Fresh off the Serengeti, Lee Duffey is sporting a jaunty beard and a relaxed expression. Always friendly but usually running at hi-octane speed, today he is remarkably subdued and even content. The president and CEO of the Southeast’s largest independent PR agency is a man on the verge of two milestones: 15 years in business and 16 years in marriage to his college sweetheart.
Fresh off the Serengeti, Lee Duffey is sporting a jaunty beard and
a relaxed expression. Always friendly but usually running at hi-octane
speed, today he is remarkably subdued and even content. The president
and CEO of the Southeast’s largest independent PR agency is a man on the
verge of two milestones: 15 years in business and 16 years in marriage
to his college sweetheart.
’You know,’ says the 40-year-old Duffey in a Georgia Bulldog drawl,
’when you’re out there on the African plain 10 yards from a pride of
lions, you just get it.’ The trip to Kenya was a birthday gift from his
wife, COO and agency partner Jenny Duffey. The couple made their
photo-safari during the annual migration of the wildebeests.
’They had to be a mistake,’ he quips, describing the animal as a.cross
between a cow, a warthog and a mule. ’They’re incredibly ugly ... and
They’re so dumb that if the lead wildebeest gets scared to cross the
river, the whole herd will just stand there, stark still, for three days
until one accidentally gets bumped and jumps forward.’
He pauses, adding, ’Well, maybe they’re not that different from some of
the people in our industry.’
Is he still smarting from the PRSA election loss?
’I don’t think so,’ says Jenny privately. ’It took the wind out of his
sails for a day or two, but not much more than that.’ Of course, nobody
would go on record about the tense closed-door sessions last
Rumor has it that the PRSA election was rife with back-room deal-making,
cronyism and politicking that would make Mary Matlin and James Carville
proud. Apparently feathers got ruffled among Duffey’s supporters when
his name was left off the nomination slate and only a single candidate
was put forward. The by-laws were scoured, and a write-in campaign
ensued on his behalf.
According to Duffey, this was all done without his knowledge, and he
only found out he was a candidate when the official ballot was
Despite his write-in status, he was considered a favorite, having served
on the PRSA national board of directors for four years, two as a member
of the Executive Committee and one year each as secretary and
As treasurer, Duffey presided over a controversial dues increase (the
first since 1987) and a complete overhaul of the ethics program that
resulted in a dollars 43,000 deficit requiring PRSA to dip into its
limited financial reserves. He supported the Ethics Board’s petition to
the Executive Committee despite the toll it would take on the budget.
’We just don’t need to repair the old Dodge Dart, we need to just buy a
new car,’ says Duffey. ’The program hasn’t been changed in 25 years.
Tell me, do you do business the same way you did even 10 years ago?’
The topic of doing business differently comes up frequently in a
conversation with Duffey. He prides himself on always looking forward.
The only child of depression-era civil servants from middle Georgia,
Duffey never had any entrepreneurial role models and says he marvels at
the direction his life took.
’Ever since I was six, I knew I wanted to be a doctor,’ he says, adding
that at 16 he wanted to be a dermatologist after noticing the cool car
driven by his dermatologist.
So he enrolled as pre-med at Emory University in Atlanta, but it was not
what he expected. He found the department politics a grim contrast to
his self-described Mayberry upbringing. He transferred to the University
of Georgia in Athens and took some electives in journalism. It was the
late 1970s and everybody in J-school wanted to be the next Woodward and
Bernstein, but Duffey took another path. He decided to major in PR.
After graduating in 1980, he headed straight for New York. He
interviewed with everybody in town, eventually getting an offer from
Burson-Marsteller for dollars 13,000 a year. He took it, but soon
returned home. ’What I didn’t know was that you couldn’t even live at
the poverty level in Astoria on dollars 13,000 a year,’ he says.
He started Duffey Communications in 1984 after three years at ’a little
firm called Cohn & Wolfe,’ which had less than a dozen staffers when he
joined. By the time he left, C&W had mushroomed to more than 60 people,
and he had cut his eyeteeth on brands like Coca-Cola, Chic-Fil-A and
Salem cigarettes. ’When people ask me how I’ve done it, I tell them that
I know what I know and I know what I don’t know,’ he says. ’I look for
people who refuse to settle.’
Speaking the client’s language
At his agency, interviewees are put through a gauntlet of exercises such
as role-playing, situational analysis and the Myers-Briggs personality
test. ’I look for people who are impatient, entrepreneurial
Clients don’t pay for average work,’ he says. Along these lines, Duffey
trademarks every service he offers, a habit that has long been a source
of snickers among his peers. ’The simple answer is we are selling
intangibles to a marketplace that is used to buying tangible products,’
’People refer our services to one another. Instead of saying, ’Go hire
XYZ company and get them to do a PR program for you,’ they say, ’Go hire
Duffey Communications and have them do an ignition for you.’ That’s
Duffey says PR agencies need to rid themselves of industry jargon and
start talking the client’s language. He is impatient with ’whiners’ in
the industry who complain they are not at the boardroom table.
’Quite frankly, given the nature of the economy, if you can’t run with
your client, if you can’t outpace your client in being able to think for
them and work on their behalf, then they won’t stay with you,’ he
’Until we understand the nature of business, what makes companies run
and become so conversant in that dialogue that we can apply our craft,
then we don’t belong at the management table.’
When that happens, Duffey says an agency will transform from being a
publicist to a PR and communications expert. And if the PR profession
refuses to cross that river, count on Duffey to be there to nudge them
Account executive, Burson-Marsteller (New York)
Editor of corporate affairs, Life of Georgia Insurance
Account Supervisor, Cohn & Wolfe (Atlanta)
Launches Duffey Communications