energi PR [TCO] hit a major milestone recently as the agency founded by Carol Levine and Esther Buchsbaum celebrates its 30th anniversary. Back in January 2018 the agency brought on Stephanie Engel as Senior Vice President of Client Services as part of the leadership team.
PR In Canada took some time to talk to Carol, Esther and Stephanie about their journey over the last 30 years.
What did you do before launching the agency?
- Carol – I established my own consulting agency called Carol Levine & Associates Inc. which I operated for nearly ten years before forming the partnership with Esther. My education is in Industrial Relations and I worked briefly in recruitment before joining a Montreal-based umbrella organization comprising health and social services agencies. I eventually became Assistant Director of Public Relations before going out on by own.
- Esther – My career began in advertising as an AE for Grey Advertising working on accounts like the Sheraton and Air France. While at Grey, I was drawn to their in-house PR genius who took me under her wing to teach me the PR ropes – I was hooked! I applied for an AE position at a Montreal based communications agency and got the job. The rest is history. I got to work on accounts like Burger King, OLCO Petroleum, Dorel – loved it.
What made you launch your own agency?
- Carol – If you are referring to Communications MECA (the forerunner of energi PR) it was more a question of why did I form the partnership. I had worked on my own, and discovered that as business partners Esther and I had complementary strengths that would be beneficial to growing the business from a local one, to a national organization. I believe that practitioners who start their own agency are entrepreneurial. They thrive not only in doing the work, but also at the business aspect which involves promoting not only the services you provide, but a level of accountability to the client. Owning an agency means the buck stops with you/us.
- Esther – I had worked for this agency for 3 and a half years and I felt confident enough (not to mention terrified) to go out on my own. Two months after I left the agency I received a call from Burger King asking me to throw my hat into the ring – they were having issues following my departure and wanted to work with me again. I won the work. By then I had been in discussions with Carol to share space – she was also an independent at that time. We got together soon after to form our agency and decided to go national. A lot of hard work, extensive networking, brought us to Avon, ADT, Ericsson, Hilton, Brother, Samsung, etc. and we were off to the races
Toughest client you had to win, and how did you win it?
- Carol – It’s hard to pick one, but I would say Pfizer. We pitched against five or six multinationals so we were definitely the underdog. I think we won it because of our ideas and how we brought them to life in the pitch, the strength of our team but despite all that, the client was obviously open to look beyond the usual suspects.
- Esther – Ford Canada was probably a bit difficult, but interesting from a process point of view. After submitting our creds and a proposal, and after flying to Toronto in a thunder and lightening storm where I thought I was going to die, and to finally meeting with them to present our team and our creative – at the end of the day their choice was based not only on strategic thinking, experience and the ability to execute the mandate, but on chemistry. That was high up on their list.
What are some of the biggest ways the public relations industry has changed in the last 5 years?
- Carol – I am not sure that I can pin it down to five years, but I believe that the scope of services has certainly expanded from media relations and reputation management to encompass a broader suite of offerings including digital, social and yes, paid content. This raises the question as to whether the more narrow definition of PR does us a disservice. We always made a point to differentiate PR from advertising, but today those silos are disappearing.
- Esther – The internet, social media, the speed of communication. As well as the downsizing and acquisition by multi nationals of the smaller firms; downsizing for example, has resulted in a growing number of independents who are working virtually and building their networks of associates to form high level, sophisticated teams of professionals- and with less overhead which allows them to be more competitive; as for the agencies who have been acquired in market, the multi nationals serve as feeders and automatically send them business/clients which makes it difficult for independent agencies to break into these brands.
The average business does not survive 5 years, how did you make it to 30?
- Carol – Resilience and hard word. We’ve always put the business first in terms of doing what we needed to do to deliver the best possible outputs delivered with exceptional client service. If that meant we paid ourselves last, or had to roll up our sleeves, we did what needed to be done. Some of those decisions were gut wrenching, but as the expression goes, if we were in it for the fun, we’d be selling ice cream.
- Esther – We actually have made it to 30 😊! Grit, reputation, a strong work ethic, a “nothing is impossible” attitude, a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and cherry picking our team who have the same values and strong ethic and thick skin!
Has 2020/ COVID-19 the biggest impact you have seen on the business landscape? If so, what is 2nd?
- Carol – Certainly COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on business, not only financially, but it has taken a tremendous human toll. The industry took another tremendous hit during the 2008 recessions. PR and other marketing activities are among the first things to be cut when money is tight. The wisdom that companies who invest in their reputation and promoting brands during a recession, come out ahead in the end may be logical, but reason doesn’t always prevail, particularly in unprecedented time of enormous business pressure.
- Esther – It has certainly had an impact especially in the consumer and lifestyle space. But we have had our share of challenges over the years – 911 had a tremendous impact on our travel and consumer lifestyle clients of course; SARS also impacted our business; recession, etc.
What advice do you have for brands to go the distance as you have and last 30 years?
- Carol – Decide what you value most and stick to it. It is easy to be opportunistic but we always tried to do the right thing. We may not have been 100% successful, but as Esther would say, if we couldn’t get through the door, we went through a window. Be bold, be brave and keep going. So after 30 years, what is next? It really is a major milestone in terms of an agency’s existence, longevity but it still feels like a young company with miles to go before we sleep.
Esther – Life as well as business has its peaks and valleys. It’s not for the faint of heart. You have to be prepared to weather the storms as they come; from a business perspective you have to stay lean and mean so that when times get tough you have a reserve; build a strong core team and network of associates; strong and longstanding relationships with your advisors, colleagues, vendors etc. all of whom will also support you during difficult times; never burning bridges – you never know when things or people will come full circle – we have had staff leave and come back, we have had clients do same, and we have had staff that have come back as clients – you never know! And of course, supporting your clients in tough times – that certainly serves to strengthen the relationship and build loyalty.
So after 30 years, what is next?
- Carol – It really is a major milestone in terms of an agency’s existence, longevity but it still feels like a young company with miles to go before we sleep.
- Esther – Ha! More of the same – I still have some kick in me! I’d like to do more teaching at the University level, mentor young PR enthusiasts, speaking engagements, industry involvement, travel!
- Stephanie – To keep building and growing on the amazing agency Carol and Esther have built with their own two hands, with a look ahead to celebrating the next 30. I’m thrilled to be a part of energi, and look forward to helping the agency continue to do great work and leave its mark.