Industry favorite Brenner Thomas has parted ways with LaForce + Stevens to start his own PR firm, The Lead. With the blessing of his former employers and a unique background as a fashion journalist, Thomas tells us why he decided to take the leap.
Why did you decide to launch your own company?
The entrepreneurial thing is a bug you catch. You wake up one morning and decide you have to work for yourself. I wanted that independence. I also love what I do and the idea of committing myself to my own agency felt like it would be fun, scary, and rewarding.
Was this something you’ve always envisioned?
I had thought about it, but never that seriously before last year. But I’ve come to learn that you can’t rely on your sense of the future. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed I’d be starting my own PR firm. Five years before that—when I was journalist—I wouldn’t have guessed I’d become a publicist. Where I’ve ended up is way more interesting than where I thought I would be.
What kind of clients will you be working with?
Fashion clients are coming first—the love affair continues. I have two great clients working with me: Haspel, the heritage brand redesigned by Sam Shipley and Jeff Halmos; and the roving marketplace Northern Grade, which brings incredible, boutique brands together and showcases them around the country. It’s a movable feast. But I am also into gear, spirits, technology, media and design. I’m looking for the right clients in those spaces. Also, my business partner, Jeffrey Schneider, is an expert in reputation management and crisis management—a very different kind of publicity. I am holding down the brand side; he is doing his thing. We round each other out.
How did you come up with the name of the company?
“A lead” is a journalism term for the first few sentences of a story, the ones designed to grab the reader. I thought that process of distilling a story to its most relevant parts was similar to what a good press agent does. We have to help our clients decide what to lead with, what will garner attention. So it worked as a metaphor and also had a nice reference to my journalism days.
You have a background in journalism, including a stint at WWD. How has that helped you as publicist?
It helps me every day. I think I pitch from a more knowing place. Most publicists don’t have an inside view of how editorial works: what good copy is, what a compelling image is. Editorial is really a mindset. Being able to look at the world that way too is an advantage for me. I also get when my PR schtick is not working. You get “no” way more than “yes” in this business so sometimes being a good publicist is knowing when to disappear.
What are your memories of your time at WWD?
I covered men’s wear there. I was part of the merry band that came over from DNR when that folded during the crash. We were a tight knit crew. Jean Palmieri and Stan Gellers taught me everything. Alex Badia kept me in stitches, and has such a keen eye. He still does. It was a fun time in men’s wear. So much was changing. Thom Browne was ascendant. I remember going to his show for the first time, and the pageantry was unlike anything I had seen. Silhouettes were shrinking. Streetwear was becoming influential. Bloggers were being knighted. I remember sitting across from Scott Schuman at a lunch and thinking there might be something to this street style thing. I had a go-to source; Michael Bastian was one of them. He was super articulate, “sound bite-able”, and always kindly took my calls. Thanks, Michael!
What’s your long-term goal?
I love being an observer and participant in media. The rules of journalism and media consumption are changing, like, daily. The tactics publicists used even last year might not be effective anymore. “Dynamic” is an overused word, but that’s what this industry is. It has shifting consumer habits, established players, new kids on the block and lots of investment. That’s a cool place to be. Any industry that can give rise to both Kim Kardashian’s Paper and Vogue covers in the same year is a good home for me. So if I can help brands navigate these changes, that will be success. If I can grow this company in the process, that will be even better.
How did the LaForce team handle your departure?
With the kind of good will and grace you would expect from James [LaForce] and Leslie [Stevens]. It was hard to leave the nest. James is a mentor to me; I cannot say enough about his intelligence, experience and savvy with clients and media. He is just a pro, and a genuinely good person. I am proud to be his protégé.
What did you learn from James and Leslie?
That hard work is good for you; that client service is a dance between relying on your experience and empathizing with theirs; that creativity is the handmaiden of success; and that tray-passed hors d’oeuvres should adhere to this rule: no dips, no sticks, one bite.