Typically our Ask the Experts series features interviews with people on the other side of the PR and digital marketing world but in this latest two-part installment, we’re looking inward at the life of agency executives and owners.
Managing an agency requires grit, unwavering optimism, the ability to adapt, and good ol’ fashioned elbow grease. We convinced three of the most talented agency executives around to sit down and share their eternal wisdom on what it takes to make it in the outdoor industry world of communications.
There was so much to share in this piece, being our home turf and all, that we divided this into two installments to make each a bit more digestible. Part 2 will be coming at the beginning of next week.
Meet the Outdoor Industry Communications Agency Executives
Coral Darby | Founder of Darby Communications
Motivated by a yearning to be an available mother, a successful businesswoman, and an entrepreneur carving her own path, Coral launched Darby Communications back in the mid-2000s. After a successful five-year stint with a marketing firm pioneering its public relations department, Coral developed the skills and tenacity to give it a go.
In 2003 she left a secure position as a PR Director and converted the third bedroom of her home into Darby Comm HQ. Since then, she’s never looked back and has grown the agency to 13 employees and a much bigger office. As she reflects on 20 years of agency ownership, “This commitment to do my own thing at a time when it was not the norm has been rewarding in more ways than I could ever have imagined.”
Kelly Blake | Vice President of CGPR
Kelly is the Vice President of CGPR and a seasoned communications expert with experience in beverage, sports, outdoor, and active lifestyle industries as a CPG strategic communications leader. Her successful career in communications stems from creating editorial coverage with both national and regional outlets, events, and brand communications campaigns that integrate all aspects of marketing that meet specific objectives.
Kelly’s proven understanding and track record in strategy and execution of media relations comes from her experience working in-house as the client and on the agency side with large global brands to smaller start-up-level companies.
Drew Simmons | President & Founder of Pale Morning Media
Drew’s day job is as founder and president of Pale Morning Media (2001), a national public relations and strategic communications agency specializing in the support of outdoor industry organizations, brands, and individuals. Drew has been fortunate enough to work with some of the most inspirational and creative outdoor-minded businesses in the world, and he has the t-shirts and trucker hats to prove it.
Drew moonlights as an outdoor recreation economy advocate at the national, state, and local level, and when he has time he still does a bit of writing for WickedOutdoorsy.com (we’re big fans of his written word), as well as some trade and consumer publications.
First off, how did you find your way into the outdoor industry and what kickstarted your agency career?
Darby: I was fortunate to spend the last semester of my college career doing an internship in Ventura, CA with Patagonia, Inc. The experience was epic. I lived in the Chouinard’s guest house on the Pacific Coast Highway and I would bike to work every day, passing the surfers on the point. I loved the lifestyle and knew I had to find a way to stay immersed in the industry and its people.
Post graduation, and after a short stint as a Colorado raft guide, my boyfriend (now husband) and I moved to Bozeman, MT where I landed a job working for a brand called Tibetan Traders. The owner was very kind and she taught me the inner workings of her cottage brand. It was an all-encompassing education that included customer service skills, bookkeeping, marketing, and inventory management. During this time, I absorbed as much as I could from her mentorship and the influential contacts she introduced me to at industry events such as Outdoor Retailer. My time with this organization provided me with the tools to land an agency position and eventually launch Darby Communications. Over the years, I’ve come to realize just how influential the people and industry have been on me.
Blake: I started at Marmot as the Director of Marketing. At that time the brand did not have a public relations strategy so I added it to my list of responsibilities. When I left Marmot, I wanted the freedom to live in Jackson Hole and have a career so I started a communications agency with two partners called New Heights.
Eventually, I found an agency career that gave me the flexibility to have a family. I have been fortunate to work for a few well-known agencies in the outdoor/lifestyle space. And the ones that I have not worked with, like Darby Communications, I consider a friend and will always support.
Simmons: In the early 1990s, during that weird dead space between the decline of newspapers and the rise of the internet, I was living in Seattle and trying my hand at freelance writing. One of my many low-paying gigs at the time was publishing a dirtbag regional backcountry skiing quarterly (“Free Snow”). As I was doing the sales rounds of telemark brands and hut tour operators, somebody suggested that I bring my iffy sales talents to something called the Outdoor Retailer show. So I went. I didn’t sell many ads at my first Outdoor Retailer show in 1993, but I did save a few dollars by sleeping on a hotel room floor at the Sundowner Casino (which we jokingly referred to as “The ‘Downer). The show was an incredible eye-opener for me — not only did I meet a ton of people, but I also saw for the first time what the outdoor sector looked like in person.
In the mid-1990s, I moved back to Wyoming to take a newspaper editor job in Jackson Hole, and often spent my lunch breaks hanging out with some friends who worked at a small PR office that was a few blocks away from the newsroom. One day while I was lounging on the office couch avoiding a deadline, the founder of the agency said he had just signed a new client — the Outdoor Retailer Show — and wondered if I knew anybody who might want to apply for the role of account manager. I immediately raised my hand. While I was arguably a “veteran journalist” at the time, I was also a stark amateur at agency work with zero contacts in the outdoor media corps.
That changed in the summer of 1999, as my new tradeshow client was hit by an F5 tornado that ripped through downtown Salt Lake City. The good news was that the tornado happened during lunchtime on the set-up day, and was limited to the exterior pavilion tents. Unfortunately, the bad news was that one person died (Allen Crandy, a 38-year-old convention center employee) and 81 were hospitalized city-wide. It was a chaotic and emotionally volatile aftermath. Professionally, it catapulted me into working relationships with dozens of outdoor industry icons and taught me a ton of first-hand lessons about the value of communications in challenging situations. And personally, it showed me the true nature of the outdoor community, which — when the proverbial shit hits an incredibly big fan — is an incredibly supportive, generous, and welcoming place.
What continues to motivate you day in and day out in your role managing/running an agency?
Darby: It sounds cliche, but it’s the people. I don’t want to let anyone down. The team shows up every day and gives this agency and our clients everything they’ve got. Their dedication motivates me. I want to be there for them and provide a work environment that values and rewards their efforts while also challenging and stimulating their professional growth.
Also, back in January of this year, I took on partners, so I am no longer the sole owner of Darby Comm. It has been exhilarating to have accountability colleagues. We play off one another’s strengths extremely well and we share in the challenges and stresses of running this firm. It has been one of the best decisions of my career. I am learning from my counterparts while also enjoying the business of running a business more than I have in a very long time.
“The team shows up every day and gives this agency and our clients everything they’ve got. Their dedication motivates me.” ~ Coral Darby
Blake: As part of the leadership team at CGPR, it’s really important to me to exceed the set goals for the internal team and the clients. I am competitive, which helps with motivation and desire to continue to be successful, and think I have always just wanted to be proud of the work so that also contributes to my drive.
Simmons: Once upon a time, I used to motivate myself the same way that many others in the outdoor industry probably do…telling myself that what we’re really doing in the promotion of outdoor industry brands and organizations is helping get more people outside more often. I still agree with the basic premise of that idea, but I’m also very honest about the fact that most of the time we’re just trying to help companies sell more things.
That said, over the years I’ve been lucky enough to meet and work with a remarkable number of good-hearted people in the outdoor sector. To them, working for an outdoor industry company or organization is as much about bringing the values of the outdoor world to the corporate boardroom as it is about leading consumers to some sort of outdoorsy nirvana. When you’re doing good work side by side with good people, it’s pretty easy to stay motivated.
What’s the most challenging aspect of managing an agency?
Darby: This is a hard question to answer with an abbreviated response, but I would say maintaining company culture while trying to scale. It’s a very tricky combination and one that needs constant monitoring and care.
Blake: Saying no.
Simmons: I’m a puzzle guy. That nerd in the coffee shop who does the daily New York Times crossword and Wordle before anything gets done. I often see the job of public relations — as well as running an agency — as a gigantic riddle of its own, full of lots of small ones. If you’ve ever done a crossword (or any other sort of word nerd thing), then you know that the two most satisfying parts are the very beginning and the very end. The middle part is where it gets tricky. Agency work is much the same: finding new and fresh ways to stay focused, stay motivated, and keep a team moving toward an eventual goal.
As a leader, how has your management style shifted over the last 10 years?
Darby: I used to think that I needed to know everything about every client and initiative. By default, this approach made me a micromanager, which doesn’t bode well for employee retention. Today, I’ve come to realize that everyone in the agency has the potential to be an intrapreneur and that everyone appreciates (and excels with) the freedom to do their job without me or upper management looking over their shoulders. We certainly take a team approach and offer mentorship for internal growth, but the best way to allow the team to flourish is to create an environment built fundamentally on trust and support.
Blake: I don’t think my style has changed much. I have always trusted my colleagues to get the work done, do a great job, and meet deadlines. I have never really believed in the hierarchy that most traditional agencies have. I think no matter the years of experience one can contribute creative ideas and should be involved in all aspects of the project work, thus my style is very transparent and inclusive.
“No matter the years of experience, one can contribute creative ideas and should be involved in all aspects of the project work.” ~ Kelly Blake
Simmons: In that time period, we spent a ton of time at Pale Morning Media developing our own set of metrics and our own style of reporting. It was a big lift to get done, but the benefit has been the ability of reporting to truly speak for itself. It helps our long-term clients understand what’s actually happening, helps account managers know where effort needs to be placed, and helps me know where I can actually provide value as a manager.
At the heart of all PR practitioners is a passion for storytelling and connecting with people. What is one piece of coverage you generated that still sticks in your mind today?
Darby: In December 1999, Outside did a ten-page article on my client GoLite and how this crazy little startup was trying to revolutionize the gear industry with products that weighed significantly less than conventional gear. This article launched the ultralight movement and ultimately my career.
Blake: I worked with a brand for a few years and evolved the strategy from product-focused PR to bigger stories, as the eventual goal was to get the company purchased. I had to cast a wider net to target business media which is usually a challenging placement. I landed a full feature in Inc. Magazine (and a few other bigger titles).
It was a few years ago but it sticks out in my mind because it was a big success, involved creative storytelling, and was fun. I dug deeper into the Founder and her interests outside of business and then creatively tied it all together to integrate the personal side into the business motivations. And the subject of my pitch was used as the headline for the feature.
Simmons: Choosing one piece of news that we helped get into print is a pretty tough question. It’s kind of like asking a parent which of their kids they love the most. The most satisfying “results” moments for me have always been those times when everybody wins — when you have a really cool and interesting story, you find a writer who’s willing to dig a little deeper and do some extra work, and the final result is something everybody is psyched about. I always try to remember that the working media have business goals as well: they want to write things that are of value to people, that get read, passed around, and remembered.
“The most satisfying “results” moments for me have always been those times when everybody wins.” ~ Drew Simmons
The field of outdoor industry communications is constantly evolving, but it’s reassuring to see individuals like Darby, Blake, and Simmons driving the industry forward. Dropping next week is part two of Ask the Experts: Outdoor Industry Communications Agency Leaders, where we ask these three to look towards the future and predict where the outdoor industry communications landscape is heading.