is today, it is the ability to take a corporate message or a product and expose it to the people who are most important—whether it’s to sell something, or to influence the reputation of something. The skill sets and intellectual capital, as well as platforms, have evolved. The fundamentals are the same. We are still looking for vehicles by which we can communicate a message that is going to have an impact on the consumer in a positive way. The most successful marketing campaigns are multi-platform campaigns with one idea at the centre.

Atifa Silk: How do clients view this evolution?

Harris Diamond: That depends on where you sit in the client’s organisation. At the CEO level and CMO level, there is a recognition today that it is a multi-platform world, but the best way to expose your ideas is to have one great idea and creative that’s strategically sound and can then be exploited on all the platforms. I don’t think there’s any argument in most corporations today that this is the best approach. There are corporations that still look for different organisations to implement that, and to execute it. But what we’re seeing increasingly is that corporations would, in a perfect world, prefer one entity that can come up with that idea and then exploit it on all the platforms. It would be more effective, more efficient, and also less driven by any one particular discipline. That is what I would call a perfect world. It doesn’t exist that often, but it’s heading in that direction.

Atifa Silk: Having a regional president based in Japan, running Asia and the domestic market, hasn’t worked in the past. What’s different this time with Charles Cadell’s move to Tokyo?

Harris Diamond: We’re doing it differently. The strength of the organisation is the recognition that, with the three leaders [Jesse Lin, Prasoon Joshi and Charles Cadell], we feel comfortable that this will work to our benefit.

We do see the problems the Japanese government is having in continuing to grow, but we’re also seeing opportunity, and our clients are more optimistic about their abilities there. We’re one of the largest multinational agencies in the market. After nearly 12 years of a go-slow, no-growth environment, we’re taking advantage of what could be a good opportunity for us. We believe locating our chief executive there is recognition of this. In the past, when we’ve had our presidents in Japan, overseeing the region, their time has been subsumed by Japan because of the size of the operation. This has meant that the region got very little oversight. The region suffered and McCann suffered. The markets, therefore, had low growth and were fractured. We’ve now put the network back together.

Atifa Silk: Any risks ahead for the business?

Harris Diamond: This is a business that has its ups and downs. It’s cyclical. It’s a demanding business going through technological change. But I believe these are the best years. The last time I felt this good about this business was probably in the late 90s. For a long period of time there, we were going through massive change that was affecting the way we worked. There were real questions in people’s minds as to what would happen when we came out of the tunnel. We now have an understanding of the technologies and how to exploit them, and how consumers are utilising them. I don’t believe there is existential threat to our industry right now, just issues that affect us. When we look back on all those things that were predicted as threats, it seems like ridiculous hyperbole. Marketing has been around for a long time, and its need is more than ever because everybody is competing for attention.

I don’t want people to visit: I want people to believe that this is where their future should be.

Atifa Silk: Creatively speaking, how is the network performing?

Harris Diamond: You can’t rest on your laurels when it comes to creativity. We have a saying—creativity is the only way to survive. So we’re pushing. McCann is over-a-100-year-old institution. The challenge of a business like this is it’s made up of 24,000 people, working on a creative product. We need to make sure that standards are understood.

Creativity is the fundamental test of our success. Our business is to push the envelope to get that product out there and get it bought. That takes creatives who recognise changes that are taking place. It takes people who understand culture. I’m looking for people who understand the culture and society we live in, and who can come up with a creative idea that takes advantage of it and bring it to life. The challenge of our business is finding those people.

Atifa Silk: And keeping them too?

Harris Diamond: I woke up this morning and was asked to authorise something because somebody had a competitive offer. That’s the nature of our business. McCann is an institution of long-term. We are looking for people who want to make a career with us, not have a job with us. Even in Asia and specifically China, where there has always been high opportunity and therefore high turnover, that concept is becoming understood. I recognise that good people always have some place to go, even in bad times. We have to build an environment whereby people have opportunity to build a career and move from one agency to another. I’d prefer that rather than seeing them go outside and fail. I don’t want people to visit: I want people to believe that this is where their future should be.

Atifa Silk: What future are you anticipating for the industry?

Harris Diamond: Bill Gates once said we have a tendency to overestimate what’s going to take place in five years, and underestimate what’s going to happen in 10. I’ve always said, “let’s focus on two years,” especially when the industry is going through change. You’re going to see more concentration. The necessity to be in the multi-platform world is going to continue to see business coming together. There will be agencies that will be able to take advantage of that, and agencies that will be hurt by it. It doesn’t mean that a client will only have one agency. But the days of clients having 10 to 20 agencies are less likely. There will always be specialists. But in the next few years, you’ll see the disciplines working closer together and bringing their intellectual capital to bear as a team. There are emerging models out there. I’m watching what Publicis is doing, as everybody is. I like to watch what WPP does. I admire a lot of what Omnicom does: it’s a very good institution.

Atifa Silk: Your life outside of work?

Harris Diamond: I was asked recently how I manage a work-life balance. I may not be the right person to answer that. It’s something that we all have to come to grips with on our own. I enjoy what I do. I have been fortunate to find a business that also meshes with my personal interests: it keeps me active. Work is, to a large extent, what I am. My family accept it, sort of. I love being what I am and doing what I do.

Atifa Silk: Succession plans?

Harris Diamond: I plan to live forever. 

 

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