Grayling vet Martha Shaughnessy launches The Key

The agency is made up of former Grayling and Atomic PR executives.

Martha Shaughnessy
Martha Shaughnessy

SAN FRANCISCO: The Key, a boutique shop made up of former Grayling and Atomic PR vets, has officially launched.

Founded by former Grayling MD Martha Shaughnessy, The Key has a roster of clients including: tech companies, such as Lending Club, Remitly, and Shopkick; VC firm Atomic Labs; consumer companies such as Cabot Cheese and Natierra; and nonprofits such as Women’s March and Asian Art Museum.

"We work with stealth companies that haven’t launched [as well as] public companies, [along with] some retainer work and project work," Shaughnessy said. "We’re trying to [be] a tight fit with the business needs of whoever comes knocking, [so] we’re not focused on what we offer but on what they need."

After an extensive beta phase, The Key is now being staffed by Grayling vets that worked together at the Huntsworth agency. Some, such as principal Julia Konstantinovsky, worked at Atomic PR before Huntsworth acquired them in 2011. The holding company merged the tech-focused agency with Grayling in 2015.

Konstantinovsky worked at Atomic starting in 2005. After the 2015 merger, she was director of personnel and operations at Grayling. She exited the Huntsworth agency in June 2016 and later joined VSC as director of client strategy.

Principals Katherine Madariaga and Jennifer Parson are also joining The Key by way of Grayling. Both served at Atomic PR before its acquisition as well.

Adrianna Abreu is serving as associate and Martina Barrera-Hernandez as apprentice.

"Having run big teams at big agencies, we found that trying to do everything in-house tends to be a diluted experience," Shaughnessy said. "We’d rather be clear in what we do, in what we aren’t good at but that we can always find that solution. And if a client wants one budget and one neck on the block, we can assure that along with quality work across channels."

Shaughnessy exited Grayling after PayPal picked Edelman as global PR AOR over the agency last year. She described that as a "giant pitch" that caused a "seven-year swing in [its] budget" and "required a pretty significant restructure."

"When I looked at the numbers and headcount, I thought, if I take my own salary and headcount out of here, that will be the most significant way to hit that number without disrupting a team I’ve worked to build, as opposed to randomly shooting fish in a barrel to make [that mark] with junior-level folks," Shaughnessy explained.

Shaughnessy added that she stayed on at Grayling for several months after to ensure a smooth transition, and didn’t take any business with her from the firm.

"I was all amicable," said Jon Meakin, the global head of strategic services at Grayling, of Shaughnessy's departure. "She wanted to start her own agency so she took the time to think about it and plan. We wish her well."

Over the course of three years, Atomic PR grew revenue from $10 million to $19 million while more than doubling its headcount from 65 to 150, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Shaughnessy was MD of Grayling San Francisco (what was Atomic) and was responsible for integrating the agency.

Since Atomic completed its earn-out, Grayling has experienced significant revenue loss. In 2014, Grayling recorded revenue of $125 million. Last year, it recorded revenue of $73 million.

For the first half of 2017, Grayling reported it returned to profitability despite a 24% drop in revenue.

Atomic entrepreneurship
Other Atomic alumni have gone on to start their own agencies. Earlier this year, Andy Getsey and James Hannon started management consulting firm Employera, which is focused on recruitment.

Of Shaughnessy, Getsey said via email that, "[She’s] a talented leader, communicator, and client management executive. She was part of our core team at Atomic PR and was a very solid contributor to the business across the board. I’m sure The Key will do really well."

Atomic cofounder Rebecca West also launched Helium Communications in 2015, her LinkedIn states.

Former Atomic director Chris Fucanan launched AquaLab PR in 2014; while former VP Lisette Paras launched Gravitate PR in 2016.

Editor's note: This story was updated with comment from Jon Meakin on October 23, 2017.

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