Oral Histories

Al Golin

Interview Segments on Topic: Marketing/Advertising/Branding

Al Golin Biography

Al Golin, founder of the international public relations firm GolinHarris, began his career in 1951 as a field press representative for MGM Studios.  In 1957, when he was with Max Cooper & Associates, he placed a cold call to Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s.  That conversation eventually grew to a partnership that changed McDonald’s from a fledgling company to one that has grown to 37,000 locations worldwide with 243 Ronald McDonald Houses in 25 countries. Al Golin developed the term “TrustBank” with Ray Kroc, believing trust as the greatest intangible at the heart of every long-term business or personal relationship. GolinHarris currently has 30 offices worldwide with corporate headquarters in Chicago, Illinois.


Interviewer: Is it possible for an agency like yours today to be “a full service agency that would handle marketing problems, crises communications, and investor relations, internal relations, government relations, or is there going to be more of a tendency to create boutique agencies downlink that will specialize in these various fields rather than be a total package.”

Golin: There may be

Interviewer: That may not be a fair question. I’m not sure.

Golin: Well for an agency such as ourselves these days we like to think of ourselves as full service because we’re large enough. And I’m not saying that the boutique type agencies aren’t going to have a value and exist because I think they will. I think there will be a place for both. I think when a major company that who is global for example wants an international agency of record. They are looking to an agency that has all the capabilities so we have to do those things whether we like them or not. So we have to have the capabilities in order to compete with the major agencies we have to have offices in Washington and we have to be represented in Brussels and things of that nature. So we have to be almost all things to everybody. And I know that’s difficult because there are a few agencies that really do specialize in just a couple of niches and I think they will do well. They will continue to do well but for agencies such as ourselves we do want to represent a global company. We have to be able to have all those capabilities.

Interviewer: Can you find the people that will fill those kinds of responsibilities?

Golin: Well it’s not easy. It’s not easy to find people because that’s what we’re all about and finding the right people is absolutely the name of the game. And keeping them happy and moving them along at the right levels so they know they have a future within rather than without is extremely important. I do think that sometimes we we like to say we built up a culture here where we don’t have a laundry list of clients. Like certain agencies do who boast about that. And I think that’s fine. But we don’t. We like to say we have fewer clients and well like to have more meaningful partnership relations with them. Because we like to have people work on clients who really don’t just give it a lick and a promise. Because certain agencies will have people working on ten clients and we don’t’ think you can really get to know that kind of company well enough to be effective.

Interviewer: Al just to shift gears here a little bit and you may have to really scratch your head to find an answer to this next question but what was the biggest challenge you faced in your career to date?

Golin: Biggest challenge in terms of a client you mean or at anything.

Interviewer: Anything you might have found that really tested your ability to solve the problem.

Golin: Well sometimes we’re now owned by another company as many firms are these days. Where they are a larger company that own advertising agencies and promotion agencies and related kinds of companies. And that’s a challenge. Because we like to separate ourselves from t hat if you will and retain what we think we built up over the years. So probably the biggest challenge is to retain the culture that we built up and not be sublimated by the parent company and that’s a constant thing that we go through. And I think they respect that and have given us that opportunity. And I know from other people in the industry. They don’t quite get that so there’s a terrific amount of stress sometimes in connection with that of being owned by somebody else. And that’s always a challenge after starting a business and being your own person and trying to retain what you have built up over the years. And yet you know and you want to grow and you want to utilize all the other things that they might offer. So again it’s that balancing act that’s so important. But it’s probably maybe one of the major challenges I can think of.

Interviewer: I think that’s an exceptionally good answer because it causes me to ask you a follow up questions and that is it seems like that the advertising agency or some of the major advertising agencies are the acquirers of qualified public relations firms like yourself and I’m not sure whether that’s a healthy thing or not to have the advertising as a specialty being the inquirer as opposed to public relations which I would perceive of being more all encompassing than in advertising. So how do you deal with that kind of perceptions like that that people would have?

Golin: Well it’ it is as I said earlier a challenge to separate the two if you will. And I think that the smart ones who are the parent companies realize that it is a different kind of business and you can’t generalize about it as you can running a promotion agency or something of that nature. That we do have a unique kind of business and they respect that. Hopefully you convinced or you’ve given them enough reason to say I’m doing fine. I’m doing well. Don’t tamper with it. And I think as I say I think the smart ones will respect that and leave you alone and try to have you retain what you do best.

Interviewer: Circling back to a subject you touched on a little bit ago. Most of us have grown up being able to use the traditional media to influence public opinion one way or the other. We felt that one of the major responsibilities of public relations was to be able to influence public opinion. With the changes in the media structure that we foresee now, how easy is it going to be use traditional media to influence public opinion and what substitutes are there for the newspaper readership as you said earlier and TV listenership or viewership is going down? How does the public relations person who wants to make a change or create change. What do they do?

Golin: Well it’s very difficult because when I started in the business there were three television networks to deal with. And you could reach 90 percent of the audience with any of those three networks. Or there were major outlets with certain magazines. Today there are thousands and thousands of magazines and thousands and thousands of web sites and blogs and  you know who would have thought of all these blogs. They are starting by the thousands almost on a daily basis. So you almost have to go after individuals more than ever before. I think the whole mass market thing is dwindling. That you have to tailor your messages to specific audiences rather than try to be all things to everybody. And I think that the average public relations person has to be that very conscious of that. And I think we have to be protective of that in the sense of the competitors like advertising agencies. Well they want to get into that business because they’re looking for new ways to have income. You know their business is down and because of the traditional media being off. So they are looking for ways to reach an audience. So they are getting into areas where it used to be just public relations. There’s a gray area right now of who does what.

Interviewer: In one sense you are saying that public relations is going to be more involved in market segmentation and audience recognition and it never had been in the past and this is actually stealing a chapter out of the advertising textbook.

Golin: Well it is. It is and media of course is the same kind of thing whether you are advertising or you are doing public relations. And I think that you constantly have to you know we hate to have advertising influence public relations. When we grew up we always said that was a no no. You know that advertising had nothing to do with public relations. And sometimes if we were in a newspaper office and talked to a reporter about a client, and said by the way they are a big advertiser in your newspaper the average reporter would throw us out. Because they say that you know that’s not cricket so and we hope it still won’t be that way but today it is blurring a lot. Where a lot of ad agencies are buying time on certain shows and think they can get messages within the body of that show as an add on whether it’s the product placement or whether it’s a [inaudible] or whether it’s talking about a particular industry so there is. That’s the danger of that sort of thing. And I think we have to be conscious of all the new media but we also have to be conscious of what we do and what they do.

Interviewer: This is a little bit aside. This always was true in the movie industry but it seems like it’s even more so in some of the recent movies I’ve seen where there have been products placed.

Golin: Product placement.

Interviewer: Messages that the tobacco industry has been superb in this in regenerating…

Golin: That’s right. Where they can’t buy advertising they figure they’ve got big budgets and a lot of them of course got into things like NASCAR and other sponsors sports sponsorship in order to get their name across because they can’t get involved. They can’t buy the advertising. Particularly those kinds of companies.

Interviewer: Do you see branding as part of advertising or public relations? How do you see the subject of branding these days?

Golin: Well I think somebody I know who is a great marketing guy said to me that without trust a brand is nothing. So I think that public relations builds trust in a brand and that’s a very important thing and you can buy a lot of advertising if you are. Coca Cola but it won’t necessarily give the make it a trusted brand if you don’t do certain things to complement that sort of thing. So I think that in our business we have to be very conscious of brand and I don’t think. There are a lot purists in our business too who say “We shouldn’t’ have anything to do with marketing or brands or things of that nature.” Well I’ve never believed that. I’ve always felt that this is a very important part of what we do. And I think if we take ourselves too seriously sometimes and worry about the word profession I think it’s a danger. I think we have to realize this is a business and you have to think of it as a business as well as a profession. And not let the other part of it overrule the fact that it is business.