The Road Taken

June 27, 2022
Diana Conconi

I started my career in the Washington, DC office of a global PR and Public Affairs agency in 1984. Armed with dual resume-topping degrees in English and Philosophy and a couple of PR internships (Capitol Hill and the Cattleman’s Association), to fill out my otherwise blank CV, I was a high-on-promise Assistant Account Executive. It took exactly one week to be captivated by the sophisticated buzz of agency life.

A few decades, and many wardrobe changes later, I could never imagine I would be at this moment – ready to trade in my well-worn PR power heels for walking shoes.

By way of accounting for my actions (albeit the ones that I’ll admit to), I want to reference an inspiring poem, penned by Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune, in June of 1997. It contains Mary’s words of advice to graduating seniors that year. (If you’ve never heard Baz Luhrmann’s version of her work, you must):

It starts like this:

“Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.”

Everything about that paragraph is perfect and true. But it’s her reference to: “My own meandering experience” that captures my heart and encapsulates my own trajectory.

Agency life in DC in the 80s was a mix of aging Mad Men, political junkies and grizzled, former journalists who’d paid their dues and earned a quiet office posting.

Client proposals were judged by the amount of paper in the final deck. The heavier, the more impressive…and the more expensive.

My fellow AAEs and I would scurry to the windows overlooking M Street to watch the head of the media relations department walk across the street every day at noon for a two-martini lunch at a strip club. Office culture wasn’t a thing then, so these became the bonding moments for the new recruits.

And like Len’s daily lunch break, it seemed everything in the 80’s was a little scandalous. As Public Affairs experts, our counsel and compensation matched the times. The Tylenol tampering crisis was barely two years old and my agency had handled the case. We were increasingly called upon to shape new narratives.

Our clients were associations and companies tackling formaldehyde and asbestos, among other toxic but well-funded issues. And of course, big tobacco.

These clients paid A LOT of money for those weighty proposals to try to protect themselves and their constituents and block the legislation they knew was imminent.

As I was growing in my career, DC was also growing and changing. The glamour of Hollywood, brought by the Reagan presidency, welcomed finer restaurants, glitzier parties and lavish lifestyles. My father was writing a daily Style section column for the Washington Post that was recording and reporting on these societal shifts.

My proximity to this new DC enticed me to put my PA/corporate experience on hold and hang a shiny new shingle, promoting an entrepreneurial, lifestyle-themed PR and media relations business. My rationale for this big move? No one else was doing it and it sounded like fun – why not?

For the next 11 years, I opened restaurants and nightclubs, promoted theatre productions and movie premieres and, as the spotlight shone on DC, touted bourgeoning tourism efforts. Then, at the end of 1991, I got asked to be the Deputy Director of Marketing for the first Clinton Inaugural.

My team and I oversaw the commemorative merchandise and retail distribution that would help fund the formal festivities. It was during this time I learned the most about politics – how to play it and more importantly, how to BE political.

My next lane change came by way of a promising personal relationship, resulting in a new home and career in Toronto. With events and promotions appearing higher up on my resume now, I was solidly cast as a “MarComm” (marketing communications) practitioner. I was now a busy PR person embedded in a mid-sized ad agency in Yorkville. I was the VP, PR. Four short letters that encompassed a tall learning curve.

Rationally, PR and advertising feel similar. Our end goals are aligned – promote the brand and “sell” more stuff. This makes for an interesting and sometimes uneasy alliance. It also teaches perspective. Ad people just think differently from us (take my word for it – I’m married to an ad guy). But that’s exactly why the clients need us too.

Learning how to insert a PR perspective into the tug of war between Account Execs (“The Suits”), Creatives and Media buyers became incredibly valuable when I next found myself at another big global PR agency, sitting across the client boardroom table from our advertising partners.

Holding my own (and my tongue) when the ad people would proudly present something as “PR-able” was a full-time job. But once you can demonstrate the value of credibility and thought leadership, the clients and even the begrudging suits were willing to share some of the marketing budget.

In writing this, I am reminded how much I especially enjoyed the people I met through that global agency. Because of the commitment (in time and energy) that agencies require, it should come as no surprise that they also inspire close-knit relationships that complete a career and often last a lifetime. Some of my best friends are former clients and colleagues. You know who you are.

After leaving that agency for a national one, and following a brief flashback to self-employment, I found myself at Anne Lachance’s kitchen table working on the first client of the fledgling Kaiser Lachance agency. I met David Kaiser shortly thereafter and immediately clicked with his vision. The three of us shared the same global agency experience…but with a desire to do it better. And definitely – to have more fun.

At the time, I couldn’t imagine being here for the next 92,043 (more or less) billable hours. In looking back, KLC/K&P was exactly right, at the right time. A smart, talented and ambitious team with interesting clients and a focus on growing people, not just profits. And they just keep getting better!

Today, the PR agency world is indisputably different than the Washington of my early career. The walls dividing PR and advertising have largely crumbled and we are much more likely to propose blended, multi-channel solutions to clients over just media relations.

Nevertheless, my first bit of advice to you is to never stop championing PR first. Coming out of these last couple of years, the intrinsic value of a brand has never meant more. Keep up the good fight.

What other wisdoms did I pick up along the way? Kind of you to ask. Here are a couple:

  • You will win business. And you WILL lose clients. But never lose your trust in yourself. Trust is confidence.
  • And, if you ever start to falter, trust Janine – she’s always got your back!
  • Ask How, not If. There is always a solution. The team is there to help find it. You are never alone.
  • The American in me is especially proud of this line in the anthem: “… the Home of the Brave.” Whether you “smile and dial” reporters regularly or are the front lines with mercurial clients – it takes real courage to do what you do every day. Be proud of yourself for showing up!
  • Trying new things at the risk of failing is the definition of creativity. Don’t be the definition of what not trying looks like.
  • People matter. People who help other people matter most.
  • The challenging journeys make for better stories. Agency PR is hard and the road will twist and turn. You’ll be tempted to keep your head down and just focus on the work, but even when times are toughest, don’t forget to look up occasionally – you’ll need to see what’s coming and that’s really where the best views are anyway.
  • And, of course, while you’re basking in the sunshine of an incredible career, remember to protect yourself as well as you protect your clients.  So, believe the science, and … wear sunscreen!

With that said,

To all the clients, partners, colleagues, and vendors I’ve had the good fortune to know and work with along the way – thank you. You made it challenging, fun and worthwhile. It’s been an amazing ride.

Have a question? Interested in finding out more?