The PR Wars at 42West: Fights, Money and a Breakup

5:00 AM PST 08/18/2011 by Gregg Kilday, Kevin Gray
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Cynthia Swartz, left, and Leslee Dart

Forget all its A-list talent and Oscar campaigns: There’s even more drama behind the scenes at this top publicity firm as premier awards strategist Cynthia Swartz stages her exit away from Leslee Dart.

By 1999, corporate America had become as infatuated with celebrity as the media and public were. Kingsley sold PMK to Interpublic, whose strategic goal was to give its big-brand clients easy access to Kingsley's A-list clientele. A year later, a competing talent agency, HBH, led by Simon Halls, also sold to Interpublic, which later merged it with PMK to form PMK/HBH. At the time, corporate firms were picking up PR agencies right and left: Interpublic also bought Rogers & Cowan, which had become one of the world's biggest media consultants, while communications heavyweight WPP (which owns ad giants Ogilvy and Young & Rubicam) bought PR stalwart BWR.

Five years later, Kingsley's bulletproof facade began to crack. In 2004, Cruise, her longtime client and power base, fired her. Shortly afterward, Dart, her protege and one of PMK's brightest publicists who led the firm's New York office, made a play for her job. Kingsley responded by firing Dart, who had already been irritated by Interpublic's pressure to pull in corporate clients. "That was not something I was interested in doing," says Dart. A petite and dark-eyed New York native, she often counterbalanced Kingsley's icy rectitude with an aggressively friendly demeanor that disarmed journalists and won the lasting affection of clients. "We had different ideas," she says.

Dozens of prestige clients -- Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Weinstein -- lined up on Dart's side. Kingsley, in opting to maintain a stranglehold on power, had made a strategic error -- and so Dart went on to found 42West, now among the biggest indie publicity shops in the business.

By the time Kingsley retired in 2008, she estimated that 40 percent of her business was brands, with their own publicists separate from the company's celebrity handlers. Efforts to create synergy between the groups never really took root because talent specialists were under pressure from Interpublic to expand into corporate branding, and many bristled under that directive. Their corporate parents wanted the red-carpet handlers, who collect modest $5,000 monthly retainers even from A-list stars, to start reeling in $100,000-a-month brand deals, and the talent pros found the idea repulsive. "IPG is an advertising culture and does not understand talent PR," says a former PMK executive who now runs a large publicity agency. "Their expectations are unrealistic. They promise to leave you alone, and for the first two years they do. But then it's in your face about the bottom line and double-digit growth. You can't use the ad model in the PR world at all."

Halls says: "The first flaw is that agents make deals, not us. We create awareness for our clients." He found himself at the center of the next chapter in the drama in 2009 when Interpublic decided to merge the star-heavy PMK/HBH with sister outfit BNC, another PR agency that largely focused on corporate branding. As the news reverberated through the hallways of PMK/HBH's offices at West Hollywood's Pacific Design Center, there was a flurry of anxious, closed-door meetings.

"The e-mails started pinging in like crazy," says Halls. They all read the same: "Thank you for the opportunity, but I no longer work at PMK/HBH." Within an hour, 12 celebrity publicists had peeled away. By the end of the week, 60 percent of the agency's talent staff was gone. Depending on which side you believe, the departures cleaned out 125 to 350 clients, accounting for $3 million to $7.5 million of PMK/HBH's estimated $11 million in annual billings. Halls himself left with several partners to join forces with publicist Ina Treciokas and form the new Slate PR shop.

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