Michael Olguin: President & CEO, Havas Formula

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Michael Olguin founded Havas Formula in 1992 as a national public relations agency. A senior strategist with nearly 30 years’ PR experience, he is equally versed in driving B-to-C and B-to-B programs for clients across consumer, lifestyle, high-tech, consumer technology, sports, entertainment, and travel categories. In addition to serving as Havas Formula’s leader, Michael expanded the agency’s offering with the creation and supervision of specialty divisions offering social media, Hispanic PR (Havas FORMULATIN) and brand activation services (Havas Street).

Based in Havas Formula’s New York City headquarters, Michael oversees a nationwide staff of more than 115 employees across five offices—New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago and Miami— and splits his very full days across client strategy, leadership team management, and growing the agency through new business development. He is frequently featured as a PR expert in trade and business publications ranging from PRWeek to Inc., and as a speaker at industry events including PRSA International Conference and Hispanicize.

How did you get into the industry?

Unlike most PR pros who have been in the industry 20+ years and come from a journalism background, I actually studied PR in college and knew early on that this was my career path. During my senior year of college, I got an internship at one of San Diego’s largest PR agencies at the time – The Gable Agency – and I leveraged that experience into a full-time job three months later. My early career was focused mostly on local clients; many of them B-to-B oriented. I didn’t really start getting consumer experience until I moved to LA to work at a larger agency with more national clients. Needless to say, this whet my appetite for bigger opportunities and thus drove my desire to launch The Olguin Company (now Havas Formula) in 1992. This March, we will be celebrating our 25th Anniversary and, shockingly, it feels like just yesterday when I was buying second-hand furniture for shared office space.

Any emerging trends?

For the last four or five years everyone has been talking about content and the importance it plays in building a lasting relationship with consumers. Though that is true, what has worked even more effectively is establishing the narrative around a brand and how that relates to the consumer. Having great video content is good, but the story within the content must create an emotional connection with the consumer or they will simply ignore the content. Content that just entertains is not nearly as effective as content that tells a story about the brand and the products or services it offers. This is particularly true for millennials, who want to know what a brand stands for, where its products are made, and what good it is doing in the community – all differentiators in a crowded marketplace.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

The biggest opportunity in the PR field is the growing importance it plays in the overall marketing mix for brands. Never before has PR been appreciated so greatly. This is partially driven by social media and consumers’ ability to dialogue directly with brands. If they have a good, bad or challenging experience – they will tell you about it. But, more importantly, they will share this via their social channels; therefore, the importance of managing the communications narrative has never been more valued. PR budgets continue to go up and brands that previously used PR purely as a defense mechanism (stock prices, revenue shortfalls, customer crises) are now embracing the positive outcomes that PR can provide. This is good for all agencies.

Inspiration for the business idea and your vision for the business?

Unlike many entrepreneurs who had a business plan, identified a white space, and had funding in place, I had none of that. What drove my decision to launch Havas Formula was the belief that I could do it better and naiveté on what it takes to run a business. I ultimately figured out that if I failed I had a marketable skill and I could always go get a job. Though my father wasn’t an entrepreneur, I truly believed in the advice he shared with me: “Work hard, treat people fairly, take calculated risks and you will be fine.” I still live by that mantra today.

What’s next for the business in the future?

In the past year, Havas Formula has added offices in Chicago and Miami, and we are looking to expand beyond that to San Francisco and possibly Toronto. Many brands today are very interested in the support of mid-sized agencies because they can provide national scale as well as a level of nimbleness and attentive, hands-on service that larger agencies aren’t known for. This positioning was instrumental in us winning brands like Jaguar/Land Rover, FTD and Panda Express – thus the future is incredibly exciting.

Your key initiatives for the success of the business?

We have three priorities for the coming year: 1) People First – which translates to ensuring that you are providing a clear professional growth path for all employees and that their cultural experience is amazing, 2) Reduce Churn – you cannot grow incrementally if you lose clients. Thus, our client-centric approach ensures that we are truly acting as a business consultant to our clients with complete focus on how we are helping them to grow, and 3) Smart Growth – we want all of our growth to be strategic and fall in line with the categories we’re interested in, the experience we currently have, and the targeted brands that make good sense for our organization. Indiscriminate growth is not good for the team, the company or our long-term vision.

Your most difficult business moment within the business?

Along with many other agencies, 2009 was a tough year. Though our revenue was down by only 9%, which is very low compared to our industry, we feared that every time the phone rang it would be from a client that was having an equally difficult time and looking to reduce their spend or put their PR efforts on hold. We overcame this difficult period by ramping up our new business efforts, spreading our resources across multiple clients, and being fiscally conservative in all operations. This strategic approach ensured that we came out stronger in the long run.

Ideal experience for a client?

We are huge believers that the relationship between agency and client must be a two-way street. Not every idea or program will work as planned, but good partnerships work through difficult times to get to a place that is beneficial to both parties. It is completely dependent upon good communication, smart thinking, excellent problem solving and, most importantly, an appreciation for what each other brings to the relationship. When a client makes the agency feel subservient or the agency does not challenge the client intellectually, the relationship will ultimately unravel. Our long-term relationships are based upon this approach – combined with having a little fun, because clients enjoy working with people they like.

How do you motivate others?

I’m not a believer in being a rah-rah guy. I work hard to have personal relationships with everyone in the company – who they are, where they come from, where they went to school – and really know something personal and important about them. This goes a long way and builds upon my management strategy, which is about honesty and transparency. Each year, Havas Formula hosts an Annual Summit where we bring all of our people together to share the company’s long-term vision, growth goals and expectations. I have always believed that information is power and the more our team understands what we are striving for as a company, the more empowered they will feel. This approach has been instrumental in keeping our employee churn lower than industry benchmarks and ensuring that our most senior leaders remain committed to our organization.

Career Advice to those in your industry?

I believe that there are three things we can’t teach: intelligence, hard work and attitude. Thus, if individuals joining our organization have those three characteristics, they can be amazing in all they do. Each of these traits plays such a critical role in anyone’s professional success, so when you combine them with great PR skills you will have an incredible employee.