Lenny Stern is a founding partner in a new breed of agency, elevating the art of communication to an almost scientific level. But unlike so many other PR pros, Stern can explain the agency's integrated approach without the usual jargon.
What Stern has done at Shepardson Stern & Kaminsky (SS&K) is put together an all-star team of professionals ranging from a Harvard physicist to a seasoned Beltway political aide. He can pluck specialists at a moment's notice and set them to work on launching Time Warner's Road Runner broadband technology or raising the profile of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a pro bono client.
Using his experience in politics, law and advertising, Stern and his two partners have built their agency on a solid foundation of research.
The practice examines all links in the communication chain ? from the influence of pop culture to that of internal corporate culture. They even hang around shopping malls and bars talking to consumers about their emotional reactions to products.
Stern and his partners anticipate the potential strategies of competitors and devise formulas to outfox them. The ultimate phase of a communications assault is reaching the opinion formers: advertisers, politicians, experts, and journalists. 'Go to all channels to feed them information and educate them,' says Stern.
Energetic and honest
As part of their work for Time Warner Cable, Stern and his partners helped to neutralize consumer frustration with the company's call response. They came up with the idea of the 'On Time Guarantee' from an episode of Seinfeld.
Lynn Yaeger, senior vice president of corporate affairs with Time Warner Cable, says that Stern is 'extremely bright and energetic. You get a great package; he has political skill and a creative side.'
In addition to Time Warner Cable, one of the company's oldest clients, Stern has worked with companies such as CVS, Oppenheimer Funds and Hollywood talent shop Creative Artists Agency. From all accounts, he remains upfront when the company's exhaustive research returns conclusions the clients might not like. Richard Lovett, president of Creative Artists Agency, says Stern will 'tell you the bad news, but he'll also have solutions for you.' Lovett says Stern is so different from his peers because of his ability to digest information: 'His strategic thinking is the best I've ever encountered,' which is no small praise coming from one of the sharpest operators in show business.
Stern founded the agency in 1993 along with Robert Shepardson, Mark Kaminsky and the late advertising guru David McCall. Stern explains: 'From day one, we felt there was a need to reflect the three-dimensional marketing and communications environment clients were facing.'
Inc. magazine ranked the agency in its list of the 500 fastest-growing private companies in America last year. According to the title, sales grew from dollars 517,000 in 1993 to dollars 8 million in 1997. Sales in 1998 were in excess of dollars 10 million, but Stern declines to give details about margins or net income. There is more than one way to measure a firm's growth, though: SS&K now has a staff of 60 working out of offices in New York, Washington, and Atlanta.
The partners are communications specialists with different areas of expertise.
Shepardson worked on several South American political campaigns before founding SS&K, while Kaminsky's forte was PR ? he helped turn around public perception of Liz Claiborne when the media threw the spotlight on labor issues. Stern holds a BA in political science from Brandeis University ? where he got a taste for public policy working on Walter Mondale's presidential campaign ? and earned a JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He is also a visiting professor at Yale.
Learning from politics
Along the way, he learned valuable lessons that have placed him in good stead in the corporate world. 'With politics you face a diverse set of audiences. There is a set time period, there is a need to focus, unify the message, understand the landscape. In the end, you either win or lose.'
From his start in politics, Stern went on to practice law in New York before joining PR agency Sawyer Miller (now part of BSMG Worldwide). He set up the firm's first advertising division and worked on corporate positioning with NBC and Nynex. Of late, Stern has been focused on transforming Atlanta-based Southern Company from a regional energy monopoly into a vigorous national brand.
David Altman, VP of corporate communications at Southern Company, says the challenge he set for the agency was to define a brand strategy and broaden the company's position. 'We shied away from doing things differently, but Lenny brought that personal energy to our business.' Altman claims he knew the strategy they had formed was working when customers started repeating some of the key messages over the phone.
One other thing that a few of Stern's clients have noted about him is his ability to engage people. Tony Marino, who as VP of sales and marketing hired the agency to help position Road Runner, adds: 'People are very drawn in when he talks. It is an emotional thing.'
Walking around the New York offices of SS&K, one cannot helped be impressed by the ultra-modern space, which was once a sweatshop. These days the workers are not perspiring, they're inspiring.
So what is Stern's vision of the future? 'My hope is in five years, when smart, creative marketing communications folks are looking for a long-term place to hang their hat, do great work for great companies and have a lot of fun, SS&K is at the top of their list.'
LENNY STERN - Partner, Shepardson Stern & Kaminsky
1983: Earns BA in political science from Brandeis University
1983: Works on Walter Mondale's presidential campaign
1986: Works on Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell's gubernatorial campaign
1989: Earns JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School
1990: Joins New York firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison as summer associate
1990: Joins Sawyer Miller and establishes the firm's advertising division. Rises to become managing director
1993: Co-founds Shepardson Stern & Kaminsky