SAN FRANCISCO – What does 25 years in PR time look like? What are the challenges facing the industry? I recently sat down with Access Emanate’s CEO Susan Butenhoff to get her take on starting an agency, the importance of culture and what she has learned since her founding of Access Communications that long ago.
Q: You started the agency in 1991 after a seven-year stint with Ketchum. Was there ever a really scary moment or critical turning point in terms of the agency’s future?
A: There was a moment during the dotcom bubble that really changed our agency, and our survival. It was seismic in that we survived at a time when so many other agencies had to shutter.
We were benefitting like everybody else from the froth and enthusiasm. There was so much money in the market. Even as a small agency, you were used to saying, ‘our minimum is $50,000 a month.’ Prospective clients walked in that had only been in business for six months, telling you they needed to go IPO. And they didn’t even have a year of revenue to show.
One day a VC who referred a lot of startups to us walked in and said one of them had just gotten $50 million in funding. I said, ‘great, let me see your business plan.’ He said, ‘I don’t have one’.
I declined the business and told my senior team we needed to diversify into consumer accounts, which was my background and so an easy way to transition. That gave us a protective Teflon that others didn’t have during what turned out to be a point of insanity in the tech market.
Q: What was that spark that led you to start the agency? Can you unpack that a little bit?
A: Why did I walk out of a seven-year career? I learned a lot at Ketchum, and I always say I never left Ketchum, I went to a new opportunity. And it was an opportunity that I wanted to create.
It comes down to two things. I wanted to start a business where I could create my own culture that was not hierarchical, and fearless. That had a little bit of swagger to it.
And the only rules I wanted were that we needed to be good people who relish taking creative risks. And stay true to ourselves.
Ultimately, when you’re in the service industry, you are exposed to a lot of other people’s emotional, political, social dynamics. But my belief was that as long as we were strong at the core by being good people, we could navigate all of that.
So that was one thing, I wanted to create that world. The other thing is, I saw how technology was beginning to transform things like video games. And I could see how we were starting to use language in consumer environments like ‘rendering’ and ‘software.’ Those were not things that you would typically associate with something that was a consumer product.
I realized that there was really something interesting in bringing an intense understanding of consumer marketing to what was then a niche market that had typically been focused on speeds and feeds.
It was the whole idea that technology could be more than a product, it could be a lifestyle, that really drove me to start the agency.
I was probably the least qualified person to start a tech agency ever in the entire universe. My tech background was limited to talking dolls and video games. But I just knew there was something there. The other thing I knew was really important was that women were going to be an important part of this adoption cycle. And that women typically had been left out of the technology conversations.
I had grown up on brands that really sought to target women. So I do feel like I had a secret weapon, which was that laser-like understanding of how to communicate with women and understand how to position things so they were meaningful for them, and personally relevant. And it wasn’t just another thing to buy, or another thing to be patronized about.
Q: What advice would you have for PR startups today?
A: I think in many ways, it’s easier to start an agency now. It’s more of an approved professional career track – to get experience and chops at an agency and then go out on your own for a variety of reasons. Either because you want to be an entrepreneur, or because you want to set up a certain work-life balance, which is not a dirty concept anymore.
When I started Access, the reality is that boutique agencies were really considered sort of second tier, especially ones headed by women. They were really unusual. And there were concerns by brass about whether you could scale the way they needed.
But now in the age of the lean enterprise, and the cloud, and a more extensive understanding beyond Silicon Valley about how the entrepreneurial ecosystem can operate, I think there are great opportunities for startup agencies.
And a piece of advice for any agency is to be creative, be passionate, but understand the fundamentals of a business.
I think extreme optimism is a common – not just trait, but requirement of an entrepreneur. But it can be the downfall of a business.
Q: Let’s talk a bit about the culture? What has stayed the same here over the last 25 years?
A: I think you can’t have an agency stay the same if you don’t have people who are staying in for the long haul. Although it sounds really trite to say, the reality is that when you’re in a people business, you have to put your people first. That’s so predictable, right? But there are many people on our senior team who have been with Access for 20 years.
These are people who have had plenty of opportunities through lots of economic cycles to either start their own agencies or go in-house, and they stayed because what they found is a common philosophy. We really do feel that however tough the world is out there, whether it be economics, or whether it just be an individual struggle on a personal or a professional front, that we always have each other’s back.
And I think that’s rare to find in life generally, and in work, specifically.
Now with the new combined Access Emanate agency, I see people coming together and I see that it’s getting re-infused with that sense of doing the best for ourselves and each other.
As long as that’s our common compass, then we can navigate through all the other corporate America challenges that we’re all facing at an increasing rate.
Q: That’s a perfect lead-in to my next question. What is the biggest change you’ve observed in PR and communications over the last 25 years?
A: That is such an easy one for me. This is an industry that I think is struggling to keep it about relationships and not become just transactional.
When I started, it was really a time when reporters picked up their phone. If they answered, they listened to the pitch. They gave you feedback. You know, there was a little bit of an understanding that you had your job to do, they had their job to do, and there was a mutual respect.
Many reporters didn’t even have answering machines. They had to answer the phones. And you knew when to ring them.
Technology has shifted the realities of that. Now you are relying on making a connection with a reporter based on following their Twitter handle, or sending them an email that can go in to a big, black void.
I feel like there’s a distance that’s being created between the editorial world, and the communications agency world. And I think this is exacerbated, frankly, by two things. One is the reality of the intense business challenges of the media environment. You have fewer people having to do more. And when people are under those constraints, they don’t have the time for relationships. It does become transactional on their end, as well.
And I think the second component is in the world of social media. Everyone’s been destabilized in the process. There used to be a period where it was PR by the pound that was focused on press releases by the pound, and to a certain extent, I sadly see a correlative with social media where it’s shifting to social chatter by the pound.
You’re losing a little sense of what it was supposed to be about, which was true engagement and activation. And it’s really become very much about how many social channels you can cover with so many posts under so many dollars. And that worries me.
Q: What do you think it will take to get it back to a more authentic place?
A: I think it will take people understanding what the social environment, what the social channels are really about. I think we’re in early stages where we’ve gone from enthusiasm to evangelism, to confusion.
We have too many people who feel like they’re pressured to get just junk out of the pipe. I think when everyone becomes more educated, and I mean everywhere – on the brand side, on the agency side – that people may become more selective in terms of how they actually target their social dialogue with their target audiences.
I don’t think we’re there yet.
Q: In hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently in starting the agency?
In giving this some thought, what I realize is that what I would have done then – which I encourage all startup agencies to do now – is make an effort to get to know the larger agencies and make an effort to get them to get to know me.
Getting larger firms to refer business because they know they are not right for a particular prospect would have been a really helpful business development pipeline that I never took advantage of.
Someone once said to me that the hardest thing to do is ask for help, and yet the hardest thing to refuse is someone’s request for help. So the advice I would have given to myself 25 years ago is don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Particularly for women entrepreneurs, we may think that asking for help is a sign of weakness but I think it plays to our strengths. We tend to be masterful social networkers, and what we need to do is just step beyond that crisis of confidence and recognize that ultimately, we all want to see that startup succeed.