In one year,
Brad Smolar earned a sleepy Hong Kong client more media exposure
than the big agencies delivered in 15 years.
For most of 15 years, Richard Elman, the founder and CEO of Singapore-listed
Noble Group, relied on the luminaries of international public relations
(PR) to generate publicity for his commodities trading company.
He paid outsized fees and endured undersized results. "Most of the
companies we used are excellent at booking function rooms and sending
out press releases," he says sarcastically. "They just haven't produced."
Exasperated, he dumped the latest in a series of brand name PR
firms, which he would not identify, and in November 2001 retained
a boutique firm, with extraordinary results. Actually, "boutique"
is probably stretching it.
Elman hired Brad Smolar, a one-man operation in Hong Kong, a fellow
so lacking in traditional PR experience that he has not even mastered
marketing himself, which ironically is part of his appeal. He does
not have a Web site, high-gloss brochures, glitzy hand-outs or,
to his credit, much of an ego. "Everything," Smolar says, "is on
my business card."
He may be a humble PR foot soldier, but Smolar delivers. And the
impact on the companies he represents is considerable, especially
relative to the cost. At a time when advertising spending is drying
up, companies are turning aggressively to PR to bridge the awareness
PR spending soars
According to one respected poll in the US, the average corporate
PR budget increased by 21 per cent in 2001. In Asia and the US,
more of that budget than ever is going to boutique firms with specialist
And the stakes are higher than ever. If executed properly, a PR
strategy can benefit a company in ways that traditional advertising
cannot. Anyone, after all, can place an insert, but you can't buy
meaningful press coverage.
Good PR in first-tier news organisations enhances workplace morale,
attracts quality employees, intrigues investors, dissuades competition,
reinforces market leadership, comforts suppliers and persuades consumers.
Identifying the virtues of a PR strategy, of course, is entirely
different from securing their benefits, as the long-suffering Elman
Unfortunately for Smolar and his brand name predecessors, publicity-challenged
Noble is a marketer's worst nightmare. There isn't an exotic bone
in its corporate body. Its business - trading metals, cocoa and
other commodities for razor-thin margins - is boring. How much can
you say about a middleman, even one that generates US$1.2 billion
The company's chief executive is an accomplished, to-the-point
businessman and, by most accounts, a strong leader. But by his own
admission, Elman is hardly a quote factory. Although he is charming
and warm, it is fair to say that at 61 he probably relinquished
his leading-man looks some years ago. Hardly cover material.
Of course, Noble is publicly traded, which makes it an automatic
lightning rod for press coverage - or not. Unfortunately, Noble
shares are traded in Singapore, but the company is headquartered
in Hong Kong, which leaves editors wondering whose story it is,
theirs or ours. Answer: nobody's.
Enter Smolar, who was referred to Elman by a business associate.
On the strength of one recommendation, endless frustration and Elman's
"gut" feel, Smolar earned a one-year retainer with Noble in November
2001. At that time, they discussed Noble's PR goals for the ensuing
12 months, and Elman provided Smolar with a modest wish list. Fulfilling
it turned out to be child's play for Smolar.
By January, Elman was on the cover of the Far Eastern Economic
Review, where Noble was the subject of a flattering five-page cover
story. Three months later, Noble and its treasurer, David Sullivan,
shared a cover story in CFO Asia magazine with supply chain giant
Li & Fung. In May, Smolar arranged for Elman to speak for the
first time at the prestigious CLSA Investors' Forum in Hong Kong,
a prized invitation that had eluded Elman and his PR handlers in
previous years. The momentum continued; in July, Elman and Noble's
senior management team were featured on Managing Asia, CNBC's 30-minute
genuflection to management prowess.
When Smolar turned 40 this summer, Noble's entire executive team
took him to lunch, celebrating not only a birthday but also half
a year of publicity that outstripped by most measures all the media
exposure Noble had garnered since Elman founded it in 1986. "I don't
know how he does it," Elman says of Smolar. "But he does it."
Smolar contends that there is no black magic to successful PR and
that he simply does the little things well, which appears to be
a humble oversimplification. A native of suburban Boston and a graduate
of the University of Miami, Smolar has a traditional liberal arts
background, with no formal training in PR. But he is a natural salesman.
He arrived in Asia in 1989 at age 26, eager to prove himself. He
was part of a small group of ambitious but seemingly naive entrepreneurs
who believed Hong Kong should host an ATP tennis tournament to rival
the Marlboro Open, a popular exhibition event that did not provide
tour ranking points for participants, as ATP events do.
Smolar's job was to line up more than US$1 million in sponsorship
commitments for the proposed tournament and to secure a title sponsor,
a seemingly impossible task for a young foreigner who was still
fumbling with chopsticks and learning his way around the mass transit
system. "I cold called every managing director in Hong Kong," he
His persistence paid off. Smolar persuaded R.J. Reynolds Tobacco
to sponsor the event, and the Salem Open was born in Hong Kong,
arguably Asia's most prestigious tennis tournament. Smolar remained
with Spectrum, the company that now manages the event, until 1998,
when he struck out on his own. In his nine years with Spectrum and
its predecessor, he raised more than US$50 million in sponsorship
fees, despite having no formal sales training.
In many ways, he says, PR was a natural next step because it capitalised
on his "soft-selling" nature, growing commercial instincts and enviable
network of contacts.
Even so, the challenges of one-man PR are considerable. Boutique
firms and specialists such as Smolar must overcome specific and
significant weaknesses in order to deliver more value to their clients
than a big firm with more resources, greater reach and a more varied
package of services.
Typically, specialists achieve this by providing greater depth
of service and often focus on small to medium-sized companies. But
focus is only part of the solution.
Making PR strategic
Smolar achieves uncanny results in part by hand-picking
clients (he works with a maximum of four retainer accounts at a
time), choosing those with whom he has direct access to the CEO.
This is key. When the CEO is involved and committed to PR planning
first-hand, it becomes a strategic endeavour. When the task is handed
down to a marketing manager to liaise with a PR firm or simply outsourced
with a brief, the approach is almost always tactical and the execution
is left to junior staff. Unfortunately, few junior staff - even
those with brand name companies behind them - have direct relationships
with more than a select group of media. Smolar knows virtually everyone.
Direct access to the CEO also means that a specialist like Smolar
knows the company and its strategic imperatives as well as many
of its officers. When he speaks with journalists on behalf of a
client, Smolar does so with confidence and authority, providing
not only the facts but also the commercial and strategic nuances
that are difficult for a big firm of revolving associates to fully
understand and communicate.
Quality over quantity is another differentiating factor. Smolar
convinces his clients, some grudgingly, that the best way to control
their PR message is not by expanding coverage indiscriminately but
by limiting it to specific titles and programs. Established weekly
and monthly publications spend more time cultivating a story than
daily newspapers or wire services, and they often rely on more senior
editorial talent to execute and package features. "We care about
high-quality, well-placed stories that carry the key messages to
stakeholders in the company," Smolar says.
Another fan of Smolar's is Vincent Wan, an entrepreneur who brought
Perrier to Asia in 1979 and has since built a small business empire
on the back of the French designer water. He was Smolar's first
big-name PR client in 2000, but his relationship with Smolar began
10 years ago when Perrier became involved with the Salem Open. He
credits Smolar with helping to position Perrier as a drink of the
aspiring elite in Hong Kong, which now ranks third in the world
in per capita Perrier consumption, behind France and Belgium.
Like Elman, Wan has relied on his share of brand name PR companies,
but he prefers the hands-on, strategic approach of Smolar, saying
that the big firms "leave me cold" and do not represent good value,
at least for his needs.
"Using a smaller guy takes some guts, and it takes some time to
train him and to understand his strengths and weaknesses," Wan says.
"I would not use Brad for brand awareness or brand maintenance.
We are already a brand leader in Hong Kong. Brad's job is to expand
the brand, to help me reach the next level."
Smolar, it should be said, is not cheap. His rates rival some of
the big-name firms and his services, according to Wan, are "a luxury,
not a necessity". Monthly retainer rates for outsourced PR in Hong
Kong range from US$5,000 to US$15,000. Smolar declined to divulge
his rates, but characterises them as "above average".
Value you cannot buy
Whatever the cost, it is often difficult to put a price tag on
PR, especially when it is good. Smolar's efforts on behalf of Noble,
for example, continue to earn dividends, in part because he has
smartly maintained momentum with key news organisations and has
not "overexposed" his client.
"I enjoy putting people in the spotlight," he says. "The coverage
they get - it's not for sale. You can't buy it."
That coverage has led most recently to Elman's position as a finalist
for a CNBC Asia Business Leader Award and a nomination for the DHL-SCMP
Hong Kong Business Awards. Noble's share price has responded accordingly,
from S$0.79 (US$0.44) on November 7, 2001, the day before Smolar
signed his contract, to S$1.40 (US$0.78) on a split-adjusted basis
in mid-October, an increase of 77 per cent. The broader Singapore
index is up by 3.5 per cent during the same period.
Elman credits Smolar with educating the media and "capturing people's
attention" with a story that no one else had been able to sell.
"It's hard to put a value on that," Elman says.