10 lessons from 20 years of PR business

Clients will come and go. Keep your long-term focus on keeping your foundations strong, and your agency will survive.

This article first appeared on PR Daily in September, 2015.

My agency, Peppercomm, observed its 20th anniversary this month.

In two decades of living la dolce vita in the wonderful world of PR, I’ve learned many, many lessons.

Here are my top 10:

1. Treat your agency as your most important client. Like baseball managers and football coaches, PR firms are hired to be fired. It may take a week, a month, a year or a century, but you will lose that cherished anchor account. Maintaining a robust new business pipeline is absolutely critical. The best way to do so is to create a dedicated, in-house agency marketing team that’s constantly creating new and provocative content.

2. Experience your client’s brand from the outside in. Too many PR firms take whatever research the client provides as gospel. Don’t. Instead, put yourself in the client’s stakeholders’ shoes and experience the organization from the outside in. That additional insight will enable you to correctly identify exactly how the client’s key message(s) should interact with the audiences’ wants and needs.

3. It’s all about the people. Lots of agencies trumpet their blue-chip list of clients in their various trade advertisements. Others take great pleasure in enumerating the number of awards they’ve won over the decades. Both are nice. Yet neither will occur unless you create a culture that attracts, and retains, the very best talent. People attract clients that enable the firm to produce award-winning campaigns.

4. Don’t try to be all things to all people. I learned this lesson the hard way. In Peppercomm’s formative days, we’d take on any client willing to pay us a fee, however small. As a result, we accepted work without learning the proper industry knowledge, made mistakes and did nothing to embellish our little-known firm’s image. We were seen as just another generalist. Today, we’re laser-focused on being the very best firm in four discrete areas. Unless you’re running a global holding company that must be all things to all people, focus on a few, key areas of competency.

5. Avoid growth for the sake of growth. Thanks to the dotcom bubble and clients’ mistaken perception that our firm’s name indicated we were technology specialists, Peppercomm grew by more than 100 percent for three consecutive years. In fact, our growth became so uncontrolled that we were literally hiring anyone who could walk and chew gum at the same time. Today, we’re far more selective in choosing clients with whom to partner. We put quality, service and profitability far above growth for the sake of growth.

6. Beware the superstar hire. Over the years, we’ve decided to bite the bullet on a few occasions and hire a recognized industry expert who possessed impeccable credentials and a Rolodex chock full of new business leads. In almost every instance, the superstar flamed out. Sometimes it was because she simply couldn’t deliver the goods. More often, we ended the relationship because the superstar simply didn’t fit in our culture. Today, we’re much more focused on identifying up-and-coming superstars from within our agency’s ranks. Fresh blood and new thinking is great, but your workplace culture should trump any and all superstar hires.

7. Talk is cheap. I’ll never forget the year 2006. It was arguably our worst ever. That’s because we bet on what two clients had told us. One said he wanted to become Peppercomm’s largest account, and was ready to sign a $10 million contract. The other promised us he’d triple our budget within a month. As a result, we hired seven new staffers to handle the incoming business. The first client was fired. The second moved to the agency world. Neither delivered on his word, and we were forced to undergo a painful downsizing.

8. Take the road less traveled. From day one, we embraced a different, quirky culture that was neither warm and fuzzy nor perk du jour driven. Instead, we embedded stand-up comedy training as a key component in our management development. We did so because it improved presentation, listening and rapport-building skills while creating a unique culture. Many in the industry scoffed, believing PR was a far too serious business for comedy. Today, we’re routinely hired by clients and non-clients alike to stage comedy workshops for their employees, and Crain’s New York Business named us the number one business in all of New York. Different is good.

9. Plan to fail. The only way to continually grow your expertise and suite of service offerings is to test market new products, services and ideas. We’re done so to a fault, and suffered quite a few false starts over the years. But, we’ve also pioneered a number of service offerings that I won’t bore you with at the moment. To innovate, you must foster a risk-tasking culture that allows for failure (as long as valuable lessons are learned from those mistakes).

10. Look around the corner. Clients prize agency partners who can help them see around the corner, determine what’s next and push the appropriate boundaries. We’ve been able to deliver on that need by creating an innovation committee whose sole charge is to uncover what’s next, brief our respective account teams and enable the latter to surprise and delight clients with fresh, forward-looking thinking.

A final word to the wise: While my lessons learned aren’t necessarily applicable to your business, PR firms should be like snowflakes. We should each have our own distinct look, feel and POV. Sadly, far too many agencies are doing exactly what they did 10 years ago. And, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Steve Cody is a co-founder of Peppercomm.

Topics: PR

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