With the changing state of the industry, the role of fashion PR has shifted dramatically, too. In our new series, Ask a PR Exec, we’ll be spotlighting this transition and how executives are adjusting to it through interviews with top PR reps at some of fashion’s biggest agencies.
Melissa Duren Conner, partner and managing director at Jennifer Bett Communications (aka JBC), has been working in fashion PR for nearly a decade — first, overseeing the PR operations of fashion brands at large agencies, then heading up the in-house teams at Theory and Joe Fresh. In 2014, she joined founder Jennifer Meyer at JBC, which was marketing itself as a fashion PR company at the time. Less than a year later, they decided the label didn’t fit their services, and they rebranded as a media relations agency.
“There was this white space,” said Duren Conner. “There were brands that were emerging — in fashion, beauty, lifestyle, home — that were rethinking their markets. They had these rich, vivid stories that traditional PR couldn’t tell.”
Today, JBC works primarily with “fast-emerging startups,” including M.Gemi, Naadam Cashmere and Follain. Its specialty: identifying unique stories that will work for various print, online and broadcast outlets. As Duren Conner tells it, they might be pitching a supply chain story, a tech story, a consumer data story, a travel diary and a founder story at one time, for one brand.
For our Ask a PR Exec series, we talked to Duren Conner about JBC’s unique focus and plans for the future, plus why it’s hellbent on remaining a “top-heavy” agency.
How would you explain the changing role of fashion PR?
Everything that happens in the industry goes back to the consumer: They want more storytelling; they want to understand more about the brands they’re buying into. It started with brands like Toms that wanted to tell their story. They got consumers to realize they can ask more questions about a brand: where they make their products, who the founders are, why the brand started. Brands started to answer them by delivering their stories and products directly to them. Everything shifted, as a result.
With PR being such a crowded space, how are you winning over fashion clients?
Since we started, we have pretty much been running, 100 percent, on referrals. Brands want an agency that is touching consumers in all the ways they’re consuming media, not just in one channel — and they can see what we’re doing. We are working to reach consumers where they are, at all times: through podcasts, broadcast segments, Q&As online, entrepreneurship columns, and fashion and lifestyle stories in print publications.
How much of your focus is on print, if any?
Everything about the original PR approach is out of date, and that includes the focus on print. Today, if you get placement in print, it may be just a product placement with a credit or a quarter-page Q&A. Online, you have more real estate, and you can have a really deep story. On podcasts, you’re spending 20-30 minutes talking about your brand. On broadcast, you may only have five minutes, but you can say much more than you can in print. It’s a big miss not prioritizing other platforms.
What does your current job entail that you never expected?
We really dive into data: We look at what things like what outlets are converting the most traffic and sales. We also consider the times they post and the type of post they run. We want to make sure we’re getting the best stories in the best outlets, at the best times. We’re also using data to tell stories. We ask brands about their consumer demographic, their sell-through rates and how shoppers are responding. Reporters and journalists love data on consumer behavior as it relates to brands. Understanding and valuing that kind of information is so important, from a PR perspective.
What mistake are other agencies making?
You need to take the time to onboard a brand; executing before onboarding is a misstep a lot of publicists make. It’s like onboarding a new hire. You have to get to know them — who they are as a brand, their messaging, how they want to be positioned and the language that works for them. As the brand grows and evolves, they might have to shift that positioning, and they need a partner who has the experience to walk them through that.
What’s unique about your team?
I would say our senior-level staff; we have a lot of experience. We built an agency that’s top-heavy versus bottom-heavy, because the brands we’re working with are fast-emerging startups, for the most part, and they have a lot of VCs that are looking at their growth. It’s important the PR investment they’re making — which is one of their biggest investments — is functional and productive, and outputting results that are compelling and qualitative.
Are you choosy about the brands you work with?
We are, for a few reasons. One is bandwidth; we are an agency of about 12. To make sure we are properly servicing our clients, we can’t take on more than a certain number. We also make sure the brands we’re bringing on are true partners, those that are in line with what we’re seeing in the market and that we’re passionate about. We [establish] a really dynamic relationship, and our brands have to want that. We want to feel like an extension of their team.
Is there often conflict between you and brands’ in-house marketing teams?
Our scope is pretty straightforward: We’re experts in storytelling. Our clients hire us to get those stories placed, and they take the responsibility of amplifying and marketing that. Outside of that, we evaluate and consult on what they’re doing internally, in terms of marketing, communications and even strategic partnerships. We ask: What’s best for the brand? Is this helping the ultimate objective of what we want to do in 2017? If they’re not partnering with the right brand, we’ll recommend another one. But working together is always the ultimate goal. I think everyone understands now: The more, the merrier.
How do you see your job changing in the years ahead?
I think we’re only in the beginning of this shift in the way consumers are shopping, in the way brands are launching and in the products they’re launching with. This marketplace is just going to continue to grow, which is great. That means there’s more opportunity for agencies like JBC to help brands scale and grow. I also think we’ll see more competition as agencies start to understand that they have to shift and change. Right now, we see where brands are in need of our service. In the next 6-10 months, we hope to have a really strong presence in San Francisco.
Who do you see as your competition right now?
We’re competing with every PR agency in New York — it doesn’t matter if they’re huge and global or small and boutique. It’s just about staying focused on what we do best — and at the end of the day, our work speaks for itself.