When he was just 28 years old, Jack Martin—who founded and led Texas public affairs firm Public Strategies and who 18 months ago took the helm of global public relations giant Hill & Knowlton—had a leading role in what was arguably Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s toughest reelection campaign. It was, he recalls, a tremendous opportunity for the grandson of Texas tenant farmers: “I had a front row seat at an age when most people don’t get that.”

One of the things Martin learned from the four-time US Senator and one-time Democratic vice presidential candidate was “not to be overawed or to assume that just because someone had a big important job that meant they had all the answers. He told me, ‘You are in this room for a reason. You have good instincts. You should never be afraid to speak up if you have something to say.’”

That’s a lesson Martin tries to impart to all the staff—at all levels--of what is now Hill+Knowlton Strategies: “Don’t be afraid to question the premise. Don’t be afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom.

“It’s a mistake a lot of leaders make,” he says. “If you don’t encourage people to question, to give you their honest perspective on the direction of the culture, then you are not getting the full benefit out of the organization.”

When he took the helm at H&K—once the world’s largest and arguably most respected PR firm, but for the past two decades a firm that has been playing catch-up against its younger, more dynamic peers—he embarked on a 60-day world tour. He wanted to get to know the firm he was now leading, and to listen to what its people had to say. (That tour was the result of another lesson he learned from Bentsen, who liked to quote quality guru Edward Deming: “You can expect what you inspect.”)

At one of a series of town hall meetings, in the firm’s Washington, DC, office, he recalls asking whether anyone had any questions or comments. “One young lady raised her hand. She told me that the firm did a lot of work with companies going through change, counseling them on the importance of communication. She talked about the kind of things she would recommend to clients, but the gist of it was that she thought I was screwing it up, because I wasn’t doing enough to communicate my vision internally.”

A couple of months later, the “young lady” in question, Lindsay Hutter, was named to the newly created role of global head of change and internal communications, evidence that Martin is serious about encouraging candid commentary on his leadership of the organization.

“Jack likes people who are smart and assertive,” says Dan Bartlett, the Bush administration veteran who joined Public Strategies in 2007 and now serves as president and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies’ US business.

He also took her advice seriously. “There had been a lot of change in the organization,” he says. “[Former chief executive] Paul Taaffe had left and there had been a few other departures that we had expected, but to a lot of people—inside and outside the firm—it probably looked like the organization was in more upheaval than it really was. I didn’t want to seem to be self-promoting; I wanted to focus on listening. But it was clear that was not enough.”

Not everyone is a fan of Jack Martin’s leadership style, but one thing he is unlikely to be accused of by even his harshest critics is self-promoting. When we get together for breakfast at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, he tells me that this is only the second interview he has ever given about himself. The first was when he sat down with the Texas Tribune in November of 2010, shortly after the announcement that Public Strategies was being merged with Hill & Knowlton and on the eve of receiving an award from the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a Texas nonprofit.

That’s why, despite the fact that Martin built Public Strategies over 20 years into one of the biggest and best public and corporate affairs firms in the US, he remains a relatively unknown quantity within the PR industry. His peers among global agency CEOs have more questions than answers when asked what they know about him, and the direction in which he is likely to take Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

The most common perception is that he is likely to follow the trail blazed by his counterpart Mark Penn, who took the helm at WPP sister agency Burson-Marsteller five years ago. The parallels are obvious: both men are best known for their work in politics; both were appointed to run giant global PR firms from smaller, more specialized WPP units; both presided over significant senior-level turnover in their first few weeks.

But those who know Martin well think the similarities are superficial. “About the only thing Jack and Mark have in common is that they are both capable of walking into the office of any CEO in the world and giving the kind of counsel they will listen to,” says one Washington insider who has worked with both men. “But in terms of personal style, they couldn’t be more different. You won’t see Jack being quoted in the national media. Jack is never going to become the story himself.”

Similarly, the assumption that, because of his background in the public policy, Martin’s focus will be on rebuilding H+K’s once-dominant public affairs business seems simplistic. In my first meeting with him, shortly after the January 2011 departure of Taaffe and his appointment as global chief executive, he emphasized several areas: research and evaluation (a real focus at Public Strategies), corporate reputation (an outgrowth of his “fifth seat” philosophy), digital and social, and—perhaps most surprisingly, given his background—consumer marketing.

Internally, while continuing his tour of offices, he started to produce regular reports on the state of the agency, read by about 95 percent of staff, to ensure that people knew he welcomed their feedback. “We are working hard to be as transparent as possible,” he says, “and to respond to the feedback we get.”

“Much of the organization is still getting to know Jack Martin,” admits Bartlett, adding that he is “very accessible to people at every level of the company”. “He is kicking the tires, and in the process he is very visible across the entire organization.”

A home on the range

Jack Martin grew up as part of a ranching and farming family. “I rode a horse before I could walk,” he says, and others tell of his abiding fondness for rodeo—though as a spectator rather than a participant.

He learned his love of politics from his grandfather, a farmer, carpenter and self-taught amateur historian with a fondness for political history. Martin’s brand of politics was influenced by the experience of his father, a firefighter and loyal union man who owed his job to another Texan political giant, Lyndon Johnson, who once intervened to prevent proposed cuts in the state’s fire service.

After electing to study political science at Southwest Texas State University, Martin quickly became involved in student government, serving as chairman of the student senate. That office allowed Martin to meet Johnson, an alumnus (“It was like meeting Elvis,” he recalls) and two years later one of LBJ’s aides introduced him to Bentsen. He took a job as a travel aide on the Senator’s campaign for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination.

Martin worked with Bentsen for more than a decade, managing his last two election campaigns. “Outside of my family, he became the most important person in my life,” he says.

There were other influences, however. One was Ernie Crawford, a key figure in Texas government, with whom he interned during his freshman year. Martin took his first flight (“except for one time in a crop duster”) to meet Crawford in Odessa, and then accompanied him to Washington, DC.

“Ernie taught me that anything was possible if you were smart enough and you worked hard,” Martin recalls. “And he taught me there was nothing wrong with taking a risk.”

A successful entrepreneur before entering politics, Bentsen insisted that his campaigns were run in a businesslike way. “I had a budget every Monday morning that showed me where we were in terms of fundraising and expenditures,” Martin says. (That fiscal discipline may be one of the things that ultimately earned the confidence of WPP chief executive Martin Sorrell.)

Bentsen also had a keen interest in the intersection between government and industry. Because of his role as chair of the Senate Finance Committee “he associated with captains of industry,” Martin recalls. As Bentsen’s right hand, Martin spent time with many of those same business leaders, making the transition to the corporate world relatively smooth.

He founded Public Strategies in 1988, with a small office in Austin and a single employee. His first client was Southwest Airlines, whose founder Herb Kelleher was a friend of Bentsen’s. Kelleher paid the fledgling firm $500 a month (plus free air tickets) to help derail plans for a new bullet train that would have provided competition for the airline’s short-haul flights.

For a couple of years, the firm remained active in politics, working with candidates and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but in 1991—after Bentsen decided not to run again—the focus was almost exclusively corporate. The firm went to work for what was then Southwestern Bell (later SBC) and its chairman Ed Whitacre, using the integrated techniques of a political campaign—research, grassroots mobilization, television advertising—to educate the public and influence legislators on telecommunications policy.

“At the time no one in Texas really knew what public affairs was, and no one was doing it as a business,” Martin says. “It took a CEO with guts to let someone like me do something so vital to the future of their business. Ed Whitacre deserves a lot of the credit, because he saw it. He was a real visionary.”

Another was Ross Perot Jr., who was chairman of Perot Systems (and the only son of presidential candidate Ross Perot) and another major influence on Martin’s life. He hired PSI in 1989 when he was building an airport (later Alliance Airport) north of Fort Worth, relied on the firm’s counsel when he sold his company to Dell in 2009, and continues to hold Martin in high regard.

“Jack is one of my most trusted advisors,” Perot says. “A lot of people try to be diplomatic, but he tells you what he really thinks, even if it’s not what you want to hear. He’s not afraid to deliver bad news. And he is incredibly loyal. But what makes Jack unique is that his counsel goes beyond PR. He is in the boardroom and he is a communications advisor and a political advisor and a business advisor.”

Indeed, as Public Strategies grew—expanding beyond its Austin base and adding offices in Dallas, DC, and Mexico City—it found clients asking for advice on a broader range of issues beyond the political arena in which Martin and most of his senior leadership team had earned their reputations. That led Martin—never one to adopt an “if it ain’t broke” mentality—to make a momentous decision about the firm’s future.

“In 2000, I walked into the office and told people we were getting out of the public affairs business,” Martin says. That wasn’t exactly what happened—PSI continues to derive a significant slice of its business from work in the policy arena—but it was the start of a new phase of the firm’s growth, during which it transition from a public affairs specialist into a much broader C-suite advisory firm centered around Martin’s “fifth seat” philosophy.

“When faced with significant strategic decisions, companies traditionally turn to four advisors: legal counsel, investment bankers, management consultants and forensic accountants,” the firm’s website explained. “Each is trusted to review their area of expertise, but none factor public trust into their final analysis. We fill a Fifth Seat in your boardroom, helping transform your corporate reputation into competitive advantage.”

Reverse takeover

Five years later, Martin was approached by Howard Paster, who was then running all of WPP’s PR and public affairs businesses, and in 2006 he sold his firm to the giant holding company. “Howard and I started putting in place an organizational structure that would outlast me,” Martin recalls. He told Paster “not to count on me after the earn-out was complete. I was looking forward to playing a more active role in the ranching business, and maybe playing a more active role in education and public policy.”

In response, Paster brought up the idea that Public Strategies might merge with the far larger—but troubled—Hill & Knowlton. Martin had pitched successfully against H&K and other large agencies for years; there was little he and Bartlett liked better than being able to contrast PSI’s focused C-suite offer against the broader, more bureaucratic model that they felt characterized the multi-service multinational agencies. Nevertheless, the idea was intriguing.

Martin accepted the challenge, and in November of 2010 WPP announced the merger of Hill & Knowlton and Public Strategies, with Martin as global executive chairman, Taaffe continuing as global chief executive and Bartlett adding president and CEO of H&K’s US operations to his role as chairman and CEO of Public Strategies.

A lot of people missed the word “executive” in front of the chairman title, and assumed that Martin’s role would be symbolic. Inside H&K, any such notions were short-lived.

The first night after the announcement of the new leadership team, there was a meeting in New York of Hill & Knowlton’s global leadership team. The majority of attendees came from the H&K side of the business—someone who was present at the meeting remembers just “four or five people” from Public Strategies. Paul Taaffe introduced Martin, “and Jack spent the next hour making it clear who the leader was going forward. There was nothing bombastic about it. But it was not lost of anybody that the company was going to go in a very different direction.”

A member of the Hill & Knowlton team who was present at that meeting recalls grabbing a beer with some colleagues after the meeting. “It was like ‘holy shit, what just happened.’ I think some of us thought we had acquired this public affairs shop that would strengthen our US business, especially in Washington, but after that meeting many of us realized that we were the ones being taken over. The writing was on the wall.”

“We would be better off with this guy in our corner”

If anyone had any remaining questions about Martin’s role in the new company, or his enthusiasm at age 58 for the global travel that his new leadership position required, they were soon dispelled as he threw himself into a world tour and laid out his view of the changing world of PR and the opportunity it presents.

“The public is becoming an increasingly loose affiliation of independent operators, empowered by technology and outgrowing the constraints of traditional institutions. Through this combination of information and technology, individuals can inform themselves, make decisions, seek out like-minded individuals to associate with and mobilize: whether to join a book club, advocate for a charity, recommend or boycott a company, or launch a revolution.

“In short, what I believe we’re witnessing is the democratization of everything. Traditionally, the concept of democracy is discussed in a political context, but today, democratization is occurring across geographic and informational boundaries at almost every level of society. It is transforming the relationship between corporations and the public….

“Organizations today have to talk with the public and consider the public’s point of view at the most strategic level of decision making – more than ever before.”

He continues to provide advice, based on that thinking, to some of Hill+Knowlton Strategies’ largest clients.

“Jack is a guy who likes to give private counsel to the client CEO,” says Bartlett. “Rather than try to dominate a room, he likes to sit there and take in what everyone else is saying. He is very good at building relationships with some of those other advisors—the legal and financial people. The first thing is to make sure they don’t see him as a threat. He will wait until the end of the meeting and make his point in a very quiet way, or he will offer his advice later that night, when he’s having dinner with the CEO.

“But he has a way about him that makes people think ‘I don’t know why but I am sure we would be better off with this guy in our corner.’”

Insiders note a couple of major internal changes over the past 18 months.

“When we got in, things were pretty much what we had expected,” says Bartlett. “The biggest thing for us, I was surprised at how siloed the organization was. So one of the first moves was to shift to a single P&L for the US business. We also want to be more selective about the kind of new business opportunities we pursue.”

Martin has also made it clear that he expects his senior people to be very involved in client work—something that was not necessarily part of the culture at the old H&K.

Ray Day, chief communications officer at Ford, which uses a portfolio of WPP agencies—including Burson and Ogilvy PR—to meet its global PR needs, noticed a change almost immediately.

“Jack is one of the great get-it-done communications guys,” Day says. “He does a great job of staying in touch and of being proactive. He has taken Hill+Knowlton to a new level and in the process he has taken Ford’s corporate communications to a new level.”

Those changes were clearly necessary, given that previous generations of H&K management had struggled to restore the firm to its former glory. Nevertheless, they have not been universally welcomed, and there have been missteps. The firm finds itself embroiled in an unsavory legal dispute with Weber Shandwick, which obtained a restraining order after accusing former employees of taking confidential documents and soliciting clients and staff.

Meanwhile, the unveiling of a new brand identity—Hill & Knowlton became Hill+Knowlton Strategies in November of last year—was regarded by many as underwhelming. “They’re not going to convince anybody they’ve changed just because the slap the word ‘strategies’ at the end of their name,” says one rival.

And some of the personnel changes—particularly in Europe, where the firm has held on to its market leadership position over the years—have raised questions. “They’ve lost some good people. Some of it looks like change for change sake,” says the head of a leading UK independent.

Jack Martin is unlikely to be fazed by any criticism.

“There have always been people everywhere I worked who thought I was crazy,” he says. “Meredith Marks [general counsel at Public Strategies and now at Hill+Knowlton Strategies] always says ‘one thing is for certain, which is that Jack Martin is going to make mistakes, and it won’t take him long to make them.’”