Last year was a challenging one for Ruder Finn, which saw fee income decline slightly to close out 2010 with fees of just under $100 million—although US revenues were up slightly. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that management was somewhat distracted by protracted negotiations that culminated in the 2011 decision that Peter Finn and a handful of other senior executives would spin off a new business—Finn Partners—taking about $25 million in revenues and a large slice of the firm’s US operations outside New York. Key new business came from Mountain Dew, PepsiCo, Citigroup, L’Oreal Matrix and Logitech.
With domestic fee income of around $78 million in 2010, Ruder Finn remains a formidable player in the US market, second only to Edelman among the full-service independents. The firm continues to derive the bulk of its North American revenue (indeed, the bulk of its global revenue) from the powerhouse New York office, which has strong capabilities in corporate and consumer and—especially—healthcare. It maintains a branded presence in both Chicago (under the leadership of Dan Pooley), and Washington, DC, (helmed by Jessica Ross) while it can handle any west coast needs via the Finn Partners operation (including an impressive San Francisco office led by Howard Solomon and the former Rogers Group operation in Los Angeles).
After defying the recession in 2009, Ruder Finn continued to progress in Asia last year, growing revenues by almost 10 percent to around $13 million. The firm has about 200 people in its Asia-Pacific operations, the vast majority of them in the Greater China market, which includes offices in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The only other branded presence in the region is in Singapore, with the remainder of the region served by a network of affiliates. In Europe—with offices in London and Paris—the firm has historically chosen to focus most of its energies on the healthcare sector, although regional chief Nick Leonard has been diversifying the client portfolio and the service officering, expanding the firm’s capabilities in the technology sector and the corporate and public affairs practice areas.
A major restructuring a few years ago saw Ruder Finn adopt four core practice areas that set it apart from most of its large, full-service peers by focusing on major business and societal issues rather than traditional marketing disciplines or industry sectors. The firm is probably best known for its work in the health and wellness arena, with a heritage of big pharmaceutical clients and a broad range of healthcare and nutrition capabilities, and for its consumer life and style work. The corporate and public trust practice, which includes corporate reputation work and a strong portfolio of nonprofit business, grew in 2010, as did the technology and innovation specialty (up about 12 percent in New York). Digital and social media was the other growth area, and the firm’s digital creative studio continues to impress.
The spin-off of Finn Partners saw the departure of co-chief executive Peter Finn, president of the Americas Richard Funess, west coast business leader Solomon, and senior executives Alicia Young (technology), Noah Finn (digital) and Gail Moaney (travel). The firm will be hoping that what it lost in manpower it will gain in cohesion and focus. Kathy Bloomgarden remains as chief executive, supported by chief innovation officer Michael Schubert, healthcare practice leader Susan Goldstein, senior VP of consumer John McInerney, and of course agency founder David Finn, the firm’s chairman and still a bright guiding light for its distinctive vision and approach.
The spin-off announcement hinted at differences between the Finn siblings when it came to internal issues, and certainly both firms will be hoping that one head is better than two when it comes to setting the cultural tone. One long-overdue initiative is the renovation of the firm’s New York headquarters office space, which continues apace, but Ruder Finn has also stepped up its professional development activity, while continuing to place a heavier emphasis than its peers on ethical business: Emmanuel Tchividjian is one of the few to hold a chief ethics officer title in the agency realm. The firm has also partnered with John Kao, a renowned innovation expert, to heighten levels of creativity to consistently improve the quality of client deliverables
David Finn’s continued involvement in the public realm, from counseling the United Nations to serving the arts, and Tchividjian’s ethics blog continue to give Ruder Finn a distinctive presence in the marketplace, and the company’s Move magazine publishes plenty of distinctive and provocative thinking in its core areas of focus, from public trust to wellness to digital and social media. But the firm does not have the same thought leadership profile of some of its larger peers.
Ruder Finn does a broad range of interesting work for flagship client Novartis, ranging from corporate reputation building (helping to position CEO Daniel Vassella as a leader in the pharmaceutical sector), to social responsibility (the company’s efforts to fight malaria and other tropical diseases), to patient education (a SABRE-nominated campaign on blood pressure). Other interesting work last year included work in the travel and tourism category for Hotels.com, the Jamaica Tourist Board and AirFrance; and continued support for the Liz Claiborne “Love is not abuse” domestic violence education campaign, which was awarded a Lifetime Achievement SABRE Award this year.
While Edelman has successfully leveraged its independence to position itself—with clients and employees—as a different alternative to the big, publicly-held agencies, Ruder Finn has struggled to stand out in the marketplace. Its restructuring a few years ago should perhaps have done more in that regard—it featured fresh thinking and an understanding of the big issues facing corporate clients in a complex environment—but it was not communicated nearly aggressively enough.
The departure of Finn and his colleagues introduces another note of uncertainty about the future at a firm that had been struggling to keep pace with its largest multinational peers. Ruder Finn is a fraction of the size of the global market leaders, and will need to work hard to differentiate itself if it hopes to compete for the most interesting and attractive high-profile global assignments.