Four Lessons from 4 Years Running an Agency

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In my opinion, the best way to sum up anyone’s story is to pretend like you’re writing their obituary.

So here’s mine: coffee-crazed workaholic started an agency in Pittsburgh. Experienced moderate success.

It seems like just yesterday I was skipping classes my senior year of college to meet clients in the city. Back then, it was just me and a handful of contractors making it happen. It’s hard to believe that four years, countless clients and some awards later that we’re now a bunch of full-time employees. I’m mostly surprised I haven’t keeled over from drinking too much coffee yet.

Since Top Hat’s celebrating its fourth year, four seems like a magic number. So here are four lessons that I’ve learned along the journey:

Sometimes You Have to Put Yourself in the Microwave

In the past four years, there were two times I doubled-up on full-time opportunities. In 2014, I joined an inbound marketing agency as their director of inbound partnerships while still running Top Hat. The second time was in 2015 when I served a software as a service (SaaS) startup as their head of communications while (again) still running Top Hat.

There are crockpot and microwave experiences—both can be useful. These were the latter. Life was a bit chaotic and out of a balance for a while. To this day, however, these are two of the most significant experiences I’ve ever had that significantly catapulted things forward.

A microwave cooks things faster. So, if you’re looking to develop a certain skill or resume-lifter, a microwave experience can help you get ahead faster. Look for entrepreneurial opportunities or work on your side hustle to boost your overall momentum. Just be sure not to keep that microwave on for too long!

Build a Recipe Book of Interdisciplinary Techniques

Communications is becoming more integrated than ever. It’s critical to study, evaluate, experiment and understand not just public relations, but marketing and advertising too. To understand those disciplines a bit more intimately, you might have put yourself in the microwave. Ultimately, it will enhance your career, sense of direction and perspective in ways that will surprise you everyday.

You Must Understand How Business Works

The single biggest mistake communicators make is not understanding how business works. We as communicators need to prove our relevance at the business table. At the end of the day, what we do must support the goals of whoever we’re working with—client, employer or partner.

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You Must Be Business-Objective Focused

One of the earliest lessons I learned is that the impressions, click-through-rates and other metrics don’t mean anything if there’s no real return-on-investment. Some of the most blunderous client relationships early on were because I didn’t help the client establish tangible business objectives. The moment that changed, the entire business changed as well.

As communicators, the hard truth is that we’re often the first budget item cut when the going gets rough. We need to be in a business-objective mindset. It might not be revenue in all cases, but it must be Specific, Measurable, Attainable and Time-Based (SMART).

Want to hear more from Ben Butler? PRSA New Pros Opportunity:
TELESEMINAR 4/19

Join PRSA’s New Professionals Section as we talk with three PR pros from different industries about just a few of the different career paths public relations and communications have to offer. You’ll hear from Ben Butler, APR, founder of Top Hat IMC, on what it was like to start his own PR firm as a new pro, Sean Cartell associate media relations director for the University of Texas, on game day communications and managing media for multiple teams, and Brittney Westbrook, assistant director for marketing communications at The University of Southern Mississippi, on developing strategic campaigns for a university of 15,000 students and more than 120,000 alumni. Learn more about the opportunities out there in independent agency, sports and non-profit PR and how to get started on whichever path you choose.

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Ben Butler, APR, is the founder and client services director for
Top Hat—an award-winning marketing communications firm in Pittsburgh. In his past life he served as a public relations guy for a motorsports complex, director of inbound partnerships for an inbound marketing agency and head of communications for a software startup. He’s been named a Top Under 40 Communicator and is Accredited in Public Relations (APR)—a distinction held by less than 20-percent of all practitioners.

My PR Story: Evan Martinez

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The public relations industry has a vast array of career options and the opportunities for professional and personal growth are endless.

Like many PR professionals, the above is one of the primary reasons I chose to enter the public relations field. My love for communications is rooted in the passion I have for understanding people – what makes them tick, why they act a particular way – and while the curiosity is mostly natural, I have only become more intrigued over time.

I am currently the Communications Associate at American Iron and Steel Institute, a trade association representing the North American steel industry on Capitol Hill. Working on the Hill allows me to combine communications and politics, which are the two subject areas I am most interested in building. Regardless of the type of PR you work in, I have found three things to be vital for a successful PR career.

1. It’s okay to go off the beaten path

If someone had told me when I graduated from college I would be working for a trade association that represents the steel industry, I would have told them they were crazy. But everyone’s PR story is different, just like mine is different from many of the people I graduated with. Whether you are passionate about working for a firm or a nonprofit or a hospital, communications is everywhere. The sooner you realize it’s a variety of experiences that create your PR story, the sooner you will end up in the job you have always wanted.

2. Develop a professional routine

I wake up, go to the gym, make a hearty breakfast, pour the coffee in my travel mug and head out the door. On my morning commute I read Politico Playbook and The Skimm, which provides the perfect synopsis for happenings around the country. It is our job to know about world events and to educate others about those events.  Every organization has go-to publications every employee should read and be able to hold a conversation about. Developing healthy professional habits (having a good breakfast, reading, etc.) will ultimately make you a better and more productive employee.

3. Keep building on your PR story

It might be a cliché, but it is true–our stories never really end. No matter the amount of internships you completed, what degree you graduated with or what title you have at work, your PR story does not end. My current role is merely a stepping stone in a long PR path that will continue to grow with time and experience.  Make sure you are putting yourself out there and meeting new people who can introduce you to new professional opportunities.

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Integrating any portion of this advice into your life will hopefully help you like it has me. Find work that you are passionate about and master it.  Ensure that you are constantly learning and challenging yourself because that is how truly great PR stories are formed.

HeadshotEvan Martinez is a Communications Associate at the American Iron and Steel Institute, a trade association representing the North American steel industry on Capitol Hill. He graduated from American University in May, where he served as Vice President of AU’s PRSSA chapter. Evan has also been featured on PRNews Online. He will be attending Georgetown University in the fall for his Master’s where he will study Public Relations & Corporate Communications.