The Harbinger Group

Charting Your Own Course: Building a Life That Fills You with Pride

The Harbinger Group’s CEO, Eileen Rochford, worked for several large marketing agencies, managing five-million-dollar accounts and teams nationwide during the early years of her career. As her role transitioned to include more administrative responsibilities, she found herself spending less time on hands-on client projects that fueled her passion. In June 2003, Eileen decided to seek a professional change,  take a chance and start her own agency, The Harbinger Group. 

In light of The Harbinger Group’s 21st Anniversary, Eileen Rochford describes her thirty-year journey in the industry, including how she started The Harbinger Group and built it to where it is today:

Q: Why did you choose communications as your field of study and industry of profession? Was that something you always wanted to do? 

A: I’ve always been drawn to journalism, particularly the kind of research, investigative side that I really like.  I was good at asking questions and good at researching answers and piecing things together in written form. One summer, I worked on Capitol Hill for a congresswoman and was sent to all of these meetings. I attended testimony being given in Congress, hearings, various commercial committees and more. I would just go and listen, gather information, and write the reports. I was told I was pretty good at it. I found it enjoyable, and it wasn’t too difficult. I thought this was something I could do for a living.

After working a bit as a state elections coordinator for the Associated Press and experiencing their high-pressure newsroom, I realized I didn’t really want to do that kind of journalism. So, a few of my professors at the time suggested I go and look at PR agencies. They said I’d be really good there. So, that’s how I ended up here.

It was really just a combination of my different skills and how I’m wired. You put all these things together, and that’s why I went into marketing and PR agency life.

Q: Why did you choose to start your own firm? Why not try and advance within another company? What made you take that risk?

A: There are a couple of reasons. Frankly, I knew pretty early on in my career that I wanted to do it myself. I liked the excitement of a big agency, but I also envisioned a different way. I was always convinced that, in particular, the commute and office life were so restrictive and were in no way necessary to do really good work for clients. 

So I wanted to live a different life. I didn’t want to be tied to a desk. I didn’t want to be tied to a phone. Well, then, we didn’t have cell phones that were on our person at all times, but I just hated the idea of being tied to a building or a desk. I hated the fact that you kind of had to sell your soul, do the long commute and do all of that inside big agencies. Also, once I became a parent, the commute, in particular, really rubbed me the wrong way.  I thought, that’s a lot of time that I’m sacrificing to do a job that I know can be done remotely. And my son was very young. At the time I ended up leaving, he was about nine months old. 

I found out a few months after I had come back from leave that I’d be a part of an acquisition of another agency. There would be restructuring involved. And I was told I was going to be working for someone who, honestly, I was shocked would be my boss. I just didn’t feel that I learned a lot from this person. In the nine years that I spent inside large agencies, I don’t think I ever directly reported to anyone who didn’t motivate the hell out of me, impress me like crazy and learn from consistently. 

Based on what I observed, I just said—and I will admit, rather impulsively—“Thank you. I think I’m going to take my life in a different direction,” and then resigned that day. A couple of clients called the agency and said they’d like to leave with me, which they were very gracious about. So, I had a running start, if you will. 

Long story short, I wanted to be in charge of myself. If I wasn’t going to be in a position to learn from someone, then I knew I could do really well with what I’d learned that far, nine years into my professional career.

Q: What have been your biggest milestones or accomplishments as a CEO? Besides the fact that you successfully started your own business?

A: Every time we’ve promoted or advanced our employees and major contributing members of our team, I consider it a milestone. Being able to contribute to their professional growth in marketing is honestly probably the most satisfying thing. We’ve also done award-winning work for Golden Apple, Powering Chicago, and Rev Spring. These are recent awards, but we’ve won a lot of awards over the years, which I’m quite proud of.

When I was working at large agencies, you wouldn’t see many small agencies up for industry awards. But increasingly, you do today. Still, the vast majority of companies that are being recognized in these very prestigious industry awards are a heck of a lot larger than we are, but we consistently win awards. I’m deeply proud of that. I think that just being a small entity like we are, going up against the heft and might of even the mid-size agencies, we have fairly frequently, won at least a few [awards] every year. I think that’s a really huge accomplishment.

Q: What challenges have you faced being a CEO and a woman– and even a mom?

A: It’s hard for me to identify anything I felt was a challenge just because I’m a woman. Maybe I’m just blind to all that. I have no idea. But a lot of the industries that we work in do tend to be male-dominated. In no way do I think that it hurt me, but it was intimidating, for sure. When nine out of ten people in the room are men, it can definitely be intimidating. 

As a mother, the challenge was saying no. I could have taken a lot more work, in particular, when my kids were much younger, say kindergarten through fourth or fifth grade. I could have taken a lot more business, but I would have had less time for them.  It was important to me to have the flexibility to pick my kids up from school and walk them home. I wanted to be able to walk them to school in the morning because I didn’t have to be on calls or in a car going downtown to an office. That’s why I ended up making the decision to move into this different life. I wanted to have that flexibility, to be the master of my own destiny, and to build something where people I really respect and love working with also dedicate themselves to the same mission. So, my kids got the best part of me, too.

Q: How did you build the team that you have around you today? How has that team changed and evolved over the past 21 years?

A: A lot of the people who came to our staff were by referral from other friends or past colleagues in my network. Interestingly, this continues to be the case, so I think it underscores the importance of being good to people. People only do nice things for you if you’re pleasant to work with, they have respect for you, etc. So I got a lot of referrals from people I’d worked with in the two prior agencies I was at, many of whom had gone far and beyond just the communications life. Some were working in Silicon Valley when it was first becoming Silicon Valley, and they are hugely successful there. They said, “I’ve got this person who does digital design. You should talk to them. They’re awesome.” Other friends of mine, former colleagues, introduced me to this writer, for example. 

So a lot of it was just through the good people I know helping me out. Certainly, initially, the biggest way that we added more resources and areas of expertise was with new people, but then we also networked quite a bit.  Several years ago, we started an awesome internship program, which has brought tons of new people into our world. A lot of those people have stayed for quite a while. So it’s largely organic, and it’s mostly through making connections with people and sustaining connections with people.

Q: What advice do you have for others trying to start their own business, whether within the field of communications, or not?

A: Just do it. 

I say this all the time. The best bet you will ever make is on yourself. You’ll never make as much money, in my opinion, working for anyone else or in any other company as you would running your own business. It’s also far more rewarding. So “do it” is my primary advice. But do it with a plan, with structure. Don’t wing it. Don’t skip the business plan. Make sure you have some business locked in beforehand, have some savings and have a great line of credit at whichever lender you choose once you start the business. Once you have those cornerstones in place, there’s nothing stopping you.

I especially encourage women to do this. It’s a far better life when you build it yourself. Build your life on your own terms, within the structure you define versus trying to fit into a culture or business norms that, frankly, were built by men, have been established for eons, and don’t really work for us. I totally believe that women, in particular, are very well-suited to run companies that are far more intuitive. We tend to pay better attention to our intuition, and I think that leads to great things when you do that.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share that I didn’t necessarily ask you about?

A: Nothing other than gratitude for everyone who chooses to work with us, whether it’s our partners, our clients, or all the people who’ve ever worked with The Harbinger Group as a team member. 

My success is completely connected to partnership and teamwork with every single one of those folks, and I’m just deeply grateful. I appreciate that we’ve been doing this together for 21 years. Many of our clients have been doing this for 15-16 years, which is unheard of in this business. So I just want to underscore that I’d never be able to do this without all of them.

For the past 21 years, The Harbinger Group has been servicing companies all over the nation with their award-winning marketing techniques. Eileen Rochford has worked hard to build her agency from the ground up while remaining dedicated to her craft and her employees.

“The reason why this company was created is to, honestly, empower great marketers, to work in a different framework without the constraints of large agency models, and to do great work regardless of location, time zone, or personal commitments,” said Rochford. “It was also created because I felt that twenty years ago– and I still feel this way, I wanted to be a person who can step up and foster an environment where other women could advance and grow.”