George Affleck is president and CEO of Curve Communications, a full-service marketing agency based in Vancouver’s Yaletown. In its seven-year run, Curve has served an impressive list of local clients, including Bootlegger, UNICEF, Whistler Brewing, Mr. Mikes, The City of Vancouver, the Dalai Lama, and Ballet BC, among others.
In this interview, Affleck focuses on the public relations and earned media components of his company.
It seems like the proliferation of the internet has diversified the ways in which PR campaigns are executed. How has that changed your business in the last five years?
Well, in some ways, some things haven’t changed. Of course, the internet and Web 2.0 are having a huge impact on how we market, but a lot of our clients still prefer to see traditional media placement and coverage in the mainstream media. They still want that, they demand that, so the majority of our work is still along those lines because the client desires it.
Is there any way for a PR agency to deliver effectively on all these media?
It depends on the client. UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund), for example, uses MySpace and the social marketing sites for accessing the youth market they need. And that’s the thing: if you have a client that has a significant young audience — under, say, 25 — then being online is key.
UNICEF is a perfect example of really taking advantage of that. They moved the whole carrying-the-box-around-on-Hallowe’en thing all online now. Everything’s done online, and they really get how to utilize the online resources. There’s Facebook: kids or schools will start their own Facebook page for their UNICEF campaign for Hallowe’en, for example. So, even individually, schools will take advantage of that. UNICEF itself, regionally and nationally and internationally, has a Facebook presence.
At the end of the day, PR is about getting earned media. How do you calculate the success of any particular campaign?
The ultimate challenge in this industry is always, “What is the value of the PR?” There are different kinds of mathematical equations you can follow, and sometimes clients like it one way and another client likes it another way. My feeling always is, “How’s business? Is business up? Then what we’re doing is working. Are more people going through the door? Then, great. What we’re doing is working and let’s look at it again next year and keep tweaking it.” I think at the end of the day, as long as business is up, you’re doing something right. To put a value on editorial is a dangerous thing, and can be deceiving.
So it’s not just about impressions?
No, because there are multiplier effects you use for editorial. Some companies multiply it by three or five, based on what you pay for that space in the newspaper or on TV. That’s an interesting way to go, and my feeling always is to focus on the quality of the story — the tone, the placement and so on. To get the story placed in the first place is a huge deal. But PR is just one piece of the overall marketing plan – how do all the pieces fit together and what is the overall goal at the end of the day is the key.
So when you say the multiplier effect, a story is seen as more valuable than ad space because it comes closer to editorial?
That’s the basic premise. The problem is, it doesn’t tell you much.
How should PR fit into an overall marketing strategy of any given company?
One of the first things Curve did right when we first launched the company years ago was really to look at the holistic approach, saying, we’re not just a PR company, we are not just a media buying or media promotions company. Yes, we can do all those things, but the lines between each of them are becoming more and more blurry. If you can get a DJ to chat about your product or your service or your event, the listeners will assume it’s editorial, but quite often it’s paid for. It’s part of a promotion. You can’t just send a press release out and hope the DJ talks about it.
Or you can build a media campaign with a radio station that includes chatter by the show host or DJ. So, for us at Curve, it’s really about looking at the big picture, looking at the whole marketing budget, and saying, okay, how do we best use that money and get the most bang for your buck? We execute through whatever medium it is — a bit of PR, a bit of advertising, a bit of promotions, events, some guerrilla stuff, whatever it takes.
What’s the risk-reward of the media covering a company’s story?
The message can get muddied, potentially. It really depends. Obviously, we try to assist clients in being best-prepared for interviews. We make sure that they stay on message, that they are talking about what they’re supposed to be talking about. But again, for the most part, our clients are so excited about what they’re doing that it’s not really complicated. As long as what they’re talking about is their product or their service, it’s all good. If it’s a crisis situation, we’re most often brought in because it’s a crisis, and that’s a different situation.
Tell me about some of the more effective campaigns that Curve has organized.
I think the most recent one we’ve been doing is quite interesting. It’s for a company called Body Beautiful Canada, which basically does these body wraps that guarantee you will lose up to six inches of body fat – the Universal Contour Wrap. It’s a great little story. They’re new to Canada, and they’re basically selling to spas across Canada and the United States.
We started thinking outside the box. We knew what the company owner’s goal was: she wanted to penetrate a major spa chain in the US. So we started talking to the Emmy Awards people in the United States, and we managed to get a suite at a hotel as part of a gift suite. We were one of the premier partners there. A whole bunch of actors – Jean Smart, Neil Patrick Harris and Juliana Hough – all tried the wrap. The result of that was a fairly significant spa chain in Los Angeles made a big purchase of the Contour Wrap. So it wasn’t necessarily PR, more relationship building. Now of course, because the Wrap is in spas in LA, we are getting all kinds of media in the US.
Is there any campaign you’ve done over the last seven or eight years that makes you go “wow”?
The one I remember most is this hilarious one we did for Cloverdale Rodeo a little while ago. Chocolate Cow Patties and the”I Want to be a Cowboy” Starter Kit media drop-offs. We managed to make a chocolate treat that looked like a big pile of cow dung. We bought some grass strips and put this “chocolate” on top of this grass, put it in a box and sent it to all the media. We got great reaction from all the media who opened the box – and of course they all mentioned the rodeo.
So they actually put it on TV?
Oh, absolutely – Global, City and Rock101. They opened it up and they showed it – “Look at this, this is disgusting” – and then they’d take a chunk out and eat it. It was perfect because it was visual. It got that kind of coverage you’d want for a client for very little cost.
What are the three most important attributes that contribute to getting a story placed in the media?
First of all, you need a good story; then you need a good person to tell that story; and then you need a sales ability to sell it to a journalist. Those three things are key. We ask those questions all the time. Once we have the first two, it is all about the sale. You have to have the pitch down. It’s like the 15-second elevator pitch: if you get a journalist on the line, you have literally 10 or 15 seconds to get them excited about whatever it is you’re calling about. If you blow it, you’re done. So get ready, because that’s the key.