Technology's live wires

They've seen, and driven, tremendous change. Andrew Gordon profiles 14 of the tech industry's key players

They've seen, and driven, tremendous change. Andrew Gordon profiles 14 of the tech industry's key players

It's not that the past several tumultuous years in the tech industry didn't have their share of watershed moments. But those years in and of themselves were a watershed moment, a period unlike anything the tech industry has ever seen. Many tech companies and firms died quick deaths. Others overstayed their welcome and eventually faded away. Some are shadows of their former selves. But PRWeek found 14 people who didn't just survive, but also learned that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

Barbara Bates

Principal, Eastwick Communications

Bates is all too familiar with the rise and fall of the dot-com era. Her 13-year-old firm grew 57% in 1999 - and then 3% in 2000. In 2001, the last year in which the agency published its numbers, it recorded an 18% drop. Bates admits that the agency was hit hard by the downturn - budgets and billings shrank, the new-business pipeline dried up, and the client roster lacked the big tech brands Eastwick once worked with.

"Our strategy was to hunker down and focus on current clients, and not chase a lot of new business," says Bates. "We knew we had to be ready for and be smart about the new economy, which started later than everyone thought."

What became obvious quickly was the importance of being steeped in senior staff. As larger agencies have become more competitive and often go head-to-head with smaller agencies, senior counsel is the key differentiator. But Bates says having a deep senior bench has always been the agency's mission.

"What has changed is how people get their information," explains Bates, referring to blogs and wikis. "We're big believers in the changes taking place in media. And that has required us to change how we communicate."

Those changes include how the firm talks about itself. As Eastwick finds itself competing with agencies of all sizes, it wants to do a better job positioning itself. The agency has worked with the likes of Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, and Adobe Systems, and wants to work with that caliber of client again.

Christa Carone

VP of corporate PR and communications, Xerox

The shift in the business world to digital documents was not the biggest challenge for Xerox, a company with a brand that is synonymous with printers and paper. In fact, Xerox was doing a fine job of letting businesses know it had the digital technology to meet their changing needs, explains Carone.

Rather, the company faced a perfect storm of being on the brink of bankruptcy, an accounting investigation, a change in leadership, and declining sales. It has since emerged from that tough period with its sales and brand on the rebound. Carone says what she learned is the power of leadership and how that can be used in communications.

"Having leaders openly communicate, and be candid and frequent in their communications, is vital to employees," asserts Carone. "We said at the beginning of our turnaround that the focus had to be on employees and customers. The good press and investors will follow. We had to be seen as having a credible leader who has a well-defined strategy for turning this company around."

It was a defining moment, says Carone. If the company chased every press opportunity, but the business results continued to slide, the communications efforts would do nothing but ring hollow.

"This has shaped my whole communications philosophy now," emphasizes Carone. "If [CEO Anne Mulcahy] didn't have the will of Xerox employees, our turnaround wouldn't have happened. Her willingness to get in front of the issues really helped."

Rick Clancy

SVP of corporate communications, Sony Electronics

Sony is still king of the consumer electronics hill. But it's not so lonely at the top anymore. Rivals such as Samsung have strong, hip brands. PC companies now have their own consumer electronics. Kodak and Canon are serious threats to Sony's digital camera line. And Apple Computer rules the digital music world.

Clancy is well aware of what this competition means to one of the strongest global brands around.

"Our brand is our most important asset," says Clancy, who has watched as many companies focused on the short-term churn out press releases in the hopes of goosing the stock price.

While much media attention has been paid to Sony's missteps in digital music and the onslaught of competitors, it's Sony's brand - not endless press releases - that helps the company maintain a premium in the marketplace. The company tries not to go over the top and look like it's boasting, but it also knows that when it talks, people listen. Such is the virtue, and the lesson to be learned, of consistent brand building.

With so much competition, every company is positioning itself as the "undisputed leader" in a particular market, says Clancy. But consumer electronics, like any market, can be sliced and diced to make anyone look like a market leader. Clancy says that amid this, the strength of the Sony brand means it doesn't have to brag about being the market leader.

"We are very aggressive with our brand," says Clancy. "Everything we do reinforces its importance. It's something we rely on during the tough times."

Richard Cline

President, Voce Communications

Started in 1999, Voce enjoyed a strong run of about 18 months before the bubble burst, says Cline. The business plan went on the shelf, and the agency focused on surviving while hanging on to its senior staff.

"We want to keep the agency consultative," Cline says. "We don't want to have 80 employees. Staying small has allowed us to be flexible and survive. We have had a lot of fights about what we wanted to be, but the business model has held up and allowed us to provide senior-level consultation."

The agency's mantra revolves around specialization and diversification. Cline says he still sees many firms doing the same things they did during the bubble, chasing every pitch that comes their way without offering much in the way of differentiation.

But clients are facing more complex issues that have to do with more than just the technology they're developing, and they tend to want specialized service at a very senior, personal level. With so many agencies doing the same thing during the boom and bust, that might seem obvious, but many firms are still trying to find their way. Cline thinks Voce has cracked it - indeed, revenues have enjoyed healthy growth these past two years - adding that the lesson learned is that if everyone tried to be the same a few years ago, and that didn't work, then specialization must be the way to go.

Gerard Corbett

VP of branding and corporate communications, Hitachi America

Like many of Hitachi's Japanese counterparts, it was hit hard by the semiconductor slump, which still only shows mixed signs of life today. But Hitachi weathered the downturn by focusing on its diverse product lines, including enterprise storage.

The company has consistently communicated its overall value proposition, as well as the value of each of its business units, says Corbett. And what he's taken from the turmoil of the past few years is sticking with core communications competencies and "not letting your expectations get ahead of reality. We didn't have the luxury of being a dot-com," he notes, "so we've had to manage based on our own merits."

Many companies have been distracted by an inflated sense of self-worth. But Hitachi has continued to focus on its products and business value, says Corbett. During the bubble, Corbett watched companies do everything and anything to grab attention, and hype and sizzle was unfortunately part of the process. But so desperate were companies for attention that they seemed to forget they had any products or services to sell.

"All of that reinforced what I've always believed, that the product has to stand on its own merits," says Corbett. "I don't think a lot of our audiences would accept anything less."

Tim Dyson

CEO, Next Fifteen

Dyson is leading Next Fifteen's charge to be "the world's first real technology communications specialist." And despite not having a US presence until 1995, Next Fifteen - parent company of Text 100 and Bite Communications - seems to be on the right track. Text 100 is a major tech player globally, and in the past two years Dyson helped catapult Bite Communications from boutique shop in the US to one of the hottest tech agencies around. He also serves on the board of 463 Communications, a new technology public affairs firm.

"We entered the market just before the downturn, which stopped a lot of smaller players," says Dyson. "The larger generalists have slunk back. But we're doing quite well." In fact, Next Fifteen is staking out a middle ground of having the boutique-level service of smaller firms with the reach of larger agencies.

This was the first real recession the tech industry has faced, asserts Tyson. As such, the industry has had to wake up and deal with real business issues beyond shipping new products, such as government policy and corporate governance.

Dyson realizes that communications is one of many keys to company success, but only if it stays away from fads and focuses on what's best for business.

"Communications can't make up for a bad company," he says. "But it can make a good company a better organization. A lot of that comes down to how aggressive the company is willing to be on the PR challenges it faces."

Valerie Di Maria

Corporate VP of communications and public affairs, Motorola

During the boom, tech companies became fixated on their own stories, talking about what they were doing, and not about why it mattered or how their customers would benefit, asserts Di Maria.

But now the tech industry has grown up in a hurry and has to focus on many of the issues other businesses deal with every day. And Di Maria wants to make sure Motorola's communications responds in the same fashion.

"I'm focused on putting the benefit of what we do up front," says Di Maria, who previously was with GE Financial. "Users shouldn't care about why or how it works, just what the benefit is."

Yet the tech industry is still feeling the shockwaves of the downturn. M&A activity is on the rise. Innovation is moving at such a rapid pace that yesterday's technology is old news tomorrow; and as companies are adapting and innovating, they're also working together just as much as they are competing.

Much of this is happening so companies' brands become synonymous with big ideas. For Motorola, it's seamless mobility, says Di Maria, pointing to a union with Apple to develop an iTunes phone as an example of that convergence.

"We want to own that space, that seamless convergence of mobile technologies," she says. "We want to own it with all audiences. We're developing the products and vision to back that up, and then it's our job to communicate that."

Herbert Heitmann

Global communications head, SAP

Last year, SAP focused on retraining its global communications employees to stop thinking in terms of press releases. Long gone are the days when companies could shovel out press releases and watch their stock prices skyrocket - not that Heitmann ever believed that. But it was hard to focus on the bigger picture during the boom, he says. Now his team has changed its communications mindset from being so announcement- and product-centric.

"We've learned that you need to talk and understand not just your business, but [that] of your customer," says Heitmann. "We provide solutions for customers around the globe to run mission-critical jobs. If you don't think and speak the business language, it's impossible to talk about the role that IT and business software plays in the business economy."

Heitmann has gotten his team to think in terms of agendas and issues, particularly those that matter most to their customers.

Instead of just responding to market shifts or competitors, Heitmann says he can be more effective and efficient - both in terms of strategy and cost - when taking ownership of business issues and making sure audiences know the role SAP plays.

"We clearly have an opportunity, now more than ever, to show how we can bring a competitive advantage to the way our customers do business," says Heitmann. "It's not just about what they do, but how they do it."

Lou Hoffman

President, The Hoffman Agency

If there's one survival story that's come out of the past few years, it's the Hoffman Agency.

After working with Hewlett-Packard for 17 years, HP dumped the firm in late 2002. "You snap your fingers, and half our North America revenue disappears," says president Lou Hoffman.

He leaned on his operations in Europe and Asia- Pacific to keep the agency afloat while rebuilding his US business. He concedes that he thought that a surge of new business in early 2003 would solve all the firm's problems. It didn't.

"You could just feel the lack of energy in the room," says Hoffman of his staff. "People were still down. They felt a little defeated. It baffled me. These are things they can't teach you to deal with in business school."

Despite strengthening his relationship with Royal Philips Electronics, and winning new business from Amazon.com, Dolby Laboratories, and Phoenix Technologies, Hoffman has focused most heavily on staff morale.

An HR consultant interviewed everyone in the agency, and Hoffman developed an employee task force to find ways to build morale. He took the recommendations to heart and began making changes, from having every employee, regardless of level, run staff meetings, to running more training and team-building initiatives.

"What [inspired me] is how much people care about the company," says Hoffman. "When things are not going well, it's a catalyst for change."

Hoffman has made those changes, and feels that that the agency is more determined and driven than ever.

Sabrina Horn

President, The Horn Group

Faced with the downturn, Horn took a chance. She left her San Francisco-based firm's headquarters to open a New York office.

She now concedes that leaving the Bay Area in the midst of the downturn was a very risky move. Many might have thought she was abandoning the agency or tech altogether. Instead, it turned out to be the beginning of an important period of rebuilding.

The firm has since opened offices in Washington, DC, and Chicago, and has pursued initiatives from interactive services to branding. All this has helped move the agency beyond just PR to a fuller suite of communications services.

But it hasn't always been a smooth ride. Revenue plummeted 34% in 2002, and fell another 5% in 2003.

"I've always believed in starting new things at the tail end of a downturn," asserts Horn, "because people are afraid to take risks then. And if you take those risks, when things start to improve, you're in a better position to take advantage of that."

She admits that, like other agencies, the Horn Group did "dabble a bit" in the dot-com frenzy. However, she learned that it's a mistake to do what everyone else is doing.

"You can't get into that herd mentality," says Horn. "I've learned that you must be prudent about what is reality and what isn't. It's not how big you are. It's keeping the quality of people you have and the work you do."

Steve Jursa

Global technology practice leader and senior partner, Porter Novelli

Jursa has been with Porter Novelli's tech practice since it was Copithorne & Bellows, which was purchased by Omnicom in 1995 and merged with PN in 2000. During that time, and particularly in recent years, Jursa has noticed clients developing a broader, more holistic view of communications. It is no longer just about product publicity or media relations. Clients now want a communications strategy that encompasses all stakeholders - from partners and vendors to employees and government regulators.

"I'd say that is what has changed the most about our technology practice," says Jursa of the more holistic approach. "There are always peaks and valleys in tech, but you can't rush to reinvent yourself on the latest fad." In doing so, he adds, firms often lose sight of the big picture and what they're trying to do for their clients' business.

While everything from nanotechnology to podcasting might prove to be fruitful, agencies must stay true to themselves and their clients' business goals while adapting to the evolving economic and technology landscape.

"You always must look beyond tech at what you can deliver, across regions, across practices, and across audiences," he concludes.

Jeff Lettes

VP of corporate communications, Oracle

The communications industry has seen a number of changes over the past several years, but none has had as much impact as communications becoming more global and instantaneous. From more global 24-hour news networks and e-mail to the BlackBerry and blogs, the way people communicate has changed dramatically, says Lettes. And as the new VP of corporate communications at Oracle, which dominated the news for the past two years with its hostile takeover bid of PeopleSoft, Lettes is all too aware of how the globalization and accessibility of news can shape perceptions.

These changes allow more people to share more information, and it also means that whatever a company says or does is likely to be seen and heard by a much larger audience than ever before. All this intensifies the need for communicators to broaden their approach like never before.

"What I've learned is that everyone on the communications team should think like top executives," says Lettes. "They are thinking about the bottom line, and so should you. You have to understand how they are thinking. You must understand how the salespeople are thinking. And you have to capture that concisely, before looking for the most exciting story to tell."

In the end, it comes down to balancing the technology story with the business story in a way that people really understand and in a manner that will reinforce the company's vision and goals.

"That's the holy grail," says Lettes. "To open doors for the sales force, to highlight the technology, and to generate loyalty among all audiences."

Greg Spector

CEO, Blanc & Otus

Blanc & Otus had a very promising beginning to 2005. Right after winning Hyperion Systems, Hitachi Data Systems consolidated its global account with WPP, naming B&O as the lead on the global account.

Not bad for one of the few remaining technology agency acquisitions to still sport its own brand, especially after cofounder Maureen Blanc's retirement in mid-2003 led many to speculate on B&O's future as a standalone brand. But the agency has survived and stayed true to its roots by focusing on emerging technologies, says Spector.

"It's not about racking up a pile of clips," says Spector, now with B&O for nearly five years. "We're affecting our clients' business. And [parent company] Hill & Knowlton clearly sees value in our brand. If we weren't viable, we wouldn't be around."

After seeing so many tech companies and ancillary businesses that weren't viable go the way of the dodo, Spector says the past few years show "that Darwinism is alive and well in tech PR." Good communications is about changing the buying behavior in the market, he explains, and the smart agencies do just that, providing deeper services, such as research, rather than piles of clips.

But Darwinism is also about evolving, and B&O is epitomizing that by doing everything from developing services in analyst relations and web design, to delving deeper into markets including wireless and consumer.

Lynn Tyson

VP of investor relations and corporate communications, Dell

When corporate communications was added to Tyson's IR responsibilities last year, it was not too much of a stretch. The PC leader has long had close alignment between communications audiences. And while Wall Street is different than Main Street, the message is by and large the same, she says.

In an industry that moves at such breakneck speed, where companies are constantly reinventing themselves, consistent communications to all audiences is vital.

"We must stick with what we stand for and reinforce that to customers and other stakeholders," says Tyson. "You have to differentiate yourself from the churn and cut through the clutter by being consistent in what you stand for," she adds, pointing to IBM selling its PC business to Lenovo and HP's executive turmoil.

Dell has always focused on how it differs from the competition, namely its business model and customer service. And watching companies react to and be distracted by the turmoil of the past few years has only reinforced Tyson's belief that "credibility, consistency, and transparency are critical. That is something we will never forget. It's difficult to extricate yourself once you've stumbled on that."

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