As a proud Hill & Knowlton alumnus, it pains me to read the latest upheaval at the firm's upper ranks. (Founders Donald Knowlton and John W. Hill are pictured, below.) It seems that, since the late 1980s, H&K has been the industry lightning rod for turmoil, controversy and unrest.
It wasn’t always that way, though. I had the good fortune to land an H&K entry-level position in 1978. At that point in time, H&K was the gold standard of the profession. Sure, Burson was growing rapidly. But, Carl Byoir and Harshe-Rotman & Druck had already started to decline, and firms such as Porter, Ketchum and Golin were still in their nascent stages. H&K was unquestionably the “…shining city on the hill.”
It was a thrill to work there. In those days, giants walked Hill & Knowlton’s hallways. We had former newspaper editors, syndicated columnists, press secretaries and industry insiders by the scores. H&K also had a curious new business policy. The firm refused to proactively pitch prospective clients, believing it to be demeaning. Instead, blue chip organizations approached Hill & Knowlton, hoping to be added to its uber-prestigious client list.
Our power brokers were the powerfirm’s upper ranks. It seems that, since the late brokers. Bob Gray, who ran H&K’s Washington, D.C. office, was the ultimate Beltway insider. If a client needed to influence Congressional votes, Gray made it happen. I had the pleasure to work alongside two of Gray’s subordinates, Sheila Tate and Colburn Aker, to support the American Trucking Association’s efforts to prevent new anti-trucking legislation in scores of states (note: Tate later became Nancy Reagan’s press secretary and founded Powell-Tate. Aker had his own influential lobbying firm for decades). I traveled to New Hampshire, Oregon and the state of Washington in 1980 to help the team ensure voters turned thumbs down on increased trucking taxes. It was an unparalleled experience for a green-as-grass, 24-year-old account executive.
H&K’s decline began in the late 1980s, when a senior management struggle resulted in the firm’s representing highly controversial clients such as The Church of Scientology, The U.S. Catholic Bishops and, most notoriously, the government of Kuwait. With the latter, H&K was accused of staging a genocide of Kuwaiti kids (an event that later inspired the Hollywood movie, “Wag the Dog”).
H&K seemed to have stabilized its image and reputation free-fall by the end of the 20th century. And, quite a few industry trades rightly lauded Paul Taaffe and Marylee Sachs for their fine work in righting the ship. Now, they’re gone with the wind and the firm, once again, seems to be in adrift. It’s really sad to say this but, once a firm sells to a larger holding company, all bets are off. Some survive. A few even thrive. But most, like H&K, begin a long, slow downward spiral.