SS&K may be characterized as a PR firm, but that designation is not apparent when reviewing the work it does.
The firm, which was founded in 1993, has always focused on integrated marketing and combining disciplines, before technology and a fractured mediascape made that concept vogue.
The agency works with the upper echelon of NGOs and charities, including the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It also counts mobile phone operator Qwest, hotel chain Four Points by Sheraton (leading its recent search for a chief beer officer), and Anheuser-Busch as clients. SS&K usually provides clients with services beyond PR, including design, advertising, branding, and non-traditional marketing.
"The idea of both the twin pillars of integration and creativity has always driven us," says founding partner Rob Shepardson. "This was [formulated] in the days prior the information superhighway."
The first S in SS&K (formerly called Shepardson, Stern & Kaminsky), Shepardson, a graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, began his career in public affairs, working with current Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA) in the 1980s, before joining public affairs shop Sawyer Miller Group in 1987.
His greatest accomplishment, according to his bio, was "helping secure US support for Colombian president César Gaviria's dismantling of the Medellin drug cartel."
While that would seem to render consumer work mundane, Shepardson says, "Every marketing challenge is pretty interesting and enormously complicated."
Shepardson says leaving an established shop like Sawyer Miller was a big risk. "[I was] employed one day," he says. "The next, [I] had no clients or revenue."
After signing first client Time Warner Cable, his agency grew while remaining imbued with a spirit of cross-discipline work.
"People would suggest, 'Either be a consulting firm or ad agency,'" Shepardson says. "We've always rejected that. We don't think it's the right [way], and it's too much fun when we don't pick."
While Shepardson and SS&K have an attractive roster of clients, perhaps its most successful partnership almost didn't happen.
Mark McKinnon, vice chairman of Public Strategies, worked with Shepardson at Sawyer Miller in the 1980s. He is also a board member of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, having joined towards the end of the organization's RFP for marketing services. He says that the fellow board members had their minds set up on a frontrunner by the time he had arrived.
"It had all but been decided, but I said, 'You should look at SS&K,'" McKinnon says. "Once [SS&K presented], they were a blown away. It wasn't close. They brought attitude. Lance likes attitude."
Once established, the firm played a crucial role in the ubiquitous Lance Armstrong yellow bracelet.
"Nike wanted to do the yellow band prior to [Armstrong] winning his fifth Tour de France," Shepardson recalls, but it was SS&K that urged the apparel manufacturer to brand the bands with the foundation's tagline, Livestrong. The band-brand-tagline combination led to the sale of more than 60 million bracelets.
So many were sold, in fact, that profiteers famously sold counterfeits to fill the insatiable demand.
These days, Shepardson spends a good bulk of his time spearheading the agency's NGO work: 2006 wins alone include Working Assets, Coalition for Adolescent Girls, Share Our Strength, and Campaign Against Mass Atrocities and Genocide.
McKinnon says Shepardson's enthusiasm is key to the firm's successes. "[He's] passionate about what they do," offers McKinnon, "and any NGO wants people to bring passion to the table."
SS&K, founding partner
Sawyer Miller Group, various roles from associate to MD
RLP, Inc., a communications consultancy, associate