Which is most important to business success: advertising, public relations, or social media? What about logos, package design, or websites? Opinion influencers? Eblasts? Events? Signage? If you don’t know which (or which combination) of these and other myriad tools will work best to build your business, you need to hire a communications firm. Fortunately, Westchester is home to many — all expert in navigating the communications landscape.
“More often than not we’re becoming our clients’ marketing department,” says Co-Communications owner Stacey Cohen. “It used to be that companies would hire a PR firm, an advertising agency, a social media agency, a direct mail firm — now they prefer to go to one source.” Cohen’s almost 20-year-old White Plains-based firm has a staff of 14 who handle everything from logo design to brand creation, advertising, and public relations for clients in the education, real estate, healthcare, professional services, hospitality, and nonprofit markets. One of their highest-profile recent campaigns was for the Construction Industry Council during the building of the new Gov. Mario Cuomo Bridge.
John Van Dekker, principal of six-person Enormous Creative in Peekskill, echoes Cohen’s observation. “We have the capability of providing package design, video production, and digital marketing, as well as traditional public relations and advertising,” he says. “We’re deeply integrated with our clients. For example, we meet with Captain Lawrence Brewing Company every week and consult on everything from what beers are being brewed to their packaging design and PR strategy.”
Van Dekker points out that, while the communications firm can perform many services, they also bring real value to their clients in a very direct way: “Forget about whether or not the business owner has the skillset to promote their business, they don’t have the time!”
That’s truer today than ever before. Most business owners are too busy keeping up with the changes in their own industry to even scratch the surface of what’s going on in the vast array of media outlets where their message needs to be seen. “We’re doing all sorts of things that 10 years ago were unheard of,” says Geoff Thompson, principal of the county’s most prominent firm, Thompson & Bender, based in Briarcliff Manor. In addition to advertising, PR, and social media, Thompson points out, “Among the new tools we are using is geo-fencing which enables us to target and reach specific audiences that would have been difficult to impossible to separate out in the past. For example, we have identified individuals interested in health clubs or families seeking defined education opportunities for their children.”
The new tools are changing Thompson & Bender, too. “Collectively, it’s reshaped our agency by creating new positions and job definitions,” Thompson observes. “It’s also drawn in younger people, which is a good thing.” The 32-year-old firm started off with two partners producing presentation materials and press releases. Today, it has three principals and 15 employees handling a wide range of tasks for clients. “We have organically blended event planning into the overall marketing strategy,” Thompson says. “We do a lot of social media, advertising both digital and print, and we’re doing a lot more with video. We shoot our own video of client events and provide it to News 12 and Fios.”
Smaller firms — even one-man shops, like Tuckahoe-based Michael Dardano’s Buzz Potential — tap a huge pool of freelance talent in Westchester to deliver the wide range of services required to be competitive in the field. “I draw on freelancers ranging from kids fresh out of college to people in their 60s,” Dardano says. “The young ones are eager and glad to get some experience on their resumes. Many times, they continue to work for me on the side after they land full-time jobs. The older folks are experienced marketing professionals with amazing resumes.”
Today’s Media Landscape
What’s the key to increasing exposure of your company’s message today? Kris Ruby, owner of Ruby Media Group, cites the four major media channels in the “PESO” model. A solid integrated communications strategy will include a mix of all these elements, she says.
The PESO model comes from Spin Sucks: Communication and Reputation Management in the Digital Age by Gini Dietrich
Dig a little deeper into the services provided, and you find other values from a communications firm, according to Christina Rae, president of Buzz Creators in Valhalla. “When you bring on a PR and marketing agency,” she says, “they give you an outside viewpoint on what’s going on in the world. It’s constantly bringing fresh ideas and thinking.”
Rae’s firm handles the gamut of communications services. “We do media relations, a ton of writing and editing, events like grand openings, influencer and blogger relations, social media management, graphics, and advertising,” she says. “We also do award submissions for our clients since it’s a great way for them to get themselves out there.” Rae points to another valuable service her firm provides: “We do a lot of work to match up businesses with nonprofits [to support]. The business is doing the right thing by giving back to the community and the nonprofit benefits from the support. We also generate a lot of good publicity for both.”
Carolyn Mandelker, owner of Harrison Edwards in Armonk, believes that what is said during the communications process remains key. “What’s still extremely important,” she says, “is messaging, positioning, and strategy. That hasn’t changed — just the platforms have changed.” Mandelker says her firm has evolved to use those platforms. “We are not just involved in digital marketing and social media, but in analytics and more refined measurement. Today’s firms, if they are to be successful, need to have staffs trained across multiple platforms.”
Cohen explains that those platforms reach different market segments that require different approaches. “We’re doing much more digital marketing these days and you have to understand the target audience more than ever, especially what content is relevant to them,” she says. “It’s our job to come up with a campaign — a big idea — to break out of the clutter. That’s always been the case.” She points out another factor that digital media exacerbated: “The latest data says the average American has an attention span of eight seconds. That’s maybe 20 words to get your message across. You’ve got to be the master of first impressions to crystalize the message.”
Most if not all of the new platforms are types of digital data delivered to our smart phones, computers, and other devices. Websites became blogs which became YouTube channels, Facebook pages, and Twitter and Instagram feeds. Each one has different audience reach capabilities and message strengths and weaknesses.
“When a client comes up with a new idea,” explains Kris Ruby, owner of Ruby Media Group in White Plains, “I instantly think about how it will play on Instagram versus Facebook versus a video component versus Twitter. How will it play with the media?” The solo practitioner also appears regularly on national broadcast and cable networks and prides herself on her ability to get TV exposure for her clients. “Because I’ve been on the other side,” she says, “I know how a producer thinks, what they need.”
Sadly (for some of us), much of traditional media is practically imploding, which impacts the communications firms’ approach for many clients. “Staffs are shrinking at the media, so it’s harder to get ink,” Ruby says.
Mandelker agrees, adding, “There is a lot of turnover in media today and some shrinkage in print staffs. But the media still looks to us to provide interesting, relevant story ideas. They still like to work with firms who provide good background and visuals.”
Many firms count contacts among the media (and others) as marketable strengths. “The one thing that has not changed over the 20 years I’ve been doing this is the importance of relationships,” Rae points out. “The relationships I have with my clients, with the media, with opinion influencers, with business and government officials.” She says those relationships pay off in a variety of ways. “I work on making connections for clients. It may be an editorial opportunity with a reporter or even a referral for potential business.”
When it comes to marketing their own services, the communications firms we talked to rely heavily on word of mouth (which they’re pretty good at generating, belying the widely held misconception that it just happens). “We get leads from many avenues, but our growth is almost entirely by referral,” says Van Dekker.
Thompson explains that much of Thompson & Bender’s growth is organic. “We’ve been around so long now that we’re known,” he says. “The single most successful way we’ve grown has been through existing clients. We may have been retained initially to work on a news release, then they need a website, then something else, and you end up working on many tasks for that client.”
Like companies in most intangible service industries, communications firms face difficulty relating the value they deliver to the fees they charge. On the one hand, clients expect miracles. On the other, they don’t want to pay for them.
“Clients think we can create a 180-degree turn in 10 minutes,” Thompson says. “The mistake they make is thinking that by hiring a public information firm, they can turn around a situation that may have been years in the making. It’s also hard for people to grasp that the successful messages we see every day have often been running for years. That’s a sizable investment because there is a financial cost to doing these things.”
Despite the ever-changing landscape, ever-demanding clients, and ever-present deadlines, few of these professionals would dream of doing anything else. Stacey Cohen says, “I still love what I’m doing. The business has changed more in the last six years than the 25 or so that I’ve been in it. You can’t stand still for long.”
Dave Donelson’s first media job was as editor of his high school newspaper. Since then, he’s communicated in radio, TV, books, blogs, and of course, Westchester Magazine and 914INC.