How location can still matter to marketing firms, even in networked age

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The Off the Wall performing arts center moved to Carnegie two years ago, and managing director Hans Gruenert has been getting to know the community. This has included attending meetings of the Business & Building Owners of Carnegie. That’s where he met Jeff Krakoff.

Mr. Krakoff had settled his new public relations business into a Main Street office a few months earlier. Now Krakoff Communications is handling marketing projects for the performing arts center.

The small marketing firm also has picked up work for Becker & Co., a nationwide professional investigations business that also happens to be in Carnegie. President Joseph T. Becker also discovered Krakoff through the local business group.

In the marketing field, location has been less of a limiting factor in recent years than ever before. Technology connects clients and their public relations teams via email, smartphone, flatscreen, pdf, jpeg and instant message. Practitioners in Pittsburgh regularly work with clients both across the three rivers and across the country, and Mr. Krakoff is quick to note he has clients in places such as Murrysville and in Ohio.

Yet, he concedes, setting up shop in the community just off the Parkway West has put him in front of potential clients who might not typically hire outside marketing help. “I wasn’t thinking strategically, ‘Oh, I want to crack the Carnegie marketplace,” he said.

Ben Butler, on the other hand, envisioned setting up shop in Wexford as a good way to tap into that area’s growth. He figures being there will give him an advantage — at least in that neighborhood — over firms based Downtown or around the city center.

“If you say, I want to work with Wexford businesses and they say, ‘where is your office?’ and you say Pittsburgh, they say you don’t really care about Wexford,” said Mr. Butler, who launched his Top Hat IMC out of his home last year.

Earlier this year, he moved into 200 square feet being leased by Wexford-based Allegheny Commercial Real Estate Services. Somewhere along the way, conversations with his new landlord led to an opportunity to handle marketing projects for the company.

“We just don’t do a good job of promoting ourselves,” said Kate Edelmann of Allegheny Commercial. She said Mr. Butler has helped the business clean up its promotional materials, and they’re now working on a campaign meant to reach prospective clients.

“He’s just come up with some really innovative ideas,” said Ms. Edelmann, who noted the business had handled such efforts in-house in the past after the other important work got done.

Marketing spending took a beating during the economic downturn, according to Veronis Suhler Stevenson, a New York private investment firm that distributes research on the communications industry. The firm reported total U.S. spending on traditional marketing — including consumer promotions, business-to-business promotions, word-of-mouth marketing and public relations — passed $80 billion in 2007, then fell to around $71 billion in 2009 and 2010.

In 2011, spending started growing again. In 2012, the firm projected spending would be around $76 billion. By 2016, trends point to it passing $89 billion, with the strongest gains coming in public relations and word-of-mouth marketing, which includes social media efforts.

A recovering economy fueling new interest in marketing could ripple through to firms at many levels — from national operations whose Pittsburgh offices are part of a larger network to one-person shops set up in home offices. How big a role location plays in who gets what business is hard to tell.

Marketing firms tend to specialize in different niches, bringing in outside contractors to handle projects. Clients that haven’t tapped professional marketing help before may find a comfort zone with small firms nearby or may seek out experts who’ve developed expertise in a particular field.

Tim O’Brien launched his corporate communications firm in 2001 after working as chief investor relations officer at a public company. At this point, O’Brien Communications clients range from Fortune 100 companies to small businesses, but most of them have leadership that have some experience with public relations programs.

The focus of his Bethel Park business has been on the region overall and on certain professional and industry segments.

“When I have been connected with small businesses which have never done PR or marketing, I usually start out very deliberately,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Sometimes I have worked with them as a coach until I thought they were ready to undertake a more formal marketing and PR effort.”

Similarly, Dick Roberts, whose North Shore-based Roberts Communications merged last year with Strip District-based New Perspective Productions to form New Perspective Communications, doesn’t see location as critical. “No one ever chose us because of where we were located,” noting the agency had recently picked up a biotechnology account based in Jupiter, Fla.

But he said there can be an advantage in knowing a particular market and having relationships with local media outlets.

At Off the Wall, Mr. Gruenert said Mr. Krakoff, who previously worked at public relations agency Burson-Marsteller’s Pittsburgh office, has helped generate publicity for the performing arts center as well as make connections with foundations that might help find support for the nonprofit. “We are starting to talk to people whom we have never talked to before,” he said.

Mr. Krakoff’s credentials as a Carnegie small business helped win the Becker business. The investigations firm’s experience a few years ago with a more established marketing agency left the staff disappointed with both the results and the price.

“I definitely wouldn’t have contracted if he was with one of the big, expensive nationals,” said Mr. Becker.

Meanwhile, Mr. Butler is so invested in building credibility through geography that last month he opened a second office in O’Hara near the offices of the Greater Pittsburgh Automobile Dealers Association. He’s picked up work for the association and hopes to get on the radar of more automotive clients.

Location just matters in his opinion. “Where you have an office, you are more serious by default.”

Teresa F. Lindeman: or at 412-263-2018.

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