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MASTER MINDS Marketing firms are specializing in industry-specific roles

Ryan Leeds, managing partner of Masterminds.-(PHOTOS BY AARON HOUSTON)

Masterminds has one undertaking as a firm: to serve clients in the travel and leisure industry. But it has to excel at it.

That’s because its effect on the business of clients is easy to count — whether it be the amount of heads in hotel room beds, butts in casino room seats or shoes of people walking through zoo doors.

Ryan Leeds, managing partner at the Egg Harbor Township-based ad agency, thinks having all the right moving parts for a client comes from knowing one’s industry.

“Even though what we do is serious, and marketing is a big part of people’s businesses, we’re branding one fun thing over another — we’re not selling widgets — and (our staff) gets that,” Leeds said.

On its surface, the insistence on knowing one’s industry — and knowing it well — may not seem profoundly new or different, or even particular to media, marketing or advertising firms.

But Keith Zakheim, CEO of Beckerman PR, will tell you it’s more important for these firms than ever.

“Whereas, in the past, generalist firms would hire people who were PR or marketing people first and experts in an area second or not at all, now clients are less apt to hire those generalist firms, (and) are more likely to partner with firms who put expertise first,” Zakheim said. “We’re finding that businesses are more interested by the day in working with firms that have specific domain expertise.”

It’s something he can tell you from experience.

Zakheim said his firm has long put expertise first — bringing people aboard with academic backgrounds and passion about sectors the firm had clients in, such as energy, real estate and technology. Those employees would then be opting to only work in that specific area for Beckerman.

Yet, they hadn’t necessarily seen it bear fruit by attracting more prestigious clients.

“But, now, we’re in a situation in which we’ve won much larger organizations over the past few years that would have hired much larger PR firms in the past,” he said. “The reason they do that is because we focus on learning their industry better and they pick up on that.”

Why now? Well, according to Zakheim, it’s the dual forces of shrinking budgets for marketing and shifting industries.

Millennials: Not exactly a sure bet
Masterminds got its start in 1985 when two former casino employees in Atlantic City saw a need for an advertising agency that could work with the casino market. It was a market that was burgeoning at the time, and it wasn’t too overly difficult to get people excited about it.
Along with Atlantic City having its troubles, appealing to a new generation of consumers in the same way has its own challenges.
“Casinos around the country are struggling with the question of what is the right message for that millennial audience that’s obviously controlling huge amounts of spending now,” said Ryan Leeds, managing partner at Masterminds.
It’s not the thrill of winning or the fun of a particular slot machine that appeals to them, Leeds said. His firm is finding that this generation looks for something different.
“It’s not that they’re not interested in casinos and what they offer, it’s just that they’re not interested in the same types of things that an older audience was interested in,” he said. “They do like casinos and even to gamble, but they like it more as an experience with their friends, as a social outing.”
Millennials aren’t much warmer to industries such as pharmaceuticals, Amanda Merced of MCS Healthcare Public Relations confirmed. But she said they’re finding ways to reach this group. “They’re a very socially responsible group, so it’s something that’s an opportunity for us to come up with programs and campaigns that highlight a company’s social responsibility through cause marketing,” she said. “Millennials are also looking for content online to share, so we have to engage them where they are.”

“Clients more and more need people who can quickly jump in and work on their behalf,” he said. “And, because they have domain expertise, they can stay abreast of changes in the industry and react to them. … Many of these industries, such as the as energy sector, are being disrupted very quickly.”

Sometimes, that disruption comes through technology and, other times, it’s policies.

For MCS Healthcare Public Relations, a Bedminster-based PR firm, it’s both.

“Health care is a very regulated field, so there’s a lot we have to be cautious about in terms of what the FDA allows, what you can and cannot say,” said Amanda Merced, director of client services at the firm. “And we’re always having to look for new documentation from the FDA as things change.”

MCS is one of the oldest PR firms in New Jersey to focus on the health care space, but it’s tapping into the plethora of opportunity there is today for a specialized firm that can do communications for a pharmaceutical, insurance or nonprofit health care company.

The small firm has attracted Blue Cross Blue Shield and other high-profile clients.

But continuing to grow will take more than being a firm with a long history; it will require thinking ahead.

“One of the most important things I work on here is how to do social media in a compliant fashion,” Merced said. “With a client in pharmaceuticals, in particular, we have to carefully think about the ways to send a message and get it out to the right people. … We often read warning letters from the FDA sent to other companies to know what to avoid.”

The nature of work in the world of business communications has also changed in a way that lends itself to a need for domain expertise.

As Zakheim from Beckerman explained, the chunk of pay going to what is referred to as “owned media” has risen from 2 percent to more like 20 percent over the past decade or so at his firm. This type of work is based on creating infographics, bylined articles or other content that requires a higher level of understanding of the client’s industry.

“In the past, you could call a journalist and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this interesting company,’ and sort of read from a script — hoping that the journalist and the client would take it from there,” Zakheim said. “But, now, you’re having to produce substantive content yourself.

“In other words, you just can’t fake it.”

There are some cases, however, of a deep knowledge in a particular field not being feasible for a communications services firm.

Fairfield-based Turchette is the longest-standing PR firm in New Jersey at 66 years old. It’s also one of the state’s largest.

Its president, Jim Gorab, said the firm’s size means it takes on a lot of clients whose domains don’t come with experts in large supply.

“When you have deep roots in certain industries, the natural inclination is to pluck talent from those markets,” he said. “But it doesn’t necessarily follow for us.

“Our industries are sometimes very hyper-niche, so I’m not going to find that very specific talent within some of these sectors. In that case, I just look for people for whom new industries and technology is not frightening.”

Gorab used a recent example of an Israeli startup company that contacted his firm. The company was converting from defense technologies to consumer technologies that would ensure the integrity of shipping packages.

“I’m not going to find someone to work on that account who has that exact skillset,” he said. “But if I have someone who can embrace new things, someone who is intellectually curious and has the basic skillsets of writing or design, we can learn the industry together and succeed.”

E-mail to: [email protected]

Brett Johnson

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