Canada’s King of the Hill

Hill+Knowlton Strategies Canada’s commitment to intense, annual planning sessions keeps it atop the nation’s PR market

CEO Mike Coates knows that in today’s digital economy, being open and transparent is paramount for any company’s success.

When Hill+Knowlton Strategies (H+K) Canada president and CEO Mike Coates got in touch with Advantage, he had just wrapped up a long day of business planning with his senior management team. The team takes these planning sessions very seriously, and they are one of many aspects that have made the company one of Canada’s leaders in public relations, public affairs, and strategic communications. Each quarter, the company devotes three full days to strategizing its goals, finding the means to attain them, and calculating their impacts on H+K Canada’s organizational culture.

It’s a lot of work, but it pays off. H+K Canada has just experienced its 30th consecutive quarter of growth, resulting in a compound, annual-growth rate of slightly less than 10 percent for the last 10 years. To put this achievement in context, the forecasted growth rate for the North American PR industry is only three percent, according to GroupM’s This Year, Next Year 2010 report.

H+K Canada owes its success, in part, to its parent company, Hill+Knowlton Inc., which is part of the holding company WPP, a world leader in marketing-communications services. WPP is made up of leading companies in advertising; media-investment management; consumer insight; public relations and public affairs; branding and identity; healthcare communications; direct, digital, promotion, and relationship marketing; and specialist communications.

H+K Canada’s current three-year business plan focuses on three opportunities to expand the firm’s reach: offering integrated solutions that no other agency can match, introducing a new practice area in financial communications and transactions, and identifying new service offerings that can be built or acquired within the mandate of a diversified-communications company.

The executives assigned to head these initiatives are, respectively, Kadi Kaljuste, Steven MacKinnon, and Jeff Smith.

“We put Kadi in charge of partnerships with our WPP partners and stakeholders, where we can offer advice to them and their clients, and they can offer their expertise to ours,” Coates says. “These are our sister companies—our WPP chairman calls them his ‘tribes’—and traditionally we have all operated in solo fashion in our own geographies. Working together, we can be very effective.”

This can be seen in H+K Canada’s partnership with sister company Y&R. The pair worked with the Royal Canadian Mint, which H+K has provided services for since 2003. Y&R was brought on to help with advertising for coin launches, particularly during the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

The other two initiatives will also build on existing strengths. Under MacKinnon, the newly established financial-communications and -transactions practice will focus on communications and public-affairs strategies for takeover defenses, divestitures, bankruptcies, and acquisitions. Smith’s mission, on the other hand, is to focus on expansion beyond H+K’s core business strengths and, through acquisition or development, to bring on nodes of expertise that enable the company to compete more effectively with boutique agencies.

What has prepped H+K Canada for such moves has been its steadfast culture and success. For five years running, the firm has been recognized as one of the best workplaces in Canada by the Great Place to Work Institute, and it is the only PR and public-affairs firm in the 2011 ranking. It also received the Order of Excellence Award from Excellence Canada—which is a first for a PR and public-affairs firm—for its sustained, exemplary commitment to quality.

H+K Canada is the second-most-profitable operating unit of its parent company, but that doesn’t mean its easy for the market leader to continue growing. “We have clients in virtually every industry sector except automotive, and in virtually every geography that can support an office,” Coates says. With this reach and a dedicated leadership team, H+K Canada is not just a firm to watch—it’s one to trust.