Each year, thousands of entrepreneurs are nominated for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards, a competition designed to recognize business leaders who have achieved excellence and extraordinary success in areas such as innovation, financial performance, and personal commitment to their businesses and communities.
This year, a handful of public relations agency principals are among the finalists. Each has a very different vision of the kind of company he or she set out to build, but all share an unwavering commitment to turning that vision into reality.
Blattner-Brunner: The Integrators
When Joe Blattner founded his agency 27 years ago, it was focused on the collateral production business. Blattner Brunner evolved first into a direct mail shop, and then into an advertising agency, and then—in the early 90s—into a truly multi-disciplinary communications firm, with a research capability and a new public relations practice. Today, having added an interactive component in the early 90s, the Pittsburgh-based agency one of handful of truly integrated communications firms in the United States, built on an approach that gives everyone a seat at the table.
“We take a 360-degree approach to building brands and growing businesses,” Blattner explains. “Experts from advertising, public relations, media, market research, database and direct marketing and e-business converge to find innovative solutions to client problems. Our market planners tie the disciplines together to create cohesive, integrated solutions that satisfy our clients’ strategic and business goals.”
That philosophical approach is a major reason for the agency’s success, but it also owes a lot to an advertising campaign conceived in the early 90s. After re-naming the shop Blattner Brunner (it had been Communications, Inc.) Blattner and partner Michael Brunner bought billboard space and urged clients to seek “killer advertising from the killer Bs.” The moniker stuck, and the ad campaign cemented the firm’s reputation for creativity. Says Blattner, “Those ads established the brand. Over the next 10 years there was a kind of cachet to being served by the killer Bs.”
The agency has grown at a healthy pace for the past decade, but the last few years have seen a particularly healthy growth curve, from $4.5 million to $5.5 million to $7.5 million to around $12 million last year—the best in the agency’s history. Public relations accounts for only about 10 percent of those revenues, but as Blattner points out, that number can be misleading.
“It’s easy for a traditional public relations firm to define what’s public relations, because that’s the only thing it does,” he says. “It’s more complicated in our case, because while we have some tremendous public relations professionals on staff, PR is integrated into every account. It’s not about advertising or PR, it’s about how do you manage communications creatively across a host of platforms.”
That’s why Blattner Brunner has added disciplines such as knowledge management and customer relationship management to its portfolio of services, and committed to interactive—outperforming and in some cases outlasting competitors that received millions of dollars of venture capital funding and support from giant holding company parents.
The key, as it is to the agency’s overall success in recent years, is integration, and being a midsize agency may give Blattner Brunner an edge in that regard. “Giant firms get to a certain size and they have to separate each practice out so it becomes its own company,” says Blattner. “Each of those companies may have $50 million in fees. Our entire agency is a third of that size. It doesn’t make sense to break things out, and so our people work together, whatever their background, every day.”
Corporate Technology Communications: The Ex-Entrepreneur
By the time Ernst & Young announced the winners in its Entrepreneur of the Year competition, Corporate Technology Communications founder Paul Rand was no longer an entrepreneur. Rand sold his three-year-old firm to Ketchum on June 7.
Rand has started his agency in 1998, believing there was room in the Chicago market for a technology-focused public relations firm that would bring Silicon Valley style communications know-how to Midwestern clients. A veteran of Chicago’s Golin/Harris and Ruder Finn, Rand clearly knew his market. The firm grew impressively, ending 2000 with revenues of around $9 million and a client roster that included not only regional technology firms but also clients from New York and other major markets.
The secret to CTC’s success: something Rand calls The CTC Edge. It includes a heavily strategic approach to PR planning, using a proprietary business-communications alignment model, products tailored to the media, analysts, and investment community, and a commitment to quarterly measurement.
Rand also expanded the firm’s capabilities beyond traditional public relations, creating a new Analyst Advantage division to provide strategic counsel on specific analyst-relations tactics and issues. Says Rand, “While companies are spending nearly $3 billion annually with industry analysts, there is little expertise available to guide companies in managing their relationships and investment with this group. It is increasingly critical for firms to establish mutually beneficial relationships with industry analysts because they have enormous power in influencing business decisions.”
The firm grew quickly, but like many entrepreneurs in the public relations field Rand began to worry that he wouldn’t be able to compete for either the biggest clients or the brightest people without access to greater resources. So after talking with several suitors, he elected earlier this year to sell to Ketchum.
“Our unwavering mission has been to deliver communications as an essential business strategy for leading business-to-business and technology companies,” he says. “Combining forces with Ketchum provides us with a strong global presence, access to more of the industry's best professionals, and greater resources overall. Our belief that Ketchum is the right partner for us has only been strengthened as we have explored the complementary nature of our companies. Our cultures are well-matched.”
Millennium Communications: The Profitable Internet Company
Advertising industry veteran Patrick Macri founded Millennium Communications in 1993, as a multimedia design company. Macri hadn’t even heard of the Internet when he launched the firm, but when it came along it was soon apparent that the company’s interactive expertise was easily transferable to the new medium. The firm designed its first website—for 1-800 Flowers—in 1995, and quickly expanded to offer a combination of Internet-related services, from design to hosting to advertising, branding, and public relations support.
“By 1997, with business and the media firmly behind the Web, the convergence of marketing and technology was inevitable,” says Macri. “Firms were seeking to unify and reinforce their traditional brand strategies with new online endeavors. Providing ‘beyond the web’ services gave Millennium a competitive advantage. We had more marketing savvy than most developers and were more technically competent than most creative ad agencies.”
Although public relations is a small part of the firm’s output, it does handle both corporate communications and product publicity for some of its largest clients. For Dallas-based Effective Networks, for example, the firm created a publicity program designed to reach a very narrow target audience.
“The best thing about doing public relations for a website is that it’s easier to quantify than other kinds of marketing,” says Macri. “The bottom line is you are driving traffic to the website, and that’s very trackable.”
While it’s headquarters is in Long Island, Millennium attracts clients from as far away as Israel, San Francisco, and South Florida, representing national brands including NEC Technologies, KeySpan Energy, Luxottica Eyeware, and Hofstra University. “We do project work and long-term assignments for our clients,” says Macri. “We have 45 projects in-house right now.”
Despite triple-digit growth last year, Millennium remains smaller than many of its competitors in the Internet space. But Macri isn’t complaining. He believes the firm’s size—it employs less than 30 professionals—gives it an advantage.
“As a boutique we can assure clients we are giving them our best people,” says Macri. “We have resisted the urge to get really big really quick.”
Millennium is projecting more modest growth of about 20 percent this year, based on the first six months, but Macri can point to one reason the firm caught the eye of Ernst & Young’s judges: unlike many of its peers, it’s profitable.
Peppercom: The Innovators
The six years since PepperCom first opened its doors have been eventful, to say the least. The firm quickly established itself as one of the market leaders in the Internet space—focused primarily on the more sustainable business-to-business niche—and when the Internet economy collapsed last year, moved just as quickly to reposition itself, adding new practice areas in markets such as telecommunications, e-learning, and supply chain management.
PepperCom was one of the first agencies to recognize the Internet as a vehicle for corporate communications, working with both dot-coms such as BigFoot and VerticalNet and established bricks-and-mortar companies such as Ernst & Young, GE Capital, and Procter & Gamble, offering both online public relations counsel and advice on e-business strategies. The agency was rewarded with impressive growth, and ended 2000 with close to $9.3 million in fees, up 106 percent over the previous years.
But PepperCom went further than many other PR firms that rode the Internet wave, recognizing the potential of the Internet as a medium for strategic partnerships. According to partner Ed Moed, “Web-based collaboration has become critical to the success, credibility and reach of any e-business. At the same time, most executives aren't leveraging their online partnerships from a pr standpoint. In many cases, pr professionals are becoming content developers in an effort to build and maintain relationships with various stakeholders. Fresh, relevant web content not only fosters online brand loyalty, it also can be leveraged to spark offline media interest, which, in turn, can drive more traffic to online partner sites.”
Adds partner Steve Cody, “We have always tried to be much more than just a publicity-by-the-pound shop. Our PartnerRelations program, in particular, allows us to develop breakthrough public relations initiatives as well as create business development opportunities that drive a client’s bottom-line business today and its reputation tomorrow.”
Cody believes that innovative ideas such PartnerRelations are one reason the firm has been able to hold its own even as the dot-com sector has collapsed. PepperCom’s revenues were up slightly in the first quarter and Cody expects modest growth this year—at a time when almost every other firm in the sector is suffering.
Another reason for that success is the firm’s strong corporate culture. “One of things I’m proudest of is the fact that our own employees voted us one of the best place to work in the public relations industry,” he says, referring to The Holmes Report’s Best Agencies to Work For study, published earlier this year. The firm is known for its innovative workplace practices, including generous benefits, a first-rate professional development plan, and great perks such as a visiting nurse service.
The Standing Partnership: People First
If you were going to choose a city in which to start a new public relations agency, St. Louis probably wouldn’t be at the top of the list. It’s not a major market, so it doesn’t have the kind of client base you might find in New York or Chicago, and what clients there are tend to gravitate toward one agency—Fliehsman-Hillard—that dominates the St. Louis market the way no other agency dominates any other city in America.
But 15 years ago Cathy Dunkin decided that there was room in St. Louis for a firm that offered an alternative to the city’s 800-pound gorilla. She started her own agency with $6,000 in capital, bartering PR services for office space to get her fledgling shop off the ground.
“After 15 years of 60-hour workweeks in some of the country’s largest public relations firms, I was burned out,” says Dunkin, who was a vice president at Hill & Knowlton. “I loved public relations but disliked the long hours and its corresponding effect on health and family.” Dunkin figures she had two choices—suffer the long hours or find a new line of business—until she sat down with her sister Kelly Regnier, another PR veteran facing the same challenge.
They made a commitment to creating a workplace that would offer people a 40-hour workweek: not 40 hours of billable work, but 40 hours of total work, long before the concept of work-life balance had entered the business lexicon. Today, the firm holds quarterly retreats to make sure it is living up to its values—excellent client service, honesty, integrity, and respect—and more than once over the past few years, Dunkin has resigned clients who did not honor the values upon which the firm stands.
Those clients that do appreciate the way TSP does business have been rewarded with award-winning work. The firm has earned two Silver Anvils in recent years, including one for a crisis management program conducted on behalf of Mercy Health of Northwest Arkansas, a physician provider that became the target of a community’s concern regarding managed care and patient choice and also the target of a U.S. Department of Justice inquiry into anti-trust violations.
“We have always tried to provide the kind of strategic approach clients expect from a big agency but combined with the personal service of a smaller firm,” says Dunkin, who says TSP has grown by focusing on four major practice areas: life sciences, financial services, technology, and business-to-business communication.
Entering its 10th year of business, Dunkin decided to do for her own firm what she had done for clients, and garner some recognition. The timing was right, because the firm was coming off a year in which it enjoyed 30 percent growth, and TSP had grown to become the fourth-largest PR firm in St. Louis, with a staff of 20 and 2000 billings of more than $2 million.