Roy Elvove is the PR’s PR, his invisible hand steering BBDO for 20 years – Addison Capper profiles the man who’s more used to making news than being news
Behind every great ad agency (and production and post production company) is a team of unsung heroes that you almost certainly never hear about. This group of people’s job is to manage the reputation of the agency. They help attract new business and retain old partners. They make talented people want to work where they work. They are the ultimate ambassadors for the companies they work at.
If it hasn’t yet clicked, the department we are talking about is the PR department. As a publication, they’re the people within the industry that we communicate with the most. They’re the people that you readers have to thank for keeping you so well informed about all the cool, creative stuff to come out of agencies from Auckland to Austin, Singapore and Sao Paulo. And doing all of this is not easy. People that make ads do not own those ads. The product - the work - is owned by the client. In the words of Roy Elvove, the work that they do is done with one hand tied behind their backs. And he should know.
For 20 years Roy was the executive vice president and director of worldwide communications for BBDO before leaving at the end of 2019 to set up his own communications consultancy, Elvove Associates. He was responsible for helping to enhance the BBDO brand and reputation among the agency's key target audience. Over the course of his 20-year tenure, BBDO was named agency of the year 25 times by various publications. Former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg even proclaimed January 10, 2006 to be 'BBDO Day' in New York in recognition of the agency's contributions to the City. Prior to that he worked as a senior account director at Saatchi & Saatchi before a case of "serendipity" led him to a career in PR. He was even involved in managing publicity during the highly visible ousting of the Saatchi brothers during the early 1990s.
He is a past co-chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As) Communications Committee and one of the original recipients of the Advertising Council’s GD Crain Award for outstanding contributions to public service. He has also been presented The President’s Award from The Advertising Club of New York and was recognised by BBDO with both its Founders Award and Dillon Prize – the agency’s highest service honours.
He is also one of the most humble people in the business. We wanted to know more about his career and how the business of adland PR has changed over the course of his career. LBB's Addison Capper was pretty thrilled to coax the publicity-shy publicist into the spotlight.
LBB> How did you get into PR in the first place? And more specifically, advertising?
Roy> Serendipity has played an undeniable role in my professional life. Being in the right place, at the right time, so to speak.
30 years ago, I was diagnosed with a serious autoimmune disease. At the time, I was working as a senior account director at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York when, for medical reasons, I needed to take a leave of absence. When I returned, I was asked to help the agency build an in-house public relations capability. I knew very little about the business of PR at the time. What I discovered, however, was that many of the skills required to be successful in PR were already within my wheelhouse. Assets such as a strong sense of urgency, attention to detail, being proactive, an ability to simplify and streamline seemingly complex issues, working with and getting along well with others, and communication, to name a few. Not only that, my mother had worked as a publicist for Life magazine. Perhaps PR was already part of my DNA?
So, becoming ill actually turned out to be a life-affirming moment. It changed my career-trajectory from one in account management to one in corporate communications. It created an opportunity to go from being a small fish in a big pond (one of many account people) to becoming a bigger fish in a small pond (one of a select few of corporate communications professionals).
So like I said, serendipity.
LBB> How has PR changed during your career?
Roy> The folks who handle corporate communications for advertising agencies are truly unsung heroes. They manage the agency’s reputation, help attract and retain clients and talent, and serve as the most ardent and enthusiastic ambassadors for their companies.
And they do it all with one hand tied behind their backs - after all, agencies don’t even own the product they create - the work. They have to continuously find ways to demonstrate their value to clients; to bring to life the idea that when clients succeed, everyone succeeds.
Over the years, this task has grown harder and more complex. There is more competition for attention; more emphasis on project-based assignments than brand-building campaigns. There are paywalls. Firewalls. Social media. Influencers. More pressure on the bottom line. More people coming and going. Shortfalls on diversity and equality.
So the contributions that agency communication practitioners are making are not only more important and meaningful, they are also more difficult to come by and require a broader range of skills. And yet, the fundamentals - an ability to communicate, work well with others, a strong sense of urgency, attention to detail, the ability to simplify - never go away.
You can see why I never stop being a cheerleader for my peers.
LBB> Can you reveal any tricks of the trade?
Roy> I must confess, I take issue with the notion of ‘tricks’. There is that age-old perception, or should I say misperception, that PR is ‘spin’. That what we do is to attempt to sugar coat the facts.
To assume PR folks are able to spin is to disrespect our audience - the reporters and media we work with every day. Trust me, reporters can smell spin a mile away. The best way to get your story across is to be honest and straightforward. Face it: not every story is going to be positive or risk-free. And not every journalist is going to be your friend. Our job is to ensure that the facts are presented and all sides are fairly represented.
To me, the P in PR stands for paranoia. If something can go wrong, it will. So striving to be an invaluable resource to reporters, coming up with newsworthy ideas, understanding deadlines, being responsive and accessible, being accurate… those are the best tricks of the trade.
LBB> The publishing industry has obviously changed hugely in recent years, but how do you see that change?
Roy> There have never been more outlets for industry news, nor has there been a greater interest in the advertising business. People watch the Super Bowl as much for the ads as they do the game. This has inspired a slew of programmes such as ‘America’s Favorite Commercials’. Think about the popularity of Mad Men. Or the number of movies whose leading players work in advertising.
At the same time, companies have never been under greater scrutiny. Following the progress of high profile businesses such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Target, Walmart, etc. is like following your favourite sports team.
The good news: because the hunger for stories is so great and there are many more outlets to place these stories, you can now ‘slice and dice’ ideas by production, creative, client, agency, media, cultural relevance… and the like.
That said, the entire publishing industry has changed. The need to find new revenue streams has led to the creation of paid content, cutbacks in reporters, paywalls and firewalls, an emphasis on click-through rates and views, more conferences and award schemes, to name a few examples of money-making options.
Usually, I’m a believer in less is more. But in this case, more is actually better. And with more platforms and options to choose from, it’s never been a better time to be in PR or to be a PR practitioner.
LBB> Is there a particular project from your career that sticks out as being particularly memorable or important to you? What was it and why?
Roy> There are many, but here are two: one from each of my agency stints.
‘The Bell Project’ was an initiative we fielded at Saatchi & Saatchi on behalf of The National Crime Prevention Council. It was designed to draw attention to the increasing problems of gun violence against children (my, how some things never seem to change).
We partnered with the legendary folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary to revise the lyrics of their classic song, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ to instead read, ‘Where Have All the Children Gone?’
We then staged an event in the lobby of the Saatchi & Saatchi building located at 375 Hudson Street in NYC. Specifically, we commissioned the making of a symbolic bell, made from the metal of melted guns, and then displayed the piece in the building lobby. We invited Janet Reno, the attorney general under president Bill Clinton at that time, to attend the event and unveil the art display. Needless to say, the attention received was huge (imagine what it might be today with the advent of social media!). But the attention it drew to the cause was even more impactful.
Roy with Janet Reno
At BBDO, I had the honour to help publicise the ‘New York Miracle’ campaign, a campaign created under the leadership of the late Phil Dusenberry to help raise the spirits of New Yorkers and attract visitors to the city following the 9-11 attacks. The campaign featured New York celebrities, such as Barbara Walters, Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal, Henry Kissinger, Kevin Bacon and Yogi Berra, acting out their New York fantasies; for example, Barbara Walters performing on Broadway, Yogi Berra conducting the New York Philharmonic and Henry Kissinger running the bases at Yankee Stadium. The campaign was covered globally, contributed to BBDO being named agency of the year in 2001 and subsequently led to a Proclamation from New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg proclaiming January 10, 2006 to be ‘BBDO Day’ in New York. As the mayor wrote, “BBDO’s success comes as no surprise to New Yorkers, who experienced first-hand the effectiveness of the agency’s ‘New York Miracle’ campaign, which was a welcome reminder of our city’s character and resilience.”
Imagine that: BBDO received its very own day!
That’s something that has always stuck with me.
LBB> You and your peers are essentially the marketers who market the marketers. Excuse the slightly crass nature of this question, but why is it important for ad agencies (and production, post production companies) to tell the world about the work that they are doing?
Roy> We are tasked with, and are responsible for, managing our agency’s reputation. We want our agencies to be the place where clients want to come and people want to work. But there’s a catch: we don’t own our own work. Our clients do. So to be successful, we must find ways to demonstrate value to our clients so they are willing to support any PR efforts that might involve promotion of their advertising. In my opinion, the best way to do this is by functioning as an extension of a client’s PR or media relations department; by recognising that we are there to assist them and to extend their efforts, leveraging our media contacts and relationships in addition to their own. By doing so, we help elevate a client’s visibility, help them attract talent, enhance their own reputation. So it’s less about telling the world what we are doing and more about telling the world what our clients are doing.
LBB> Speaking personally, I’ve primarily worked for an ad trade magazine, and a lot of the PR that you do is aimed at people specifically in this industry. But you will also work with consumer publications too, and I was wondering the differences of working with both types of publications and the importance of each of them for an ad agency?
LBB> Advertising, now more than ever, holds a place in pop culture. So there are stories to be told, not just vertically (industry press) but also horizontally (across media). At the same time, the world has gotten smaller. There is no such thing as a local campaign. Everything has the potential to become global and to reach a wider audience of clients, prospects, and talent.
That said, the principles of effective PR apply to any outlet, regardless of whether they target the industry or general public. You have to understand the media’s audience and why a story might be of interest to their readers. And with reporters being bombarded from all sides, and with less time than ever to devote to any one story, being responsive, accurate, attentive to detail, proactive… are more essential than ever.
Bottom line: if we’re good at what we do, we will be of value to all.
LBB> What have you been up to since you left BBDO at the end of last year?
Roy> My experiences working at BBDO and, before that, Saatchi & Saatchi, will stay with me forever… not just because of what we accomplished as agency families, but because of the extraordinarily generous people who helped me along the way - many of whom were teachers and role models.
Since leaving BBDO, I've had an opportunity to reconnect with many of these folks. Occasionally, I come across interesting ideas. When that happens, I try to share them with people I know in the media. It's a way for me to pay it forward to those who helped me over the course of my career. And to say thank you for their support. As the saying goes, "it takes a village"...