When Sean Cassidy walked out of Tufts University in 1990, he graduated with a major in Cold War foreign policy — just as the Soviet Union was about to dissolve. He hadn’t aspired to a career in public relations, but it turned out he was a good writer and he caught the eye of a small agency owner.
Three decades later, Sean leads DKC, a prominent independent PR agency headquartered in New York. They recently rolled out a new tagline: “maximizing return on news.” In this episode, he explains why he believes PR agencies should be news-driven organizations and what skills that requires.
He and Chip also explore the role of analytics, the benefits of spending time working in politics, and more.
- Sean: “I’ve been at DKC for 27 years. And these days, it seems like 27 minutes is a long time for somebody to stay at one place, so 27 years is quite something.”
- Sean: “We believe in the value of news. We think that storytelling is all driven by news. News creates an acuteness. It creates a need for discussion or an impetus for discussion.”
- Sean: “As a PR executive, you’re 50% marketer, and 50% editor.”
- Sean: “I personally do not have a political background, but a few of the executives who have been with us for a long time do. And I find the political world is an extraordinary training ground for great public relations executives because in politics, you have to be able to think quickly, you have to be nimble. You have to be strategic, and every second counts.”
About Sean Cassidy
Sean F. Cassidy is President of DKC, one of the leading independently-owned public relations agencies in North America. Sean’s extensive experience includes media, corporate, music, major transportation, health and legal public relations as well as crisis management. Named a Partner in 1996, Sean built DKC’s health care practice into one of the largest and most reputable providers of public relations services to hospitals and health-related not-for-profit organizations.
CHIP: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Agency Leadership Conversations, the Chats With Chip Podcast. I am your host, Chip Griffin. And my guest today is Sean Cassidy. Sean is the president of DKC, where he has been a partner since 1996 and president since 2004. Welcome to the show, Sean.
SEAN: It’s my pleasure. Thank you very much. I’m a big fan.
CHIP: Well, thank you very much. It is great to have you on the show and talking about a variety of different topics related to agency leadership. But before we jump into that, why don’t you share a little bit about yourself and DKC?
SEAN: Sure. Well, I’ve been at DKC for 27 years. And these days, it seems like 27 minutes is a long time for somebody to stay at one place, so 27 years is quite something. No, it’s funny. I fell into the public relations business. This was not a field that I spent years aspiring to be in, which is kind of funny. So when I interview people here, and they come through and they said, “I majored in public relations. I’ve wanted to do it since ninth grade,” I’m like, “Oh, man.” They’re not telling me the truth, or I don’t know, they need to expand their horizons.
SEAN: But the way it played out is I went to Tufts University. I graduated in 1990. And I graduated into a relatively slow economy. And I was one of many millions of kids that graduates from college, doesn’t have a job. And it came down to I had a skillset that was attractive to a public relations agency. I had majored in cold war foreign policy, so I spent at least two of the four years of college writing theses on the benefits of the cold war and some of the upsides and downsides of it from a foreign policy standpoint as it relates to the United States. And this woman who had a small agency thought that was kind of intriguing, and felt I could write pretty well, and I got a job on the spot.
SEAN: And it was funny because the agency that she was running at the time was very similar to where I see agencies going now. And it was this sort of diversified practice that was media relations was a component of it. Strategic counsel was a component of it. But she did a lot of what we now called owned content and owned media, a lot of advertising, and back in those days was newsletters. And I enjoyed it, but I didn’t feel the agency itself was big enough or plugged in enough. So it just so happened that I was introduced to a gentleman by the name of Dan Klores, who had started an agency six months earlier. And he had a reputation as being one of those larger than life, creative, PR types, and especially in New York. I should say that’s where I grew up, and ultimately that’s where I came back after college, so that’s where I was working at the time.
SEAN: And I said, “All right. I’ll have a conversation with this guy.” I ended up being hired. And what’s interesting about it was I said to myself, “All right. This is a very news oriented media relations type operation. I will give a go at this for a couple years, and if it’s not for me, I’ll end up, I’ll go somewhere else. I’ll become a lawyer, or I’ll find some other career.” No, 27 years later, I guess it worked out.
CHIP: Absolutely. And obviously in that time, DKC has grown tremendously. And how many offices do you have now?
SEAN: We have offices, our headquarters is in New York. We have substantial practices now in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington DC, and Miami. We have an affiliate lobbying practice as well in New York State, in Upstate New York, in Albany.
CHIP: Got you, so you’ve certainly come a long way in those 27 years. And obviously, you’ve seen a lot change. One of the things that I noticed was that recently you have come up with a, I don’t know whether it’s a new positioning, but at least a new slogan for the firm, maximizing return on news, and particularly with all of the focus today on analytics and measuring outcomes and that sort of thing. I think that’s a particularly relevant positioning. So I’d be curious how you came to that and how you see that.
SEAN: Sure. Well, interesting, it leans a little bit into how I opened the conversation, which is that when I started in this business, I started working for Dan Klores Associates, which later became DKC, the relationship between advertising and PR was a very sort of step-childish one. All the budgets went to advertising. And the PR side seemed to be largely split across two different lines, either very strategic approaches, where media relations was a component of it, and therefore the news side of the business was one offering, and that’s very similar to that firm that I started at, to other organizations, which were very, very steeped in news.
SEAN: And so when I first started working here, what was very apparent to me is that the philosophy of the company was that we were really sort of adjunct to the newsroom. And I think that’s really important because what has happened over time, and I want to speak a little bit about the gentleman who was on your show a little while earlier, the outcomes relations guy, I thought that was a very interesting interview. And I thought most of what he said was right, is that we’re a business that grew up in, and our company evolved as a, like I said, an adjunct of a news organization. We believe in the value of news. We think that storytelling is all driven by news. News creates an acuteness. It creates a need for discussion or an impetus for discussion.
SEAN: And so my philosophy always has been, as a PR executive, you’re 50% marketer, and 50% editor. You have to have a very, very, very deep understanding of your client’s business and what their business objectives are. And then you have to understand how to frame that in a way that will make people care and enable them to achieve those business objectives. That latter part is the news part. What’s happened over time is that clients have become much more sophisticated as it relates to measuring return on investment. And so what we wanted to do in our positioning, really what we landed on was we wanted to make sure that the market understood that we believe in the value of news. But at the time, we understand that the value of that news, in our opinion, can be very easily translated at the client’s bottom line. And so that return on news is really about a blend of our philosophy of being a news driven organization, but doing it in a smart, measurable way that fits with the demands of today’s client.
CHIP: I think the point that you make at the editorial role, being an editor is so important. And it’s something that I think technology has caused people to overlook. When I got started around the same time that you did in the RP industry, in order to get stories out, you had to build relationships with reporters. It was mostly phone work, some faxes, although I remember some of the huge fax bills I would run up at times, and get hammered for it. Now you just blast out emails. You can throw up seemingly unlimited social media and blog posts and those sorts of things. And so that’s caused people to, I think, shift away from having some editorial judgment, and instead just try to put out as much quantity as possible.
SEAN: I completely agree with that. I completely agree. And from a measurement standpoint, Chip, the PR industry didn’t help itself. These ridiculous impressions numbers and inaccurate CAV data and measurement, what have you, what it did is it created an environment, I think, where in the last 10 years, marketers were questioning PR. They were like, “What’s the real value of this to our bottom line?” And what’s interesting is the more layered the organization, the client is corporately, the harder it is sometimes to demonstrate that value if you’re using sort of traditional metrics. Today, fortunately, there are ways to demonstrate value that can be very precise. But I think the PR industry didn’t help itself for a while.
SEAN: And to your point, I completely agree with you, is that what’s happened is we used to see this early on in the business, is that the PR industry many years ago, there was this belief that you had spend money to get coverage. Every time I used to pass through Times Square on the way to the office every day. And every day, there was the world’s largest something being made in Times Square. And I used to think that evolved into, well, we’ll just use a celebrity with everything. And those are the, that’s kind of the crack of publicity. It’s the crack of public relations. It’s that you get used to creating these impression numbers, which don’t really create the kind of conversation you want. They don’t really, in my opinion, ultimately help the bottom line of the client.
SEAN: So the important thing of editorial judgment is, is that, to your point, you used to have relationships. But not just that. I mean, you can [inaudible 00:10:15] greatest relationships in the world if what you’re pitching doesn’t make sense, or it doesn’t help the client, or it doesn’t appeal to what it is that that editor or reporter on the other side of the line is interested in, it’s not going to work. So editorial judgment then, sort of blending the client’s business objectives with what constitutes news, something newsworthy, that’s the trick. And what’s happened is, you’re absolutely right, is that there’s this perception now that if you just sort of put out tonnage, it helps. And it doesn’t. It really doesn’t.
SEAN: But here’s I think the most important point as it relates to what you just said in terms of having editorial judgment. It got to a point early on in my career, and I want to focus a lot of this on the present because there’s a lot of new things in the PR business right now that are exciting and that we’re doing. But just going back, say, 20 years ago. It got to the point where I had such great relationships with reporters, I had a very good sort of editorial sense, that I could call somebody, call a reporter up who I knew, and say, “Hey. Here I’m working on something.” And he or she would say, “Okay. That’s great. Here’s what I’m working on.” And together between the two of us, we would make it work. If you’re creating your own content, you’re dealing directly with your target customer, be it a B to B audience, or a consumer audience. You don’t have that friend in the newsroom anymore, who’s helping you sort of sift out that story. You have to do it.
SEAN: So the need for editorial judgment now in today’s market, in my opinion, it’s even more important because the PR firms themselves are the ones that are, in many cases, creating an overwhelming amount of the content. So it’s extremely important. And I think, let’s look at Popeye’s, for example. Here’s a great example of what I call the feedback loop, of somebody in the digital universe came, I think it was GSDNM down in Austin, came up with an interesting, sort of controversial little tactic. They were smart enough, I would assume, to know that the beat reporters who cover chicken sandwiches, who cover the various chains that are in the chicken sandwich business, would see this, and it would turn into something.
SEAN: And so you got what I said that [inaudible 00:12:50] before, that feedback loop is you’ve got this, started in social, moved over the earned. That fueled social, which created more earned. And it sort of stacks on top of, everything stacks on top of one another. And it creates this massive campaign. And so that’s why somebody who thought about news in the digital realm created a massive story across multiple platforms. And that’s the magic of the PR business, but that’s why editorial judgment’s so important.
CHIP: Yeah. And really, in the agency world, we essentially serve as matchmakers between our clients and whoever the target audience is, whether that’s the media, or the direct to consumer, or direct to buyers. And so that matchmaking function helps figure out what’s going to be beneficial to both parties.
SEAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think if I could say, I’ll tell you a little observation from the field. So I’m the president of this organization, and it’s a good sized business. We’re blessed with growth where we’ve invested a lot in a lot of different areas of the business, including the creative studio, a substantial digital footprint. We have a truly amazing analytics practice. We’re doing an extraordinary amount of paid media placement now. And what’s interesting is I believe, and we’ve set up our business this way, that individuals who’ve been practicing the craft for a long time, such as myself, should be involved in a fair amount of the day to day activity of the business in terms of client service because if you’ve been doing it for 27 years, you bring a lot of knowledge to the table.
SEAN: And so what I’ve seen having my hands in it quite a bit is that right now clients are looking for the following. They really value third party validation, particularly what you’re seeing now is an overwhelming number of the clients that we’re representing now are private equity backed. It just seems like the private equity money and venture money is behind most of the businesses that we are signing today. And I think that’s probably common among our entire industry. There’s been a huge growth, particularly in the Bay Area, but all over. And investors are very hands on right now. And investors value third party validation. They value what the New York Times has to say about their portfolio companies. They value what Forbes and Business Week and Bloomberg have to say about their portfolio companies.
SEAN: So it’s extremely important. Customer acquisition cost is very important to private equity investors. One of the major reasons they will not invest in a company is that the customer acquisition costs are too high. It’s very important if you’re a public relations firm that you can demonstrate that you can help them maintain a low customer acquisition cost. And again, the combination of earned and paid, and the ability to measure that can be very, very valuable. So it’s a huge, hugely important. And clear measurement and engagement metrics, again, I will reference the outcome relations podcast again. That’s absolutely critical. You are dealing with very sophisticated investors. You’re dealing with very sophisticated CMOs right now, who want to be able to demonstrate that every dollar they spend on a partner such as us is ultimately driving towards the bottom line. And there’s technology that exists right now, and approaches that exist right now that enable you demonstrate that much more clearly than you could years ago.
CHIP: And I think it’s a shift that PR agencies in particular are having to make because they’re having to learn some new terminology and new things that they, 20 years ago, I don’t think most PR agencies would’ve been talking to you about customer acquisitions costs. It was something that was not as visible to them and what they did, but now as the lines between PR and marketing blur, as some of this data becomes much more accessible, I think it is something that PR agencies need to become much more aware of and figure out how to integrate with the work that they’re doing for clients.
SEAN: Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. And it just goes back to what you were saying earlier, Chip. It’s extremely important that as a public relations executive, that you really understand your client’s business. And now it just requires deeper knowledge, understanding who their target customer is, what their target CAT, customer acquisition cost is, and really kind of digging into how your client wants to grow the business. That’s essential. And then that’s again the hand off goes to the editorial side, where you figure what kind of narrative are you going to create that people are going to care about.
CHIP: So you mentioned that you’ve developed an analytics practice, in part to address some of these issues and to be able to show value and show that validation to clients. Tell me a little bit about the analytics practice and how you’re using it to show that value. What are the things that you’re looking at? We’ve obviously talked about customer acquisition costs. But what are some of the things that you’re doing as an agency in order to make that kind of information accessible to your clients?
SEAN: Sure. One thing in the way of a little background, our analytics group here comes heavily out of politics. And now I personally do not have a political background, but a few of the executives who have been with us for a long time do. And I find the political world is an extraordinary training ground for great public relations executives because in politics, you have to be able to think quickly, you have to be nimble. You have to be strategic, and every second counts. So it’s constant. So return on investment is really at the core of what you’re doing because in the political world, it’s win or lose.
CHIP: And I got my start in politics as well, so I agree it’s a great training ground. But I think that the other factor there is election day doesn’t move. And so very much used to dealing with deadlines that the rest of the world is comfortable with moving.
SEAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. So the pretext to that is that our analytics group in particular has had a fair amount of experience in that world. And I’ve found that what was interesting is the political world in particular, or the analytics skillset that came out of the political world, I’ve found was almost more advanced than what we … Well, actually, we thought it was more advanced than anything we’d seen in, say, analytics from inside of advertising, what have you. And again, I think that has to do with having to move quickly. But also, I brought on a team here that really knows electronically how to go door to door. So it’s really insights we’ve gotten from the standpoint of customer sentiment and message testing is just extraordinary.
SEAN: So to really drill down and answer your question, is that one, we’re able to go into meetings now when we meet with a client with an extraordinary amount of knowledge about that client’s business, about sentiment analysis, about what we believe the target customer is, and frankly, when they tell us what the target customer is, we can give them some insights into what that target thinks about them. It’s just very, very rich in terms of helping us understand our client’s business, sometimes in ways that they don’t.
SEAN: What we then do is we look wherever possible to attach an analytics scope of work to the entire digital and earned media program. Here’s why. We have found that if we’re looking to drive customer engagement, we have found that third party validation, as I said earlier, it still matters quite a bit. If you’re dealing with a fitness brand or what have you, what Bustle says about it matters. People read that, and they like the validation. Or what the New York Times says matters. What we have found using paid spends is we can amplify that message extremely effectively. But also, we can target that third party, the third party messaging, to customers that may not have seen it.
SEAN: And I’ll give you a great example. This is not something we did, but I guess I’ll give you two examples. There is a brand called American Giant. And they must’ve figured that based on whatever I’d clicked on, that I was somebody that they might want to sell a sweatshirt too. They’re a clothing manufacturer based in the Bay Area. And I periodically get on my Facebook or my Instagram feed, I’d get little messages from them. I would [inaudible 00:22:29]. Then one day, I guess there was a review of their hoodie. It was either Slate that did it, or Business Insider, or one did it and the other re-posted it. But they ended up repurposing that story and putting it into my feed. And it was a third party outlet that said, “This is the greatest hoodie ever made.”And I’m like, “Okay. I’m going to click on that.” And I bought it.
SEAN: Same thing, I got to a certain age in my life. There was a company called Elysium Health. Elysium Health, they make these supplements that supposedly, as you age, it makes you age better. I’m not that old. But either way, I’m at the point in my life where I’ve got to start thinking about stuff like that. So again, it was in the feed, I ignore it. But then all of a sudden, there was an article in the New Yorker, and then one in Time Magazine on these guys. And I went, and I bought it. So there’s this where we like to use analytics is we like … And we have quite a few analytics only assignments, where we’re just doing paid marketing, either advancing the client’s digital content, or ideally, creating it ourselves.
SEAN: But wherever possible, we just like to bring them in so they’re involved in absolutely everything because it helps us if it’s earned media. It helps us understand our target audience better. If it’s digital media, we can push that media out to our target audience. And then getting back to earned, if we can amplify it by pushing that through social feeds along the lines of what we just discussed, I mean, it can be extraordinarily, extraordinarily effective. So at a minimum, it makes us much smarter. But when fully deployed, it can be a true game changer in terms of consumer engagement.
CHIP: One of the things that you had mentioned a couple minutes ago was that you think it’s important for agency owners, agency leaders, to make sure that they remain involved in client service, in part because of their expertise. But I suppose also so that they still have a handle on what clients are looking for and that sort of thing. How do you balance spending time on client service and still building the business? Because that’s, I know a lot of listeners struggle with that, so I’m curious how you address that and how you strike that balance.
SEAN: It’s an extraordinary challenge. And I believe that great work begets great work. So I figure if I spend at least half of my time focused on the operational side of the business, which is client service and working with my staff to ensure great client service wherever possible, because there’s some situations where, frankly, I’m not the expert. I mean, I have people who work for me who know certain areas of the business at this point better than I do, but areas where I feel I can provide true value. I think it enhances the outcome. And in so doing, it increases the word of mouth for the agency, satisfied … The greatest advocates are satisfied customers.
SEAN: So that’s important. But at the same time, we’ve had to reposition our business fairly aggressively. We rolled out maximize return on news branding as a real testament to who we are as a firm from the standpoint of our philosophy regarding news and the importance of news in the strategic continuum of communications. But I had to expand our national footprint because I found at a midsize agency, it was very important the market understand that we have the resources and the scale to handle national assignments, which is critical. We grew out a separately branded, but wholly affiliated, creative studio, which does digital content, experiential marketing, product development. It’s a really interesting, very cool space that seven years ago didn’t exist.
SEAN: And so I had to spend a fair amount of time focused on that. So it’s sort of the back and forth was challenging, but I think ultimately, if I … And I would say this to any agency leader. If you’re just out there purely as a new business presence, I don’t think you’re effectively leading your organization. And I’ll tell you to be very specific about that, when I was named president in 2004, it was the first time our agency was really beginning to compete very aggressively against the larger holding company owned agencies. And that was important to me. It was important to me that we had a great reputation in New York and LA. And we had great, great clients. And I would argue that we had a tremendous amount of influence in the market. But I wanted to expand into the airline business. I wanted to expand more heavily into global technology companies and CPG companies.
SEAN: And in order to do that, there’s certain things the agency had to have. And what was interesting when I became the president, I would go to these meetings, and overwhelmingly, I would go into the room and the person on the other side of the table would say, “Hey, Sean. It’s great. You’re the president of the agency. The last president was here, and we never saw that guy again. So if you’re just here to sell us something, just be quiet, we’ll talk to your staff.” And I became very insecure about it. I was like, “Okay. I’ll just not tell them I’m the president. I’ll just be the guy who’s been around.”
SEAN: And it was funny, and it was just a big pet peeve of mine that, that not be the perception. And truth be told, and in fairness to the client side, and in fairness to any agency president, it’s a tough balance. But I make a point of staying connected to the media. I make a point of staying up on trends. I sit in on group meetings here to make sure I have a feel for what we’re doing on a daily basis. And I try to be as helpful as I can within the context of running a large organization.
CHIP: Well, speaking of balance, one of the balancing acts I have as the host of this show is when to stop indulging my curiosity and remain within the time limits that we have. So I’m going to unfortunately have to bring this episode to a close here shortly. But before we do, how can people learn more about DKC? How can they connect with you online?
SEAN: Sure. Well, we have a great new rebranded website at www.dkcnews.com. And take a look there. We put our case studies up there. It’s the window of the agency, sort of our new refreshed branding. That’s probably the best way to do it. And then they should tune into podcasts like this.
CHIP: Absolutely. That is great. And I will include those links in the show notes. And listeners, I’ll also include a link to the episode that Sean referred to about outcome relations with Matt Rizzetta of N6A, so that if you happened to miss that episode, you all can click and go back and listen to that one as well.
SEAN: Terrific. Yeah. And I thought that was great, and I think you’ve done a great job with the podcast.
CHIP: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate it. I know that you’ve shared a lot of things that listeners will really be able to start using in their own businesses, so I appreciate the time you’ve taken today. Again, my guest today has been Sean Cassidy, president of DKC.