Barbara Martin is the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of BrandLinkDC where she leads the public relations division of the firm and works with brand names like Drybar, Sweetgreen and SoulCycle.
When WWPR’s Molly Mitchell sat down with Barbara for the September edition of Power Points she found her cheerfully plotting with an associate on the best way to photograph a dog that was coming to the office in a SoulCycle onesie for social media use on #NationalDogDay. Nothing is typical for half of the duo The New York Times dubbed in 2012 “the architects of the new Washington.”
MM: What drew you to the media world? Why did you transition into PR?
BM: I actually started out on the media side—I knew I wanted to write, but literally stumbled—and begged my way–into a job I loved. I had done some work with a local NPR affiliate for a little bit and after that I was a magazine editor for a craft publishing company. After four years there, I went to the event and tradeshow division of Nielsen Business Media. I ended up as their corporate marketing director managing their marketing, advertising, PR and direct mail messaging for about 48 trade shows and conferences. In that role at Nielsen I realized we were paying a lot of different PR firms to do press, and while they all knew how to pitch trade shows, none really knew our industries. We did. I pitched my boss on bringing it in house, he agreed and I just loved everything about it.
MM: And then how did venturing out on your own come about?
BM: I somehow convinced Candace Bushnell to let me host an event in DC for her when she was launching her novel Lipstick Jungle. After that a furniture store in Georgetown reached out for PR help and at the same time Heineken Light called and asked if I would help launch their brand. Then people just started hearing about the work and before I knew it, I had seven clients. This was all on the side. Every day on my lunch hour I would drive into DC from Chantilly, Virginia to meet with a reporter, drop off a product for a photo shoot—it was always something. At the end I had a vodka client that had an issue come up in Europe—they were calling me at my day job asking me to come up with a crisis communications plan. I was under my desk trying to formulate a crisis plan on the spot while my team was waiting for me to lead a meeting. Right then I had the realization that I had to put on my big girl pants and needed to either go out and do what I was being paid to do or go out and do what I wanted to do. But I had to make the choice. I quit my job the next day. About a year later, Jayne Sandman and I partnered together and started our company. Our first client was W Washington DC.
MM: That’s a huge get. How did you feel pitching them?
BM: I was terrified. We really studied. We made sure we knew that brand inside and out. I talked to agencies that had worked with them in other cities. We realized that the W opening was going to play a monumental role in the changing of the societal fabric of Washington–in a way that the city hadn’t been changed in a long time. We love to work with things that we know are going to change this city and we love to help grow brands, both here and around the country. Those are the two things that drive us everyday and W fit the checked both boxes. So we went in with all that passion and just pitched the hell out of it.
MM: Let’s fast-forward to 2016, as Co-Founder and Co-CEO of BrandLinkDC how would you describe your role?
BM: I manage the press and social media teams. I also manage all of the back-of-house operations team: payroll, taxes, benefits, our 401-K, things of that nature.
MM: How do you measure the effectiveness of a PR campaign?
BM: What’s important is moving the needle for our clients. The challenge is finding those things that will make the difference in a constantly changing media landscape with fewer outlets and more people fighting for those pages and page views.
MM: Describe your daily work schedule.
BM: My schedule really depends on the day and what event is going on that night. We probably do about 120 events a year out of this office. Typically though, I probably have two to three conference calls with clients. Probably two team meetings. And Jayne and I are in constant communication: gchat, phone, calling to each other across the office, always something. We have a VP of PR, Amy Clark, who brilliantly manages our press team: she’s the person I’m talking to the most besides Jayne. We meet for about an hour each day. Then the rest of the day is spent putting out whatever is on fire at the moment.
MM: What’s your advice on how to have an authentic and fun voice online?
BM: I think that you need to be yourself, but be positive. If you’re not feeling positive just stay off social media that day. Having one clear voice is essential. The key is to always shine the best light on your clients—and with our clients, that part is easy to do.
MM: You work with some amazing brands including Drybar and Sweetgreen. Is dealing with major national brands different from other PR work?
BM: Across the board, the theme at BrandLinkDC is that we’re working with brands that we want to help grow. Some of those are single doors that we want to grow to 50 some day and others are coming up on 100. We have an amazing roster of clients, some of which are based here–but because of the way the world works now, we’ve been able to grow into a national firm that’s based in Washington. But no matter the client, at the end of the day all PR is about thinking like a journalist to ferret out the compelling story, and then figuring out the best way to tell it.
MM: What’s the most difficult part of your job?
BM: Just balancing it all. Managing the work, our team’s happiness and our client’s happiness each and every day. Plus paperwork. So much paperwork.
MM: What is the most gratifying part of your job?
BM: It’s the big story and the big win. That’s always the greatest. The other week Sweetgreen had two pieces in The New York Times and the cover of the Food section of The Washington Post. Some of those stories were six to eight months in the making. It was so exciting because our team put so much effort into it and the final result was awesome. In PR there are so many days when you just feel like you’re sending things out into a void so those top-tier outlet wins always are the best.
MM: What keeps you motivated?
BM: When our junior staff gets a big win. Nothing better to see them get that for the first time.
MM: What professional experiences have you learned the most from?
BM: There have been a few writers in this town that have been so kind and generous with their time. Very early on I was nervously pitching a DC writer who stopped me and said, ‘Okay honey we’re going to talk through how this is done.’ And he literally walked me through how he wanted to be pitched. Or the club promoter that, when I was just starting out and knew no one, invited his entire awesome list to one of my events. Those experiences have really stayed with me and I try to remember those things when the asks roll in here. Having a few of those people when it could have gone horribly wrong, who imparted truly helpful advice have been so instrumental in my career. That’s something we can all do and pay it forward.
MM: When you hire for BrandLinkDC what are you looking for?
BM: The first question we always ask is, ‘What was your first job?’ Like the first job you did for money. We love it when people have waited tables and worked in the service industry at some point because being able to multitask and have good customer service skills is so necessary in agency life. For entry-level positions, we look to our interns first, as we’ve seen first-hand how they handle the pressure.
MM: What’s the first thing you do in the morning?
BM: Check my phone for emails then my Twitter and Instagram feeds. After that I’ll go downstairs and flip through the papers. I subscribe to WSJ, New York Times and Washington Post. That and coffee.
MM: What’s your favorite Instagram account to follow?
BM: Drybar’s Instagram just because it’s so beautiful and the messaging on it is spot on. But also The Washington Post’s photo account is awesome too. It just has gorgeous and interesting photos from around the world.
MM: What’s your favorite DC restaurant?
BM: Sweetgreen—there’s always an intern waiting in line for us come lunchtime!–and Pinea for dinner. Love everything that comes out of Barry Koslow’s kitchen. And Pennsylvania 6 for brunch. I’m never going to turn down a great Bloody Mary.
MM: What do you ‘gram the most of?
BM: My kids and my dog.
MM: What do you think makes a great DC party?
BM: The people in the room. The easiest gauge is if people meet and loved somebody that they didn’t know. If you make a new friend at a party, you’ll think it’s a success. Bringing together people who are different and who should meet infuses excitement into a room. And PS—all of that happens because of Annie Perezchica Wood, our VP of events, and her amazing team. She is our rock–the calm in every storm.
MM: What are three things you always have in your bag?
BM: Drybar Triple Sec, a notebook and my business cards.
MM: And finally what advice would you give your early professional self?
BM: Just try it all! Your first job may not sound perfect, but you will learn what you love and don’t love doing. And that will inform your choices for the rest of your life. Every job you take can be that kind of learning experience if you let it. At Nielsen, I wrote computer code, wrote budgets and did data analytics for a good chunk of my job. And now I can build a budget better than anybody.
To learn more about BrandLinkDC’s work check out: http://BrandLinkDC.com/