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Photo: Getty Images
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PR Legend Alison Brod on Difficult Clients and the Industry's Changing Landscape

Alison Brod was just 25 years old when a stranger in an elevator convinced her to start a PR company. Twenty years later, she still runs her own successful public relations agency in the heart of New York City.

Alison Brod was just 25 years old when a stranger in an elevator convinced her to start a PR company. Twenty years later, she still runs her own successful public relations agency in the heart of New York City, representing some of the most powerful brands in fashion, beauty, and entertainment.

Below, the PR vet gives us the lowdown on the industry’s changing landscape, how she grew Alison Brod PR, and the lesson she's had to learn the hard way.

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How did you get your start in the industry?

The summer before I graduated college, I worked at an ad agency and decided I was coming to New York no matter what. I gave myself a 30-day round-trip ticket to find a job, an apartment, and a roommate. I worked a few places doing PR, at a magazine and then a beauty company. In the elevator one day, I overheard a man talking about launching a new fragrance and I interrupted him to ask some questions about it. He said, "If you want to start your own business, I'll be your first client."

How did you build out your company?

Once I had that first client, I was very lucky because that account was the relaunch of Burberry and they had just hired Kate Moss. People just called me. I never made an outgoing call for a client; my first three were Burberry, Escada, and Van Cleef & Arpels fragrances.

It was a very exciting time, in the mid-'90s, for fashion. I traveled around the world. I met Lady Diana. Fashion Week was ground zero for everything that was happening, not only in fashion, but also in culture. It was a very exclusive thing—different than it is now. I had all European luxury beauty clients. I had accounts like eLuxury, the first luxury website owned by LVMH, and Gap. I only had six people working for me at the time.

How did you set Alison Brod PR apart from your competitors?

At the time, there weren't many agencies specializing in beauty. It was a very feminine company; it was and still is all women. I was marketing specifically to women-focused companies, which was very different. Nobody had a pink logo or that specific niche. I've since expanded greatly—we do sports and all sorts of things now—but I would say that's what set us apart. I was either right for you or I wasn't. Most people knew what they were getting by the time they got to me.

What does the agency look like today?

We have about 64 employees. We have a multi-cultural division and a business relations division. I have a West Coast office and an entire celebrity and talent division. It's much more diverse. My clients range from L'Oreal to Mercedes, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to Old Navy.

We're almost like a marketing agency now. Just pitching brands and clients to magazines and newspapers is not the whole solution. We do guerilla marketing campaigns, ambassador social media, advertising campaigns; we can be all things to all people these days. It's not the straight formula it used to be.

How has the industry changed over the years?

Now it only takes one disgruntled person to bring a company to its knees. For example, we worked with a well-known snack brand who made a commercial with a celebrity that was a light parody of people of different ethnicities. A man on Twitter took offense and rallied others; the next thing we knew, our video was being shown across the country on every morning show. In the end, the decision was made to pull it from the air so as not to offend anyone. The toughest decision is often whether to apologize or to stand by the fact that the promotion was meant to engage and amuse.

How else has technology affected your business?

When I first started, I would stand at a fax machine until 2 a.m. If it was a memo to ten people, you had to fax it ten times, and get a confirmation slip for each. So, technology has furthered and deepened relationships. The downside is the experiential business—and the excitement—of, say, a fashion show, has subsided because everyone can get everything online. While the social media part of my business is growing, the events and experience part is decreasing. Brands don't want to spend a lot of money funding one event that reaches 300 people; they'd rather put it towards a digital camera in the hopes of reaching many more.

What are some misconceptions about PR?

People think that PR is about events and parties. They don't understand that there is an incredible amount of strategy. You have to be a great writer, you have to be terrific at presenting, you have to be a researcher and an analyst. It really comes down to having more skills than people realize.

Alison Brod kids

Photo courtesy of Alison Brod

What lessons did you have to learn the hard way?

One lesson that I'm still learning today is to know when to stop talking. The people who succeed by saying the client is always right sleep better at night. Stepping back and rolling with that philosophy is probably a better business tactic. I hire very strong personalities, and there is nothing that makes us feel better than a successful client campaign. We're very competitive. We're not always right, but we often are. We have clients that want to spend half a million dollars on an event, and we tell them not to do it and that we can devise a new campaign. We often lose.

Is it difficult working in such a cutthroat industry?

Yes. We have a lot of experience seeing how different companies run, and it's fascinating. We're able to use that experience to avoid burning bridges because we see what works and what doesn't. I've learned that everything comes back around. When we get called for new business, ten people could sit at a table and if one person has had a bad experience with an agency, that agency will not get called back.

Things are also moving faster than ever. Retail is down, budgets are getting slashed, the loyalty to agencies isn't there the way it used to be. In the past, there were CEOs that you had loyal, dedicated relationships with for years and years. Today, there is much more of a tendency for brands to flip around. A lot of those CEO relationships that I had, those people are stepping down, they're getting fired. There's a lot of change, which means you have to constantly be on your toes.

What's the number one PR nightmare for you?

An exclusive story that gets cut. Often, due to deadlines, stories get cut and then a client ends up with no one else wanting to break the news because it's suddenly old. That's probably every PR person's nightmare.

What's the best part of running your own company?

I get to say who, what, when, where, why. I can learn about so many different industries, and often I work with the smartest people out there. I'm working with the presidents and CEOs of amazing startups. I could meet ten fascinating people in one day. The downside is keeping people happy. There are a lot of politics that we wade through, gently navigating the waters as we try to suggest the best campaigns.

What do like about working with fashion and beauty clients?

I find the people in the beauty industry to be incredibly smart and forward-thinking. There's constant new technology, new trends. It never stops. It's very exciting, but businesslike at the same time. It is, for the most part, a very well-run industry. Fashion clients are different. Designers are artists. What I've found about many fashion companies is that there can be enormously famous names involved, but the companies themselves are very tiny and often not as profitable as people think. They're not as glamorous when you scrape back the top layer.

What would you consider your most important career move?

Starting a celebrity division. I wasn't called for the Bobbi Brown account when we had a lot of beauty, and I was wondering why. I called over there and found out that they went straight to a celebrity agency because she was trying to increase her celebrity awareness. That was when everything changed for us and when we started to get huge corporate brands.

What's it like balancing work and motherhood?

You always feel guilty. You always feel like you should be some place else. If you're at a client event, you feel like you should be home working on homework. If you're with your kids, you should be taking care of your clients. Getting over that guilt is the biggest challenge.

What advice do you have for young people trying to make it in PR?

Never walk into a meeting without Googling the people you are going to meet—come armed with information about their background to either impress them or strategize. Also, if you are too shy to speak up in a meeting, send notes after with ideas or insights that you have instead of having clients or co-workers thinking you have nothing to say.

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