David Eisenstadt is on a roll.
Earlier this year, the chief executive of high-tech public relations agency The Communications Group celebrated 30 years in business. At the recent Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) Annual
Conference earlier this month, he won the Philip A. Novikoff Memorial Award for furthering the standing of the public relations profession in Canada. Most recently, The Communications Group announced a “”gateway alliance”” with Lewis PR whereby it will assist local media relations activities for Lewis’s U.S. clients.
Pipeline recently spoke with Eisenstadt on the Lewis deal and how he is responding to changes in the industry.
Pipeline: What kind of relationship with Lewis PR have you had in the past and what led you to the recent partnership?
David Eisenstadt: We had none whatsoever. They were looking to establish a relationship — this is my understanding — with an experienced, independently-owned, Canadian PR firm that has a significant high-tech practice. And they found us on a Web site and they drilled down and they looked at the testimonials section of clients that we have represented, clients we still represent. They have seen that we are a firm that is literally on the cusp of our 31st year in business so we must have been doing something right. They talked I think to some of our clients, and did due diligence, and I know that they approached three other firms I guess doing the same thing. And they came back to us and said, “”We think Communications Group is the one.””
Pipeline: You’ll be handling work locally for each other’s clients — how does the billing and revenue model work?
DE: Well, that is based on their approach. I mean the point in a nutshell is when we know what an assignment will be, we would bill it the same way Lewis would bill it, in terms of hourly rates and commitment of experienced staff to service the business. We will make it seamless — the only thing different, if you will, is the sign on our door does not say Lewis PR. And if one of our clients or a prospect has a need south of the border, or in fact other parts of the Lewis world, then we make the introduction and then we go from there.
Pipeline: It seems like anything south of the border is dealt with by Lewis, but can they consult you on certain matters if it is a client that you have worked with before?
DE: Well, for example, with a Canadian client we would really be anchoring the work here, but what it means is that if there is a need to do something with news media in New York — and they have better connections, as they probably would — they would be doing the work on the ground.
Where this is going to work, for example, is where we have a couple of inquiries from a couple of their clients where they would say, “”Gee, we are a developer of this kind of software, or this kind of a manufacturer, and we would like to meet with some journalists in Toronto. Can you guys make that happen?”” And it would be no different from them calling the guys in Boston or calling their San Francisco office and saying, “”We want to connect with some journalists in Silicon Valley, can you guys set up some meetings?”” And just the way the San Francisco guys would react to make it happen, we would react to make it happen up here.
Conversely if they said we wanted to do something in Montreal or we wanted to do it in Halifax, we wanted to do it in Ottawa, or we wanted to do it in Vancouver or Calgary, we’ll get it done.
Pipeline: How did you set up the mutual service standards mentioned in the agreement and how is this relationship with Lewis communicated to the client base?
DE: I guess Lewis clients and prospects have to take Lewis at their word, and our clients and prospects have to take us at our word. You know what this does for us? We have always competed with the larger multinational agencies. One of the challenges is that — I’m going to pick a name — if Hill & Knowlton has an account in Boston and they need work Canada they just sort of hand it across the border. This is going to be pretty close to that. I mean to put this on more equal footing than we were without this relationship.
Pipeline: The Communications Group is one of the more successful independent shops when many other startups, like High Road Communications, have eventually become part of larger agencies like Fleishman-Hillard. What are the pros and cons of staying on your own?
DE: We have been through the dance with a number of multinationals before. Edelman came to Canada — I mean, I could go through a list of about six — and we decided we have been part of a multinational world for a number of years, and we have connections and contacts with PR firms all around the world. And we have been able to give Canadian clients assistance if they have needed assistance in other markets, and without the overhead of a multinational firm. So for example if a client needs some work done by Lewis in Boston, the client isn’t paying us to manage the Lewis, Boston firm. Their arrangement will be with Lewis directly. And that is how it works and the reality is that at the end of the day we are our own masters and we will succeed or not succeed based on our own track record.
We are probably considered a mid-sized firm and, you know, we will find ourselves competing with the larger agencies. I will use High Road as an example. They have offices in Ottawa and Toronto and maybe they have one out west. What we say to clients in Canada is if you need some work done in Vancouver on a day-to-day basis we are not for you. Because it is just not economically sound for you to do that. But if you need to do something in Vancouver over the course of three days or a week for a new product launch or you need to meet some key journalists we can fly in and fly out and make it happen for you, and you don’t pay an arm and a leg. With a multinational firm they want to lock you into a contract, and they want to lock you into all sorts of things.
As an independent we’re more nimble, we’re more flexible, and yet we must remain profitable. The multinationals have to remain profitable too, but at the end of the day this is a business. If we use freelance help, the freelancers get paid as fast as full time people here. We don’t string them out. I’ve heard sometimes the multinationals behave a little differently in that regard. Because we are locally owned, because we are independent we don’t go through five layers to have a cheque cut.
Pipeline: How exclusive is the deal with Lewis? Would you form similar gateway alliances with other firms?
DE: Not in the high-tech arena, no. I guess here is a possible scenario: Let’s pick McAfee. They have competitors — they have Norton, they’ve got Trend Micro. There are a number of players in the anti-virus space in that area. Let’s assume Lewis is doing work for Symantec in the U.S., and they say we need some help for Symantec in Canada — can’t do it, won’t do it. I mean, we are not going to resign Network Associates, we are not going to resign McAfee. They wouldn’t expect that and the reciprocal is true, we wouldn’t expect that. So it is as exclusive as that. If they have a client in the defragging software space and we don’t, no problem.
Pipeline: Your firm celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. What has been the major challenge amid all the changes that have happened in the PR industry, and the technology industry for that matter?
DE: Tough question. I think being able to survive through the dot-com era, and survive and continue to thrive I think has been our biggest challenge. We really suffer the vagaries of the marketplace and what goes on with clients. If, for example, Client X, which is a multinational, gets acquired by Organization Y, there is no guarantee that we will keep the business.
We manage carefully. We are in this business for the long haul. We don’t tier journalists. Here is something that I know a lot of the other firms we compete with do: A lot of PR firms have A-List, B-List and C-List journalists. And oftentimes a trade publication or reporter is considered at the bottom of the heap. We don’t do that; we’ve never done that. Every reporter is a bona fide reporter who has a job to do and we go out of our way to make sure they get the story they need, and access the executives they want to get to. We don’t whitewash, we don’t cover-up. Our whole process is facilitation, access to make life easier. We have information to share. Clients have stories to tell, and journalists have questions to ask and that is how it works.