PROFILE: Waggener Zorkin has tech PR down to a science

At an early age, Melissa Waggener Zorkin developed a curiosity about science and technology. Today, she puts her passion to solid use as the president and CEO of Waggener Edstrom.

At an early age, Melissa Waggener Zorkin developed a curiosity about science and technology. Today, she puts her passion to solid use as the president and CEO of Waggener Edstrom.

Early in childhood, Melissa Waggener Zorkin set out to defy expectations. She knew that girls didn't typically gravitate toward science or math, as the stereotype goes. But she found herself being asked daily by her father, a scientist, what she had learned that day. "Sometimes I would need to really figure that out," says Waggener Zorkin, CEO, president, and cofounder of Waggener Edstrom. "I'd have to run off and look at my books to make sure I gave him a real answer." Her home was filled not just with charts and graphs, but also a curiosity that was hard to avoid, something that has stayed with her to this day. And that curiosity is what led her to where she is today, from applying her English degree in the technology industry, to pushing her agency in new directions, including bioscience and biotech. "There was a very healthy, respectful attitude around my home toward science and technology," she recalls. "I learned early on there was nothing scary about it. It was fascinating." Communications and science came together for Waggener Zorkin in college. She met the late Dr. Neil Sabin, who taught communications at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR. Sabin often spoke of storytelling, the art of rhetoric, how to tie communications to the ancient Greeks, and leaders throughout history. That innate curiosity brought her closer to communications and coupled nicely with her fascination with technology. Out of school, Waggener Zorkin took a PR job with Tektronix, where she met Pam Edstrom, who would later join her to launch Wag Ed. Waggener Zorkin also met technology marketing guru Regis McKenna, who Waggener Zorkin says fascinated her, particularly his ideas about how complex concepts should be communicated. "Communications and technology has been a great marriage," she says. "I knew early on that it wasn't about bits and bytes. You have to communicate a company's substance. You have to get onto the radar of those you want to talk to. But you also have to get into their hearts. Everything has to be grounded in good deeds. You have to look at what the company has done versus what it wants to do. Once that substance is uncovered, then you can see what is different about the story and the storytelling behind it. "There are so many stories being told today that unless your story is unique and palatable to the human mind, your audience could miss your voice," Waggener Zorkin adds. "You have to tell the story that is most compelling to the person who is listening." She was so impressed with McKenna that she soon joined his firm, excited by the challenge of working with technology companies, where communications didn't come naturally for engineers and scientists, and often still doesn't. Working at McKenna's Portland office posed plenty of opportunities and challenges. She worked with some of the biggest names in technology, including Intel and Apple. But she was also in a small office and, thus, learned to be self-sufficient, bringing in new clients and launching them, as well. "My confidence grew," says Waggener Zorkin, "and with that I knew I could start to take some risks." She soon took one of the biggest risks of her career, launching Wag Ed, which would become one of the largest independent agencies around. A solid mix of confidence and youthful naivete - "We were so young; we didn't know what we didn't know, and that was a good thing because we weren't so keenly aware of what could go wrong" - was present in the agency's early days. But a desire to be surrounded by peers driven by curiosity is what helped Wag Ed survive those first years and thrive to this day, says Waggener Zorkin. "Melissa is such a balanced person," says Marianne Allison Ward, EVP and chief innovation officer at Wag Ed. "She has a real balance between head and heart. She has a strong sense of the symbolic importance of her role and the real importance of her role. And she has a real long-term perspective while maintaining an eye for substance and detail. She will send a handwritten note to everyone who participated in a brainstorming session. That's not unusual to do with clients. But I don't know how many agencies would do that with staff. She has a very strong understanding of the role she plays." Waggener Zorkin has worked with an enviable list of clients over the years - Microsoft, IBM, SAP, AT&T, The Walt Disney Co., Dell, AMD, and many others. Despite the agency's success, Waggener Zorkin says that in a relationship-driven business, taking care of her staff is paramount. Waggener Zorkin has taken that philosophy beyond her agency. She is a supporter of the Technology Access Foundation, a nonprofit group that provides professional and technical opportunities for underserved populations in the Seattle area. She is also a longtime supporter of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, which earlier this year appointed her to its board of directors. "She has such a passion about what we are doing," says Nancy Greenwood Vehrs, director of major and principal gifts at Fred Hutchinson. "She has this innate ability to see the big picture, and I think that's pretty exceptional. It stems from her interest in science and research. And that comes from her childhood. I love it when I see a personal passion translate into a work passion. It speaks highly to her character and the tone she sets for her employees." Despite her achievements, Waggener Zorkin knows how to keep success in perspective. You don't have to be the biggest to be the best, but being the best can certainly make you one of the biggest, she explains. And while the agency has grown, what drives Waggener Zorkin has stayed the same. "I'm still driven by that opportunity to communicate really complex ideas," she says. "Everything around us has roots in innovation. I'm still fascinated by innovation. I want to make sure that I'm part of a culture where ideas are discussed and challenged. You must have a culture where the idea reigns as king."

Melissa Waggener Zorkin

1983-present CEO and president, Waggener Edstrom

1981-1983 Group account manager, Regis McKenna

1978-1981 PR supervisor, Tektronix

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