After a fruitful career of leading public relations for global to mid-size public relations agencies and Fortune 500 agencies, Cindy Riccio broke out on her own to found CRC a decade ago. Since then she has built her agency into a digitally savvy, award-winning boutique communications agency representing clients across categories like food, beauty, fragrance, travel, fitness, tech, and fashion. She fills us in on how she founded CRC, her biggest PR coups, and discusses how brands will be communicating beyond social media and common digital tactics, in the future.
When did you know that communications was going to be your calling?
When I was young, I loved to tell stories and capture the attention of my friends and family. Some stories were imaginative and some really shocking. In school, writing was my strong suit. I was passionate about art and fashion and those were the storytelling topics I wanted to pursue. Advertising was my first choice and that led me to PR, based on where the business was trending at the time.
What was your first gig in the industry?
My very first gig before going to work for global public relations agencies and Fortune 500 companies was at NYU as a journalism major when I was sent on an assignment to City Hall where the Mayor and leading actors from Broadway were meeting about a growing epidemic called AIDS. The photo I took of that powerbrokers meeting and the caption I wrote ran on the AP wire. The Daily News picked it up but didn’t run it because that same day Paul Newman came out with a new line of salad dressings and my photo got cut. That was a pivotal moment for me. The A-list celebrity influencer and his new products trumped my good cause story.
What have you taken with you from that role that you still use today?
Timing is everything. Celebrities and influencers capture attention, cause matters, and a picture is worth a thousand words.
What were some of your career highlights leading up to CRC?
I’ve worked on so many great new product launch campaigns from DuPont’s Lycra to the apparel market with designer collaborations including Donna Karan. I also worked on the One and Only Wonderbra global launch from the U.S. to the U.K., the coast-to-coast Hanes Tagless t-shirt with Mr. T., and Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best Legs” and tour for Hanes Hosiery.
You founded CRC in 2007. How did you know the time was right to venture out on your own?
After two decades of working both in house and at global to mid-size public relations agencies, I knew the time was right to open the doors to a boutique where I could bring my love of storytelling and multi-faceted marketing experience to brands and companies of all shapes and sizes – from start-up to global consumer brands. I wanted to create a business environment that was immersed with talented entrepreneurs who are fearlessly committed to doing great work for our clients, bringing innovative and disruptive ideas to the marketplace, and doing what they love to do.
What were the early days of CRC like?
The early days were as exciting as they were challenging. At first, I partnered with a few other entrepreneurs and we shared clients to offer our unique skill sets. JL Pomeroy, CEO of Jumpline Group, was an inspiration early on and we shared an office with a few clients. Her west coast team and office with red carpet Hollywood event expertise and a production company was a great asset and role model for CRC.
How did you weather the tough market in 2008/2009?
I was really lucky, actually and for that, I’m thankful. After leaving Hanes in 2007, I had the opportunity to expand the breadth of experience with consumer brands to play a leadership communications consulting role working for the CEO and President of Horizon Media, Bill Koenigsberg. As the largest independent media buying firm in the U.S., Horizon’s twenty-year-old agency has a prestigious list of longstanding clients in the media network and cable industries like NBC Universal and The History Channel. I played an intermediary role between each buying group and the research, insights, and analytics teams. I had to parlay the rapidly changing media landscape to the press and ensure Horizon’s leadership, digital expertise, and share of voice resonated with the media and industry influencers. Most importantly, I had the opportunity to learn and take a page from the CEO’s playbook of client service, business management, and talent acquisition skills to empower me to start an agency of my own, along with an understanding that the market will change and one should always prepare for the “what ifs” in one’s business plan.
Communications has continued to change rapidly since then. How have you navigated these changes?
My vision has helped in seeing the trees through the forest. I don’t let change scare me, but rather use it as a growth opportunity. If you can’t embrace change, you probably shouldn’t be in the media business. In this digital age, CRC has evolved its practice beyond public relations to leverage the latest communications technologies and we have an ever-evolving repertoire of digital tools to help engage consumers and amplify our clients’ stories. We introduced our digital marketing strategist, Vanessa Jeswani, in 2015 to spearhead e-commerce, SEO, and SEM for CRC. We added a social media and content manager who oversees all social media and email marketing engagement and most recently we hired a new vice president to oversee all disciplines and client services to engage media and influencers with the end game of driving optimal brand awareness, engagement, and sales for our clients.
What new areas of communications are becoming increasingly important?
Augmented reality is getting a lot of buzz right now. AR gives you a more immersive platform to tell a story directing people to deeper content, game-like features, and bringing the consumers into the experience. As more of our efforts are focused on e-commerce, AR allows your customers’ imagination to guide them as they virtually experience your product. Lego and IKEA are at the forefront of this technology where you’re able to scan a catalog to see what the end product looks like or how it would fit into your room. Since agencies have already started to use Snapchat and Instagram in recent years, they can go even further with AR and implement it into their current social media tactics.
What is the key to telling a lasting story in the digital environment?
Emotional connection is and always will be the way to forge a brand’s relationship to its audience. Strategically choosing the right content, tone, heartbeat, visuals, video and words are the key to striking the right chord for a lasting story.
In terms of digital, are companies still looking for numbers or are they increasingly considering the value of a targeted audience?
Numbers and results are the bottom line for most of our clients, but you can only achieve strong results by creating content that resonates with to the right audience. More and more marketers are embracing micro-influencers who might not have a high number of followers, but can strike a conversion rate through their community. Driving traffic to a client’s site is necessary, but driving the right kind of audience is even more important to see results and sales.
Is the meter for the way in which ROI is measured changing at all?
The meter is changing all the time and recently, Mark Pritchard of P&G challenged this. He decried the closed measurement systems of Google and Facebook. In the past, the primary metric to measure results would be reach or impressions. Today’s PR arsenal include digital capabilities such as influencer marketing, social media, and content marketing which can all be tracked with Google Analytics, as well as many other new tools on the market. Before running any campaign, we ensure that we’ve setup a measurement strategy so we can evaluate the traffic, leads, and sales driven by our programs. Additionally, we support upper funnel tactics like content, press features, and social mentions in conjunction with lower funnel tools like SEM, social media advertising, and email marketing to ensure that we’re driving consumers down the funnel in a strategic and measurable manner.
What do you consider to be among your most successful PR coups at CRC?
Our new VP and Director of Influencer Marketing, Zeba Rashid, is our most recent coup. Her agency background and client experience coupled with her positivity and motivational management style is going to help catapult CRC’s growth from a boutique to a mid-size agency in our second decade of business. From a business perspective, we are proud of our work in the smartwatch competitive race to market in the recent past with the launch of Kenneth Cole Connect to beat Apple. It helped us to win our first Stevie Award.
How do you learn from the youngest employees at your company?
There are so many ways we learn from the youngest employees at CRC. They are a great asset. They bring new age technology, apps, conventional wisdom of the crowded influencer space, mobile marketing and social media trends. They are the exact demographic so many of our clients are trying to connect to in their marketing plans.
What are key qualities you look for when hiring?
Critical thinking. Socially connected. Creativity. Good energy, writing skills, and the ability to verbally present thoughts as well as answer a phone – and, that’s a lost art.
Your clients range from fashion to home to tech to food. What do you consider when taking on new clients?
How we can help them solve the problem or opportunity they are trying to achieve and how our experience can add value to the equation based on our breadth of category experience.
What is the advantage in working across categories?
You can take a consumer survey strategy that worked for a food company and apply it to an apparel company, as long as you tailor the questions accordingly. So many influencers and reporters cover a multitude of topics in the lifestyle consumer realm. A lifestyle blogger such as Something Navy has become the perfect fit for our clients across categories such as beauty, fragrance, travel, fitness, and fashion.
How do you see your business evolving in the next five or 10 years?
Over the next 10 years, CRC will continue to evolve our digital practice while keeping our eye on the prize of connecting brands with the magic of storytelling with and to the media, influencers, and consumers. It will be an ongoing journey because we know that the smart marketer bets on a channel closer to a conversion and while we will always be communicators, we’ll sharpen our content and provide better analytics because that is central to how we measure success.