Looking for a PR agency? Look no further than Jerry Swerling, who specializes in taking the headache out of agency searches Alvin Hattal sits down with this PR professor and powerbroker - Profile - Professor Swerling plays PR matchmaker.
What?s a buttoned-down, Boston-bred university professor like Jerry Swerling doing in a town like LA?
Many people equate LA with show business, period. But show biz isn?t his schtick. And he?s no denizen of Hollywood. He is, rather, an agency search expert, helping clients like Honda and Kinko?s, as well as sundry business-to-business outfits and dot-coms find the right PR firm.
He?s also not what you?d expect. Yes, he built up Porter Novelli?s LA outpost from under one million in billings to a thriving dollars 5.5 million operation with 35 employees. Not bad for a so-called PR backwater. And yes, he also counsels a number of clients in diverse fields, as well as their PR agencies.
The 52-year-old professor is also responsible for the PR sequence at the University of Southern California?s Annenberg School of Journalism.
That includes curriculum development and recruitment, not to mention a good deal of teaching and mentoring.
A scholarly highbrow, right? Not quite. He drives a Saab turbo convertible, lives on Marina del Rey?s beach-side peninsula and vacations in Provence with his wife, Karen, a chic costume designer who sees that his collar (sans button) and his hair stay down for the photographer. His garage also houses a 1963 split-window Corvette in mint condition and a BMW he bought from PN founder Jack Porter.
A view of the ocean
A continent away from where he cut his PR teeth at Ingalls Quinn & Johnson in Boston?s Back Bay, he has morphed into a confirmed West Coast sun lover.
"I knew I needed to drive a convertible and have a view of the ocean," he says. And that dream materialized when Porter Novelli parent Omnicom bought Ingalls and asked Swerling to take over PN?s LA office as EVP/West Coast regional manager. Three years ago he left to launch his second career, becoming one of the region?s most sought-after agency matchmakers.
When Kinko?s PR director Laura McCormick hired him last year to find an agency for the company?s dollars 400,000 account, together they visited firms in New York, Atlanta, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The process took three months because, McCormick says, it was different from the usual agency search, in which prospective firms are asked to focus on some random, general assignment.
"We asked the candidates to work on a situation very relevant to our business at the time," says McCormick. "We asked them to touch on several different scenarios, but we were very specific in that it involved positioning Kinko?s as an attractive candidate for a public offering."
They chose Duffey Communications in Atlanta, a match that has worked well. And it was Swerling?s input that made the difference.
"Jerry?s ability to strategically narrow the field is remarkable," says McCormick. "He?s thorough and has tremendous energy in his dialogues with the agencies."
As in PR, referrals are the lifeblood of Swerling?s six-figure business, which should grow about 10% this year. Richard Marshall, director of corporate communications at Subaru of America, brought Swerling on board after hearing about him from the folks at Mitsubishi Motors.
Marshall says Swerling "was able to quickly assess our unique culture and needs, helped build internal consensus, made sure that we saw only the best qualified firms and kept the whole undertaking on a tight time line."
Satisfied, Subaru has referred a hi-tech company to Swerling, adding another strand to his vast web of influence.
"Thorough" is the word Hill & Knowlton?s Ron Hartwig uses to describe Swerling. Hartwig, H&K?s EVP in Tinseltown, says Swerling?s "entire approach is professional. There are a large number of other agency-search types, but few have been as successful." Swerling says his fee naturally varies with the size of the client and scope of the search, but most fall between $20,000 and $35,000.
David De Pinto, who knew Swerling at PN when he was Ketchum?s general manager in LA, says Swerling?s bi-coastal background in both small and large agencies gives him a broader perspective.
"That?s what he brings to his agency reviews. And on both coasts."
De Pinto, an ex-New Yorker and equally rabid Yankee fan who recently became president and CEO of Stourza, Ziegaus & Metzger, quickly adds, "It?s too bad he?s still a Boston Red Sox fan."
Swerling?s method is to focus on ?best of class? agencies. If a client wants to review five agencies, he will select one or two internationals, one or two boutiques and a couple of regional firms. By working those into the mix, he tries to get the best of class so a client is not skewed in any direction. He gets into the culture of the agency, its personality and the account team. Plus, he?s had enough experience to know when the agencies are leveling with him - and when they?re not.
Keeping a level playing field
"I?ve seen quite a few agencies go through their reviews," says De Pinto.
"As far as I know, they all feel that Jerry runs a fair and effective review process. For our part, as an agency, we?ll only commit that amount of time and resources ourselves if we feel it?s a level playing field. Jerry keeps it that way."
Such unanimous admiration starts to sound suspicious - are there any chinks in Swerling?s armor, any drawbacks to his approach? But his reputation bears up under extensive scrutiny. Bob Druckenmiller, Swerling?s former boss at Porter Novelli, says, "Jerry rebuilt the office by solidifying the few accounts we had and brought in some major
ones, including Nissan."
Druckenmiller also credits Swerling with contributing a great deal of creativity to the Oral-B Labs and Baskin & Robbins accounts.
Swerling does more than searches, though he can also act as marriage counselor, working with agencies and clients whose relationships have turned sour. After scrutinizing the operations of both parties, Swerling explains how to patch the rift.
One of the reasons Swerling gives for the success of his business is the relative ignorance of corporations about the strengths and weaknesses of the agencies out there. "There is an ever-expanding knowledge gap between many corporate clients and the agency world," says Swerling.
"They have a lot of difficulty keeping track of what?s happening in that world, especially what distinguishes one firm from another. They expect me to close that gap and to take the pain out of agency reviews."
Just call him the pain reliever.
Jerry Swerling - Principal, Swerling & Associates
1972 - Director of PR ALA Auto & Travel Club
1978 - Joins Ingalls Quinn & Johnson, rises to SVP/director of PR
1989 - EVP/regional manager Porter Novelli, Los Angeles
1997 - Principal, Swerling & Associates