A Communications Trifecta for Entrepreneurial Startups
Waylon Tate is Principal at J. Waylon & Associates, a full spectrum PR and marketing agency that provides traditional public relations, digital outreach, and advertising services, mostly for startups. He and two of his friends with their own companies have created what Waylon refers to as a “communications trifecta,” with the ability to collectively and collaboratively meet every need an entrepreneurial startup might have. Web development, graphics, and photography? The client works with Waylon’s friend Tracy at Critical Launch. Printed material? The client may work with Waylon & Associate’s inhouse printshop or with Waylon’s friend Mikey at PrintRunner. Although Marketing and PR are quite different fields, both rely on attention to the bigger picture and the longer game. With an understanding of both disciplines, Waylon believes it makes sense for his clients to be able to get both of these experiences “in the same place.” Public relations requires an understanding of what is “warm and fuzzy” to particular network and media audiences. Waylon works closely with each client to elicit their operational definition of PR. For some, it may be no more than editorial solicitation. Others may want to reach into the influencer market, an investment which Waylon often recommends, especially in direct-to-consumer businesses, for its ability to provide the biggest return on investment. Influencers do not have to be “big names,” so much as they are people who have “come up through the ranks and are really good at taking pictures and developing a broad network of supporters.” Approaches to senior program producers or publication editors have to include not only the topic of conversation, but also how the material will resonate with that platform’s audience. Waylon believes the days of the promotional press releases are past and suggests that they may no longer be effective because of the intense competition for “air space.” The key to everything is communications which, Waylon says, “is all about relationships.” Relationships with the editors and the writers the agency works with have far more impact than sending out press releases. You have to think, “What does an audience want to hear about?” Waylon believes that, in the coming months, ecommerce is “going to absolutely explode into a level we probably can’t even comprehend at the moment.” Waylon did not start his career in any form of Marketing. After completing his Master in Public Policy (capstone project: Citizens Prosecutor Attorney), he finished a prestigious fellowship in Washington, D.C., and returned to Dallas to work in the District Attorney’s Office under the Texas’s first African-American DA. When the DA left office, Waylon had a choice: to take a cushy job in corporate communications . . . or to strike out on his own. Today, his public service experience plays into a new gig that he and Tracy started: Politicize.co. Waylon explains that their success is the result of reinterpreting what PR and marketing look like for progressive political campaigns. They use the same model and flow for political campaigns as they use for marketing restaurants and storefronts. The purpose is the same: to get people to buy into a brand. Waylon can be reached on his agency’s website at: https://www.jwaylon.com/ or on politicize.co. Transcript Follows: ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Waylon Tate, Principal at J. Waylon & Associates based in Dallas, Texas. Welcome to the podcast, Waylon. WAYLON: Thanks, Rob, for having me. ROB: Excellent to have you here. Why don’t you start off by giving us a rundown of J. Waylon & Associates and the expertise of that business? WAYLON: Absolutely. J. Waylon & Associates is a full spectrum PR and marketing agency here in Dallas, Texas. We really dive into both of those categories at the same time, handling everything from traditional public relations like editorial solicitation, navigating all of the editorial aspects of PR, but also diving pretty heavily into digital outreach and advertising as well. ROB: Waylon, you sit at this intersection of marketing and PR. What I’ve seen is quite often, firms will specialize in either one or the other and actively choose not to engage in the other side of the business. Why do you think that is? WAYLON: It’s interesting that you say that, first and foremost, but my approach was always different. I think when I started my agency, I came into it with an active understanding of both of those different disciplines. Marketing definitely has its own angles and things that you need to do, and PR is a very specialized field as well. I really wanted to enter into the marketplace myself as a startup addressing both of those needs to the clients. We work mostly with startups, and it made more sense to me, as I think it made sense to our clients, that they were able to get both of those experiences in the same house. ROB: Got it. Nonetheless, we all have to draw lines in our business. What lines of business have you then chosen not to engage in? Particular practices or things outside of the lanes you’ve chosen to be in, and why? WAYLON: Gosh, that’s a good question. I wish I had a better response for you. I’m kind of an all-inclusive kind of guy. To give you a little bit more of a backstory as to how my agency came out, there really is a creative hub. It’s a trifecta of communications, if you will. About 6 or 7 years ago, me and two of my best friends decided that we wanted to start our own gig. We really did create a communications trifecta. Myself, J. Waylon & Associates, we do mostly marketing and public relations. My best friend Tracy owns another company called Critical Launch, which does web development and graphics and all of those kind of things, photography and a number of other things. My other friend Mikey owns PrintRunner. So we actually have two print shops, one in-house here in downtown Dallas and another one in a city not too far away. We were really able to collectively meet every single need that a startup would encounter as they were going on that journey of entrepreneurship – everything from printing business cards to building their website to building out all of their social accounts and then to fully engage and build out platforms to increase their brand awareness through public relations, but also increase their on-the-ground sales through marketing efforts as well. ROB: It’s really interesting how you’ve created specialization and focus while still serving a broad set of needs by having different entities and brands to serve those different needs. WAYLON: Absolutely. ROB: Public relations means a lot of things to a lot of people. How have you seen the definition of public relations evolve and maybe even refocus after some of the noise – PR has become so noisy that maybe it’s not even effective. What would you say? WAYLON: Well, I’ll tell you this. You just hit the nail on the head. In fact, when we’re engaging with a potential new client, most of the time they don’t really understand that public relations is a very broad term. I think it’s important that we create an operational definition for each client in their own framework. What does PR mean to them? For some clients that means nothing but doing editorial solicitation; for other clients that means reaching into the influencer market. To touch on the question that you just asked, I can tell you that influencers, love them or hate them, have become a huge need for most businesses, especially in direct-to-consumer businesses that are selling merchandise. We represent a number of bars and restaurants, and I can tell you the influencer marketing that we do has made – I will actually encourage my clients to move a considerable amount of advertising dollars into hiring influencers because the return on that investment is normally much higher. ROB: What does an influencer look like for a local restaurant? Are these A-list, B-list celebrities? Or is it something more nuanced? Is it more of a social person with a high audience? WAYLON: Probably the second of those. It’s not so much about fame. I think it’s so much about the peer-to-peer respect. I don’t know if you know this, Rob, but there’s certainly an underlying group of influencers in the food marketplace that are really able to capture in a different way than an A- or B-list celebrity would in that I think the public at large has become much more cognizant of how the whole influencer marketing game works, and they’re more willing to participate in an activity or maybe visit a place that they wouldn’t normally, based on what an influencer suggests rather than what a celebrity is getting paid to talk about, even though the influencers are many times paid as well. ROB: For a food influencer, I’m picturing in my mind someone who got through half a season of Top Chef, so people got to follow them before they got eliminated. Is that one category? Or is it something I wouldn’t even expect? WAYLON: I would think that might be one category, but the majority of influencers that we work with here in Dallas – and keep in mind, Dallas is the number five media market in the country; we have a big population here as well. But no, to be honest with you, these are people that have come up through the ranks and are really good at taking really, really good pictures and developing a broad network of supporters. I think, again, we always have to assign definitions to these terms, and they’re forever evolving, but no, the majority of influencers that we work with have a really large following but have never had media exposure through reality television and those means. ROB: Really interesting. I’ve never really thought about this alignment between influencer and PR because both of them require an attention to the bigger picture and the longer game. To an extent, you can measure the lift to a restaurant as to how one month was over another, but in a broader sense, much like – as you would call it, I think – an editorial solicitation, you’re not necessarily getting leads coming in or credit cards coming in that you can link back in the traditional attribution model. WAYLON: That is absolutely true. In fact, there really is no – and this is going to sound incredibly crazy, probably, to hear – but I tell my clients, there are metrics. There are analytics. If we deploy a digital advertisement, we’re going to be able to follow that train, that sales tunnel to understand where it’s coming from. With public relations, it is a much different ballgame, and many times it’s very difficult to navigate earned media and to understand exactly how you’re getting from Point A to Point B and was it effective in placing those dollars there. But they serve two very different purposes. For example, in March, believe it or not, during the beginning of the COVID pandemic, we launched a pretty high-end wine bar and marketplace called Trova here in Dallas. We knew going in that we were going to be up against some obstacles, obviously. But we really utilized each one of those services in a very different way. For the public relations avenue, we built out a communications plan that was driven in understanding that there would be some media interest in “Why is this woman investing so much money into opening this wine bar in the middle of a pandemic when the city is really shut down?” There was indeed a lot of interest in having that conversation, which really increased brand awareness. We saw a huge uptick to the website and other digital sources when those articles started generating. But for the marketing aspect, we understood that we were going to have to really pivot to different ways of getting people engaged and seeing the follow-through to purchase. Was that curbside? Was that order deliveries to go? Traditional ways of marketing a restaurant is you’re trying to bring people into the space. Well, obviously, in a pandemic when you’re mandated to not be inside of the space, you have to understand, this is moving forward; the client is moving forward with opening the space, so how do you do that from a marketing perspective? We did it. It wasn’t easy, and we’re still not easy. We’re still working through that. ROB: I have a friend in the restaurant business, and I don’t know whether he has a very good PR firm or whether he is an instinctive public relater. You mentioned, “Why is this woman opening a restaurant and spending lots of money on it to open during a pandemic?” There are so many layers and hooks and pegs to pull on there, versus what a restaurateur might want to do is say (A) “I’m opening a restaurant or (B) “I’m opening a restaurant; here’s the kind of food I’m making.” They’re such basic stories. How do you think about turning this factual story of “I’m opening a restaurant” into something that is worth talking about, that has a hook to it? WAYLON: The essence of public relations specifically dealing with the media is you really have to understand the audiences of each one of those networks or publications. What we always do as PR agents is try to figure out what is the warm and fuzzy. And you have to understand that if we’re going to senior producers of morning shows or editors of particular publications, we have to explain to them in the pitch not only “this is what we’re wanting you to talk about,” but “this is how it’s going to resonate with your audience.” There are a number of magazines here in Dallas that focus on nothing but the food and beverage industry, so the pitches that we had to them were much different than the pitches we had to really engaged podcasts or the morning shows. For the first probably 4 weeks that we deployed this communications campaign, most of those conversations really circled around her, the owner, and this journey that she was about to go through. I think that what we found was there was a really good pickup of people that were interested – yes, there’s a new space opening up and it’s something that we want to visit, but also, I think she got a lot of support because everyone in the city understands what entrepreneurs are going through. I think they wanted to be in many ways the wind beneath her wings of making this journey that was about to take place a reality and support her however they could. ROB: Really interesting. I’ll ask, with that level of customization going into the pitch to the publication or to the outlet, what then is the place in 2020 for the vaunted press release? WAYLON: Let me tell you this, Rob. I haven’t sent a press release in probably 10 months. Again, I think that maybe it could be the difference in generational folks that are working communications, but press releases to me – and this is probably going to sound like sacrilege to a lot of other publicists that are going to listen to this podcast – in many ways are archaic because you’re competing with so many other brands that are trying to push whatever it is that they’re wanting to talk about. Communications in and of itself is all about relationships. We rely much more on the relationships that we have with the editors and the writers that we work with than we do on sending out press releases. It just doesn’t make sense to me. I mean, maybe if you’re in consumer goods and you’re creating a new product or you’re launching a brand new item, that might be a space for that, and then you put something on the wire. But for really hyperlocal communications, at least for me and my agency, we don’t really send out press releases. ROB: Got it. Thanks for the take there. I appreciate that sort of thing. You can certainly get pitched on all sorts of platforms and all sorts of different plans to push out press releases, but that thought of “What is the audience wanting to hear about?” is a much more thoughtful approach to it. Waylon, you mentioned a little bit of the mechanics of starting and the partners and the trifecta of businesses, but let’s step a moment into the “why.” What made you decide to put a stake in the ground and start your own business instead of being a part of joining/leading someone else’s? WAYLON: I found my way to public relations and marketing in an odd way. I have a Master’s in Public Policy. I had finished a pretty prestigious fellowship in Washington, D.C., came back to Dallas and started working with the district attorney’s office. In fact, the capstone project that I did for my master’s project was starting what was called the Citizens Prosecutor Academy. Now, keep in mind the Dallas District Attorney’s office is the seventh largest in the country. It’s huge. They have some 500 employees. So, to be able to engage as a master’s student with such a large entity was a pretty cool experience for me. But what it did was it opened me up to a district attorney that was the first-ever African-American elected to that office in the entire state of Texas. He was on Bill Maher and in the New York Times, something on a much bigger scale than a normal district attorney would be. I really got a firsthand kind of power worker experience with communications just in that experience alone. When he left office, I really had two choices. I was going to go into a corporate communications job and have a cush-cush experience, or I would take that leap of faith and really jump out on my own. If I never make another good decision, that was the good one to make. That was really the way I found myself to PR and marketing. Then it was just a really good time for my two friends as well. I think we all foresaw what was coming. We really looked internally at our own strengths and what we could bring to the table, and it made sense, for us at least, that I would be able to, as a good communicator, bring in the clients and then offer them stellar web development that I could push over to Tracy, or all of their printing needs and move over to Mikey. And it worked equally with the other two; if Tracy was developing a website for one of his clients, it made sense for him to suggest PR and marketing to me. ROB: If one looks at your background, clearly you have that background in public service. You also have a branch of business that you work on involving political activity, and I would imagine some PR and marketing around that world. How do you think about the cyclicality of that business? The good part is you have a steady-state PR business that is operating when there’s not anything of political note to dive into, but then you have a year like this year where there’s everything political to dive into. How do you handle that burst of activity on the political side with also trying to build a resilient and ongoing business in the traditional PR and marketing space? WAYLON: Well, with a lot of caution and care, I’ll tell you that. You always have to approach the situation when you own your own business with, like I said, caution and care. With J. Waylon & Associates, we are a PR and marketing agency for brands in particular – storefronts, authors, attorneys, doctors, things of that nature. You never really want to trail into the political conversation when you’re dealing with storefronts specifically. So, we really wanted to separate those. Tracy and I launched a whole other gig called Politicize.co, and you’re right; the cyclical nature of being in this 2-year or 4-year rotation, we gear up and we understand that in those crucial months, I’m going to have to pull back a little bit and let the employees work more on the marketing and PR side. We normally don’t engage with new clients during those months because I’m all about giving a stellar experience, especially in the onboarding process, to new clients. So just making those wise decisions as to understanding your business as a whole. What does the PR and marketing agency look like on a year calendar? When are our busiest months? Specifically for us, we deal with a lot of bars and restaurants. September, October, November, we always know that’s going to be the busiest months for those businesses. The same thing with the political company. We understand, even if it’s a municipal election – that’s going to be in May, so you have to give that 3-month ramp before that. Or in a 4-year cycle, a presidential election year, you’re looking at November, so what does 4-6 months before that look like? ROB: It’s interesting because what I hear you saying in a way is that on the political side, not that you don’t have to work for the new business, but you know that for that season of time, your new business is going to come in through the political arm. So you can spin down some of the new business on the PR side. Overall, it’s a fascinating solution. I did some work once upon a time in a political technology startup and watched as those different campaign workers would – a campaign ends earlier than you thought, so some of them – you kind of scatter to the winds. People scatter to other campaigns, they scatter to PAC-like entities, some into local. But you have a solution where you get to go back to your business when it’s done. WAYLON: That’s correct. Good for me, right? You always have to be cognizant of your time, and that’s something, the older I get, that I really understand – understanding how much time I need to reserve for whatever aspect of my life, be it professional or personal. Tracy and I really brought a new interpretation to what PR and marketing looked like for progressive political campaigns. Again, I think that’s what has been our success in that market. We didn’t look at the campaign as campaigns have been looked at for many, many years. We engaged campaigns that were doing nothing but on-ground canvassing and had no digital plan of action in place, and we really approached even the political campaigns that we’ve worked on in a private marketplace approach. The campaign is in and of itself a brand, and you’re trying to get people to buy onto that brand. So what do you need to do? It was the same model and flow that we use for the clients with restaurants or storefronts. ROB: Some of the work I was in – it was back in 2008, 2006, 2010 era. At the time, there was sort of a suspicion. Any campaign you engaged with at that time wanted you to declare your party allegiance, and it was almost outside of their frame of thought, even 10 years ago, the possibility of a neutral third party – even though as a technology firm you’re going to think about how to serve the full scope of audience of parties. How has that trended? Are campaigns more open to something like a NationBuilder and this idea that technology can be nonpartisan? Or has it required a little bit more specialization into declaring an allegiance as a solutions provider? WAYLON: I have to say, the elections that we’ve been able to work on thus far have been in a municipal environment, or at least a local environment. We haven’t really worked on state campaigns yet. With municipal elections, they are nonpartisan. You can always identify just through their actions, the pillars of their campaigns, what side of the equation they mostly fit on. Tracy and I were adamant from the very beginning about the side of the equation that we wanted to work on, and it’s written into the DNA of the company itself. In fact, I think the tagline is that we are “bringing progressive campaigns into focus” or something of that nature. But I think that it would be difficult for a tech agency like you were talking about – and they are very much partisan when you get to NationBuilder and things like that and the fundraising technologies that are out there – but if you’re handling the PR and marketing campaigning stuff, even on a local level, it would just be hard to have as much passion into the campaign if you don’t believe in the cause of what they’re doing. ROB: Right. That aligned purpose is really helpful. That’s the conversation we had with Michael Skolnik of We Are Soze up in Brooklyn back at South by Southwest about a year and a half ago. They had very passionate people in Brooklyn who were aligned to progressive causes, but fascinatingly, I think they were more beneficially ideological than partisan. They knew what they wanted to happen in the world more than they knew the party. They just happened to line up. WAYLON: I’ll tell you this: that passion goes a long way. From the owners of those two different agencies, you see the success measured in very different ways. If we’re representing a new startup and they’re selling something to the public, of course we get really excited when we start seeing growth or they start scaling. But it’s a very different kind of excited or measurement of success when we know that a campaign is getting to the finish line and it’s probably going to go in their favor because we understand the impact of those two different things. For a startup, you’re going to see success measured in dollars, bottom line, what does that look like? But for a campaign, there are so many ideological things that are wrapped into campaigns, and you understand that in most cases, that campaign and the candidate, should they succeed, is going to be making hopefully changes for a lot of people. It’s interesting the way we step back and look at what success looks like for each one of those situations. ROB: Really interesting that difference in the level of passion and involvement you have. It’s hard to be so personally impacted by a SaaS product unless it’s very, very close to your heart. Waylon, when you think about the history of the firm so far, what are some lessons you have learned along the way of building J. Waylon & Associates that you might do a little bit differently if you were starting – let’s say today or even looking forward, post-pandemic, in case you would do something remarkably different right now because of where we are. WAYLON: I think probably the biggest lesson that I’ve learned – we had a lockdown, obviously, here for a couple of months, and it gave me a lot of time to really look back at what I’ve done so far and what I want the next chapters of my agency to look like. I think if I could go back in time and tell myself something when I first started, it would be to be a little bit more picky and choosy as to what you do. Don’t take all of the business that comes your way just because you would have business. Really carve out somewhat of a niche into the brands that you want to represent. Just as any small business owner, in the very beginning you’re excited to have any business, whatever that may be. But the more successful that we’ve become, the more I can be a little bit more picky and choosy as to who we represent. ROB: Where has that led you? How are you deciding what to say no to right now? WAYLON: I daresay low-hanging fruit. This probably comes from a personal trait of mine, which is I want everything to be perfect all of the time for my clients. So it’s difficult for me personally to not give the same approach, thought, care, and attention to a $3,000 client that we give to a $20,000 a month client. So I’m constantly having to pull back and go, I need to be paid for my time. How does that look? What kind of clients can be we bring on? Even if I fall in love with the idea or the concept, I have to make really big decisions about myself and the clients we bring on because I wouldn’t be a good businessman myself if I gave the same amount of time and attention to a lower budget client that I do to a higher budget client. ROB: Definitely something to learn from that there. Waylon, what is coming up for J. Waylon & Associates or perhaps the broader marketing world in general that is exciting to you? WAYLON: One and the same. I think that you’re going to see – we are already seeing this – that ecommerce is going to absolutely explode into a level that we probably can’t even comprehend at the moment. The agency is starting to bring on more clients that are in the ecommerce marketplace, which is good for us. We have clients now that have ecommerce shops. It’s really forcing us as marketers to dive deeper and to really increase the tools that are in our own tool belt, to be able to offer those services to our clients at the same level of esteem that we offer other marketing solutions and public relations solutions to our clients. ROB: That’s exciting. We’ll look for much more through the end of the year and in 2021. I wish you and your team the best. Thank you for coming on the podcast, Waylon. WAYLON: Thanks so much, Rob. I appreciate it. ROB: Be well. 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