Welcome to The Agency Post. Tell us about yourself.
I’m Valerie Donati. I live between New York and London (and the globe these days), running my PR business, serving on the board of charity: water and C3, an international church movement.
Tell us about Brand Building Communications. What led you to found the agency?
I founded Brand Building Communications more than five years ago. It was/is designed to be a public relations agency that supports building and maintaining awareness for lifestyle products and services — anything that touches a modern life: food/beverage, fashion, beauty, home, etc.
Prior to founding the agency I worked in the PR division of the branding agency Toth Brand Imagining. I “grew up” in PR representing Toth and learned most of what I know today from their branding expertise. They were one of the first and most comprehensive agencies to do brand work in the ‘90s. It was an excellent education in how to develop communications programs that were 360 degrees in nature, taking into consideration all parts of the marketing mix.
How has social media changed the field of public relations? What has remained the same?
Social media has provided a vehicle for talking directly to the consumer. In our world, where raising brand awareness with the consumer is vital, this platform has provided our agency with a productive way to connect and engage directly with our audience. Still, our social media practice does “wear a PR hat” when creating and executing our campaigns. Though we do counsel our clients on how to make campaigns more intuitive, what advertising might work best and how to maximize SEO strategies, we do develop our programs from the perspective of a PR professional — great messaging and a strong call to action.
What skill is most important for a public relations professional today? What should PR professionals consider training in for the future?
Communicating excellently, with an emphasis on the written word, is the most important skill a PR professional must possess. Certainly creativity is an important asset, but in the end we are constantly positioning our client, either in front of the media or other businesses, and the ability to communicate key points well is critical. Understanding the realm of social media will continue to be an important skill to have as the industry moves forward.
Many brands and advertisers separate the marketing and public relations efforts. Why should the two be integrated?
In our agency we have always developed our PR campaigns with marketing in mind. Short of pitching a story that sells itself, most PR campaigns need a good platform to generate media coverage. We believe in either working alongside brand managers to publicize their marketing programs or developing them ourselves when the company is small and doesn’t have that internal function.
You are also the founder of 24/Savvy, a lifestyle blog/publication. How has running a publication changed the way you view public relations, product placement or even relationships with bloggers?
Running 24/Savvy has given us an insight into how the other half lives. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is having brands approach us that might not be the right fit for the site and recognizing that when we pitch our clients, it’s vital to make sure the pitch is on target for that publication. It sounds obvious, but it’s instructive to see it in action.
How does the rise of content marketing change public relations efforts? Do you feel that content production is the duty of the marketing, social or PR agency?
I am huge fan of generating content whenever we can. Perhaps it’s because I have a creative mind and I can see limitless possibilities. Creating your own content (on behalf of the client) gives us so much to work with and makes what we do not only “easier,” but also more fruitful. I think content marketing belongs in all three arenas and ideally, when all three are working well together, it can make a great campaign.
The New York Times recently changed its policy on allowing journalists to conduct interviews on the basis that a PR professional is able to approve the quoted material, and this practice could extend to other media outlets. What is your take on the issue? How would this change media relations and media training?
I actually agree with the decision by The New York Times. I think it will make our position more valuable. If we believe the client is right for a story in that publication and they want that story, this decision will demand that there be mutual consent on how the story should be approached, how to handle the interview and what the client can expect if they veer off message. So often an agency is left responsible for a client not staying on point. I always tell my clients if you don’t want to see your words in print, don’t say it. Now more than ever, media training will become a critical aspect of what we do in our field.
You are a board member of charity: water, a successful non-profit that has greatly elevated the awareness of the world on the plight of individuals living in areas with little to no access to clean water. Besides working for a great cause, what do you think has helped charity: water as a brand to be successful?
charity: water is successful because they are transparently working in a grassroots manner to change the water issue around the globe. Transparency and a “person-to-person” approach/appeal have made them a charity people feel they can trust. Also, the concept that a lot can be done by giving just a little has helped them generate enthusiasm for their projects. It’s an organization that wears its heart on its sleeve, and people relate to its honesty and dignity.
One reason you love what you do:
I love what I do primarily because I love helping people. Even though we represent brands, there are people behind the brand. I like helping my clients achieve their goals and move their careers and businesses forward. I focus on the people more than anything, and that gives me a real sense of accomplishment and joy.
Mike Toth was my mentor. I learned so much from him about branding — how to think comprehensively and consistently about a message. He has a love of life and an incredible way with people. He brought heart to everything he did/does.
OK, this might seem a bit off topic, but I am currently reading, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” It is a shocking and fascinating look at what can happen when people are faced with hardship. One of Hitler’s key strategies was to gain control of the masses — something he did with his propaganda machine. It was all based on creative messaging. He took advantage of people’s weaknesses and fear. We are walking through interesting times today with the market, and I think it’s instructive to see what can happen when we lose sight of our humanity.
About 10 years ago I launched the PR division of a branding company. One of our first major clients was Revlon. We were asked to pitch a project – the public relations promotion of an upcoming film partnership, the Bond epic “Die Another Day,” starring, among others, Halle Berry. Revlon product wasn’t placed in the film, but it featured the brand’s top spokesperson, so there was an opportunity of leveraging the connection.
The brand needed a PR group that had expertise in making the most of a theatrical promotional partnership. I had worked on the Ray-Ban/”Men In Black” film tie-in with huge success, so we were given a shot at the business. I remember sitting at a table with about 30 people from Revlon and pitching our business. When we left they voted and we got the job.
Then came the fun part, finding the right team, especially since I didn’t have one. At that point my “company” had only 3 employees, including myself, and it was a bit of a leap to get the business as the project was global in nature and we would be overseeing deployment of the program across the world. Long story short, we stayed calm, secured a great team and did an incredible job, garnering hundreds of millions of impressions and delivering millions in advertising value. It was a total blast - I even went to the London premiere, attended by the Queen herself.
What has this got to do with Halle?? Well, one of the ways we created television coverage was getting our own b-roll and packaging it in as many different ways as we could to distribute to a litany of media outlets. The brand was shooting an ad campaign for the film tie-in, so I went with a crew to gather my b-roll. Essentially, I would be interviewing Halle Berry. Well, she is one gorgeous lady in person. She has flawless skin and a beautiful smile and from what I can tell a gracious personality. On that occasion, and a few others, I was able to watch her in action. A person of her stature always seems to have a lot of hands hovering around, tweaking a garment, powdering a nose, teasing some hair, adjusting a stance. I don’t know about you, but that would drive me crazy. Not Ms. Berry though, she exhibited no spoiled star tantrums. She was total grace under pressure – or at least under a multitude of hands. Something we can all learn from!
Currently, I live between the UK and NYC. I'm also about to add a bit of LA into the mix as I am getting ready to pitch a reality television show based on my website 24/Savvy – but more on that in another post.
As we head into our Independence Day celebrations in the US it makes me consider our two countries (US/UK) and how much America has gained from its founding ancestry. Of course, you could make the point that it really was the Dutch, or the Spanish, not to mention the French that founded the US. You could even make the point that the stoic attitude of the Scandinavian countries truly made the US what it is today – at least the Mid-West. But whatever you think, I believe the British moniker, "Keep Calm and Carry On" is a phrase the US should adopt at all costs these days.
When you live in the UK you realize the difference in the two countries. I do LOVE the American "can-do" spirit and, in general, the above average service you can get in my homeland! But I also LOVE the British POV of "let's keep it all together, shall we?" That attitude helps, especially today when the world seems to be fraying a bit at the edges. Keep calm and carry on: a great motto for a world in flux. After all, since you can't control everything, or maybe anything, keeping a calm attitude just might help.
Have you heard of Pinterest? If you haven’t you should have by now. It’s one of the top ‘sharing’ platforms online today. In PR terms it’s ‘blowing up.’ Actually, in any term, it’s ‘blowing up.’
We are a visual nation. We like our verbal in sound bytes, and our predilection for bullets and easily digested items fulfills our love of the visual. Maybe visual isn’t really visual, maybe it’s just easy. Easy to see and understand. Easy to analyze and use.
Cut and paste. We like that too… Why is that? Why do we love it so much? Perhaps it’s because of all that technology that was supposed to make life better but only made it more complicated. Like how Email was supposed to cut down on paper. Well, it didn’t. And so here we sit with reams of lost paper, and lots of crazy hours (you can work ALL night if you choose, because YOU CAN!)
When I started my business as a division of a branding company winning corporate clients was the Holy Grail. You WANTED big business because it paid well, generally, and because it was a feather in your cap. Many other PR companies were vying for the coveted corporate client, the one that would “put you on the map.” So if you got the biz it was a great day.
I won a large piece of beauty business (agency of record worldwide for a major project) with only 3 employees—me being one of them. The other two staff members were junior. In our minds we were small but mighty. We kept the client for years and really enjoyed the work, overall… I’d worked on corporate business as the VP of another PR agency prior to launching the division, so it wasn’t entirely unknown territory. But along the road, as our division grew, we certainly had our share of boutique brands. The mix of the two often worked well together, as we creatively forged alliances that used the cache of one brand to enhance the profile of a company with more spending capacity. We certainly produced some wonderful mergers.
Today, after 5 years running my own company, I do wonder, is the corporate client really the way to go? They do have more money, but they do require more resources to run. They do offer prestige, but in an increasing segmented world, smaller can often be more desirable and even visible.
Here’s what I think, corporate is great, as long as they have vision and an ability to play small. In the world of consumer products consumers want to know that they matter. The type of brand ethos that can pull that off generally starts within the culture and that makes that company a good one to work for. So yes, we love corporate, just as long as they care…
If I knew then what I know now I wonder if I would do this thing again, that is, go into business.
Business is a roller coaster. Just when you think you’re on easy street something comes along to smack you into the gutter. It’s whether or not you can take a deep breath, dust yourself off and get back on your horse that defines your ability to stay in the race.
When you’re in a service business that moves fairly quickly and changes rapidly, you had better be resilient. That phrase “what have you done for me lately” rings in our ears on a daily basis. It’s the truth we live by. I’ve always told my associates, it’s when they love you the most they are most apt to let you go. It’s the weirdest phenomena, and I’m not sure why it works that way. But my feeling is that it’s best to stay as neutral as you can while delivering as much as you can.
It’s a roller coaster, and as scary as they can be at times, roller coasters do offer a bit of fun. And that brings me to the point. “They” say perception is everything. For someone who works with industries that thrive mainly on perception I’m learning to use that maxim for my own good. Yes, we’re up, now we’re down. BUT IT’S ALL GOOD. Because when we’re down where else can we go? UP! Yep, I can handle the roller coaster. Can you?
2011 is over. 2012 is beginning. For most of us in business the past few years have been a bit of a rollercoaster. 2008 heralded the advent of value! We’ve watched as the luxury markets have held true. Recessions seem to have come, gone and might be back again. New York was in the valley, now Europe seems to be following suit. So much of what has happened seems like it could have been averted—and I’d like to know why companies are allowed to short countries? The doomsday forecasters should probably have been heeded since we were all wondering when the real estate bubble would burst anyway (reminiscent of the dot com bust?). Anyway… As a small company we have definitely taken hits, but we are still going for it! So here are 5 simple thoughts for keeping all those balls in the air:
- Less is more (consolidate resources, make what you do matter more)
- Provide equal parts creativity and process (one without the other doesn’t provide rich content)
- Find ways to “give back” (do good, feel better—giving creates flow)
- Don’t overextend (spend that money on your staff not your furniture)
- Promote quality of life (offer flex hours for stretched staff)
2012 may have a few bumps in store, but with a little shift in philosophy what could have been a hassle can provide an exciting ride!
Written about it before, will write about it again. The rigours of business travel. Sigh.
Sitting in Premium Economy on Virgin Atlantic on my way from London to NY. Arrived 2 days ago from Sydney via Christchurch (NZ) and back in the saddle. Flew business class the last trip, a must for 30 hours travel each way, couldn't justify it for such a short hop across the pond. To travel right everyone says drink lots of water, no caffeine and/or alcohol. Me, I indulge in the vine AND drink lots of water. I can sleep just about anywhere, so that's helpful. But honestly, travel is not fun, at least not to me anymore. Especially after 25 trips this year, no matter what class you fly. Perhaps private makes the difference. Oh, to be rich. Well, it's commercial for this chick. Glass of champagne, bottle of water, a little vintage Roxy Music on the Bose. Trip 1 million begins.
I'm in Christchurch, NZ this week. This country is as beautiful as you imagine. The light (on a sunny day) makes all the shapes in nature seem cut from a picture and placed in a tableau. Otherworldly - in a good way.
Christchurch has also emerged from a horrendous experience. The earthquake here, if measured in G forces, was one of the most powerful to hit a modern city - ever. People I've met are moving on with daily life, but there's a real feeling of post trauma. It reminds me of NYC after 911 - there is a heightened sense of anxiety and "what if," or worse, "when next."
Conversely, it reminds me of the resilient nature of mankind. I had a conversation with a woman here and we found ourselves discussing the "can do" spirit prevalent in human nature. Even in the face of terrible odds most people keep moving toward something, if just life. I admire the people I've met here and I'm betting on this city coming through this tragedy stronger than ever. Someone said recently that it's good to have faith in God, but don't forget God has faith in us. I have faith this city is going places. Can't wait to come back!
I am totally fascinated by mountain climbing. I have never climbed a mountain, and I don’t intend to. I once went skiing in Vail, Colorado and fainted at 8,000 feet, half way from the bathroom to my bed. If I couldn’t handle that altitude I certainly couldn’t manage basecamp—at Mount Everest all preparation is done at 16,000 feet, with the summit looming 31,000 feet above.
My time at Vail was one of the most humiliating experiences I’ve had as an adult. I couldn’t adjust to the altitude, I could barely breath, couldn’t drink (got the worst headaches), found myself crying on the slopes as I tried to navigate my way down runs I had no business being on. I was traveling with a male friend (just a friend) who was ready to hit all the back bowls (wide, cistern-like expanses, very steep but open) and thought I should go too. I promised to meet him at lunchtime (after we’d had our respective morning runs, him on the black, me on the blue) and go, but after a few nasty spills with icicles forming in my hair I went back to the room to curl up, watch the movie Titanic and have yet another good cry.
Earlier that day I was forced to have a man and his two 6 year-old daughters escort me down the mountain. When I mentioned I was meant to be hitting the back bowls the kindly gentleman looked at me in horror and forbade me to do any such thing. So why do I love books about mountain climbing and what does my trip to Vaile have to do with risk?
Well, there’s a lot more on this in my upcoming book, but for now here’s my thoughts… We are all of us fascinated by people who are willing to take enormous risks, like mountain climbers (in my case). There is a part of us that secretly believes given the right situation we too could do such bold things. But then we are often faced with the simplest risk, in my case skiing a fairly innocuous mountain, and we realize we’re not really up for it (I was humiliated, but I did go back out the next day). Given our aspirations and our failures are we going to give up?
I find mountain climbing thrilling because failure means death. Most of us won’t die from making a bad judgment. I like reading about risk takers that are willing to take the ultimate risk, but do you know which one usually wins? Yes, obviously, the person that is well prepared. But guess who else usually wins, the one that is willing to turn back, even when they can see their goal, because it is TOO risky. Are they giving up? Nope, they know they’ll try again. And that is what a SMART risk taker is, someone who weighs the facts, makes a move, maybe fails but tries again.