It was once a truism that advertising agencies presented better than their counterparts in the public relations business. It was not that advertising people are inherently smarter, more creative, or better in front of an audience than their PR brethren, but rather that they had more money. More money meant better research, for one thing, and it meant jazzier graphics, for another.
Today, however, it is not unusual for a large PR firm to spend $50,000 on a major new business effort, and the quality of PR pitches has risen commensurately. “I’ve sat through ad agency pitches and PR agency pitches, and there’s not a lot of difference between the best in each industry,” says one client. “But the worst PR pitches are still a lot worse than the worst ad agency pitches.”
Says consultant Al Geduldig, of New York’s Geduldig & Ferguson, “Advertising agency pitches seem to have a lot more background work, a to more research and they tend to have a strategic model. They also tend to have better visuals, and to be better rehearsed. On the other hand, they tend to be more formulaic.”
One respect in which the PR business has gotten more like the ad industry is that it now has its own new business superstars. Paul Holmes asked a couple of dozen clients and consultants—and some of the nominees themselves—to identify the best new business presenters in the PR industry and tell us what made them so special.
Not everyone believes the new business expert deserves elevation to hero status, however. Jerry Swerling, the former head of Porter Novelli’s Los Angeles office and now a consultant who handles agency searches, among other assignments, says many of his clients are skeptical of people who focus their energy on new business.
“The best agency presentations I have seen didn’t hinge on a single person,” Sweling says. “The best new business presentations are the ones that give you a sense of the team that is going to be working on your business, so the best new business presentations are team efforts.”
To a certain extent, Geduldig agrees. The best PR agency presentation he saw this summer, he says, was “a spectacular team effort” by representatives of GCI’s New York and San Francisco offices.
Lou Capozzi, president of Manning Selvage & Lee and himself a nominee for the current title, says former Ketchum president Paul Alvarez “was not only the best, he was the dean. He was the guy who is the model for everyone in our business. At a time when most people were showing clients a slide presentation made up of long paragraphs of text, he raised public relations pitches to the same level as ad agency pitches.”
What made Alvarez so good, however, was not so much the technology as his own storytelling ability. Says Capozzi, “He told stories about work the agency had done so vividly that clients believed he personally had spoken with the reporters who ran the stories. They believed that he had mixed the salad dressing that was poured on to the world’s largest salad and stood there with olive oil on his fingers while the photographers clicked away.”
Among today’s pitchmasters, four stood out:
Tom Buckmaster, head of the Washington office of Hill & Knowlton
“He’s just a smart guy who is able to convey his quickness in the conference room. The client comes away thinking, I want this guy on my team.”
“Tom is one of those guys who is better in a conference room, in front of a bunch of guys, than he is one-on-one,” says a competitor. “He paces himself well. He thinks quickly on his feet but he never comes across as too quick, too glib.”
Says Buckmaster, “What separates people who are good at the craft from those who are good at selling the craft is that the latter have the ability to overcome all the obstacles—physical, intellectual, and emotional—that can come between you and a potential client. The most important skill they have is the ability to listen. Sometimes if you listen hard enough clients will almost by accident tell you what they really want.”
Lou Capozzi, president, Manning Selvage & Lee
“He’s incredibly quick on his feet. He just has a quick mind, and it shows.”
“The only criticism I’ve ever heard of Lou,” says an industry expert, “is that sometimes he’s too quick with the answer. Even though the answer is usually right, you are left with the impress that it came too quickly. It can seem glib.”
“He’s incredibly enthusiastic. Once he believes he has the answer, he’s absolutely passionate about it, and very convincing.”
Capozzi is convinced that great presentation skills can be learned, and as evidence he cites his first big corporate presentation, while he was a youngster in the PR department at Bankers Trust. Says Capozzi, “I had written out my presentation in full on paper because I didn’t have the confidence to memorize it, and my hands were shaking so badly I could barely read it. I’m sure the guys I was presenting too just felt sorry for me. Five years later I was heading the New York office of Ketchum and I was pitching clients every week.”
Capozzi credits presentation training expert Peter Rogen’s firm with effecting the transformation. “They teach you eye contact. They teach you how to work a room, how to work with visuals. We still use them for our people today.”
Richard Edelman, president, Edelman Public Relations
Edelman, says one competitor, is “relentless. If he wants a piece of business he goes all out to get it. He does his homework better than anyone.”
“He brings some of the ad agency discipline to the pitch. He has a very staccato delivery that is very convincing. You also get the impression that he understands the business, that he cuts through the bull and gets to the heart of the client’s needs.”
“I think he’s even better than his father,” says one client, referring to agency chairman Dan Edelman, himself one of the best at new business. “Sometimes Dan presses too hard. Richard knows when to pull back and let the sale make itself.”
Not everyone is a fan of the Edelman style, however. Some say he’s better at winning business than keeping it. “The important question is not simply whether you win the business but whether you win it in such a way that a year from now you are still handling the account,” says a competitor.
Edelman himself says “when I started, I was a bumbling idiot. I used to bring press clippings to new business presentations and drop them on the floor.”
Jan van Meter, head of the New York office of Fleishman-Hillard
“Jan’s approach is almost reverse psychology. He under sells. He’ll say, ‘I don’t think this is really all that important, but if I was going to do something about it, this is what I’d do.’”
“He’s incredibly calm. He’s not a showman, but he gives the impression that nothing rattles him. Some clients find that comforting. Others feel Jan’s kind of detached irony indicates a lack of passion, and they find it off putting.”
“He’s very intellectual in his approach, very thoughtful. He’s also a pragmatist, and sometimes even a cynic, and that can be very appealing.”
Other nominees include:
James Abernathy and James MacGregor, principals, Abernathy MacGregor Frank
“The perfect one-two punch,” says a consultant. “Abernathy provides the view from 10,000 feet, while MacGregor is Mr. Inside. He tells you what’s going to work on a day-to-day basis.”
“They double-team clients well, although now [partner] Joele Frank is as good as Jim MacGregor, and she does a lot of the down-to-earth stuff.”
John Ashford, president, The Hawthorn Group
“He’s as empathetic as he is smart,” says one competitor, “and he’s as smart as anyone in the business. Nobody I know reads spoken and unspoken feedback as well as John does, and he responds to it instantly and brilliantly.”
“He’s the Steven Spielberg of this business. He paints pictures in the air.”
Dorothy Crenshaw, principal, Stanton Crenshaw
“She has the perfect blend of thoroughness and thoughtfulness and passion, and she has a perfect foil in [partner] in Alex Stanton, who’s one of those people who relates really well to the suits.”
“Her creativity is always apparent. You know she’s going to come up with lots of ideas as long as she works for you.”
Jeff Kahn, executive VP, Ruder Finn
“He’s creative, and he doesn’t always think in terms of traditional PR ideas. If he thinks the right solution is something other than PR, he’ll tell the client that.”
Says a colleague, “jeff has the ability to bring things to the pitch that come from out of the ether. He has a tremendous ability to get the client excited about crazy ideas.”
Patrice Tanaka, president, Patrice Tanaka & Co.
“Patrice is one of the few people who knows how to share the credit. She may do the presenting herself but you always get the feeling the ideas came from the whole agency, so she makes the whole team seem smart.”
“She brings a real sense of excitement and enthusiasm.”