Growing up with nine siblings, Maura FitzGerald learned how to get herself heard above the din. She now puts this ability to constructive use: making noise for clients in the competitive world of hi-tech.
FitzGerald, whose Cambridge-based firm has recently opened offices in San Francisco and Washington DC, parlayed a freelance tech-writing gig into a burgeoning PR practice. She has succeeded - to the tune of $9 million in fee income in the five years since the firm launched. She is impressively focused, and wants to talk PR, rather than chatting about herself.
Amazingly, however, PR was not her first choice of profession. After graduating from Skidmore College with a degree in English, she moved to Miami. There, she freelanced for Florida newspapers as well as for Electronic Business. 'The editor of the magazine introduced me to someone who was starting a hi-tech PR agency,' she recalls. 'I was impressed with the way he approached PR from a journalistic perspective.'
Inspired, she decided on a move to Boston and went to work for Miller Communications. As leader of the Compaq account team for eight years, she got used to the competitiveness of hi-tech PR. 'I was told Compaq wanted to get out of the 'clone category' and move toward being in direct competition with IBM,' she says. She succeeded. 'Compaq was a more nimble competitor than IBM. They were hungrier.' You can see how 'hungrier' would appeal to Fitzgerald.
After Miller was bought by Shandwick, Fitzgerald moved to Cunningham Communications (where, in what she describes as a 'defining experience,' she was in charge of opening the firm's East Coast office). A six-month stint followed as chief of Hill & Knowlton's Boston office. 'They had been without a manager for a while and the office had foundered,' she says. 'My recommendation was to close the office.' They finally did this some time after she left.
It was then that she branched out on her own. When asked whether this represented a major leap of faith, she rolls her eyes and laughs. 'It's like anything else that is a big step - getting married, having a baby.
If you knew ahead of time what it involved, you would never do it.'
Looking back Fitzgerald acknowledges she was fortunate to have a base of clients from the outset. One, Intersolv, was sufficiently impressed by its past work with FitzGerald that it paid three months' of fees in advance so she could hire additional staff. (The firm now has nearly 100 employees.) 'I've always had a lot of confidence in myself, but it was gratifying to get this kind of response from the beginning,' she says.
Five years of double-and triple-digit growth later, FitzGerald continues to refine her firm's way of doing business. To this end, the agency has instituted a comprehensive professional development (PD) program. 'It's a way of institutionalizing our practice,' she explains.
She has allayed concerns about potential firm-client clashes by adopting a consultative approach to PR. 'There has to be chemistry. Clients expect us to push back, and most of the time they take our advice.' When they don't, FitzGerald resigns the account.
She concedes she is fortunate to be in a position to do this. 'It ensures that we stay true to ourselves,' she says, pointing to one former client as an example. 'They had unrealistic expectations in terms of the level of visibility we were going to be able to get for them nationally. We suggested they focus on getting to know the trade press and industry analysts - then, when they had more customers and proof that their strategies were working, we'd be in a better position nationally. We got placements (Rolling Stone, Wired, USA Today) but they still weren't satisfied. We resigned.'
Avoiding clients like this enables FitzGerald to remain independent.
'There will always be room for small companies that have a focus, stick to it and deliver it,' she says. This isn't to say she believes larger firms are doing an impersonal job so much as that these companies don't service niche areas as well as smaller agencies. 'Big global firms like Fleishman and B-M have a definite role to play in our business. But those big firms have always struggled with technology, because people have to be strong from both technology and PR standpoints. That's why larger companies try to buy companies like mine.'
Not that she has plans to sell any time soon - it's clear how much she values her independence. FitzGerald can't imagine a scenario in which her firm would seek shelter under the umbrella of another, though she has received offers. 'It's flattering to be asked,' she admits. 'But I doubt I could be offered a better experience than I have now.'
As for the future, the firm will likely expand internationally, though no concrete plans are set. After opening the San Francisco and DC offices, FitzGerald is finished with domestic expansion for the time being. 'Austin is one of the so-called 'hot' cities now, but I don't see us going there because the talent pool is too small,' she says. 'But New York is a possibility.'
No matter how big the firm gets, however, FitzGerald promises to keep what she calls the 'fast-paced, highly charged culture' intact. 'In order to keep getting better, we have to be dissatisfied with ourselves as much as possible.' It seems she is still hungry - and very, very focused.
President/CEO, Fitzgerald Communications
1974 - Freelance journalist
1982 - Senior Vice President, Miller Communications
1990 - Partner, Cunningham Communications
1993 - Vice President/General Manager, Hill & Knowlton - Boston
1994 - Founder, FitzGerald Communications.