ANALYSIS <b>The Agency Business</b>: Rainmakers must have more to offer agencies than just buzz

Many DC agencies seek big-name former advisers or senators to bring clout and business to their firms. But rainmakers have to have actual expertise to keep clients happy. It's not hard to understand why agency bosses salivate over the prospect of recruiting a marquis name, particularly in Washington, DC. Even one former senator, ex-Presidential adviser, retired ambassador, or departed cabinet member can create a buzz around town and bring an aura of royalty to your shop.

Many DC agencies seek big-name former advisers or senators to bring clout and business to their firms. But rainmakers have to have actual expertise to keep clients happy. It's not hard to understand why agency bosses salivate over the prospect of recruiting a marquis name, particularly in Washington, DC. Even one former senator, ex-Presidential adviser, retired ambassador, or departed cabinet member can create a buzz around town and bring an aura of royalty to your shop.

But buzz and credibility alone don't increase revenues. Agency bosses want big names to bring in big business, which they often do. They also want them for one of the most valued assets in Washington: access. If potential clients know the committee chairman that they need to influence is a former boss of your senior partner, you've got a pretty strong leg up over the competition. But what about the rest of the work? What about strategy, message development, media relations, grassroots organization, and coalition building? It's fair to say the public perception of a "rainmaker" is someone who brings a famous name and not much else to an agency, a superstar who brings in the business but doesn't dirty herself with the day-to-day client work. Is this a fair estimation, and if so, are superstars in name only worth the salaries they command? The consensus seems to be an overwhelming no. "I think in our business the buyer is very sophisticated and they're only interested in people who are going to do work," says Leslie Dach, vice chairman at Edelman. "You hurt the brand if you have rainmakers who don't work." Dach echoes many of his colleagues when he suggests that such people are perhaps more valuable in a lobby shop than in a PR agency, where access to powerful people is a large part of the business. In PR, however, the message is every bit as important as the person delivering it. Sometimes more. And perhaps in the pre-Watergate days when the process was less public - when back-room deals were the prime mover in Washington - such people had more influence than they do now. But things have changed and so have business models. "That isn't the way our business works anymore," Dach explains. "Knowing the senior editor isn't enough because once he picks up the phone, he's going to want to have a substantive conversation." "I think everybody sees in this town that it is not only about access anymore," says Lorraine Thelian, senior partner at Ketchum. "It's about putting together a much bigger strategy for clients. You need to be able to do the right education. We need to be able to have the right message to break through the clutter." Thelian should know. Ketchum recently hired former New York congresswoman Susan Molinari to head not only its lobbying firm, The Washington Group, but its public-affairs practice, as well. Molinari admits that one of her greatest assets is her ability as a former member of the House to wander the floor unimpeded, but Thelian insists she remains 100% billable, working closely with clients to map both lobbying and communications strategies. "People want to work with Susan because she's extremely substantive," Thelian says. But not everyone is like Molinari, and certainly those who are don't come cheap (there's at least one firm in Washington with a reputation for hiring ex-senators who don't know how to answer their e-mail). So what if you want to bring a big name on board, but also someone who's used to slugging it out in the trenches? That's where the middle tier superstars come in. "We tend to look for people who are very senior in the profession without quite being at celebrity status," says Joe Gleason, managing director for MS&L. His agency just hired Chuck Alston, former executive director at the Democratic Leadership Committee (DLC) - a star in Washington, but likely not known outside the Beltway. Along with Larry Haas, former Office of Management and Budget spokesman, and longtime Republican communications strategist Ginny Wolfe, it's the kind of hiring MS&L is becoming known for in Washington. "For me, Al From is the celebrity at the DLC, but Chuck is the guy who gets things done on a day-to-day basis," says Gleason. "And that's really what we tend to emphasize because that's what agencies are hired to do, to get it done." Rainmakers about town
  • Edelman: Michael Deaver, former Ronald Reagan comms director
  • Hill & Knowlton: Frank Mankiewicz, former Robert F. Kennedy press secretary
  • Public Strategies Washington: Mike McCurry, former Bill Clinton press secretary
  • Ketchum/The Washington Group: Former congresswoman Susan Molinari
  • APCO: Don Riegle, former senator from Michigan

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