Advertising and public relations. Reporters sometimes call these fields the “dark side” to their work, the necessary but often covetous edge to the altruism of print and broadcast journalism. Whether sly or showy, “huckster” and “flack” are too often the terms that comes to mind. They’re selling us something we don’t want. They write fluff. Their commercials are louder than the programming. Their business is making business look good.
But what if “it” is what we want? What’s if “it” is subtle, real and honest?
What if the process behind public relations and advertising is more psychological than we ever dreamed? What if the methods are as intriguing as the human mind itself?
After all, modern consumers have seen it all. It is self-defeating to underestimate them.
Nechie Hall, president and CEO of Public Relations Advertising Co. (PRACO), is the leader of a 50-member crew of funny, bright individuals whose métier is making their advertising and PR different. Included in PRACO’s clientele are the Colorado Tourism Office, Sky Sox Baseball and the T-REX (Transportation Expansion Project) in Denver.
For the third year, PRACO was recognized among the largest of women-owned businesses in Colorado. The company had $31.4 million in gross revenue in 2003, and was No. 1 in southern Colorado, according to a ranking in ColoradoBiz magazine’s May issue.
“I’m really proud that our company gets this kind of recognition,” Hall said. “But it’s our staff, not any particular ownership, that deserves it.”
When it rains
Owned and operated in Colorado Springs since April Fool’s Day 1970, Hall was armed with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Colorado, and an idea to offer clients something new – advertising and PR in one stop.
It began in the family.
Hall and her husband, Jim, started PRACO. “We thought it would be fun to make a go of our own business,” she said. “It was great. It worked. We’re very grateful for our staff; we’ve always been lucky.” Her daughter, Meredith Vaughan, is vice president of account planning.
For every client, the process begins in account planning, the research function of the team. The team of three full-time staff members looks into a mélange of factors – a client’s product, a company’s history, the target audience, as well as lifestyle and societal forces that affect how, when and where a client’s message is sent, received and acted upon.
“They do a tremendous job of keeping us up on our clients, trends, consumer psychology, anticipated reaction,” said Hall, who was born in Walsenburg and raised in Craig. “The best advertising is based on sound strategy. You wouldn’t build a house without a set of plans.”
PRACO’s plans include extensive primary and secondary research. The PRACO team often begins with secondary research – organizing data that is already known and determining what data has yet to be uncovered – which is usually retrieved through other organizations and publications. Then the team moves on to primary research, which is information that is suited to the client’s needs and conducted from scratch.
“Everyone these days is bombarded with advertisements,” said George Olson, executive vice president and creative director of PRACO. “It’s hard to do something that has staying power. There has to be an emotional aspect to it, and account planning tends to bring out those characteristics that are fun and interesting.”
Account planning works to take dry statistics, research and data and synthesize it into a plan of attack, also called a “creative brief.” At that point, a client sees the document and signs off on it, to make sure that the finished project will indeed reflect what he or she wants.
“The creative brief is something meaningful, something we can look at. This is who we need to talk to, this is what we want to say, these are the channels we will use to say it,” Olson said. “It channels us in the right direction. Building an ark seems a waste of time if you don’t know it’s going to rain 40 days and 40 nights.”
The brainstorming session – or creative briefing – begins. Throwing ideas about. Ideas getting shot down. Running up against walls. A change of venue. Throwing darts. Whatever it takes, until someone shouts, “Eureka!”
On the joint accounts, the clients who require public relations and advertising results, the brainstorming sessions include PR and advertising staff.
“Sometimes the ad people will spark an idea, the PR people will take it and run,” said Lisa Bachman, vice president of public relations. “Put all those people in a room and the results are unbelievable.”
Building an ark
Andrew Jackson once said, “Be sure you’re right and then go ahead.”
“There’s a canard in our business that research kills the creative process. But when it’s applied correctly, it can focus a creative process on the issues that are really compelling. That’s somewhat liberating,” Olson said. “Once we know what the issues are, then we can be a little bit more free in playing with that strategy, because we are convinced at that point that we’re on message and talking to the right people.”
The account for the Colorado Tourism Office is a good example.
After the loss of state-funded tourism advertising in 1992, Colorado swiftly lost its market share in the highly competitive travel and tourism industry, dropping from the No. 1 tourist destination in the United States to No. 19. Although the state reinstated funding in 1997, the number of information requests and visitors continued to decline.
PRACO’s mission? Turn it around.
After analyzing the consumer’s state of mind in regard to travel, the team tackled trends in travel and tourism advertising, the state of today’s consumer and the way people plan to travel.
The results showed an overstressed, fast-paced lifestyle without a lot of free time.
The advertising solution? Colorado’s uniqueness as a destination – the meaningful antithesis to expensive, superficial amusement parks. The adventurous answer to a life spent in the office. The quiet outdoor memories you’ll create with the family you’re too busy to see.
The Big Words campaign was born.
Part of the overall attack strategy was the print advertisements, which ran full-color in magazines ranging from Architectural Digest to Backpacker. The ads featured one big word in the middle of a charmingly kooky sentence over an atypical Colorado photograph (the company arranged a photo shoot to avoid using stock pictures).
One ad shows a young man rappelling down the sheer face of a mountain, against a sky the shade of a robin’s egg, with this sentence. “If your MOTHER were here, you’d be so grounded.” Another shows a smiling grandfather and grandson fishing at a mountain lake, with the words “Vacations end but GLORY is a forever thing.”
“The Big Words campaign was developed here at PRACO,” Hall said. “We tested it in focus groups in three cities – L.A., Chicago and Dallas. We really listened to people who wanted to travel here, to find out what they find appealing.”
And it worked.
Overall, responses and inquiries to the Colorado Tourism Office increased 34 percent from 2002 to 2003. Requests for information went up 195 percent in Dallas and 141 percent in Los Angeles, markets that included radio contest promotions.
Back on dry ground
PRACO operates in Colorado Springs on the fourth floor of 6 N. Tejon St. downtown, and in Denver at 5460 S. Quebec St., Suite 330 in Greenwood Village.
But that’s just the physical location.
“Colorado Springs isn’t normally considered as the Mecca of PR,” Bachman said. “Size and strength right here is cool. We kind of have Colorado covered – we do work all over the state. We’re located here and headquartered here, but we do work nati
Case studies on the company’s Web site (www.praco.com) are entertaining, almost as much so as the descriptions of PRACO’s team leaders. Jim Hall, Nechie’s husband and co-owner, is “Combat cinematographer, numbers guy, devil’s advocate, unflinching pragmatist.” Nechie Hall is “Ringmaster, consensus builder, troublemaker, reverend mother.” Lisa Bachman is “Troubleshooter, team builder, Spartan, communications conscience.” George Olson is “Writer, dependable pessimist, meeting avoidance specialist, defender of the faith.”
Bachman the Spartan has a pet peeve. “Everything has to come from the strategy. Just because you’re busy and running around and think you’re being efficient, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being effective. Our effectiveness comes from the strategy.” Bachman has been working for PRACO since 1994.
Olson the writer is no artist. “I’m a bad artist, like a toaster is a bad VCR. But I work with really good artists. It never ceases to be fun to see what they bring to these concepts, how they bring words on a page to life.” Olson began freelancing for PRACO in 1982, and came on full-time in 1983.
The impression one gets is that the secret to their success is two-fold. Something along the lines of, “Don’t take yourself seriously. Take the work seriously.”
And it seems to be working.