Cunningham rediscovers how cool comms can be

Andy Cunningham, whose honesty and pragmatism enabled her to thrive during the dot-com boom, is finding PR fun again - and her new firm, CXO Communication, is benefiting from it

Andy Cunningham, whose honesty and pragmatism enabled her to thrive during the dot-com boom, is finding PR fun again - and her new firm, CXO Communication, is benefiting from it

Andy Cunningham, whose eponymous agency symbolized the highs and lows of Silicon Valley almost better than any other firm during the 1980s and 1990s, is still passionate about communications.

"My work is fun," says Cunningham, who now runs CXO Communication, a five-person consultancy that is more concerned with corporate reputation and positioning than the daily grind of media relations. "I'm relentless about the quality of work we do. Good communications is part of a company's positioning and identity. I don't focus on the media as much as on helping companies [find] the best path for their success."

Cunningham knows about success. She launched Cunningham Communications in 1985, and watched it blossom within 10 years into a $40 million business with 250 employees in six offices, working with the biggest and brightest tech names, like IBM and Xerox. That's certainly a world away from the life she first envisioned for herself.

Cunningham attended Northwestern University as a music major, with dreams of playing trumpet in a major symphony. But recognizing how scarce those jobs are - symphonies only need so many trumpet players - she tried writing. And although she wanted to be a novelist, and graduated with a BA in English, the realities of making a living led her into trade journalism, where she worked on magazines with sexy titles such as Fleet Maintenance and Specifying and Heavy Duty Equipment Management Maintenance.

Her journalism background led her to PR, and her first job at Burson-Marsteller, where she grew fascinated by the possibility of technology. She jumped at the chance to open Burson's Silicon Valley office. Once there, she met the likes of marketing guru Regis McKenna and Apple CEO Steve Jobs. The latter showed her that anything was possible.

"He not only sees the future, he creates the future and rides a path toward it," says Cunningham. "He's an incredible visionary who gets you excited."

Cunningham's firms succeeded due to her common sense and incredible honesty, says Mike Sinyard, founder and president of bicycle component company Specialized. Cunningham sits on the company's board.

"Her insight into reality is amazing," he adds. "I've had problems with the company in the past, and she would easily see to the heart of the matter. She taught us that you don't spin stories. You change yourself to what you want to be doing, and tell stories about that."

But Cunningham also learned that no matter how good you are, success can be fleeting. After doing such high-quality work for the biggest tech names, the bottom fell out. The firm just got too big to manage and quality began to suffer.

"You must be relentless about quality," she says. "We got to a point where we were not."

Starting to feel burned out, and also juggling two kids and nonprofit responsibilities, Cunningham sold to Incepta in 2000.

But she sold just before the bubble burst, and faced what she admits were probably the worst days of her career.

"I laid off 200 people over two years," says Cunningham. "That was the most painful thing I've had to do. It brought morale way down. We knew we might have to come down from how high we'd gone. But no one knew how far down."

Cunningham doesn't regret the decision to sell her agency, and says Incepta was wonderful, but wished they had extended more of a helping hand.

"They were very respectful of what I had built," says Cunningham, "[but] I was making all the decisions myself.

It would have been nice to have someone help me get ahead of the problem instead of being behind it."

Ultimately, Cunningham never got ahead of the problem, and left her firm in March 2003. She was unhappy, she admits, because her "baby had been annihilated" and because PR was treated like the social leper of the marketing mix. PR was cool during Cunningham's heyday. But with the dot-com bust, "people got out their garlic and crosses."

But Cunningham says she had a plan to redefine PR, to make it more integral to the way a company does business. CXO had always been a part of Cunningham's agency. But she spun it out so it had a chance to breathe on its own and not take a back seat to the daily machinations of media relations.

"The wonderful part is now we're being hired by CEOs and senior management," says Cunningham. "And that means we have their respect. And that's the difference with marketing communications. Marcomms wants to like you. The CEO wants to respect you."

"Andy is very forthright," adds Peggy Burke, president and principal of design firm 1185 Design, who has worked with Cunningham since the mid-1980s. "She is outspoken, but in a professional way. People look for [her kind of] honesty. They don't want things sugar-coated."

Cunningham also makes time for ZeroOne, a charity she founded which fosters collaborations between artists and technology. She's also involved with The Committee of 200, a professional organization of women entrepreneurs and corporate leaders.

But Cunningham leads a simpler life, both personally and professionally. She has only four employees. She and her family left the Bay Area and now have a home just outside Yosemite National Park, living on the edge of a local airport. The downstairs of her home is an airplane hanger that stores the plane her husband flies to bring Cunningham back to the Bay Area to meet clients.

But she doesn't want anyone to get the wrong impression.

"Everyone thinks I'm enormously wealthy," says Cunningham, 48. "I got a very good valuation for my company. But I didn't make my earn-out."

Cunningham says she is still relentless and passionate about good communications. Her work through the years, whether it was working on the NutraSweet account at Burson, working with McKenna, or helming her own shop, taught her that you can create and mold a market with good communications.

As Cunningham reflects on the highs and lows of her former agency, she is realistic about her role then and now.

"I blame myself for 90% of what went wrong," says Cunningham. "It was sad I didn't go out on top at Cunningham. I want to go out on top next time."

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Andy Cunningham

2003-present

CXO Communication, CEO and president

2000-2003

Citigate Cunningham, CEO and president

1985-2000

Cunningham Communication, CEO and president

1983-1985

Regis McKenna, group account manager

1981-1983

Burson-Marsteller, account executive

1979-1981

Irving Cloud Publishing Company, assistant editor

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