Straight out of the trenches and decompressing over beer and quesadillas at a Los Angeles sports bar, the senior staff of Fischer & Partners collectively inhales at the mention of a planned interview with their boss, Roger Fischer.
Straight out of the trenches and decompressing over beer and
quesadillas at a Los Angeles sports bar, the senior staff of Fischer &
Partners collectively inhales at the mention of a planned interview with
their boss, Roger Fischer.
Side-glances are exchanged - a Hollywood take if ever there was one.
As PR pros, they immediately spin their response in a positive light:
’He’s intense. You should have fun,’ they say.
With that kind of setup one expects a stern, gray-complexioned
taskmaster wearing years of competitive battle on his brow. Instead,
Fischer appears fresh-faced and full of vim and vigor. His intensity is
the Wall Street caffeinated variety. He lets you know the trajectory he
wants the discussion to take, and he rings the starting bell.
Fischer, 42, knows how to sell, promote and talk the party line for his
clients, and in this moment his agency is the client. After a few
moments he settles into a comfort zone, and his story begins to emerge.
It has a distinctly LA plot line.
Roger Fischer is a San Fernando Valley transplant from Staten Island,
NY. His father was a jeweler whose ill health required he move his
family west. Fischer’s first introduction to the City of Angels was a
Sunset Boulevard hotel during the infamous Watts riot. ’It was complete
bedlam for a week,’ he remembers.
Eventually the family settled into an idyllic suburban rhythm. Valley
high school days melted into campus life at University of California
Santa Barbara. Ever the good son, he wanted to become a lawyer. But in
the last few months before graduation, Fischer decided to take one day
and investigate other options.
’It occurred to me that I didn’t know why I was so focused on being a
lawyer,’ says Fischer. He spent an entire Saturday at the Cal State
Northridge career placement library pouring over every company and
industry binder in the stacks. ’I was completely disgusted,’ he
remembers. ’I couldn’t find anything, not one thing that interested me.’
At a quarter-to-five, he literally stumbled over the pea-green O’Dwyer’s
directory. In that 15 minutes, his life changed. ’I was mesmerized by
these companies, their descriptions of themselves,’ he says.
Fischer selected those listed in the Los Angeles area and went knocking
on doors. He didn’t get an immediate offer, but three months later, he
got a call from Jim Bardwell at Rodgers & Associates (R&A), one of the
top PR shops in town at that time. Fast-forward 20 years, and Bardwell
now works for Fischer. ’Roger always knew he was going to be a star,’
says Bardwell, SVP of agency development.
So how did Fischer explain his career choice to his parents? ’It’s
always impossible to explain what we do to people, it was even harder
then,’ he says. Fischer finally explained it in the form of a parable.
’I said, ’Remember Mom when I was little and I came and asked you for a
cookie, and you said no, and I came back later and asked you for a
cookie and you gave me six? Well, that’s what I do.’ ’ Fischer says to
this day, his mother introduces him as such: ’This is my son. He’s in
the cookie business.’
After only four years of agency experience, Fischer decided to start his
own PR firm. In 1983, Fischer and a buddy from R&A, Frank Pollare, began
Pollare/Fischer Communications. They had two IBM Selectric typewriters,
a stack of business cards and a short list of client contacts. Pollare
says he was attracted by Fischer’s intensity for the business. ’As
partners, in many ways we were soul mates,’ says Pollare, who now works
as director of public information for Computer Sciences Corporation.
As fortune would have it, their first client was a pioneer in
ultrasound, so the two carved an early niche in medical devices. Though
they marketed their firm as a generalist shop and won a plum assignment
as agency-of-record for the western division of American Express Travel
Related Services, a healthcare PR focus began to emerge.
In 1994, Pollare left the partnership to explore a personal family
venture, and Fischer re-christened the agency Fischer & Partners. By
then, American Express was his only non-healthcare client, accounting
for 25% of agency billings. At a time when the rest of the industry was
just beginning to specialize or develop target practice groups, his
agency had already developed a solid track record in healthcare PR.
Fischer says he spent a full year pondering the pros and cons of
resigning the account to make a full commitment to healthcare.
’It was the most gut-wrenching decision I’ve every made,’ says Fischer,
whose eyes almost mist when he describes the day he flew to the client’s
Manhattan office to resign the business. ’It did strike me as a very
gutsy move at that point,’ says Pollare, who adds that Fischer did not
consult with him on the decision.
In the four years since he re-positioned the agency, Fischer has grown
the staff from 15 to 35 and has transformed F&P from a boutique shop to
a mid-sized national player with only 10% of its client list from the LA
To swim with the ’fisches,’ as he calls his staff, he hires only agency
people - yet another agency anomaly at a time when rivals are scouring
corporate, academic and media seas to find employees. ’They need to know
how to work on deadline, bill client hours, build plans and really work
in a client service environment.’
Fischer says the agency will bill dollars 3.4 million this year -
roughly double what he brought in four years ago - and expects fee
income to increase to dollars 4 million in the year 2000 based on
current contracts. Much of this increase is due to new work for Ernst &
Young’s healthcare information services division and Wellpoint, a
NYSE-listed managed care organization.
Reeling in an acquisition
A stranger to inertia, Fischer says he wants to expand his geographical
presence, a plan that may come as a pleasant surprise to staff that have
to work on East Coast hours. He claims to be actively pursuing
acquisitions in New England, but he is also looking to buy a firm or
open an office closer to home. ’We really need to raise our profile in
California,’ says Fischer. ’Our profile is national, but we’re hardly
known in our backyard.’
It may sound strange that a shop of his size will talk openly about
gobbling up other agencies. But then again, no one ever got rich by
underestimating Roger Fischer.
ROGER FISCHER - Founder, CEO Fischer & Partners
1979-1983: Account executive Rodgers & Associates
1983-1994: Partner Pollare/Fischer Communications
1995: CEO, Fischer & Partners.