Golin Goes All In

In 1957, a young publicity professional named Al Golin placed a cold call to McDonald’s Corp. founder Ray Kroc, wondering if the up-and-coming hamburger chain needed help promoting its business. Golin, at the time one of six staffers at public relations firm Max Cooper & Associates, aced the pitch, and Kroc hired him on a $500-a-month retainer.

One year later, Golin became a partner in the firm, which — thanks to the McDonald’s account — would grow over the next 50 years into one of the most prominent PR outfits in the world. Now named solely after Golin, who remains the company’s chairman, the firm today has 1,000 employees and offices in 32 countries, including nine in the United States. 

Aside from its continuing work for McDonald’s, Chicago-based Golin’s clients have included Cisco Systems Inc., Dow Chemical Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Owned by the Interpublic Group of Companies, Golin brought in roughly $175 million in revenue in 2014. 

Like most PR firms that started in the “Mad Men” era of the 1960s, Golin governed its talent under the agency model of executive vice presidents, directors and account executives — a standard based on a clear reporting structure, where all employees were viewed as “generalists” contributing to clients’ needs.

But in 2010, as advances in digital media continued to transform PR firms’ operations, Golin decided to overhaul its talent structure. Led by CEO Fred Cook, Golin would abandon the old agency model and create a system of specialist communities, styled as the g4 model.

Out were the agency job titles and generalist duties; in were “creators,” “connectors,” “strategists” and “catalysts.” These worker pools would help the firm better serve clients in the era of social media, content marketing and digital audience engagement. It cost the company between $3 million and $5 million, Cook estimated.

Now, as the transformation heads into 2015, Golin executives say the firm is still adjusting. Among the challenges is shifting its culture to fit with the new model as client work continues at a rapid clip, and training employees to identify how their skills fit with each worker community.

“Three years into it, we’re stillimprovising,” Cook said. “We’re changing the structure, the jobs, we’re improving the technology.”

New Landscape

A 2014 report by the University of North Carolina at Pembroke estimates that nearly 2 billion people use the Internet  —  or about 30 percent of the world population. By 2010, Facebook had more than 400 million users (it has about 1 billion today), and the Internet had surpassed newspapers as the primary way Americans got their news, according to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank.

By that time, the rise of social media and mobile technology had not only changed the method and speed with which people communicated but also influenced how people gained access to politicians, athletes,celebrities and the hundreds of thousands of corporate brands competing for consumers’ attention.

These developments left many organizations at the time trying to figure out how to integrate social media into their business strategies. This was especially the case for corporate marketing, communications, advertising and PR departments.

For Golin, the change in the communication landscape was somewhat of a wake-up call.

“Our business was very healthy,” Cook said. “We had record financials [and] lots of long-term clients. And we had won many awards for our work and our agency, but we felt that to stay strong we needed to change before anything was broken.”

Rather than rest on its laurels, the senior management team at Golin decided to enact a swift organizational response by starting a project called Agency for the Future. The guiding concept for the project was called PRevolve, which became a rallying call for Golin to completely redo how the firm organized its talent.

Reorganizing people, Cook said, was the best way for Golin to provide clients with deeper insights and broader engagement across all channels of communication.

First Golin analyzed its client surveys to determine what they wanted in an agency. Cook said the research revealed that clients didn’t think PR firms were delivering on insights, analytics, creativity or idea development.

“What clients were looking for really informed our new model,” Cook said. “We created four communities around insights, ideas, engagement and integration. The communities were designed to meet the needs of our clients as we saw them.”

After developing the new communities, Golin decided to do away with the hierarchical talent structure that had characterized the agency — and the rest of the industry — for more than half a century.

Instead of a rigid, top-down structure with dozens of account executives and vice presidents — “all of whom did basically the same thing,” Cook said — Golin introduced the four communities of creators, connectors, strategists and catalysts. Each title serves as a clear statement of what each worker group was designed to do.

As Cook writes in his book, “Improvise: Unconventional Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO”:

“Strategists are analytical thinkers who distill data into nuggets of brilliance. Creators are experts at developing and packaging breakthrough creative concepts. Connectors are media junkies adept at telling stories across all channels. Catalysts are change agents responsible for integrating these skills into seamless campaigns for our clients.”

G4 Communities Snapshots


• Like to learn from the latest industry and demographic reports, annual reports and analyst calls.

• Aren’t afraid to challenge conventional wisdom or suggest something new.

• Love to find answers to complex problems.

• Understand how to get to thorny underlying issues that keep clients awake at night.

•Track key industry trends using the latest research and tools.

• Use data to drive decisions.

• Are quick studies of unfamiliar industries and concepts.

• Distill abstract information into compelling insights that their teams can easily understand.



• Like to work with people outside the group or agency to deliver the best possible thinking to clients.

• Are able to anticipate and solve problems for clients.

•Have organizational skills and love knowing everything is on time, on budget and of the highest standard.

• Understand how to get things done.

• Are always looking for opportunities to build the business.

• Carry a sense of urgency in day-to-day work.

• Are hellbent on getting clients the best results.

• Lead by example and inspire people to do their best work and exceed clients’ expectations.


• Know how to shape great content and sell a story.

• Are immersed in the online culture and use digital tools to manage your life.

• Are conversant with the latest digital technologies and social media applications.

• Pay attention to what’s going on in the media, online and offline.

• Know how to navigate the dynamics of a media campaign in real time.

• Are always exploring new ways to get exposure for clients in traditional and social media.

• Build media relationships over time and know what reporters and bloggers need.

• Always know what’s new and next.


• Know how to pull the best ideas out of people and shape them into something.

• Love to surprise clients with ideas and concepts.

• Are comfortable making decisions without all the information.

• Can take an idea and translate it into compelling words and images.

• Are brilliant at bringing insights to life in a way that connects with people.

• Like to try new things.

• Find inspiration in unexpected places.

• Embrace what’s original and different.

Source: Golin

Amir Kassaei, chief creative officer at advertising firm DDB Worldwide Communications Group Inc., said a change in the industry model was overdue. “As the world and the technology progress, we have to come up with a different structure and process to be true partners to marketers and get paid for the solutions that we develop, and not the hours we are spending to create ideas,” Kassaei said.

Initially, employees at Golin were allowed to decide their community. But the majority of employees self-identified as catalysts — the worker community associated as having a generalist skill set. Cook estimated that roughly 80 percent of the firm’s Chicago office chose to become catalysts.

So Golin decided to rethink the catalyst role hoping to further promote the idea of specialists instead of generalists. “Instead of asking everybody to be good at everything, we’re asking them to be exceptional in one thing,” Cook said. “We want that one thing to be something they’re passionate about. There’s a lot of tapping into people’s passions for their benefit and the benefit of our clients.”

Golin tweaked catalysts to represent employees with backgrounds as integrated marketers who maintained strong relationships with managers. The firm then used the Lominger competencies model to help employees identify their skills to better place them in one of the four communities.

The Lominger model has 67 competencies. A competency can be a skill, an attribute or an attitude, like “approachability,” “career ambition” or “understanding others.” Golin applied the model by writing out the competencies in terms that avoided HR jargon, taking into account the firm’s culture.

Cook estimated that the application of the Lominger model helped Golin’s Chicago office reduce its catalysts — still the largest of the worker groups — from 80 percent to 50 percent.

Once the communities were established, Golin rewrote its job descriptions. A catalyst, for instance, is someone who is able to maintain a big-picture strategic view of clients’ business goals, competitive issues and constituent considerations. They’re also able to stay up-to-date on changing communication tools and techniques. Overall, the principal responsibility of a catalyst is to oversee relationships with clients.

Creators are the writers, designers and producers who come up with ideas for how to tell a brand’s story. Strategists analyze a client’s business and determine the best ways to reach consumers. And connectors are responsible for making sure target audiences get to hear a brand’s story through different media.

Golin also created what it calls “playbooks” for each community. These were designed to help employees better understand their responsibilities to the community and the organization given the new roles and approach to work.

In terms of physical infrastructure changes with g4, the firm built in each of its offices “The Bridge,” a multimedia engagement center that affords all of Golin’s connectors the ability to analyze real-time marketing through social media and other digital channels.

Much like the massive social media command centers built by consumer products companies to monitor their brands, The Bridge helps Golin track trending topics in real time so the firm can immediately shift a client’s brand strategy. Depending on the size of a specific office, Cook said Golin spent between $100,000 and $150,000 to build these command centers in each office.

Golin also invested in a proprietary software system that creates and sends daily reports on social media trends from The Bridge to clients. “It’s completely proprietary,” Cook said, “and it’s completely customized to the individual clients’ needs and the audiences they’re interested in.”

Pushing Ahead

Golin’s g4 transformation has come with a slew of cultural changes — and challenges.

One area, Cook said, is the firm’s internal communications ecosystem. As part of the shift, the agency created internal social networks to allow each worker group across locations an easy avenue to share knowledge. While these social networks at first were limited to each worker community, they now allow for internal communication across the groups.

The shift to g4 has also changed how the firm’s HR department functions, according to Pamela Culpepper, Golin’s chief people officer. Specifically, she said the expertise communities at Golin are especially helpful when it comes to promoting diversity and inclusion.

“We’re in a unique position of having a talent model that relies on getting a group of experts in a room that have different levels and areas of expertise, and using it to better market the client’s product or service they’re engaged with,” Culpepper said.

Despite such benefits, one talent issue was getting people to maintain their role given the new specialist structure. “A number of people came from having been a generalist to now honing a level of expertise,” Culpepper said. “Sometimes it becomes difficult to stay in your lane when you have knowledge in other areas. Eventually, it will become an opportunity to rely on, because the more you know about what’s going on around you, the better you are at performing the piece that you contribute.”

Another cultural challenge of the shift to g4 was helping employees find their area of expertise. To this end, the agency launched Golin University, which offers onlineclasses for each of the four worker communities.

Classes are segmented by group; they include “Conversation Mining and Analysis” and “Crisis and Social Media,” as well as how employees who aren’t connectors can use The Bridge. Each course comes with an introduction to the g4 model.

There’s also a learning program called “What’s Your 24?” that encourages employees to pursue 24 hours of learning on their own. It’s “not just e-learning or classroom learning,” Culpepper said. “It could be designing something to teach others or sharing a blog you wrote.”

Delegating authority was another growing pain. Though g4 aimed to strip the formal structure of the old agency model, the firm still needed some semblance of a reporting structure.

Under g4, executives still have leadership authority. At the highest level, a small executive team manages overall operations. Meanwhile, each of the four worker groups is governed by an executive council of six higher-ranking employees, Cook said.

Each council is responsible for creating training, mentoring and performance management for itsrespective community. Additionally, such council leadership responsibilities rotate annually. Council members stay in the same worker group, but theyrotate each year on which specific management responsibilities they oversee. 

“Every year someone different in that council will be the person with the most responsibility, but they’ll have the support of the other individuals,” Cook said. Golin originally had one person leading each worker group, but found the arrangement to be too taxing for one person. “We have just learned a lot along the way about what people like, and what works or doesn’t.”

So far, executives say g4 has worked and is something people like. Thanks to the work produced as a result of the talent structure, Golin’s business grew by adding big-name accounts such as Adidas America Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and The Hartford Group. And as of this year, Golin has won PR industry analysis and recognition company Holmes Report’s Large Agency of the Year award in the Americas eight times.

Cook said what’s made him most proud of the transformation is the personal-growth mindset g4 has brought Golin employees — something important to him given the unconventional career path he took to becoming a CEO. Cook has been CEO of Golin since 2003, but his résumé also lists “pool shark,” “cabin boy on a Norwegian cargo ship,” “indie-record label executive,” “history teacher,” “Italian leather salesman” and “chauffeur” as past job titles. “Each one of those experiences taught me something different about business and life,” Cook said.

But most of all, Cook said such an unconventional career path provided him with the skill he hopes to ultimately instill at Golin with g4: improvisation.

For Cook, the g4 model is simply improvisation in action — a standard for which Golin can make its own rules and improvise when new client challenges arise. This nimbleness, he said, will help the firm stay ahead of its competitors.  

“I think that g4 was total improvisation,” Cook said. “I think that any type of innovation has some level of improvisation in it, in my opinion. I learned how to improvise over all these different careers, which I think helped me prepare for this.”