PR firm embraces a broad communications concept


One on One is a weekly feature offering excerpts of interviews conducted by The Evening Sun with newsworthy business leaders. Kevin O'Keefe is president of Adams Sandler, a public relations firm with offices in Baltimore and Rockville, and a proponent of integrated marketing communications.

Let's jump right in and explain what integrated marketing communications is.

Well, integrated marketing and communications is really a philosophy and approach to helping a client communicate to its public in a way that recognizes that no one communications skill -- be it advertising, public relations or sales promotion -- is likely to be the best solution, the best and only solution, to a client's needs. So it's a recognition that most client marketing problems require a combination of tools to achieve maximum results. And it's really the process of insuring not only that you can offer those tools to the client, but that they work in coordination to achieve the result.

Are there certain corporations that benefit best from this approach? Does it tend to be large corporations or large nonprofits?

A. No, I would say that really it's fairly universal in its potential application. Clearly, the larger the number of audiences that you have to talk to as a marketer, the greater the potential benefits of integrated communications. But it can work for a very small retailer all the way up to a multinational corporation.

Q. Tell me about Adams Sandler?

A. We've been in business in Baltimore since 1956. We have about 50 communications professionals here and in our office in Rockville. We are part of a division of a multinational corporation called Shandwick, which is headquartered in London. Shandwick a publicly traded organization with offices in 95 cities around the world.

Is it unusual for a firm that does public relations and advertising to be so large, with so many locations around the world?

A. Well, I think you have to separate advertising from public relations. Advertising, as a discipline, has been multinational for many, many years. And the biggest U.S. advertising agencies are found all over the world. Public relations has been international to a lesser degree for a couple of years. Prior to that, there were really two major public relations firms internationally, both of them based in the U.S. But their model was to take the American PR practice and duplicate it in countries around the world. The Shandwick model is different. We have the American model practice in the United States. But in our office in Singapore, we have a distinctly Singapore model of public relations, one that's tailered to meet that market. The same applies to our office in Tokyo and to our office in New Zealand, and others around the world. So that's our point of difference. We use the line of intelligence worldwide which really, you know, gets to the heart of the fact that you've got [an executive who is from that country] in that local office who understands how that local economy works.

Q. It seems that many Baltimore marketing firms tend to be more specialized. They either do strictly advertising, strictly public relations or whatever, and they don't integrate. Is that a correct perception?

A. I think it is historically a correct perception. I think that in more recent times, there has been certainly a willingness to embrace a broader definition of what an agency can be and should be, and a lot of that is dictated by marketplace demands. Certainly, some of the biggest firms in Baltimore stick to their knitting, and they do, you know, only advertising. There are some models of integrated firms. We happen to think we probably were among the first and are among the most integrated in our approach.

It's not a new concept for you? Is it something you've been doing?

A. Certainly for the last decade, we have consciously embraced it. But I think it also tends to be a phenomenon that you find in medium-sized firms who have clients that may need a variety of communications tools but don't want to have a separate PR firm or a separate ad agency. Even the larger clients are seeing the value of a coordinated communications program delivered through a marketing partner.

Since you have offices in Baltimore and Rockville, is there a difference in the communications strategies used by companies these two areas and how would you describe it?

Well, I think it depends on what you're defining as Washington. I mean if you're talking about Capital Hill issues, yes, there certainly is a different approach. But they're (x specialists, and frankly we don't engage in lobbying or Capital Hill issues. Between our two offices, the differences really reflect the differences in the economies of the two cities. Our key strengths here in Baltimore -- and when I say Baltimore, I should say that we really serve the mid-Atlantic region out of our Baltimore office -- the work tends to be more in financial services and health care. In our office in suburban Washington, our focus is on technology because there's a significant technology industry in Northern Virginia and Montgomery County. So that's where our focus of business is, in that office.

Is there a way you would typically handle a Baltimore account that may be different from the way you would handle an account elsewhere?

A. Well, I think, yes. You would recognize that Baltimore is a different market. While in the Census Bureau's view, there are similarities enough to put Baltimore and Washington together as a common market, a single metropolitan statistical area, there are certainly differences in the marketplace. I mean it doesn't take much scratching beneath the surface to see that there are )) significant differences in demographics. And any successful communications program succeeds only when it talks to a particular prospect in language that motivates that prospect. Given the fact that there's a wide disparity in audiences, the messages are going to be different and how you communicate those messages are going to be different.

You've won the Silver Anvil Award for your work for the Archdiocese of Baltimore's Catholic schools. What did you do with that marketing campaign and how did it incorporate an integrated marketing technique?

I think that's an excellent example because it's a case where very often clients will come to us saying I want an advertising campaign, or I want a public relations program, or I want a sales promotion effort, or I need a brochure. In the case of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, it was different. They approached us about creating an advertising campaign to begin to tell parents throughout the metropolitan area, actually throughout the whole archdiocese, which goes all the way to western Maryland, about the value of Catholic schools and about Catholic education. They felt that that message had not been articulated clearly enough or often enough in recent years. We sat down with them, took a look at what their ambitions were, took a look at the realities of their budget and said you can't afford to just do an advertising program. You need to also have public relations as a central component of this program. The reasons being that they don't have enough advertising dollars to express the benefits of Catholic schools and communicate the benefits of Catholic schools sufficiently. Sixty-second commercials have some limitations, and we didn't have the budget to allow the frequency of exposure for our message. So what we recommended was, yes, we do need an advertising program, but we need to marry that to a sustained public relations program, and the combination of the two disciplines working together will help achieve that goal of making an impact in the marketplace. And I should say it's really not just advertising and public relations. We also do special events.

Is there competition between advertising and public relations folks that make it difficult to put a team together?

There can be. And I'll tell you the reason why. Most agencies are structured so that if I am a PR person on your account and she is an advertising person on your account, we're competing because if you take dollars out of my pot and invest them in advertising, usually that works against me. What we've done is eliminate the walls; we don't care where the dollars get spent, because we know in the end that's really the best for the client. Many agencies will have advertising departments and PR departments together, but they won't necessarily work together. They may be under the same roof, but they're not under the same roof working together. And they'll track the clients, PR spending, track our clients as spending, and somebody will win and somebody will lose. We've done away with that. We don't track those things, because we want them to feel that they can both succeed, even if one discipline gets used more often than the other.

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