When the Message Is the Medium

There’s one hot Silicon Valley PR agency that isn’t breaking ground in new media, or at least not in ways immediately visible. This is an old-fashioned agency that gets the editor in chief of Red Herring together with the client at a gourmet restaurant to pitch a story over lunch and isn’t embarrassed to plaster that fact on the agency’s elegant web site.

This is an agency that prides itself on execution. But what characterizes this firm as a booming Internet player isn’t so much its client base (not many dot-coms in there)or its clips, but the dedicated way it uses the power of the Net to hone its messages.

The agency, A&R Partners, uses the Internet for research to research media, research competition, and track changes in press access. “Our whole media group is dedicated to know where people are,” says Founder and President Bob Angus. “Our agency promises to provide expert resources for clients and the press in order to be experts on their clients and their markets. And we do it.”

A&R is one of Silicon Valley’s top ten players, with fee revenues over $7 million and 71 employees headquartered in San Mateo. Probably best known as the agency that put Palm on the map and defended it against Microsoft’s depredations, A&R Partners takes a strategic approach that makes the company a standout.

“What we do,” says Angus, “is go to a client and help them put together a position, a platform and message set that plays in the current market. We help create a position that’s relevant. It’s maybe only two or three percent of what we do, but it’s what we’re going to take to the press. It’s important work.”

And A&R does it by leveraging the awesome research capabilities of the Net.

“The Internet brings every piece of information I need right to me,” says Angus. “It’s an amazing tool. What we’re finding is that new media has created such a buzz, so much noise, in the marketplace. How do we get through that when everybody can get to you today? We have to target you, bring you a story that is tailored to your needs, package what we’ve got and get it specifically to you.”

Jennifer Saffo, marketing vice president at Immersion Corporation, remembers the messaging workshop A&R ran when her company first started working with the agency. She found it “a highly structured approach, an extraordinarily interactive and focused process” that grew out of the research A&R brought to bear on the messaging issues. She notes, “The agency came into these meetings up to speed on competition, our industry, our markets.”

Mark Rawlins, a top-marketing executive out of Oracle and Xerox, is a partner at A&R charged with oversight of the intensive six-week Strategic Positioning Program. “There are a few major components to the program. One is a highly structured list of questions (an in-depth hierarchy of questions) designed to ferret out how the company thinks of itself. Then we look at something I call ‘wedge marketing,’ a way to understand how we fit into a market, how competitors fit, and how to develop a marketing wedge between the two. Finally there’s something called the ‘not function.’ We look more at how we do not want to be positioned, what does not work, and who is not a customer than the other way around. Taking this approach streamlines differentiation.”

The net result: A workbook clients can take to Business Week, The Wall Street Journal and prospective investors. “We develop messages,” says Angus, “that are true, believable, honest and relevant to the media. At the end of the day, the basic premises hold true. Journalists are not going to take a story they’re not interested in. Nothing in new media will stimulate interest. We focus on targeting, focusing our messages and targeting media.”

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