Hiring a PR firm pt 2

After speaking with Whitney, I decided to follow up with a PR firm I knew (and wrote about once). Mao PR is a NY company with a reputation for nurturing emerging talent so I wanted to see what they’d have to say on the matter. So I talked to Roger, he and his brother are the ones who started the firm.

Q. So Roger, what can you tell me about the ins and outs of hiring a PR firm?
A.With our background (Roger is a design school graduate who produced his own line), we prefer clients that are new and talented of course. We’re selective and will meet with a designer two or three times to make sure they’re ready to make this kind of commitment.

Q. By selective you mean?
A. The designer has got to have the back of the house together. If we promote a designer and people want to buy, they’ve got to have it together. They can’t fall through. It’s in meeting with them that we can determine whether they’ve got everything lined up.

Q. What kind of designers are a compelling sell?
A. Star quality -that sells. Star quality or an interesting story. If a designer’s had the best background, went to the best school, there’s no appeal there. One of my best clients were circus performers; they had a compelling story. Editorial fashion writers aren’t interested in just talent anymore, that’s everywhere. Another client was interesting because of their age. You have to think “what’s the gimmick”; ask yourself what do fashion readers want to read about?

Q. How would you summarize what you’re looking for in a client?
A. Talent, production ready and with star power.

Q. What are the benefits of hiring a PR firm? Why not just advertise on your own?
A. You need press and you can buy that but with ad space in Vogue running at about $14,000 a page, that’s just not in the budget of most start ups. You’d use a PR firm instead of advertising. Why place an ad if you can have a writer from a fashion publication writing about you and showing photos of your products? If the magazine wants to use it, it implies an endorsement too. If you get written up, it doesn’t cost you anything. You don’t have to pay a photographer to shoot the ad or somebody else to design it for you. If the fashion publication is going to write about you, they pay for the photo shoot and everything with it. You don’t have to pay for ad space.

Q. So how do you promote a designer?
A. We have a showroom with samples from all the designers we represent. Now, there are so many designers that fashion editors don’t have time pound the pavement, the market is flooded so a firm like ours makes it easy for them. The editors and writers will make an appointment to see 15 lines. We’ll show each line, give it a whole story and lay it out for them and give it a pitch, something that really makes it stand out. It’s really hard to toot your own horn but a PR firm can do that for you.

Another advantage of a PR firm is that an editor who may not have been looking for a line like yours will discover it. Every publication is different, some are more conservative so they wouldn’t have shopped your line but in this venue, there’s a lot of crossover. While your line typically may not have appealed to a conservative publication, you may have certain pieces that do. Also, it’s a way for editors to revisit old lines they’ve already known about but may not have liked before. Some editors don’t really know who they want to see but they’ll say, I need to see 5 leather lines so that’s an opportunity for crossover too.

Q. I gather that a PR firm can act as a sales organization itself. Can you explain more on how that works?
A. PR firms definitely generate sales; we’re showing the line and can help in other ways you might not have realized. For example, let’s say that one of your pieces will be featured in a magazine but you haven’t sold enough of them to make the cut; that’s where we can help. The magazine will need to refer their readers to stores who are carrying you so we’ve been known to call up the sales reps and say such and such piece will be featured but we don’t have a store that’s carrying it. Usually stores will pick it up then! Like sales reps, we’ll need product samples and as early as possible. For Fall, we need samples the first week of January. If you’re a new client we’re picking up mid-season, we can go with your past product line. While we like new designers, a customer with a few seasons under their belt is best.

Q. You’d said that you preferred new designers but that a designer with some experience is best. It seems like a bit of a contradiction, can you explain?
A. It’s a thin line, in many ways we like getting them fresh for two reasons. One, they’re newsworthy. Second, if they’re new, we can still change some things about them.

Q. Change things about them?
A. Oh yes, their company name, their label, the name of their line.

Q. Really now…I’ve had an ongoing battle with designers over what they choose to call their lines. It’s never ending. It’s interesting to hear you say you have the same problems…(we digress into 15 minute discussion that will remain off the record)
A. Yeah, many designers need to change the name of their lines; if they’re fresh, we can do that easily.

Q. How do you recommend designers name their lines?
A. They should just use their names. Period. No add-ons, nothing cutesy. Names are neutral. A designer’s style may change and a name can get dated. If they’re not thinking ahead, they can get boxed into that. (Roger gave me an example but I don’t recall it but basically said maybe you start out in urban but gravitate into something classical and an urban related name isn’t going to work in classical product lines. He’s seen it happen and so have I). If a designer already has a themed label, for example XOXO, we’ll change it to XOXO by Jane Smith. Over time, we’ll make Jane Smith more prominent until we can leave XOXO off entirely.

Q. I’ve heard some PR firms try to sign you up for long commitments. Do you have a stipulated period of contract?
A. Yes, we prefer a six month try out period with a designer.

Q. Do you mind if I ask your fees?
A. No problem. Our fees range between 3-5 K per month. It varies depending on what we’ve each agreed we’ll be doing. If demand for the line goes up, our price will go up too because we’re having to work it more often and longer in response to demand. Still, getting editorial press through a PR agency is a lot more cost effective than buying advertising at $14,000 a page.

Q. How do you know if a PR firm is a good one to hire?
A. Ask for a list of clients and follow up with that for referrals. Go to their website and be sure to look at their press kit. You should visit their showroom. Another thing you should ask is how long they’ve had each client. If they have a high rate of turnover and have only kept clients for 6 months, that’s something to watch out for.

Q. What are some red flags in hiring a PR firm?
A. If they promise they can get you things -we never promise- that’s a red flag. It’s not up to them. A firm can get editors in the door and push your line but there are no guarantees.

They shouldn’t guarantee celebrities either. No one can guarantee a celebrity is going to like your style enough to wear it. Now, we’re good friends with Britney Spears stylists but that’s no guarantee Britney Spears is going to wear it.

Another thing to watch for is party people. If you’re seeing your PR people out at all the big parties, it doesn’t mean they work harder only that they party harder. Like anything, this is a tough job with long hours and we don’t have time to hit all the parties. If you have connections -maybe only about 10 firms (in NY?) are successful- you don’t need to go to parties. We work a lot of hours.

Lastly, listen to how they talk about their other designers because that’s how they talk about you to editors. Ask yourself if you’d want a PR person talking about you in those ways to a fashion editor.

Q. Tell me the downsides of working with designers, do you see a lot of prima donnas?
A. There are a lot of prima donnas! They’re demanding. In those cases, we really have to love the product and the philosophy.

A lot of problems we have with designers are related to production readiness. Do they have style numbers, is their pricing in line (Roger says prices are often too low), do they have line sheets, how well it’s made. We do a full line review. We’ll also be interested in whether they have a design background or what they did before they got into this (Roger agrees people have very diverse backgrounds and that not having a design school background is not an indicator of success). We’ll want to know if they worked strictly in a design room or if they also worked in production (Roger agrees production experience is best).

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  1. christy fisher says:

    At 8K-15K a month for a PR budget, you surely cannot be a “startup”. I am familiar with MAO (they did Kate O’Connor, who made the poncho a comeback item- she is now back teaching at RISD, after getting big for a second and then trying to take it all to China).
    At 8-15 K you could be doing a trade show every 2 weeks.
    A “chance” at a photo of Britney Spears is not worth it for me. I would want guaranteed placement for that price.

  2. Kathleen says:

    Christy, where are you getting the figure of 8-15K a month? Mao charges 3-5K a month. Also, are you trying to say Mao is to blame for the poncho fiasco? I couldn’t even BEGIN to count the number of DEs who don’t follow my advice which has in part, led to their undoing. If a poncho (or any other single item) is the only thing one has going for oneself, one has bigger problems than anyone can resolve.

  3. christy fisher says:

    Sorry.. I misread the amount..but even at 3-5K a month it is out of range for a startup..I’d still want a guarantee with those kind of fees.. and no..I am not “blaming” them for the popularity of the poncho..Isn’t it their job to popularize something?..They did their job well with that item.. Unfortunately the designer did not have their “back end together” or a “followup hit”..
    I agree with you..one trick ponies will not make it for the long haul.

  4. Marilyn says:

    First, thanks for the great information. There are never any guarantees with PR, but no one has mentioned the most important fact about public relations. It is the creditability that is imparted. When we read a story about a new item or designer in any magazine, no matter how small the item, we tend to believe this to be “good” and “the truth” but most do not know that magazines (and newspapers) get much of their content from press releases (they no longer have the money to keep full-time writers on staff to develop stories). However, after I looked at the Mao website, read their background, and looked at how they work, I think I would look around before I dropped any money with them. If they rep 15 or so lines, how do you know if you are getting equal treatment? They also seem to specialize in “edgy” fashion which may limit their interest in anything else. Also, since both the owners have degrees in fashion, I’m certain they feel they are “experts”. This may work against the individual designer. I might want someone who doesn’t know everything about design and manufacture but DOES know that they need to work every angle to get me publicity. I think I might look around locally or regionally to find someone who could do a reasonable job for less money. A few local mentions might be picked up by a local stringer for a national magazine. OR, we can start writing our own press releases — it’s not rocket science! Thanks

  5. roger says:

    Thank you Kathleen for the great article. Just to clarify–I never represented anyone called Kate O’conner–I did represent Liz Collins who was a very well known designer for a number of years and she is now a professor at RISD–perhaps that is who she is referring to. A company that does not have a budget for sales, rent, pr, labor, etc..should not really start a business in my opinion. Start ups that only have a very small budget will probably burn out quick as fashion is now a big business and requires a well planned stratagy for at least 3 years. If a designer is not ready for a commitment of that or longer before seeing a return, then no matter how talented they are, they will probably only last avery short time. Ive seen so many designers that should have waited til they got larger investors before launching. You would never open a coffee shop without having enough funds to pay at least 1 years rent, would you? No different in my world.

  6. christy fisher says:

    You are so right.. It was Liz.. sorry..Liz is an excellent designer. Well rated in the industry..but her goods are hard to produce at a mass level.

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