Tech PR pros transition between the agency and corporate worlds quite often. David Ward finds out what drives such moves
After spending years at tech PR firm Applied Communications, Tim Marklein took what many would deem to be the next logical career step by moving in-house to Hewlett-Packard in 2002, initially leading the corporate media relations team and then helming the enterprise analyst and PR team.
But in late 2004, he surprised many of his long-term associates by moving back to an agency, taking a position at Weber Shandwick as EVP and GM of its Northern California division offices.
"Most people were surprised when I left HP to go back to an agency, but that never really crossed my mind," says Marklein. "It was a great opportunity, but the one thing that really brought me back to the agency world was I missed running a business, as well as running a function. I'm still actively involved in day-to-day PR work, but now I run the business. Now everybody I work with is involved in that same function."
During the boom of the 1990s, tech PR often resembled an elaborate game of musical chairs, as people with even limited tech experience jumped from agency to start-up and back again - all within a matter of a couple years. Talent was so scarce and opportunities so great that the right people could write their own ticket on both sides of the fence - and then rewrite it six months later when an even better deal came along.
Still going to and fro
The hype is gone now, but the movement back and forth between PR firm and corporate communications jobs in the tech industry anecdotally continues to outstrip other industries.
Dee Anna McPherson, who spent eight years at Edelman before moving to a corporate communications position at PeopleSoft and then on to a job as principal with The Horn Group last year, says in part it is simply due to the industry itself.
"People who are attracted to technology like a fast pace," she says. "Technology certainly changes very quickly."
Monica Sarkar, who left a corporate job with HP to become a VP with MWW Group and open its San Francisco office, adds, "Tech PR tends to be a bit of a fishbowl. Success in the tech industry requires a certain set of skills and prerequisites - understanding the technology, knowing the history and background of the industry, and relationships with the reporters and personalities that cover and influence the industry. The more experience and qualifications you bring to a role, internal or external, the more valuable you are."
Marklein suggests that the large number of transitions between agency and corporate in the tech space may be due to how closely the two sides often work. "In many ways, it's a lot like a political campaign in that you're in the thick of it with your client day in and day out," he says. "Because of that, there ends up being a lot of permeability between the two worlds."
Like a lot of industries, much of the migration seen in tech PR is from an agency over to a corporate post. "For a young pro in tech, there are probably more opportunities on the agency side," says Harry Pforzheimer, VP of communications at Intuit and a former Edelman executive. "It's a great training ground in that you get to experience a lot of different clients. But once you get to mid-career, a lot of agency folks decide they want to take that deeper dive and focus on one specific segment or one particular company."
Corporate recruiter Jean Cardwell, whose company, Cardwell Enterprises, specializes in placing high-level communications pros, says many tech companies prefer to recruit from firms. "I love evaluating the talent on the agency side - and there's a lot of it - because they've seen everything," she says.
But Burghardt Tenderich, North America GM for Bite Communications, adds that the transition may be easier in tech PR than other jobs, and the pace is similar regardless of whether you're at a firm or working in-house.
"I think the skill sets are pretty much identical," he says. "Yes, there is the rain-making aspect to agency work, which means you must be able to conduct successful new-business presentations. But you'll have to do that internally as well if you want to sell your PR plan to senior management."
Surprises on the other side
Unlike a lot of industries, moving in-house to a tech company may not even lessen your client load, notes Tom Galvin, who worked at Cisco and as corporate public affairs VP at VeriSign before leaving to cofound 463 Communications last year.
"When I was inside at VeriSign or Cisco, I had to deal with the different business units and the different functions within the company - you have the CEO's office, the CFO's office," he says. "So people who believe that when they go internal they're only dealing with one client are fooling themselves"
But those who've moved in-house even after more than a decade at a tech agency stress the one key benefit inside a company is the chance to intimately learn how the tech world operates.
"When you move in-house, you realize how little we actually knew when we were talking to clients," says Kristin Hilf, who took over as director of corporate communications for RSA Security in 2004 after years on the tech agency side with Waggener Edstrom and Citigate Cunningham. "But the huge bonus for me has been a broader understanding of how business works."
But in the tech world, a move in-house doesn't automatically mean better money or hours. As far as compensation goes, Cardwell notes, "The senior people on the agency side are really getting paid big money, though you don't quite get the long-term comps you see on the corporate side."
Even in the tech world, the corporate culture found at an internal position is bound to be a bit different than the frenetic pace of a tech agency. "On the agency side, it's all about proving your value, but on the corporate side, it's about not making mistakes," McPherson notes. "If you do something that upsets an executive, they may not want to work with you anymore. If the same thing happened at an agency, you can simply be shifted to another account."
But those who think moving in-house to a tech company will automatically mean the end of a 60-hour work week at a 100 mph pace are in for a shock. "While at PeopleSoft, I worked twice as much as at any agency because we were going through a hostile takeover," says McPherson. "It was literally a 24-hour-a-day job. I can't count the number of times I worked through the night."
Marklein adds, "You can easily put in 80 hours in a tech corporate environment because you don't have any limiting factors. On the agency side, there's always a budget that creates a boundary or guidepost for how much you work."
Perhaps the most obvious reason why there is so much movement between agency and corporate jobs in the tech industry is that so many people realize that experience on both sides of the fence makes them better PR pros.
"The one thing you learn by having done both is that if you're inside a tech company, you better have somebody outside the company who's not drinking the Kool-Aid because you need that outside perspective," Galvin says. "And if you're outside the company, you better learn the tech business or else you'll get rolled over by the business folks who think they know PR."
What they wish they'd known...
Agency to corporate
Kristin Hilf, director of corporate communications, RSA Security
- You don't know as much as you think. Even veterans of tech PR firms must go through a steep learning curve once in-house because there's only so much you can know from the outside.
- Don't assume you'll have just one boss. The CEO is a client, as are the IR, sales, expanded-marketing, and product-management teams. Even HR, to some degree, is a client.
- PR is often considered a service function within tech organizations, and a lot of people will view you as simply being on-call to write press releases and set up interviews, as opposed to someone who adds strategic value.
- There's often a lot more territorialism in-house, even within the marketing team.
- You feel like you're going 100 miles an hour all the time at a tech firm, whereas in-house you may go 20 for a while, then 200 for a bit. It all averages out, but it takes a while to get used to.
Corporate to agency
Dee Anna McPherson, principal, The Horn Group
- Learn to be a chameleon. In the agency world you can be dealing with 15 companies. They all have different styles and challenges. You must be very flexible in your approach.
- You have to collaborate more and have your work scrutinized more because you're dealing with a lot more people who do what you do.
- Dare to be bold. When you're on the corporate side, it's about not making mistakes. When you're on the agency side, however, it's all about constantly proving your value and what have you done for me lately.
- It's a 24-7 job. You'll have multiple clients, so the likelihood of getting an evening or early-morning call goes up simply because you're dealing with more companies.
- Loyalty counts, even on the agency side. Moving out of corporate communications won't give you carte blanche to then hop from firm to firm.