Sometimes Good Times End and New Good Times Begin

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I was recently asked why I decided to start my own business.  For those of you who don’t know, I’m Co-owner of a PR company, specializing in (the sub-specialty) of broadcast PR, which means we focus (or used to focus exclusively) on helping marketing partners to secure coverage within television and radio, but more recently through internet outlets like magazine sites.

When I wrote “…used to focus” above (in parentheses), I was referring to the fact that, over the years, our capabilities had evolved to include advertising (long before PR firms became MarCom’s and started executing social media advertising/sponsored/paid content).  I remember developing media plans, radio ad copy and conducting national radio buys for clients as far back as the mid-90’s.  Our company (I have a really great business partner named Marie, which is why I said “our company”) has also evolved to include developing and distributing social media content, Blogger media tours, live webcasts and all sorts of other good stuff.  With that said, we’re currently in the process of re-branding our company and will be getting back to you soon with all the details.

But let’s get back to the radio advertising stuff I was talking about.  Oh, yeah, the only difference between then and now was that we, and our clients, would refer to these radio buys as “radio promotions.”  We did this intentionally because if we called them ad buys, the “end client” would probably say, “Ad buy?  Why we would have our PR agency do an ad buy when we have an Ad Agency for that?”  So we called them radio promotions.  I really don’t consider what we did as being deceptive, because all of the material, or “copy,” was unbranded and public service in nature and, as such, sounded like PSAs.  In fact, oftentimes they were actual PSAs that we had produced and distributed through real PSA distribution channels, but also supported them with paid ad buys, to bump up the numbers.

It’s interesting that PR agencies (now MarComs) are pretty much doing the same thing with social media.  That is to say, creating “native advertising” with content that’s designed to look and feel as close to a third party’s site content (e.g., blog) as possible, and is given space via “pay-to-play”.  There is one caveat:  the “native ad” usually carries a bunch of warning labels around the content the marketer has created, for purposes of transparency.  Our radio PSA copy (and paid on-air ads) did not.  Hmmmm, I wonder if we could claim in our capabilities that we were pioneers, you know, one of the first PR shops to conduct paid advertising that sounded like and was, unbranded content? Probably not, as I’m pretty sure someone else was doing it before our time.

I did it again!  I started out talking about why I started my own business and drifted off topic.  So, back to the topic I intended to discuss:  “Why did I start my own business?”  Okay, so, I was working at Ogilvy & Mather PR which, at that time, consisted of four groups;  the Consumer Products Group, the Food Group, the Health & Medical Group and the Corporate/Public Affairs Group.  I was in the Consumer Products group at the time working on accounts that included distilled spirits, a confectioner’s trade association, and a nationally-recognized consumer battery manufacturer.

Ogilvy was considered a hot-bed of creativity at that time and had an unbelievably great corporate culture.  There were lots of after work outings (official and unofficial), lots of camaraderie, and everyone loved working there.

Then we merged with another agency.  It was called Adams & Rinehart and they focused entirely on Mergers & Acquisitions, IPOs, and some other really spooky stuff that we didn’t care to know about.  I remember at one point someone decided to charter a bus to bring all of us Ogilvy people to our soon-to-be new office space to meet our new colleagues.  We had beer and music on the bus and everyone was somewhat excited, but cautiously optimistic.

We got off the bus, went into the building, listened to a few people speaking about how this merger would be good for everyone, blah, blah, blah.  After the speeches, we mingled with our new colleagues, who all had slicked back hair, Brooks Brother’s suits, and wore suspenders and yellow “Power Ties.”  (Google it).  At one point I introduced myself to a guy from the “other” firm and asked what he did and he replied, “I do deals.”  He really said that.  I shit you not.  That’s what he said.  So, when he asked me what I did, I replied truthfully and said, “Booze, batteries and candy.”  It was the beginning of the end.

Our Ogilvy titles changed from Account Executive to Associate,  from Senior AE and Account Supervisor to Senior Associate, from Senior Account Supervisor and Managing Supervisor to Partner (I think?) and from SVP and EVP to Principal.  I mean, really?  This operation and the people working there acted as though they were working at some stodgy, old lower Manhattan law firm, with law firm titles and everything.

Everything changed almost overnight.  Our fun, edgy, creative shop imploded as it was swallowed up by a crusty old man (who shall remain nameless) and his twisted dream of how this new, improved agency should be.  Our president left to start her own agency, the CEO “left” and a few VPs “left” as well.

I was stuck in the wolves den, unprotected, and couldn’t get out of there quick enough.  The problem I had was that several of the people who had “left” got real nice going away “packages” that I wanted too, but couldn’t get because they wouldn’t make me “leave”.

So I came up with a plan.  I started putting on my best “interview” suit a few times a week and would leave for lunch with my portfolio in hand, announcing loudly to all of my  “good-old-days-Ogilvy friends, I’ll see ya in an hour or two, I have at interview at Porter Novelli!)  The next day it would be lunch with Cohn & Wolfe, then Fleishman-Hillard, then Burson….  you get the picture.

After a very short time I was summoned to my EVP’s (Oops, I mean Principal’s) office, where the new General Manager/President was already present, and they both explained to me how my obvious interview excursions were bad for morale, and offered me a nice package to “leave.”  I gladly took it. They asked if I would be “alright” and what my plans would entail, to which I replied, “I’m going to take the summer off and play golf.”

My future business partner Marie, had already left the company to go freelance as a media relations specialist and was, ironically, working freelance at the newly-christened Ogilvy, Adams & Rinehart, billing hourly and making a lot more than she ever made as an employee.  I had a few offers from other agencies on the table, but I had a bad taste in my mouth and felt like I needed to try something new, so I approached her with the idea of starting our own gig rather than us both going freelance and billing hourly.

We agreed to get a logo designed, print some letterhead and business cards.  She bought a computer and I bought a fax machine.  We decided we’d give it six months.  That was 24 years ago and I learned that being my own boss allowed me to have a lot of fun, gave me a great work/life balance and enabled me to play a hell of a lot of golf. I often wonder what ever happened to that guy who said, “I do deals.”

I like to imagine him sitting in a Federal Corrections Institution somewhere cold, doing time for insider trading or some other nefarious white-collar crimes.