How a PR person started her own agency that works with biz journalists
Melissa Daly is the founding partner of MFD Communications in New York.
In the summer of 2011, she started her strategic communications business and has worked to build a niche offering, bringing value to her clients. Prior to starting MFD, she worked in communications at Goldman Sachs and Brunswick Group.
She spoke with Talking Biz News about the challenges of starting her own agency in the competitive world of financial services. What follows is an edited transcript.
Talking Biz News: What was the biggest challenge in starting your own agency?
Melissa Daly: The biggest challenge was navigating all the different steps including setting up the limited liability company, ad placements, email systems and accounting systems. When you’re starting out, you don’t want to invest money in other people doing things for you, so if you can do it yourself, you do. I learned along the way what I could have done more efficiently.
It’s a very personal process to start your own company, and I wanted to make sure everything was done as best as it could be. Even if you farm something out, you want the best person to do that job. But you don’t always know the best web designer or accountant, so it can be nerve wracking.
That was the tactical part. There was also the emotional stress of not having a paycheck. I knew we had some savings to sustain the business for some time, but there was a time when I knew we needed to be profitable.
I’m constantly drumming up new business and networking. In the early days, I knew I had to set up a certain number of meetings and coffees. And I still do. I needed to accomplish certain things everyday because driving the business forward is what is going to get you paid. The fear and embarrassment of failure is a real motivator.
The best piece of advice I got when I started was from someone who has been in the business a lot longer than me and who also started his own firm. He told me it wouldn’t be the people who are your closest friends who will refer or give you business. It’s their connections. You need to broaden your first contact point and network. It will be those people who recommend you and the more people you talk to, the more people who will likely refer you.
TBN: What has been the most rewarding part?
MD: The best part is getting a new client and helping them or their business. It’s rewarding to get a client and each win is getting you closer to your goals and helping to build the business.
We needed to set ourselves apart. We don’t do straight public relations. We do strategic communications. A lot of our business focuses on getting people to develop messages and content, then putting it out to their audience. We work to help define what clients are saying to their audience. A lot of that is media training and executive coaching.
For example, some of our clients are too close to the business or in a complicated field and can’t communicate their message in a simple way, which prevents them from being quoted. We spend a lot of time distilling their messages and helping people understand what they want to tell their audience and reporters. We help them speak intelligently and clearly about a product, initiative or company earnings. We help make sure they’re all telling the same story so clients and everyone else hears the same message.
TBN: How do you balance work with sourcing new business?
MD: You really have to set aside time to do the networking and sourcing your business when it won’t interfere with client work. You have to put in that time and effort, and know will take a lot of both. It won’t just come to you.
That said, you can’t do it at the expense of existing clients. You have to service your existing customer base. It’s easier to keep the client you have than to find a new one. You have to know your schedule and what each day looks like. If you’re out chasing business when a client needs you, then you need to source new business in a different way – maybe by finding evenings to network. Clients always come first.
TBN: Communications is competitive. How do you compete with the larger firms?
MD: A big part is that is having our two partners working closely with each of our clients. They get senior-level attention throughout the process. If you hired a larger agency, you wouldn’t get that all the time. We value and care more about our clients because each one so important. We can’t afford to lose them.
We also don’t track our hours like a bigger agency would do. If I were a senior person at large agency, I may have one to two hours per week for a client. We don’t put a junior person on the account like some larger firms may. We’re navigating the strategic work and the actual execution of the plan. Each of us has more experience than a typical client may experience so ultimately we can add more value to each relationship.
We really target a specific niche that many people can’t do effectively as part of a larger organization. Often, we work with other agencies and help fill in their gaps.
TBN: What advice would you give to someone just getting started in the industry?
MD: The best thing anyone getting into communication can do for herself is to learn about business. If you’re going to talk about or write about business, it’s a good idea to take some classes to learn about business generally and perhaps a specific industry. I talk to a lot of people going into communications who have a writing background. But it’s hard to offer advice if don’t know how an organization typically operates, or how businesses or the economy work.
Having that business perspective will help you learn to speak with executives and offer strategic advice. This would be true for any industry – art, communications, manufacturing. There is a business side to every industry. You need to know how the business side functions so can you can effectively talk about it. Know how to read a balance sheet and an earnings statement, understand how a marketing plan should work.
I was a business major, and my first job was as a financial planner. I learned about financial services by doing that and it enabled me to be a better communicator about financial services specifically, and business broadly. It helped me speak intelligently about financial services products.
Many people go into a major thinking they only need to learn what’s in that discipline, but you need other parts that will round out your career and make you better overall. That is how you can set yourself apart. If you’re going to get into business communications, you should really learn about certain parts of the business and the economy. It can only give you more credibility and confidence.