Al Croft has seen PR change on so many fronts. Now, after running his own Sedona, AZ, consultancy for nearly two decades, he's still using that knowledge to help small firms see the big picture.
Oh, yeah, the bottom line. Sure, meeting with clients is fun and scoring a placement in The New York Times feels good. To Al Croft, however, the main thing is turning a profit, and over the past 19 years, he has built a consultancy aimed at helping his clients - mainly small, independent PR firms - manage the business side of their operations.
To do so, Croft taps into the many years he spent on both the creative and business sides of PR.
His first agency job was at Ketchum (then called Ketchum, MacLeod & Grove). It was there where he immediately developed an interest in the management side of the agency world.
After eight years there and a brief stint in the motion-picture world, he spent several years with Aitkin Kynett in Philadelphia. Bozell then recruited him to start a Milwaukee office. As Midwest regional manager, he moved into Chicago and grew it to the tenth largest agency in the city, while also overseeing offices in Minneapolis and Atlanta.
All that time spent in a variety of PR roles furnished Croft with a firsthand perspective on how the industry has changed over the years. In 1987, he opted to use that knowledge as the basis for forming his own consultancy, A.C. Croft & Associates.
"What's really made it possible for smaller, independent firms to compete with the big ones," Croft explains, "is, of course, technology. With the influx of computers and the internet in the past two decades, it no longer makes a difference where a firm is located. The agency business runs the same way it always has, despite all the new tools they have, including satellite media tours and what have you.
"As a result," he continues, "independent agencies can run more efficiently because they don't have as much overhead. In turn, clients get better service and firms can make decisions faster."
Running his own shop has prompted Croft to make quite a few decisions for his own business, too. None have been more important than his 1991 move to Sedona, AZ, a location far-removed from the hustle of the big city.
Of course, the physical distance that separates Croft from most contacts has necessitated his use of the same technology which he credits for helping his smaller clients compete with the big boys - specifically, his e-mail newsletter, Management Strategies, in which he discusses survey results of other firms.
In a recent issue, it was reported that "a survey of [independent] PR agency principals indicated that the vast majority of all firms had far more income and operating profit during the first half of this year. Only 17% of respondents were lower in both areas."
One reason some clients still prefer large international agencies, Croft admits, is for the sense of security, regardless of all the new tools. But whether the firm is huge or tiny, the methods of dealing with clients remain similar, he adds, and that is helping bridge the gap.
Still, financial concerns and tighter budgets seem to be a more poignant issue with smaller companies. It is here where Croft's counsel often focuses.
One of his clients, Michele Flowers, head of the Flowers Communications Group in Chicago, recalls how Croft's advice really turned things around for her agency.
"I started paying attention to the bottom line after I'd been in business a few years, but not through the lens that Al gave me," she says. "He got me to look at the profitability of each account individually, as well as at my billing levels. Once he showed me how much money was going out the door by not billing to the level that we could, we really turned the company around and were able to grow more. It gave us more dollars to put into new business development."
Adds Lynn Casey, chairman and CEO of Padilla Speer Beardsley in Minneapolis, "[Croft] played a significant part in helping to improve my agency's management."
Carl Mueller, a long-time client of Croft's in Milwaukee, says, "His understanding and knowledge of the business of our business has been invaluable. I did get a business manager, but I've grown to understand more about how - as agency president - to keep
that bottom line."
"I always preferred the discipline of making an agency productive and profitable - and in winning new clients," notes Croft. "Fortunately, I had a friend, Chet [Chester] Burger, who was in that end of the business, helping agencies do just that. He became my guru. [Burger was one of the founders of the Arthur Page Society]. In fact, he gave me the idea of starting my own counseling practice."
Moving to Sedona, however, was all Croft's idea, and it's been the perfect setting for him to display that he's not "all business." He plays tennis several times a week. In between games, he and Irene, his wife of 35 years, like to take advantage of living in arguably the
US' most awe-inspiring location. The couple often strolls among Sedona's picturesque red rocks with their two Brittany spaniels. At night, he can often be found relaxing with a cigar, and alternating between big-band music and a book - he's a voracious reader.
Despite the physical distance, Croft realizes the importance of personal contact with clients. As such, in addition to the individual meetings he sets up periodically, Croft convenes an annual, confidential "roundtable" of some 30 clients from many parts of the US in Sedona, where they discuss ways to make and keep their firms profitable. The 2005 gathering will take place this month.
Croft's advice isn't necessarily limited to his clients. He penned a book, Managing a Public Relations Firm for Growth and Profit, to offer no-nonsense tips for running a successful
practice. A second edition, which is 50% larger than the first, is due out early next year.
Using various avenues of promotion is a key to growing any company, particularly a PR agency. With newsletters, books, and clients who are happy to laud him for his business counsel, Croft continues to spur the success of perhaps his most important business client - himself.
Owner, A.C. Croft & Associates
SVP, Midwest regional manager, Bozell Public Relations (then Bozell & Jacobs)
VP, director of PR, Aitkin Kynett
EVP, GM, The Latent Image
Group manager, AE to VP, Ketchum (then Ketchum, MacLeod & Grove)