The Agency Business: Sloane discusses challenges, high points of starting own firm

When Elliott Sloane left a high-ranking job at Edelman to start his own firm in 1998, he voluntarily moved from a stable position into the great unknown. But after six straight years of growth, he finds himself on solid ground once again. Sloane spoke to

When Elliott Sloane left a high-ranking job at Edelman to start his own firm in 1998, he voluntarily moved from a stable position into the great unknown. But after six straight years of growth, he finds himself on solid ground once again. Sloane spoke to

PRWeek: What was the impetus for founding your own agency, and what challenges did you foresee?

Sloane: I had not planned my whole life to be the founder of a PR firm. I had spent about 15 years working at some of the largest PR firms in the world...I had a great career. But the thought was, "Could we not do things a little bit differently?" Clients hire individuals or teams at PR firms, they don't necessarily hire firms. The fallacy out there is that you put a lot of dots on a map-you talk to a client and say "Look, we've got dots on a map. Hire us." When in fact what the client wants to know [is] are the three or four people who are gonna work on their business the best in the world at serving their needs? So the idea was, what if we created a small agency, a mid-sized firm, and recruited the best talent that we could find to work on our clients? We would be successful. And that's what we've done. The question you always ask yourself when you start something is "Am I good enough to do this? Do I need air cover from wonderful people like Richard Edelman? Can I stand up on my own?" We never had any financial challenges. I've never worried about making a payroll.

PRWeek: What has been your growth rate over the years?

Sloane: Our first full year [1999], we did a million three. In 2000 we went to $4.5 million. That was a really good year. In 2001, we did $5.2 [million]. In 2002, we did $5.8 [million]. In 2003, we did $6.4 [million]. And last year, we just reported we did $7.3 [million]. The interesting thing is we did $7.3 million with 20 full-time account people. So there are a lot of firms that are not as efficient or as profitable as we are. As an entrepreneur, you always want a balance. Growth for growth's sake is not important. I don't believe that all growth is the same. So we are looking at business that is both profitable and strategic to us.

PRWeek: How do you balance growth with client service in a smaller agency?

Sloane: We never take on something that we can't exceed the expectations of the client. Never. We don't do a lot of marketing-I don't have a new business department that's out there sending brochures and e-mails out to prospects. We win business through referrals. A lot of the referrals are our current clients, or former clients. So every time we do a good job for our client, we're actually doing new business. We are not going to take on new business where we can't meet or exceed substantially the expectations of the client. We say no to a lot of incoming. The third thing is, if you hire great people, and you motivate them, and you train them...you can get a lot of productivity out of people.

PRWeek: How do you recruit talent, and how does your ability to do that tie into your growth?

Sloane: You put your people first and the clients will follow. We have this notion of hiring the best available athlete. We go out there, and if we find someone that we think is just great, that has the attributes that we believe are critical for the kind of work that we do in our culture, we'll hire that person with business in mind. If I hire a great team, we will win great clients. We don't do it the other way around, so we're careful not to hire too far ahead of business. We interview people five times, at a minimum, before we hire them. We put them through the paces. We let them see us in all our glory, and all our warts, and we do the same with them.

PRWeek: How is the competition for talent?

Sloane: It's been up and down. As the industry contracted in the last two years, we saw a lot of people who are either being let go, or leaving their jobs, or unhappy because there was no advancement in their careers. We still see a lot of people who are looking for a different kind of environment. Someone who's looking for an environment where you get a chance to rock and roll every day, we're an appealing environment for them. Somebody wants to be with 50 other 25-year-olds so they can go out and socialize, we don't really care about those people. We'll put an ad up occasionally looking for good people, but most of our hires come via word of mouth.

PRWeek: What clientele area do you see as having the best growth potential?

Sloane: We're a corporate and financial PR firm, so we want to focus on investor relations, corporate and financial media relations, crisis communications, [and] some B-to-B work. So we're not going to do consumer, we're not going to do hot air balloons, we're not going to lobby Congress, we're not going to march on Washington, we're not going to launch new pantyhose. We're not going to launch a new consumer healthcare product. So for better or worse, the businesses that we've focused on, I believe, are the higher margin businesses. It's the businesses where the client is either the CEO, the CFO, CMO, COO. We are focused on C-level executive client interaction.

PRWeek: Who do you see as your competition?

Sloane: On different businesses, we will compete with a whole host of firms. We love going up against the big, slow, dumb supertankers. The first ten minutes of any new business presentation with a big PR agency... is the maps, the number of people, the regions they serve, all that stuff. I don't think clients really care. I think clients say, "We've got an issue, we've got a problem, we've got an opportunity. Tell us who you are and how you think." There are some assignments that aren't right for us. But we compete against some of the financial boutiques, as well as the financial and corporate teams within some of the large agencies.

PRWeek: How would you sum up your appeal to clients?

Sloane: We think being entrepreneurs is positive. A lot of firms talk about an entrepreneurial environment, but unless you actually pay people for performance, unless you share the profits with them, unless you give them a chance to actually be equity owners, it's not an entrepreneurial environment. The owner's the entrepreneur, but it's not entrepreneurial. So we think that's important because we think it motivates everyone. One of our key learnings is: Let's create one profit center. What we say in new business meetings is that we just do a couple things really well. And I think clients like that. We're not constantly trying to sell in another piece of business. We're saying, "Pay us a fair wage and we'll get X done for you." I think that we're passionate. I think that that comes across in everything that we do. We really are focused on building the business, caring about our clients-clients never have to worry about "Are these guys at Sloane earning their money?" We're completely engaged.

PRWeek: What advice would you offer to other people who are in your position when you first founded your own agency?

Sloane: Be focused. Don't be everything to everybody. I went out and I interviewed every CEO of a major PR firm that I could find, and I said, "Tell me the ten things you did well, and the ten things you didn't do well." And most of the advice was "Don't give up control of your firm too early. Focus on the clients. And hire great people."

PRWeek: Do you have a target growth rate, or do you just want to grow organically?

Sloane: I think we're gonna grow organically. We're not for sale, and we're not going to buy anyone. And I think as long as I'm focused on maintaining margins and doing great work, if we do that we'll grow our business.

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