Thomas GrahamThomas Graham

I love being at the helm of a medium-sized, independent agency. Those who live in this domain know there’s also a lot to the independent agency that clients find appealing: agility, personal attention from the executive tier on down, specializations and cost efficiencies are some common ones we get in client feedback.

We also face many of the same challenges as any business. We carefully balance resources between client service and new business development, and regardless of how they add to our cachet, shudder at relying too heavily on one or two large clients.

O'Dwyer's Oct. '19 Healthcare & Medical PR PR Magazine
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '19 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine.

There’s also another challenge, and I believe it hits us independents more squarely than the large behemoths: executive expertise.

I’m not just talking experience. It’s common for PR agencies—of all sizes—to hire young and inexperienced staff and groom them, hopefully balancing that strategy by adding more experienced staff. However, meeting the salary expectations of reputed executives with decades of experience, leveraged by impressively degreed credentials and years of toiling in the industry thicket, can be out of reach for many independents.

I started Crosswind 10 years ago with previous agency startup experience, so I was prepared. Among my first tasks was to seek the help of someone with impeccable credentials for realizing my agency vision.

Top Gun Goff

Thomas Jesse Goff’s media experience is impressive, but his biggest attention grabber may be his role in the 1986 Hollywood hit “Top Gun.” He held reporting and editing positions at top tier publications such as New York magazine, Esquire and Fortune, but it’s our memories of Maverick, Iceman and Goose that resonate.

Primarily, though, it was and is Tom’s depth of expertise in specific industries that interested me, as I believed—and still do—that they would always be important to the business of PR: aerospace and defense, energy and healthcare.

Tom was a crisis communications counselor for senior-most management at Kaiser Permanente, work which led to its award-winning “Thrive” advertising and PR campaign. He counseled leaders at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and provided critical messaging for the Royal Thai Government during and following two grave events: a tsunami and the global spread of H5N1 “bird flu” virus that decimated Thailand’s tourism economy.

Goff brings this experience repertory with agency acumen: I met him when we both worked at Edelman. He also has a law degree. Although not a practicing lawyer, he can steer us toward asking questions that have on occasion prevented us from getting mired in complexities.

I quickly learned that this advisory strategy works, and began to hone my radar for similar superstars stepping away from full-time careers. Some were forming consultancies; others were looking at semi-retirement or even full retirement. With all there exist mutual benefits, beyond the compensation arrangement.

Compensation is individualized—but always less than an executive full-time salary—and has thus far consistently been a favorable exchange rate for us.

Our clients now have access to the renown experts while still paying the fees they would expect to pay for a medium-sized independent agency.

Putting expertise to work in healthcare

Crosswind has several staff who feel passionately about our healthcare work, including (and especially) me. I was particularly invigorated by our agency’s work during the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Our team provided rapid response Tier One media support for Dr. Brett Giroir, then-CEO of the Texas A&M Health Science Center and a previous Director at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry appointed Dr. Giroir to lead the Texas Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response.

We stayed in touch with Dr. Giroir after our engagement ended, and wouldn’t you know he ended up as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health at the Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Giroir has been quoted as saying “Crosswind has the best media strategists” in the business. Not a bad endorsement!

Similarly, we continue our relationship with Dr. Vanila Singh. Dr. Singh also became an appointee at HHS, working with Dr. Giroir as the Chief Medical Officer to his office. She also served as Chair of the CARA-legislated Inter-Agency Pain Management Task Force, leading its efforts in developing a final report on acute and chronic pain management released earlier this year.

Dr. Singh recently left government work to teach as an associate professor of anesthesiology perioperative and pain medicine at Stanford University Medical Center. We’re currently working with Dr. Singh to raise awareness of the issues she’s passionate about, which continues to add layers to our own expertise and credibility.

It’s smart to keep your channels open and energized.

Other benefits of outside advisors

In addition to unparalleled and affordable expertise, here are a few more ways your independent agency can benefit from outside advisors:

Stand out from the crowd. In a pack of like-minded mid-sized independents clamoring for business, access to upper-level experience resonates with prospects. Your in-house agency work experience is always important, but in a hyper-competitive setting that added level can be like standing on the shoulders of giants.

Demonstrating expertise during the bidding process. A point of frustration in the RFP or bidding process is that those prospects tend to look for solutions to very specific projects. We know we can do it—and can provide related examples—but these processes are rarely geared toward opportunities to communicate just how good we can be. Having known experts with impressive credentials loudly fills some of that void.

Keeps the larger agencies out of the conversation. As I mentioned earlier, the medium-sized, independent agencies tend to specialize. Outside advisors add both breadth and depth to that expertise level. You can lead into your business pitch with your expert resources and that often thwarts the question of “why shouldn’t I hire a larger agency with more capital, staff, resources, offices, etc.?”

Unparalleled mentoring. You can still hire those promising neophytes, and now they will have access to very beguiling resources. That helps with recruiting, retention and in building up a stellar staff.

Go through your contacts, review your industry pubs with a new eye, and don’t be afraid to reach out. You may be surprised at how many well-established folks would eagerly jump into such an advisory role.


Thomas Graham is CEO of Crosswind Media & Public Relations, headquartered in Austin, TX with additional offices in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.