Building A Wildly Successful PR Agency: The Doug Spong Interview

What does it take to build a national public relations agency powerhouse from scratch that earns 250 industry awards, competes against the world’s largest PR firms, achieves a double-digit compounded annual growth rate, and still maintains a vibrant agency culture of ‘Spongsters?’

I recently sat down with Doug Spong, APR, Fellow PRSA, founder of the Minneapolis PR agency Carmichael Lynch Spong (now Carmichael Lynch Relate) and former president and managing partner of Carmichael Lynch Advertising. Although our respective PR agencies have been quite different – with Maccabee being a smaller independent firm and Doug’s PR juggernaut being part of an ad agency owned by global network Interpublic Group (IPG) – I've always found Spong to be one of the more generous, gracious competitors in our profession (and not only because he referred a client to us!). In fact, I have valued Spong, whose firm grew to serve clients such as Sherwin-Williams, Harley-Davidson, Jennie-O Turkey Store, Maytag, Jack Link’s Protein Snacks, Thermos, Cargill and H&R Block, as someone who consistently raised the bar for me and everyone else in our PR business.  

With his departure from Spong in December 2015 after more than 25 years at the helm, we talked with the PRSA Gold Anvil Lifetime Achievement Award winner about the adrenaline rush of new business, the secrets of keeping a client/agency romance alive, what it means to differentiate your company’s brand position, and the scope of his new agency consulting firm, The Doug Spong Company.

I’ll admit it – my fave campaign of yours was the integrated PR and advertising work you did for Jack Link’s “Messin’ With Sasquatch.’ So what was your favorite campaign?

“I’m very fond of the PR campaigns we launched for WhiteWave Foods’ Silk brand of soy milk, getting Americans over the ‘yuck’ factor of soy.

"The first thing we did was to ignore our first instinct and all common sense, which would say to focus on the nutritional Paris Hilton.jpgand health benefits of soy versus dairy. No, we didn’t want soy to be a medicinal brand, the way General Mills had its 8th Continent products be all about nutrition. Instead, we positioned soy milk as cool! We partnered with A-list celebrities who were rabidly enthused about their soy milk, from Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie (pictured right) to tree-hugging actor Ed Begley Jr. We produced soy milk sampling events at the Tribeca Film and Sundance Film festivals. And we took on the dairy industry, whose American Dairy Council (ADC) sued soy milk with a cease and desist order, arguing that the word ‘milk’ could only be used if it came from a lactating animal, like a cow.

The coup de gras for the dairy industry was an ABC-TV “20/20” piece which portrayed the ADC as engaged in a feud that made them look ridiculous. The result was a bonfire of success, ending with an 84 percent market share in the non-dairy beverage category for the Silk brand.”

What’s the biggest mistake clients make with their PR agencies?

“Not agreeing on what success looks like. Not all metrics really matter – is it a sales or revenue target? A gain in market share? A shift in employee attitudes from an internal campaign? Clients must articulate and frequently communicate to their PR agency what success is.”

And the flip side, what’s the biggest mistake that PR agencies make with their clients?

“Not involving their client often enough in the process of ongoing work. You and I would never think to climb Mount Everest without acclimating first in Katmandu, making it to base camp, then Camp 2 and back. Acclimating yourself to something in life takes time – you can’t rush the mountain! The same is true with client-agency relationships – it’s best when a PR agency can acclimate the client to what we’re thinking on strategy. Too many agencies go off and work in isolation with just a written brief received from the client. Then they unveil the idea with a “Ta Da!” and surprised when the client says that the campaign is off target.”    

In competing with other PR agencies, Spong had a clear differentiator – awards, including “PR Agency of the Year” four times running and “Creative Agency of the Year” twice. My God, you guys won insane numbers of awards like nobody else.

“It was great for new business. If potential clients are involved in our PR industry through the PRSA or the Arthur W. Page Society, they attend award competitions. That’s where you see a wide body of PR work by different agencies – for clients, it’s like sitting in a screening room watching a number of excellent campaigns by PR agencies that you’re going to want to hire.”

Spongsquatch.jpgWhat was your most memorable new business pitch experience?

“I remember when we completed a two and a half hour long new business presentation in Iowa for Maytag, which is now owned by Whirlpool. I could tell the pitch went well, you could feel the chemistry in the room. And Maytag’s head of marketing asked me – ‘what’s your 13th donut?’ He explained that when you go into the bakery and buy a dozen donuts, the baker throws in an extra donut. And he said: if we award Spong the Maytag business, along with Amana, Jenn-Air and the Hoover floor business, what’s your ‘13th donut’ for us? I remember going back to him with a financial proposal for our Spong/Maytag relationship. But we also bought a child’s playset of food, and spray painted a plastic donut gold, mounting it in an acrylic display box, with the date we awarded Maytag our 13th donut, which the client still has in his office today!”

Which rival PR agencies do you admire?

“My respect comes when another agency kicks my ass in a new business competition! I’ve been beaten by the best in national PR agenices, including Zeno (which is owned by Edelman), M. Booth & Associates in New York, and Ketchum (they’d always give us a run for our money). And, of course, Weber Shandwick that is everywhere!””

You’re now consulting with PR and advertising agencies across the US – give us an example of your current work with the Doug Spong Company.

First off, let’s admit it – PR agencies sound so much alike. All of them use their favorite list of buzzwords – every agency is collaborative, integrated, creative and authentic and thinks outside the box, right? Clients roll their eyes when they hear these clichés – in a new business meeting, (under their breath) clients say, ‘do I have to sit through two hours of this again for the fifth time?’ It’s ironic that agencies are in the business of differentiating their clients’ brands, but they don’t do it for themselves. The firm I’ve started? I make shoes for the shoemaker’s kids.

As an example, I’ve been working with Boston agency 360 PR, founded by Laura Tomasetti, the former VP of Public Relations for Hasbro. Her agency clients have included Virgin Atlantic, Peapod, Gerber, Nintendo and, of course, Hasbro – which was her first agency client. I worked with Laura and her leadership team to figure out how their top executives viewed the agency and why they remained there. What is it about the shop’s espirit de corp? The breakthrough was when one of 360 PR’s clients told me: “What I love about 360 PR is that I can sleep at night knowing they’re up worrying about my business.” That sparked an off-site retreat for their leadership team, where I asked them which of their competitors they most admired and we analyzed the positioning of those respected rivals.

And we hit the refresh button on 360. Now, their agency-wide position line is two words: ‘All In.’ It’s a play off the metaphor of 360, a complete circle. They are all in for each other and for their clients. Notice, those words don’t describe what 360 does – it doesn’t say 360 is a ‘leading integrated PR and creative communications firm with offices in Boston, Washington DC and San Francisco.’ Rather, ‘All In’ is what that agency stands for, it’s the core emotional bond they have with clients. It’s 360’s brand promise, if you decide to work for and with them.”

You clearly have not retired, Doug. But I’ve seen photos of you at the Spong family cabin and . . . underwater. What are you doing outside of PR consulting?Spong SCUBA[5]-1.jpg

“For 21 years, I’ve been a certified scuba diver, and now my son, Christopher (pictured right), has joined me. I’ve gone scuba diving in Belize, Bonaire, Cozumel, Curacao, Dominica, Kauai, Key West, Roatan (Honduras) and across the Caribbean. When you dive, it’s what an astronaut with NASA must feel when they exit our Earth and go into orbit. You see a world that few people see. When you’re 80 feet below the water’s surface next to a coral reef system, you are among it and in it – the fish swim around you. It goes back to when I was a kid, and my favorite TV show was the ‘Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.’ And this all happened because my wife of 34 years, Jill, signed me up for scuba diving instruction in 1996.”

So what’s your final insight for PR agency professionals – what was your secret to building Spong over 25 years?

“My secret? Always stay close to your founding principles. Ours was simple: create PR work that inspires a better world. In public relations, you have the opportunity to shape public opinion, launch a new product that lights up the marketplace, help employees navigate a new employer, and solve a crisis for organizations who are hurt by the world around them. It’s a great profession to be in!”

About the Author

Paul Maccabee

Paul Maccabee is president at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.

Topics:  PR Perspectives

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