The old Sawyer Miller Group spawned an incredible amount of talent, now dispersed throughout the public relations industry: among the leadership of Weber Shandwick Worldwide, the world’s largest PR firm; leading the business consulting practice at Financial Dynamics; in various top corporate and government communications roles; and at Shepardson Stern + Kaminsky, which is probably the firm that has remained truest to the legacy of SMG—a research-heavy methodology, a multidisciplinary approach to getting the message across, a political campaign mentality focused on winning in the marketplace—while adapting to the changing media landscape and rising stakeholder expectations.
Principals Rob Shepardson, Lenny Stern and Mark Kaminsky have a combined 60 years of public relations and public affairs experience. Shepardson specializes in non-profit work, leading the firm’s efforts on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lance Armstrong Foundation and Enough, the campaign to end mass genocides and other atrocities. Stern is a veteran of Democratic political campaigns (including the Mondale campaign for the 1984 presidency) and teaches competitive strategy and non-traditional marketing at Yale School of Management. Kaminsky is responsible for integrating the firm’s public relations activities with its strategy, advertising and research offerings. They are joined by chief creative officer Marty Cooke, formerly of Chiat/Day and west coast partner Joe Kessler, who previously led Weber Shandwick’s global technology practice.
SS+K’s calls its approach “asymmetric communications,” and it supplements the traditional tools of public relations—media relations, special events, sponsorship—with a wide range of tools. Sometimes that means starting a movement, sometimes branding a wristband (SS+K is the firm behind the Livestrong yellow wristbands of the Lance Armstrong Foundation), sometimes launching a music tour, sometimes staging an urban game, sometimes writing the brand into a television script. Whatever the solution, it is informed by research and planning that includes trend analysis, focus groups, and ethnographic studies, and often identifies a “noble purpose” that is grounded in consumer truth (the experience consumers identify with the brand) and brand truth (the immutable core value of the brand). And a partnership with
It’s an approach the firm freely admits is not for everyone. It’s risky, which means it appeals to clients whose challenges are urgent and disruptive, who have found that traditional approaches fall short, who are willing to “break a few eggs” and who are prepared to be champions for change within their organizations. But the fact that the firm enjoyed continued growth last year suggests that at a time of rapid change in the communications landscape, more and more are looking for that kind of bold approach: the client list is an intriguing mix of giant corporations and high-profile not-for-profits and includes Anheuser Busch, Audi, Citibank, Delta Air Lines, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, MSNBC, Share Our Strength, and Working Assets, and new additions in 2007 included Goldman Sachs, the Environmental Defense Fund, Strong American Schools, AutoMart, and private student loan company My Rich Uncle.
Examples of the firm’s work last year included orchestrating the intricate press launch of Goldman Sachs’ biggest philanthropic initiative ever, the 10,000 Women campaign; working with My Rich Uncle to design a new identity—an owl with antlers—and shoot a new advertising campaign starring (literally) brainless parents; creating and launching the Alliance Against Bait + Click, a coalition of major hotels formed to help consumers avoid getting duped by dishonest online marketers; and an EDF-sponsored campaign in support of Congestion Pricing in New York City. The firm’s “Change” campaign for Delta Air Lines, meanwhile, was a finalist in the Effie competition, which measures advertising effectiveness.
Celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2007, SS+K now has more than 100 people in offices New York, Boston and Los Angeles, many of them refugees from traditional PR firms, advertising agencies, design shops, interactive companies and political campaigns, but includes a former White House advisor, a former All-American quarterback, a ballet dancer, a drag queen and a human rights activist.