There are more PR firms per capita in Nashville than you will find most anywhere else on Earth. The reason for this can be largely traced to one man: Hal Kennedy, president of Holder Kennedy PR, formerly the largest PR firm in Tennessee and throughout most of the South.
Hal arrived in town in 1966, first running the PR operation for the Nobel Drury advertising agency, the biggest agency in town. Hal did a miraculous job of selling Nashville’s conservative business community on this new PR idea, and within a few years he left Nobel Drury to found his own firm with Bill Holder – whose blue blood breeding nicely balanced Hal’s decided lack thereof.
Hal was everything that PR folks aspire not to be these days: outspoken, brash and flashy. He always wore several gold chains around his neck and wrists, in addition to a huge gold Rolex wristwatch. And as a Texan, and proud of it, by God, he wore cowboy boots with his three-piece suits and was never without at least one gun on him, usually in his boot – in addition to a couple in his car (a Mercedes 500 SLS convertible with “PR GURU” vanity license plates) and several firearms stashed around his office. He drank like Hemingway, philandered like Clinton and smoked like there was no tomorrow. In fact, when the airlines restricted smoking to flights of less than two hours, Hal began scheduling longer flights as a series of two-hour hops so he could smoke on the plane. A plaque on his desk read: “Thank you for holding your breath while I smoke.”
He was a hell of a guy.
Though, I realize, the preceding description may lead you to believe that Hal was a blustering jerk, he was exactly the opposite. He was one of the humblest, nicest fellows you’ll ever meet who simply believed in sucking the marrow out of life and not taking himself too seriously.
People just liked being around him, which may be why he was so successful, in addition to his incredible PR instincts, which were on full display during the 1968 liquor-by-the-drink referendum in Nashville, for which the chamber hired Holder Kennedy to fight the tea-totalling mafia that was keeping good restaurants, and good business, out of town. When Channel 5 announced it was devoting a full hour to the debate, giving each side 30 minutes to state its case, they gave Hal the choice of going first or last. Normally, you want your message to be the last heard, as it tends to be the best remembered. Hal chose to go first, however. He ran a well-produced five-minute overview of the case for liquor-by-the-drink and asked Channel 5 to fill the remaining 25 minutes with the most boring public service programming they could find. The result: Voters heard the pro-liquor message then changed the channel when the public service drivel came on – and never saw the anti-liquor message. Genius.
Holder Kennedy became the go-to PR firm for virtually every major company in and around Nashville, including Nissan, First American Bank and Jack Massey’s health care and junk food empire of HCA, KFC and the largest collection of Wendy’s franchises in the world. All three of Massey’s companies went public on the New York Stock Exchange – and Holder Kennedy played a big role in getting them there. (Massey was the only person that Hal would tone it down for. He kept a pair of loafers in his car to wear to meetings with Massey, who was decidedly not a fan of anyone wearing cowboy boots to a business meeting.)
If you hung around Hal long enough, you were likely to get pretty good at PR, and most of the leading PR folks in Nashville did just that. An unusual number of Nashville’s PR firms – past and present – sprang from Holder Kennedy, including Dye Van Mol & Lawrence, Katcher Vaughn & Bailey, Atkinson PR, Perkins & Edwards, Lucinda Hall PR, Hart PR – and the Bradford Group. I worked for Holder Kennedy for six years – from 1985 to 1991 – leaving as executive vice president to join a rival firm, and more about that below.
As good as Hal was at PR, he was just as bad at running a business. And this eventually caught up with him around 1992, when the greatest PR firm in the South closed its doors for good. Hal moved to a nudist camp in Murfreesboro with his wife, Bambi, where he continued to do some PR consulting as a solo practioner – and to enjoy life without the irritation of clothes. (He discovered nudism during a vacation to Hedonism II in Jamaica, from which he brought back vacation photos to share with the office – including what he said was the Guinness World Record for the most naked people in one photograph.)
Fortunately for the Bradford Group, my education in PR agency-ship continued after Holder Kennedy at Bill Hudson & Associates, where I worked for nine years, leaving as senior vice president in 2000 to found this company. Bill was a lot like Hal – a little crazy, great instincts and a really good guy. But he was unlike Hal in that Bill knew how to build, grow and sustain a profitable agency – so much so that Bill Hudson & Associates is still around today after Bill has retired – run by another Holder Kennedy alumnus, Wayne Edwards. Bill Hudson taught me how to run a business, and that’s why we’re still around, and growing, 13 years later, and soon to move into super hip new headquarters in the East Nashville’s Fifth & Main building.
And that is the Bradford Group’s take on the History of PR in Nashville. (The infographic accompanying this blog post provides more detailed information on the provenance of all firms in town: black circles = dead firms.)