Profile: Lee Duffey: outspoken leader of PR herd - In 1999 Lee Duffey rode the roller coaster of success. His agency broke the dollars 5 million barrier, but he lost a heated race for the PRSA presidency And oh yes, he turned 40. On the cusp of a new era,

Fresh off the Serengeti, Lee Duffey is sporting a jaunty beard and a relaxed expression. Always friendly but usually running at hi-octane speed, today he is remarkably subdued and even content. The president and CEO of the Southeast’s largest independent PR agency is a man on the verge of two milestones: 15 years in business and 16 years in marriage to his college sweetheart.

Fresh off the Serengeti, Lee Duffey is sporting a jaunty beard and a relaxed expression. Always friendly but usually running at hi-octane speed, today he is remarkably subdued and even content. The president and CEO of the Southeast’s largest independent PR agency is a man on the verge of two milestones: 15 years in business and 16 years in marriage to his college sweetheart.

Fresh off the Serengeti, Lee Duffey is sporting a jaunty beard and

a relaxed expression. Always friendly but usually running at hi-octane

speed, today he is remarkably subdued and even content. The president

and CEO of the Southeast’s largest independent PR agency is a man on the

verge of two milestones: 15 years in business and 16 years in marriage

to his college sweetheart.



’You know,’ says the 40-year-old Duffey in a Georgia Bulldog drawl,

’when you’re out there on the African plain 10 yards from a pride of

lions, you just get it.’ The trip to Kenya was a birthday gift from his

wife, COO and agency partner Jenny Duffey. The couple made their

photo-safari during the annual migration of the wildebeests.



’They had to be a mistake,’ he quips, describing the animal as a.cross

between a cow, a warthog and a mule. ’They’re incredibly ugly ... and

dumb.



They’re so dumb that if the lead wildebeest gets scared to cross the

river, the whole herd will just stand there, stark still, for three days

until one accidentally gets bumped and jumps forward.’



He pauses, adding, ’Well, maybe they’re not that different from some of

the people in our industry.’





Smoke-filled rooms



Is he still smarting from the PRSA election loss?



’I don’t think so,’ says Jenny privately. ’It took the wind out of his

sails for a day or two, but not much more than that.’ Of course, nobody

would go on record about the tense closed-door sessions last

October.



Rumor has it that the PRSA election was rife with back-room deal-making,

cronyism and politicking that would make Mary Matlin and James Carville

proud. Apparently feathers got ruffled among Duffey’s supporters when

his name was left off the nomination slate and only a single candidate

was put forward. The by-laws were scoured, and a write-in campaign

ensued on his behalf.



According to Duffey, this was all done without his knowledge, and he

only found out he was a candidate when the official ballot was

presented.



Despite his write-in status, he was considered a favorite, having served

on the PRSA national board of directors for four years, two as a member

of the Executive Committee and one year each as secretary and

treasurer.



As treasurer, Duffey presided over a controversial dues increase (the

first since 1987) and a complete overhaul of the ethics program that

resulted in a dollars 43,000 deficit requiring PRSA to dip into its

limited financial reserves. He supported the Ethics Board’s petition to

the Executive Committee despite the toll it would take on the budget.

’We just don’t need to repair the old Dodge Dart, we need to just buy a

new car,’ says Duffey. ’The program hasn’t been changed in 25 years.

Tell me, do you do business the same way you did even 10 years ago?’



The topic of doing business differently comes up frequently in a

conversation with Duffey. He prides himself on always looking forward.

The only child of depression-era civil servants from middle Georgia,

Duffey never had any entrepreneurial role models and says he marvels at

the direction his life took.



’Ever since I was six, I knew I wanted to be a doctor,’ he says, adding

that at 16 he wanted to be a dermatologist after noticing the cool car

driven by his dermatologist.



So he enrolled as pre-med at Emory University in Atlanta, but it was not

what he expected. He found the department politics a grim contrast to

his self-described Mayberry upbringing. He transferred to the University

of Georgia in Athens and took some electives in journalism. It was the

late 1970s and everybody in J-school wanted to be the next Woodward and

Bernstein, but Duffey took another path. He decided to major in PR.



After graduating in 1980, he headed straight for New York. He

interviewed with everybody in town, eventually getting an offer from

Burson-Marsteller for dollars 13,000 a year. He took it, but soon

returned home. ’What I didn’t know was that you couldn’t even live at

the poverty level in Astoria on dollars 13,000 a year,’ he says.



He started Duffey Communications in 1984 after three years at ’a little

firm called Cohn & Wolfe,’ which had less than a dozen staffers when he

joined. By the time he left, C&W had mushroomed to more than 60 people,

and he had cut his eyeteeth on brands like Coca-Cola, Chic-Fil-A and

Salem cigarettes. ’When people ask me how I’ve done it, I tell them that

I know what I know and I know what I don’t know,’ he says. ’I look for

people who refuse to settle.’





Speaking the client’s language



At his agency, interviewees are put through a gauntlet of exercises such

as role-playing, situational analysis and the Myers-Briggs personality

test. ’I look for people who are impatient, entrepreneurial

self-starters.



Clients don’t pay for average work,’ he says. Along these lines, Duffey

trademarks every service he offers, a habit that has long been a source

of snickers among his peers. ’The simple answer is we are selling

intangibles to a marketplace that is used to buying tangible products,’

he explains.



’People refer our services to one another. Instead of saying, ’Go hire

XYZ company and get them to do a PR program for you,’ they say, ’Go hire

Duffey Communications and have them do an ignition for you.’ That’s

branding.’



Duffey says PR agencies need to rid themselves of industry jargon and

start talking the client’s language. He is impatient with ’whiners’ in

the industry who complain they are not at the boardroom table.



’Quite frankly, given the nature of the economy, if you can’t run with

your client, if you can’t outpace your client in being able to think for

them and work on their behalf, then they won’t stay with you,’ he

proclaims.



’Until we understand the nature of business, what makes companies run

and become so conversant in that dialogue that we can apply our craft,

then we don’t belong at the management table.’



When that happens, Duffey says an agency will transform from being a

publicist to a PR and communications expert. And if the PR profession

refuses to cross that river, count on Duffey to be there to nudge them

across.



LEE DUFFEY

FOUNDER, PRESIDENT

DUFFEY COMMUNICATIONS

1980

Account executive, Burson-Marsteller (New York)

1981

Editor of corporate affairs, Life of Georgia Insurance

1982

Account Supervisor, Cohn & Wolfe (Atlanta)

1984

Launches Duffey Communications



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