Any time I visited Washington D.C. – and usually I went down from New York City at least two or three times a year – I made a point to stop in to see Pam Jenkins, then president of Powell Tate, the public affairs division of Weber Shandwick, the strategic communications firm where I was a senior vice president. Pam and I had known each other for more than 10 years, starting with our collaborations at another PR agency.
Usually I took the opportunity at our catch-up meetings to tell Pam which accounts I was working on and how they were going. She in turn would tell me about the latest goings-on at the firm in general and at Powell Tate in particular. But on one visit, probably about 10 years ago, Pam told me something about myself that I never expected to hear anyone say.
We had gotten into a conversation about our respective careers and how we had tried to take advantage of any and all opportunities to develop ourselves. Pam asked me whether I wanted to do anything other than what I was already doing, namely specializing in media relations and anything editorial.
“I think it makes sense for me to keep playing to my strengths,” I said.
For Pam, this was answer was evidently off the mark.
“Well, right now,” she said, “most people think of you only as someone who pitches. Do you always want to be known only as a pitcher?”
I said nothing, sensing she had more to say.
“Because unless you change,” she warned, “that’s what’s going to happen. You’ll always be seen as a pitch-man.”
I have to admit that her remarks, coming out of the blue, stung me to the quick. I felt Pam was doing what so many other colleagues of mine had long done, namely pigeonhole me as a media strategist. And I felt grossly mischaracterized. From time to time I had gone beyond my specialties. I had overseen important accounts, brought in new business and managed and mentored junior staff.
Her comments reminded me all too vividly of what had happened to me at Ogilvy about eight years earlier. My bid to be promoted from vice president to senior vice president was denied. Indeed, two higher-ups went so far as to take me out to lunch to explain in excruciating detail exactly why I was unfit to be an SVP. They explicitly cited what SVPs at the agency were expected to do – supervise staff, oversee budgets and the like. In refusing to acknowledge and value my individuality, they discriminated against me, and for playing the very role as a specialist that had earned me salary increases of nearly 40% over the previous three years.
It was a classic attempt to wedge a round peg into a square hole (although within a year I became an SVP there).
But no sooner had I boarded my flight home than I realized that Pam had me dead to rights. I was, by and large, a pitcher. No question about it. That’s what I lived to do at my job – to get media hits, the more top-tier the better. I deserved to be stereotyped because I’d done it to myself. Fully aware of my options – and as a matter of personal and professional choice -- I’d branded myself as a “pitch-man.”
And I realized I could live with that characterization. It had served me reasonably well. Besides, I had no overwhelming interest or ambition in being anything much more, whether a manager or rainmaker or administrator. I was no corporate drone, no numbers cruncher, no fan of going through anything bureaucratic or hierarchical. You could offer me ten times my salary to take on larger responsibilities and I would say no in a blink. I wanted to spend as much of my time as possible being creative.
In due course, I came around to feeling grateful to Pam, now chief public affairs officer for Weber Shandwick, for her insight into my stature at the firm and my preferences about the direction of my career. She saw me as clearly – and defined me as sharply – as anyone in my three decades in PR had seen me, and I stayed with the firm for 12 years, longer than I had any other.
I never doubted that she had my best interests at heart. She recognized and understood something invaluable, something that might be instructive to other leaders in our profession and, in fact, all others.
I had to be me.
And, to her everlasting credit, she let me be.
Bob Brody, a consultant and essayist in Italy, served as a senior vice president at Weber Shandwick, Ogilvy Public Relations and Rubenstein Associates. He is author of the memoir “Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.”