Donna Loughlin, President and Founder, LMGPR (San Jose, CA)
Donna Loughlin, is President and Founder at LMGPR, a public relations agency that works with “emerging market players and visionaries” to help them build out their Leadership (the “L” in the agency’s name), Momentum, and Growth. Key to this effort is researching the client’s “story” and the drivers for the client founding the business. The client/agency relationship typically takes a minimum of a year to launch and continues, in some cases, for up to 8 years until the client goes through its IPO. Media relations initiatives include earned content – “talking to the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg and trade publications” – and/or “creating original content” (such things as whitepapers and podcasts).
Donna began her career as a journalist, working with Reuters, BBC, and Washington Post, and migrated into doing PR inside technology companies going through IPOs during the dot-com bubble. Donna, in her role as a “corporate person,” deflected phone calls from investors in other companies who were seeking her help by referring them to her friends . . . until the day she realized that she had sent away “$1.8 million in revenue.”
It was time to start her own agency. Initially, she worked out of her home and consulted with smaller, venture-backed companies and VC firms directly to launch these new companies before they had any marketing, or even, in some cases, a product. Within 90 days, she found she needed to add media and PR talent. She searched online and built a network of independent consultants, working mothers taking time off to have children, who became another (internal) iteration of LMGPR – “Loving Mothers, Good PR,” and then brought on people as employees.
Today’s clients are widely varied in their needs. They may want to raise funds to start manufacturing a new product, bring a product to market, prepare for a SPAC or an IPO – or be looking to be acquired (as an exit strategy).
In this interview, Donna explains the discovery process the agency uses to find a client’s authentic story, exploring such things as:
A. What is the company product and strategy?
B. What is the genesis and the genius behind the product?
C. What are the six components of success?
- Are you relevant?
- Are you bold and fearless? (If you’re not, what can you capitalize or own that would make you stand out?)
- Do you think out of the box?
- Do you listen to the market?
- Are you a disruptor or are you changing an entire category?)
Donna has found that the founder’s passion is often still in a company’s narrative for early- to mid-stage companies but the purpose of the product or solution may be missing. Hence:
- Why did you bring the product to market in the first place?
Donna mentors college students and younger associates in her agency. She emphasizes the importance of maintaining a strong network throughout a career. She can be reached on LinkedIn under Donna Loughlin, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her podcast, Before It Happened (https://www.beforeithappened.com/), focuses on visionaries and the future they imagine.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Donna Loughlin, President and Founder at LMGPR based in San Jose, California. Welcome to the podcast, Donna.
DONNA: Thank you so much for having me on the show.
ROB: It’s great to have you here. Why don’t you give us an introduction to LMGPR and the firm’s superpowers?
DONNA: Absolutely. First of all, LMGPR stands for Leadership, Momentum, and Growth, and that’s exactly what we do. I think that’s our superpower: we work with emerging market players and visionaries and we help them build their leadership and their momentum and their growth. That obviously doesn’t happen overnight; our relationships with our clients typically are a minimum of a year to launch and then going into, in some relationships, 7 to 8 years till they go through their IPO.
ROB: Got it. You are focused in, obviously, a key technology hub. People are starting sometimes from nothing, and they may not even know how to think or speak – I’m assuming “leadership” is largely a marketing leadership/ thought leadership perspective. Is that where people are coming from?
DONNA: It’s a combination of things. Obviously, curating the authentic story of the visionary and the founders is a key component, but also really dialing back and looking at why they even began to want to bring a product or a service to market – those epiphany moments where they decided, “I need to solve this problem, I need to bring this market, and I am the chosen one. I’m going to be the one that’s going to trade in the dog for a cat and put all my chips on the table and make it happen.”
Oftentimes those conversations start on napkins before they even make it to a whiteboard, or over a quick cup of coffee or my favorite sparkling beverage, Topo Chico. That’s about as raw as it can get.
ROB: Got it. For some people, I think starting a firm can almost be more instinctive. How do you take someone who might not even be able to tell you why they started the firm and get to the core truth of where this impetus for the business came from and decode that in an authentic way?
DONNA: It was actually almost a happy accident. I was a journalist before I became a professional public relations agent, so to speak. I was with Reuters and BBC, and I also did internships with the Washington Post. So, I had really deep editorial, journalistic roots that migrated into working with technology companies and working inside and doing a number of IPOs and very fast-paced IPOs during the dot-com bubble.
All that experience formed into this factor that started bringing me into more firsthand discussions with the backers, the investors themselves, the angel investors, the venture capital investors, which is huge in the tech sector. So, I started getting a lot of phone calls from them asking for help when I had a full-time corporate job, and I kept referring the business to friends. Then I realized one day, wow, I just referred X amount of business – I think I calculated it was something like $1.8 million in revenue that I could’ve put on my own plate. And I was referring it to people because I was a corporate person.
So, I stood back and thought, you know what? I actually think I have the makings for an agency. And that’s exactly how it happened. I started working and consulting with the venture-backed smaller companies and going in-house and working with the VC firms firsthand to get the companies airborne before they had marketing, before they had, in some cases, a product.
ROB: Got it. For someone who’s maybe not as deep in the tech industry, how would you explain what a typical client looks like? What’s a particular client that you could maybe drill a little bit into their own narrative and their journey to market?
DONNA: First of all, there’s no one-size-fits all. There’s no typical client. Each client is a very specific need. Sometimes clients come to us because they need to bring a product to market; other times, they need to raise funding because they have a product, but now they need to go to manufacturing. Others, they’re looking for an acquisition as an exit strategy, and others are getting ready for a SPAC or an IPO. So there’s no one-size-fits-all, as I mentioned.
But the process is the same. We like to take them through what I call a discovery process of looking for their authentic story. What is the company product and strategy? What is the genesis and the genius behind the product? And then being able to craft a story, looking at what I call six components of success, which are: Are you relevant? Are you bold and fearless? If you’re not, what can you capitalize or own that would make you stand out? Thinking out of the box, listening to the market. Are you a disruptor or are you changing an entire category?
Then as you mature and grow, it’s being agile and also gaining speed. Once a company comes to market – I just came back from CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, last week, and it was really interesting to see what was hot. Every year, analysts forecast what’s going to be hot. A lot of the companies that launched this year were virtual. They didn’t go to the show itself. These are mega companies, big companies that are public-facing – transportation, robotics, and consumer electronics companies. They didn’t show.
But what did show well were the smaller companies that were a little more nimble and a little more scrappy in some ways and didn’t necessarily have the big funding. They introduced products to market. So, you can still go to venues like that and see a little bit of a science fair. That’s something I particularly am always intrigued with when it comes to the tech sector. There’s always a little bit of a science fair, whether it’s in Silicon Valley or it’s in Atlanta or it’s in Carolina or it’s in Washington State. We have all these different belts of technology – Colorado, around the world, Portugal, parts of the UK, and even parts of Los Angeles have these gulches, so to speak, of innovation and technology. I think we’re really lucky that we constantly have this cycle of newness in the industry.
ROB: Absolutely. I heard a lot from CES this year where even some major exhibitors didn’t show up at the last minute. You walk into a main hall, there’s supposed to be a big booth and there’s just like a QR code of what would have been there at the booth. It really seemed like a different experience, and maybe some embryonic companies whose stories were quite early.
When you see someone who’s maybe not as polished and hasn’t been through your process, what are they missing from their story? What’s a common founder error when they’re thinking about communicating to market?
DONNA: I think the one great thing about early-stage companies particularly, and even as they evolve and become more mature and ultimately public, is the founder’s passion typically is still in the narrative and in the soul of the company. I think the part that oftentimes people miss is the purpose of the product or the solution. Why did you bring it to market in the first place?
If you think of something as common as a paperclip, a paperclip is a pretty low-tech product, but it actually adds a lot of functionality. I can clip it, I can clip papers, I can use it to fix my iPhone, I can use it to pick something out of my teeth, I can use it to also do basic IT to my computer. Pretty low-tech. But I think one thing about a paperclip – and I’m dumbing this down to literally a flea and a tick – is that a paperclip still has a purpose.
I think companies oftentimes lose sight of what their purpose is. What is that authentic component that you’re trying to get a consumer or business to adapt or adopt? I think as companies get bigger, sometimes they lose track of that. You’ve got to keep a pulse on what customers want. You’ve got to keep a pulse on, if you’re in a reseller channel, what does the channel need? What do the consumers want and what can your partners advocate as well?
ROB: It is always a challenge to keep the spotlight off of yourself and to, as many would say, make the customer the hero. It can be challenging to remember sometimes, especially when things thrive a little bit.
You have given us, Donna, some of your origin story and how you went from some of these news outlets and reporting to seeing an opportunity that was crossing your plate regularly. When did it become evident that this was going to move from single-player mode at first to multiplayer mode and you had to start thinking about maybe not doing everything, maybe training other people to do things that you felt like you’d been the best at over time?
DONNA: Your best IP is your talent, right? Going from literally working from my coffee table and my kitchen table and whatever table in the house I wanted to work from as an independent consultant – it happened pretty quickly. Within the first 90 days, it was clear that I needed to find some other media and PR talent.
So, I went online and found some great stay-at-home working moms who had taken time off from having children, and I created a great network of independent consultants. The working name for LMGPR internally was “Loving Mothers, Good PR,” because I had these amazing women that were working for me, and they had small children, and some of them are still with me to this day. Their kids are in high school now, and off to college.
Quickly I went from an individual to a network of independents to employees, and when I hit that employee mark that first year, that was a scary milestone move. It was like having more children. I was then responsible for the caretaking and the creation and the mentoring of their careers and their finance and really being instrumental in that. I think that was a big business step for me. At the point when I made that migration, I think we had about 10 clients, and those were 10 retainer clients.
I myself, the same year that I started the business, adopted two kids from Russia. So, I not only had an infant startup at home, I was managing and working directly with a lot of infant companies and taking them to market. I don’t recommend anyone do that, but I’m a multitasker, so it seemed to allow me to thrive and focus. It was like the AM/PM type of scenario.
As we’ve grown, we just celebrated a 20-year anniversary. I look back at the portfolio of companies that we worked with in the market – I’ll take security as an example. Cybersecurity was huge when I first started my business. Now we have security and artificial intelligence and the security of intelligence and blockchain and the need for security in blockchain, and then we have all the different nuances of security that’s built into the cars and the robots and all the IoT objects we have in our home. Watching the security world mature has been really interesting because all these products once upon a time were a la carte, and now we have all this integration.
ROB: There is so much going on in cybersecurity. I looked on your roster of clients; I recognize one of our Atlanta favorites with Bastille, so congratulations on working with them. Some would look at your timing – and congratulations on 20 years, by the way – and argue that you might have started the firm at perhaps one of the worst times to start a marketing firm in Silicon Valley.
DONNA: Absolutely did. [laughs]
ROB: What made that not the case for you? People who weren’t around or don’t remember, I was working for a venture-funded startup in 2000 and 2001, and going into 2002, we had three rounds of layoffs. We cut the firm size down by two-thirds; eventually had to compromise on a sale to an EMEA firm that bought this company. With that retraction in tech at that time, what made it work? Because there weren’t as many clients as there were two years before that.
DONNA: What made it work was a lot of the bigger national agencies – and I have respect for the big ones like the Bursons and the Edelmans, and I’ve actually done work for them in the past – were closing up their regional offices in the Silicon Valley to San Francisco, and there were a lot of boutique agencies. So, my competition had shrunk. In terms of working with emerging market companies, their retainer rates were typically around $10,000, but in some cases there were maybe projects that were three month stints for $15k. Their budgets weren’t quite as big, but if you did the calculations and you brought in thirsty clients and you were hungry enough to make a difference, you could build a business.
And I wasn’t the only one at that time; there were other advertising, marketing, and branding firms that also had the opportunity to pick up the slack, so to speak. Because the venture capital firms were a big funnel for me, I was getting venture-backed companies that had gone from scrappy to a little more of what I call the happy mode. They were probably six months to a year from bringing products to market. I think that was really a sweet spot, because you’re absolutely right; the market was not – I personally know a lot of people who lost jobs and were moving out of the Valley and cashing out of their houses. And you know what happened in the housing market; it was just nuts.
But I think it was using my own philosophy of being bold and fearless, and I never looked back. I think the only time you really want to use the rearview mirror is when you’re driving, and I clearly was not going to look back. I could go work in another corporate job and cycle through that and do some great things but having the variety and being able to choose exactly the innovations and the technologies – you mentioned Bastille; recently FireEye was acquired by McAfee, and I worked with that company for their first five years, taking them from literally 3 and then 5 and then 10 all the way up to 1,000 employees. So, I’m known for being able to scale and grow the business, but also scale and grow with that business.
ROB: That seems like a theme that would carry across from the venture side to the startups they work with. It’s a very interesting customer acquisition channel. It makes sense. I think some of the venture firms would project into the market that they are increasing the array of services they can provide. They may purport to have a PR arm. How much of that is a trend? How much of that is still smoke and mirrors, where they may still be cobbling together services underneath the umbrella of the firm, so they provide it, but it’s partnering with people who are focused practitioners? What’s that mix look like?
DONNA: I pride myself in that we do one thing and we do one thing only, and that is media relations. I don’t do social media. I don’t do product marketing. There’s a whole list of things that we don’t do. But there’s a lot of great people in the marketplace that can do brand positioning, meaning the physical. I feel like our core strength is the written and spoken word and taking that and turning it into the narrative that then helps churn the media, whether it be earned content, owned content, or digital content.
At one point we did have a social media team, and nobody really wanted to pay for it. I can’t give away those services for free. Social media for a period of time was considered to be something really inexpensive that you could offshore, and there were a lot of offshore services. So, you were competing not necessarily with other agencies, but you were competing with this offshore – Fiverr and those types of services. You can’t compete with that. The margins are too low. That’s when I realized, let’s do what we do best and what we’re known for, which is creating the leadership, momentum, and growth editorial content, whether it’s the earned content – talking to the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg and the trade publications – or it’s creating original content such as whitepapers or podcasts or those types of things. That I feel is the most valuable for our clients.
ROB: You mentioned upfront a couple of things. One, you mentioned the duration of a client engagement being on the longer side, and then you also mentioned retainers. It seems like that’s potentially a very instrumental tool in thinking about how to grow the firm. You mentioned having 10 retainer clients and how that potentially would embolden you to be able to bring on an employee because there’s a little bit more certainty than a bunch of little projects.
How, though, should a client think about the value of PR over time? I think a lot of times people get that splashy placement, that earned placement, and they don’t know whether money’s going to fall from the sky or whether it’s just going to shore up a conversation that we’re already having. How do they think about value?
DONNA: That’s a great question. I do think engagement is so important in building your relationship with a client, and it’s not about a transaction. It’s about people, and it’s about ensuring that the people in the room, whether it’s the C-suite, you have your core executive team, you have your engineering team, your sales team – all these different operational groups within the company might need PR for different reasons. I think the best clients are the ones that we’re working with in all aspects. Some companies are larger corporations, so we might just do PR for a division versus the whole corporation.
But bringing value starts with having realistic and authentic conversations and being transparent and being open, being able to really understand the company going into 2022, knowing exactly their top three business objectives, their revenue goals, their client goals, their tech and innovation competitive challenges that they’re seeing in the sales funnel. And to be able to look at PR not as a tool but as a strategic weapon that’s going to allow them to meet those goals, but also to be able to drive revenue.
At the end of the day, if my clients cannot bring in revenue – and I know each one of my clients has brought in revenue from very specific articles. Not every article is going to bring revenue, but the culmination over time of articles – we just did a poll this morning for a client; last year we had more than 1,200 articles that came out on a company that nobody heard of two years ago. Of those 1,200 articles, I’d say maybe 500 are really hallmark, feature-type articles. But the fact that we saturated the conversation within their market space, which is an electric motorcycle or transportation company, is a testament to being relentless.
So, showing value every day, constantly thinking – I always think the same way I did when I was an intern or when I was an editorial assistant: How hungry are you? Every day, I wake up hungry and thirsty, wanting to get results. I still squeal when I get an article in Forbes or Bloomberg or Wall Street Journals or the cover of Road & Track. That personally is the integrity of what it is that I was hired to do. So it’s showing that enthusiasm, showing that constant insightfulness of “How do we go faster? How do we go harder? How do we charge?” Not charge our client more but charge forward ahead to get results.
ROB: You mentioned in the trajectory of clients, leadership, momentum, growth – I wonder a little bit, because almost all of your clients are at some point new to market and then hopefully catering to different personas as they grow, does that align in some way with the customer adoption / technology adoption cycle of early adopters versus where somebody is in the maturity of a market? Does that affect what the messaging is along that LMG and where you place the message?
DONNA: That’s interesting. Let’s look at the electric vehicle (EV) market as an example. The first electric vehicle company I worked with was 10 years ago. Tesla wasn’t shipping 10 years ago. I’ve been in that space for a while, so I think I have a vantage point of having access to the early market analysts and the early channel players that were selling EV products and really being able to understand that particular category.
I fly. One of the things I love about flying is that I have a multitude of things that I need to make sure I’m in tune with when I’m flying. When I fly on commercial airlines, I can sit back and relax. But my name’s on the door, so at the end of the day, if I’m not in control of my plane with my client and being able to understand all the instrumentation and all the landing gear that I need to – because at any moment, things can change. When I talk about being agile, it’s like all of a sudden one of your customers came out with a product and they blindsided you, or you have a competitor that bought your #2 and #3 competitor and all of a sudden they’re like Goliath. Stock market crashes. COVID happens. All these things happen.
I think being calm and preventative – I don’t like the word “crisis communications”; I like preventative conversations so that you can actually defuse things very easily and stealthily, before maybe even the client sees it happening.
ROB: Got it. Certainly there’s a nuance to it. As you reflect, Donna, on your journey with LMGPR, what are some lessons you have learned that you wish you could go back and tell yourself?
DONNA: Maybe more sleep. [laughs] Ariana Huffington came out with a book about sleep not too long ago and I’ve yet to read it, but I thought that’s pretty amazing. Here’s this woman who’s a real powerhouse and she’s like, “Sleep is sacred.”
I think the second thing I wish I’d kept tabs on – this is pre-LinkedIn – is keeping the power of the network and keeping in contact and networking with people throughout your entire career. I always tell the younger team members that I’m mentoring – not just through my agency, but I also mentor through a couple universities and I sit on a board at a university – that the power of the network is so invaluable. You never know exactly when you’re going to tap in on something.
I just got a text and the same person really wanted to talk to me. Text, and he Slacked me and LinkedIn me. It was like three different trifecta levels. Like, who is this man and why is he trying to get a hold of me? Well, we had worked together a good 20 years ago, back when I was a reporter, and he’s transitioning into my career. He knew that because I was part of the digital boom and I was part of the networking boom and I was part of the security boom and all these other booms, I might know somebody who could be of service to him. He didn’t expect that I was still in the industry; he thought I’d retired by now. I’m like, why would I retire?
So, I think the power of that network and keeping connected with everybody in your career cycle is important. And I think the other thing is I’ve learned a lot from so many great people, mentors that I had access to, but I think taking time to mentor more is something – I mentor every day, but I recently got on the board for University of California Santa Barbara, working as a board member and mentoring women that are pursuing careers in STEM. I think STEM has become a commonplace term now, but we took so much of the STEM out of the classroom, and now we’re fortifying. It’s like with food. You take everything out and now you’re putting it back in.
I think that’s an area where I personally would’ve taken more computer science or more math. I took all those core things, but I didn’t pursue a career specifically in STEM. But I work with so many amazing people that are gifted in STEM. I feel like I’m street smart, and I think I would’ve loved to have taken some more of those classes when I was at UC Berkeley.
ROB: That makes so much sense. STEM has certainly come into so many areas of our lives where it was not previously present. We rewind to the beginning of the firm, and not everybody bought a computer. Sometimes they asked an expert what to buy. Now people just walk into Best Buy and pick a computer. They require so much more knowledge, and you can speak to different needs rather than just “It’s a computer.” There’s features that people care about.
DONNA: Do you remember – those listening might not remember at all, but you would go to Tandy RadioShack or some other component place and you’d buy all the pieces and you’d make a computer. The idea of walking into a big box store and buying a computer, needless to say under $500, just didn’t exist. When I first started, I had a word processor, and then I had the first Apple – I’m dating myself here for sure, but I had an Apple Lisa. That was my first computer.
ROB: Nice. Wow.
DONNA: And nobody knew how to use it. They said, “Kid, you’re the youngest one here. Learn how to use it.”
ROB: I definitely built some computers from parts and everybody looked at me like I was a little bit crazy. But it wasn’t crazier than what they wanted to charge me for it at the store.
DONNA: It’s amazing. You still have that computer?
ROB: Oh, no, that was a while back. But golly, there was a GTE Data Services location in Tampa, Florida that ran a Boy Scout Explorers Club where we were stripping down, tearing apart 8086 desktop computers down to the case, what’s the video card, what’s the RAM – we knew all that stuff. It was a different time, but maybe we could all learn from it.
Donna, when people want to get in touch with you and with LMGPR, how should they find and connect with you?
DONNA: There’s a couple places. LinkedIn I think is the best, under Donna Loughlin. And then you’ll see LMGPR there. My email is email@example.com, and I don’t mind receiving emails from students and professionals both. I’ve talked about mentoring; I’m here to mentor the next generation in this industry.
And then my podcast, Before It Happened, is also a great place to check out, which is a podcast that’s focused on visionaries and the future they imagine. And there’s obviously a lot of tech and innovation in that podcast.
ROB: We will certainly get that podcast into the show notes for people to have a look and encourage everyone to subscribe. Donna, thank you for coming on the show and sharing from your wisdom and experience in the industry. It’s definitely appreciated.
DONNA: Absolutely. Thank you so much. Hopefully I’ll see you when I come out to Atlanta.
ROB: Sounds good. Be well. Bye.
Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.