PR and the City

PR and the City

by Romy Ribitzky

Editor’s note: This is the first story in a new series called Eponymous, about entrepreneurs who have named their businesses after someone they know all too well—themselves.

It’s before 9 a.m. on a midsummer day. But there’s a pink tree in the middle of the office with pink presents underneath it (this was a Christmas in July event), and Alison Brod is on the phone, something this public relations executive does a lot.

The person on the other end is Tommy Mottola, the music-industry executive, who has been a client of Brod’s in several business dealings over the years. The conversation doesn’t last more than a few minutes, but that’s all that’s needed. “I learned early on that you have to take clients’ calls. Sometimes a five-minute conversation is all it takes to let them know that you’re on top of their projects,” Brod says.

Brod has been dealing with talents and their egos for 19 years, 14 of which has been at the helm of her eponymous boutique public relations agency near New York City’s Madison Square Park. The firm, Alison Brod Public Relations, includes celebrity designers Pamella Roland and Whitney Port of MTV’s The City, along with chocolatier Godiva and cosmetics powerhouse Estée Lauder as some of its clients.

Oscar Blandi—a celebrity hair stylist who has his own business in New York, fittingly called Oscar Blandi Salon—first met Brod when she was a PR newbie and he was cutting hair at a different salon, one he didn’t own. He liked her approach within minutes.

“She’s approachable and friendly, while being pushy in just the right way,” he says. They branched out on their own at nearly the same time and Blandi had a problem: He needed representation, but didn’t have a marketing budget. Still, he knew he wanted to work with Brod. “She’s so well connected, and I loved her energy, the way she moves around people.”

They struck up an informal deal, counting on the friendship they developed when Brod started coming to Blandi for haircuts. “The first deal she landed for me was a spread in Harper’s Bazaar. A feature on a popular TV show at the time followed, and that’s what really helped to build my name and my brand,” he says.

That kind of client attention has its costs, though, especially when it comes to time. By her own estimate, Brod typically works until 2 a.m. on weekdays.

“There just aren’t enough hours in the day,” she says, while furiously pounding on her BlackBerry. A typical day consists of reading the New York Post’s Page Six while she’s brushing her teeth, getting her 3- and 4-year-old sons ready for school with her husband of 17 years, while LouLou, the family’s Coton de Tulear dog barks for some attention. At the office, she scans the major national papers and Twitter while setting the day’s direction for her 52-person, all-girl staff.

She started her agency after a chance meeting in an elevator with the man who would become her first client. “I was working for a top PR firm at the time and didn’t set out to start my own shop,” she says. “But after a two-hour conversation at the Four Seasons hotel, this Burberry exec wanted me to handle the relaunch of their fragrance. He offered me an office, an assistant, and a $20,000-a-year clothing allowance.”

Burberry led to a meeting with the president of Gap, and it was landing that account that really fast-forwarded Brod’s career development. Deciding to use her own name for the business was an easy decision at the time. “It seemed too pretentious and silly to have a company name when I was the only employee,” she says. “But as I grew my business, the value of my name also grew, and it didn’t make sense to change it.”

These days, her name comes up at the Food Network, where she serves as a judge on 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, on episodes of The City, on Twitter, at events, and in the press. Balancing a growing public personality in her industry is something she takes seriously. “The key is to not have clients think that I want to be famous. I really try to do things that only showcase the brands and people I represent,” she says, adding that she’s turned down reality shows that wanted to follow her around because she worried they would create too much unnecessary drama.

And while naming her company was an easy decision, crafting her brand identity was more complex. And it’s an image she’s constantly tweaking, knowing that that her personal brand and, by extension, her company’s brand, had to stand out. Her answer: a signature color, which in her case is pink. It’s everywhere. On her bags, throughout her office, on her wardrobe.

“I actually started out with a navy logo because I thought that pink, even though I liked it, looked unprofessional. But when I switched, I mixed the girlie pink with a camel decor to offset it,” she says.

With all the pink around, it’s no wonder that male employees don’t quite fit in. “I have had two men work for me for a short time, and for whatever reason, it seems to upset the balance,” Brod says. Not that she’s opposed to the next male PR superstar, but she notes that since the industry is very female-heavy, very few résumés from men cross her desk.

And from employees to clients, Brod is focused on the relationship and requires a certain amount of give and take. “I don’t accept every client,” she says. So what is she looking for when assessing whether a potential campaign is a right fit?

  • The best clients are those that don’t just hand us finished products or events and expect media miracles to happen, she says.
  • Come to them with goals, desires, and ideas and “allow us to tweak, change, or add ideas that strengthen the concept and build buzz.”
  • Be unique. It’s easier to build a brand message when what you’re doing is different.
  • Have a new trend. Tried and true works, but an innovative idea is easier to promote.

Landing an account is the easy part of the process. What comes next can be challenging. “Client expectation is probably the most difficult part of managing brands. And now, with a lot of longtime CEO relationships gone due to downsizing, client loyalty has become tenuous,” she says.

Stoli, for example, recently decided to go with a different ad agency to launch its new marketing campaign. “Great press but poor sales often leads companies to throwing their line in the sea to see if someone else can make the magic happen for them,” she says of Stoli’s departure, noting that sometimes the best tactic is to part ways.

Trying to keep clients happy is often a full-time job and one Brod approaches with a simple tack: “I try to be publicist first, friend and colleague second. If they want more press—and deserve it—I kick into action until the issue is fixed. If it’s a staffing issue, like the rep doesn’t fit in with the company’s vision, I can move things around,” Brod explains. “I try to find something in our control to make them happy.” If that doesn’t work, she wishes the client well and they each go on pursuing other interests.

Not that there’s a dull moment at the office. “I’m like a pinball going from meeting to meeting, phone call to phone call,” she says. “It all comes with the territory when it’s your name on the door. You get the best news and the worst news, and what sets you apart from the thousands of other publicists in New York City is how well you deal with that news and move on.”

Romy Ribitzky is an associate editor at
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