Branding Bigger Part of Landing New Accounts

Steve Cody
Steve Cody

I’d like to begin this how-to exercise by telling you what I tell my employees: “PR firms are just like baseball managers and football coaches. We’re hired to be fired. It isn’t a matter of if, but when.”

Sure, there are a few examples of decades-long client-agency lovefests but, trust me, they’re scarcer than a long-standing marriage between A-list movie stars.

That’s why I’ve always treated Peppercomm as Peppercomm’s most important client. It’s why I insist we assign a dedicated team with preassigned hours to market our firm.

It’s also why I ask the agency marketing team to craft a year-round proposal that is perfectly aligned with our larger, strategic business goals.

Before I share a few best practices, though, I’d like to point out the two types of agency marketing I see today:

The first is chest-thumping nonsense. Think of the self-congratulatory ads you’ve seen proclaiming the number of Silver Anvils an agency has won.

Or the ones that carry the headline: “We prefer to be judged by the company we keep” and is littered with a host of client logos.

That type of marketing may make the employees feel good, but clients want agencies that are focused on bottom-line results, not industry awards.

The second, and far more effective form of agency marketing, is thought leadership. That’s where we focus our energies (and our limited marketing dollars).

Any thought leadership program should begin with a strategic positioning audit that determines exactly what separates your agency from the competition. Our mantra is: “Listen. Engage. Repeat.”

The first word is our key differentiator. Check out the websites or ads of other agencies. They also boast about their ability to engage their clients with the client’s target audiences.

We do the same thing. But, first, we listen long and hard to the target audiences in order to determine how best to engage in conversation. We see ourselves as equal parts client and audience advocates.

And, thanks to acquisitions of smaller firms with a range of marketing disciplines, we also see ourselves as channel-neutral.

So, depending upon a client’s audiences’ wants and needs, we might recommend an iPhone app and new website as opposed to a traditional media campaign. Or vice versa.

We leverage our positioning with a host of tactics ranging from:

  • Including clients and prospects in our outreach. We’ve had clients and prospects join our podcasts, serve as subject matter experts in opinion pieces and co-byline articles.
  • Four different agency blogs.
  • Multiple Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn posts.
  • Commenting on breaking business stories (especially those concerning crisis or merger and acquisition).
  • Co-branded surveys with credible third parties.
  • Bylined articles in unexpected media. While we’re honored to appear in PR trade publications, we spend just as much time placing Peppercomm features in leading vertical industry trade media that cover hedge funds, insurance, lifestyle and luxury goods, spanning our core client categories.


One of the smartest things we’ve ever done was to partner with a major PR trade journal to host a series of co-branded breakfast roundtables.

Rather than focus on the issue du jour (i.e. social media, content creation, etc.), we chose, instead, to discuss a much higher-level corporate issue: the very real gaps that exists within Fortune 500 corporations between PR and legal, PR and purchasing, and PR and sales.

We leveraged the panels to invite clients and prospects representing each occupation and held an open discussion. Our aim: to begin a dialogue that would help close the gaps.

The PR trades covered each and every panel, and we used the reprints to position ourselves as an agency that not only understood the gaps, but also could provide recommendations and best practices for closing them.

We’ve also done something no other PR agency in America can lay claim to—we’ve trained every single employee in the art and craft of stand-up comedy.

We do so for two reasons: to help improve their presentation skills and to build a tighter, more collegial workplace culture.

Our “Comedy Experience” has generated amazing publicity, ranging from extensive feature articles in human resources and business magazines to MSNBC, Taxi TV and WNBC-TV.

The comedy/workplace culture publicity, in turn, attracted clients who now pay us to train their employees in how to leverage humor as a competitive advantage.

We also give our marketing efforts an edge that, in some ways, is a function of having a comedy-based culture.

And that edginess has attracted several clients looking to work with strategic thinkers who take business very seriously but don’t take themselves seriously.

An agency-marketing program needs just as much care and counsel as the work you’re doing on behalf of your clients. Figure out what differentiates your brand. Then, market the hell out of it. PRN

Special shout-out to Sarah Rall, BG Communications, for suggesting this article.


Steve Cody is managing partner of Peppercomm. He can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the March 24, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.