When Jack O’Dwyer founded his company, I would’ve been a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, on my way to law school. At the time, the concept of public relations as a career was not even a glimmer in my eye, much less the idea of starting my own communications agency. However, a few years later, after receiving my Juris Doctor degree, I decided to switch from law to PR, and I quickly observed that Jack O’Dwyer was a force unto his own.
When Jack would visit the top 10 agencies where I started my PR career, the firm’s leaders would virtually stand at attention because they knew that if Jack took a negative stance on a story, it could impact the firm’s reputation. They prepared for Jack’s arrival the same way they prepared for a client meeting because his words had so much power. Jack at the time was the only game in town for PR journalism. The U.S. edition of PR Week started publishing 30 years after O’Dwyer’s and The Holmes Report 32 years later.
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jul. '18 50th Anniversary Magazine
Jack was the pioneer and, in my view, became a centrifugal force in accurately reporting the story of the PR industry’s growth over the decades. His journalism background showed. He has consistently been a stickler for reporting honest revenues by agencies, year after year, for decades, and has insisted on seeing confirming evidence from agencies’ previous-year tax forms (to the consternation of a few!). I believe his being a stickler for accuracy on agency financial performance is one of the reasons for his remarkable longevity. He wasn’t afraid of calling an agency out for not cooperating.
Of course, times have changed dramatically in PR and corporate communications. But Jack has endured as an institution, despite steep competition and constant change.
What have been the most dramatic changes I’ve seen in the profession from the late sixties till today? These three categories are the ones I see as representing the most significant. In one way or another, I believe Jack has weighed in on all of these.
Pace. Over the past five decades, technology has progressively hyper-charged the pace at which we work, making some things easier while making others more complex. No longer can you take a breath and work on other projects after sending a strategic document to clients like you could in the late 1960s and 1970s. Today, clients often respond almost instantly with feedback, and client and agency increasingly collaborate online.
Technology has also given us an ever-changing stream of new tools for the toolkit, new ways to create and innovate, new ways to target, measure impact and tweak campaigns on the fly.
New and more complex crises. Despite all the great things technology has wrought over the past 50 years, it has also brought us new and more complex kinds of crises we haven’t had to deal with before, from cyberattacks, privacy breaches and identity theft to the proliferation of “fake news.” These are crises that we are still struggling with as an industry to manage and help clients recover from. I worry that “fake news” presents a potential existential crisis for agencies, our clients and governmental entities.
Specialization. When I started Makovsky in 1979, the idea of building an agency under the umbrella of specialization was foreign. Hiring people with deep industry-focused backgrounds for the types of clients we serve was considered an anomaly and not an effective strategy. It is true that back then, many agencies focused on consumer products. Specialists are now the order of the day, not just for industry expertise, but tech, social media, design, writing and production, etc.
Jack has survived all of these changes and will most likely continue to impact our thinking as change inevitably continues to shape our future.
Ken Makovsky is CEO of Makovsky.