“5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became the CEO of Peppercomm”, With Steve Cody

Never, ever, hire or represent friends. I’ve seen too many friendships derailed by disagreements in the office or arguments over money. I’ve also seen totally incompetent individuals hired solely because they “live down the corner.” Do NOT mix the personal with the professional. It will ruin your business and cloud your objectivity. I had the […]

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Never, ever, hire or represent friends. I’ve seen too many friendships derailed by disagreements in the office or arguments over money. I’ve also seen totally incompetent individuals hired solely because they “live down the corner.” Do NOT mix the personal with the professional. It will ruin your business and cloud your objectivity.

I had the pleasure to interview Steve Cody. Steve is a comedian, climber, and dog lover. Oh, and he’s also the founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a fully strategic communications firm headquartered in New York with offices in San Francisco and London. In that role, he is responsible for everything from implementing strategy and counseling clients to leading business development and bringing new products and services to market. Steve’s biggest passion is helping others. He derives immense satisfaction from mentoring students, guest lecturing at universities and helping fellow marketing communications professionals. He is the current chairman of the Institute for Public Relations, a longtime member of the Arthur W. Page Society, a member of the advisory councils of the College of Charleston and the University of Florida and was named one of Northeastern University’s 100 most successful alumni. He also co-authored “What’s keeping your customers up at night?” which was published by McGraw-Hill in 2003.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I graduated from Northeastern University in Boston with an undergraduate degree in journalism. NU’s work-study program enabled me to become a copy editor at The New York Times (at age 19) and a WGCH radio personality at 21, broadcasting news, sports and weather five times daily as well as hosting my own monthly talk show. I also became a 21-year-old copywriter at CBS News Radio in Boston, where I was responsible for banging out the lead stories every 10 minutes, eight hours a day, six days a week.

As a result, I possessed two highly relevant years of work-related experience when I began competing for the few entry- level jobs available after graduation. My Northeastern experiences taught me three key lessons for my eventual career path in public relations:

  • To understand what did, and did not, constitute news (a fundamental need in a business where every client believes their story belongs on the cover of Time Magazine).
  • To work under intense deadline pressures (an absolute prerequisite in crisis communications).
  • To realize that, while I was a born news junkie and I appreciated the hard work journalists put in, spending my life in a newsroom just wasn’t for me. And so, I pursued a career in public relations instead

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?

I faced multiple challenges when I launched my firm, Peppercomm, in September 1995: No clients, no brand awareness and a meager $12,500 in start-up cash loaned to me by my mother-in-law and older brother. It was true Horatio Alger stuff.

I overcame the obstacles by crafting a memorable positioning statement that immediately differentiated us from the hundreds of other Manhattan-based PR firms on day one.

I arranged drinks with the CEO’s of the top 10 PR firms at the time (I’d met each at prior conferences of the Public Relations Society of America). I briefed each CEO about Peppercomm and asked if they would forward me any conflicts or leads that were too small for them to represent. They did.

I also met with the leading PR trade magazine editors of the day to ensure that they knew all about me, my firm and my vision. One magazine seemed to write something every month about a rising boutique named Peppercomm.

My launch strategy worked beautifully.

By the end of the first year, we’d achieved nearly $1 million in billings. By year two, we’d reached $2.5 million and by year three, O’Dwyer’s, one of the leading PR trades I met with, had named Peppercomm America’s fastest-growing PR firm. O’Dwyer’s bestowed the very same accolade on us in year four when our billings topped $5 million.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

Success came because we had an ability to identify the “white space” — opportunities to introduce new ideas or service offerings that didn’t exist before — and because we treated Peppercomm as our most important client. I also never took myself too seriously and believed in providing rock star hires, no matter how junior, free rein to show me what they could do.

We fast became one of the best-known and most highly respected firms in the business. As a result of these early accomplishments, I was routinely invited to appear on CNN and MSNBC and was featured or quoted in countless AP, Reuters, NPR and Bloomberg stories. I joined, or was invited to join, all of the industry’s premier trade organizations and college advisory boards.

In one fell swoop, I began rubbing shoulders with the top CCOs in our business. As these associates became friends, Peppercomm began to be invited to the biggest “dances” in the business. We not only competed with global agencies, we BEAT them. In just the first few years, we were named agency of record for Aon, Ernst & Young, GE’s “Imagination at work” campaign and Steelcase’s major repositioning program. We also submitted for, and won, top industry awards, including two Silver Anvils (the Oscars of our profession), and a Crain’s New York Business award for best workplace culture in NYC (the latter meant more to me than all of the others combined).

The other key contributor to my success was acknowledging I was NOT the smartest guy in the room. As a result, I hired (and continue to hire) top professionals who were smarter than me and possessed skills I didn’t.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. PR firms are hired to be fired. It may be a month, a year or a decade, but you will be fired (and possibly for no fault of you own). One great example was a major multinational for whom we’d done outstanding work for seven years. The Chief Communications Officer (CCO) retired and was replaced by a new one who was quickly seduced by a weekly bouquet of red roses sent by the CEO of one of the country’s largest PR firm. Each time, he’d attach a note that read “You’d be the reddest rose in your bouquet of flowers.” The easily romanced CCO soon fired us and I learned a valuable, if painful, lesson. Never take ANY client relationship for granted.
  2. Money doesn’t mean power. The industry trades annually list the 50 most powerful people in PR. While these individuals control colossal budgets and are successful in their own right, that doesn’t make them any smarter, more influential or more powerful than self-made entrepreneurs like me. Money doesn’t make one powerful. Ideas do.
  3. The grass is always greener. I no longer worry about losing junior employees who, never having worked anywhere else, believe Shrangi-La is located just around the corner. In fact, we’ve had many former employees who have boomeranged back to Peppercomm after brief stints elsewhere.
  4. Fiscal responsibility is essential. It’s easy to take one’s eye off the ball when times are good, but an astute owner/CEO will watch her cash flow, profitability and line of credit like a hawk. To do otherwise is to invite the End of Days.
  5. Never, ever hire or represent friends. I’ve seen too many friendships derailed by disagreements in the office or arguments over money. I’ve also seen totally incompetent individuals hired solely because they “live down the corner.” Do NOT mix the personal with the professional. It will ruin your business and cloud your objectivity.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Follow your personal passions. Mine are ice, rock and mountain climbing, performing stand-up and improvisational comedy and scheduling uber intensive three-days-a-week workouts with my personal trainer.

My regimen leaves me completely cleansed in mind, body and spirit, and able to hit the ground completely refreshed upon my return. My colleagues need to discover their escape valve and use it early and often.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Chris Komisarjevsky, the former CEO of Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller — two of the largest global PR firms, was hugely influential in terms of teaching me how to counsel difficult clients and motivate underperforming employees.

One time, I had badly screwed up by fielding an interview with a top 10 daily newspaper reporter and being quoted in the subsequent article instead of the top client.

Chris defended my actions with the client (as well as Hill & Knowlton’s horrified executive management team), told me my job was secure and said he was letting me off the hook because he not only wanted me to fail fast but, as I rose in the corporate hierarchy, to remember my egregious mistake and, when the occasion arose, forgive a young employee’s gaffe in the same way he had just forgiven mine. I still follow that advice today.

Mitch Kozikowski, the former CEO of the Rowland Agency and Earle Palmer Brown, two more highly respected PR firms, introduced me to the importance of embracing integrated marketing solutions for clients and opened my mind to countless possibilities in doing so.

Bill Southard, also a CEO of Earle Palmer Brown (and who now runs his own eponymous firm) taught me to lose gracefully, live for the moment and have tons of fun in this incredibly intense field of ours.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

I’m at the point in life where I really want to pay it forward professionally.

As a result, I’m now chair of the Institute for Public Relations (IPR), a member of the Page Society’s nominating committee, a lifetime member of the College of Charleston’s Advisory Council, a member of three other university boards, a regular contributor to work-life balance features for various media AND a fundraiser for a different charity every year. I also routinely guest lecture at countless colleges and universities.

I’m also an insatiable lifelong learner who is absolutely dazzled by the pace of change and constantly looking for new ways to outthink and outflank the competition.

Oh, and I singlehandedly introduced the concept of training every Peppercomm employee (and countless clients) in the art of stand-up and improvisational comedy (the skills of which are immediately transferable to a business setting).

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

That I was never afraid to speak up and speak out against injustice or hypocrisy in the business world. I’d like to be remembered for tirelessly advocating on behalf of the thousands of often overlooked small firms.

I’d also like to be remembered for helping countless others in their careers and for being one of the most vocal advocates for greater diversity and inclusion in our industry. I’m very proud of the fact that 80 percent of Peppercomm’s senior management team is female and I’ve recruited several highly qualified women and people of color to the boards of the IPR and The College of Charleston.

Last, but not least, I’ve never hesitated to take the road less traveled and earned myself the sobriquet of iconoclast (I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been introduced as being something of an iconoclast). I love it since I, for one, don’t want to be remembered as someone who went along with the crowd.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

I’d insist people in our industry possess (and proselytize for) a far more global POV.

I’d lobby hard for every PR practitioner in every part of the globe to travel to other markets and experience new and diverse cultures and ways of thinking.

Knowledge is the ONLY antidote to the rapidly escalating ignorance, isolationism and racism that is tearing our world apart.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

They can follow me on Twitter at @repmancody.

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