Our conversation with Founders of LAFORCE + STEVENS | James LaForce, CEO & Leslie Stevens, President
BY KENNETH RICHARD
During this week of fashion show goodness, we ask you to stop and take a look around. All these people coming together to celebrate the richness that is fashion have one thing in common, they have all been touched by public relations agency LaForce + Stevens.
There is a big difference between a cold invite and a warm touch. One leaves the recipient uninterested, the other provides a gateway to conversation, partnership, and ultimately desires to be involved in championing the success of others. For the past 20 years, PR power duo James LaForce and Leslie Stevens have ‘touched’ the fashion industry, helping the nascent business become a power player while helping established businesses become conversational. With clients as diverse as Marissa Webb, Banana Republic, Perry Ellis, Gilt Group, and Target, this PR powerhouse has diversified to expand their reach to beauty, hotels, restaurants, wines and spirits, earning the respect of clients like WSJ, Sundance, Chopard, and Veuve Clicquot. The Impression sat with the duo to talk about their business, technology, timing, sleep, and what’s next.
Thank you for carving out some time during show season, you must be crazy busy.
JAMES: It’s always busy here. We deal with many different kinds of businesses, each with its own “busy season.” Fashion is a big part of our business, but since we have a lot of other categories it doesn’t seem like there’s much down time.
How did the two of you meet and come to form LaForce + Stevens?
LESLIE: We worked together at another agency. James left and was working on his own. I left shortly thereafter and then we decided to start an agency. There were three of us. We worked out of a tiny office on Union Square, literally the size of a 10 x 10 space, and then it grew from there.
JAMES: We started by using a fax machine to push out press releases and just kept hitting send.Would you ever imagine from that 10 x 10 room that you would be where you are today?
JAMES: I didn’t, but I still don’t think to far ahead. I prefer to think of what has to happen right now. We never had some grand strategy for the agency to be a certain kind of business. We let the opportunities and people that we worked with help form what the agency would be and how we evolved. Even with all the growth we have experienced in the last 20 years, the agency doesn’t feel that much different than when we began. I still feel like I’m doing things that I’ve always done.
LESLIE: I am a ”believe and receive” type of person. You have to put your work out there and believe that it’s going to be amazing. I’ve always had that mentality and I am so grateful to come to work everyday.
How would you describe what LaForce + Stevens does?
JAMES: What our agency does in the broader sense is communications. Typically in the past, communications was focused on getting brands out to the consumer. Now, communications is much more. It includes internal communications within the company and communications between our clients and influencers, media and the consumer. It also includes communicating on different channels and through different media. An experience or event is a form of communications as well.It’s funny, you started with the fax machine twenty years ago, you’ve watched the industry dramatically change. How exciting is that change for you?
JAMES: It’s what keeps us coming to work everyday.
LESLIE: It’s so exciting to see the industry change and develop new ways to communicate. Technology is morphing at a rapid pace and we work to stay on top of new digital and social trends.
Are businesses involving you in ways they never did in the past?
JAMES: Absolutely. One thing that happens in the technology sector is that they come to us recognizing that their funding scenario could be very different if they get the right marketing communications firm or partner in the mix. A lot of people who are starting businesses and inventing brands are using that leverage or emphasizing their association with us as part of their plan. So, they’ll mention who’s doing the creative work or that we’re doing the event, social campaign and media relations. In other cases, a lot of people are saying their businesses will be made or broken via social and traditional media coverage. It is so essential they get that part figured out. We are sometimes the very first phone call and sometimes it’s too early, it’s not even enough of a business to think it would make sense for us to be a part of it.
That’s an interesting point. What is the right time to call?
LESLIE: There really isn’t one right time or one right way. It all depends on the client. For instance, if the client’s business is in technology, we come in at the very early stages. However, we could also be working with an established brand that we are helping re-launch. It really differs depending on the stage of a brand.
The one thing that we are seeing that has changed is that everyone is into the story. They ask if we are the storytellers. We are storytellers, producing content in print and video format. We are telling the story through different mediums to connect to their consumers.
JAMES: We are often playing matchmaker between clients and the right support they need. We see people that are not at the right stage for us, but we will recommend someone else who we think could be the right partner. For example, they may think they need a PR marketing and communications firm, but what they really need first is content. We will suggest that, and if we are not building the content for them, then they should focus on creating a content team. It’s about helping businesses understand what stages they are in and recognizing that we can’t do it all.
On the fashion front, has the impact and power of runway shows changed versus ten or twelve years ago?
JAMES: I think they have changed because everyone is interested in fashion shows today. They are an entertainment commodity, like a TV show or feature film.
LESLIE: Everybody in the audience now is sharing fashion shows via their smart phones. Ten years ago, we were producing shows for magazines, newspapers and TV outlets. Now bloggers and influencers play a role. Fashion shows are now less exclusive since technology has allowed the content to be shared with more people.Is there to0 much volume going on for brands these days?
LESLIE: There’s never too much for a brand if it has the right tone. It’s key to protect an image and the DNA of the brand and be sure that all communication is on message.
JAMES: It gives you an opportunity. If you’re going to generate a lot, then you have to be consistent with your brand and unique enough so that people will remember you. We work to keep the stream true to what is unique about the brand and we try to keep from jumping on trend bandwagons.
How has the digital arm of the agency evolved?
LESLIE: It started out where we were only doing traditional PR and all of our clients were hiring digital agencies. But since we are leading the charge with events and content, we decided that we were the driver and that social was a sandbox we needed to play in. We morphed our group and restructured our team. Now when we walk into client meetings, we are able to offer them the full package.
Do you see any recent trends in digital?
LESLIE: The surge in unbranded content for social, such as game apps, video, etc., is a growing trend and a way for brands to enter a conversation without disrupting the consumer. What’s next on the frontier is virtual reality. You are going to sit at home and watch a fashion show and believe you are there.
JAMES: And with some brands we explore breaking news on a brand channel. So, if a brand has a large enough audience, we say, ‘Why should we give it to a major news outlet when we are meant to be a source of content and information to our customers, employees and to the people who care about us and follow us? Why wouldn’t we put it first on our own site, blog or Instagram?’ We don’t do it all the time and I think one of the advantages from all the years we have been in the business is that we still have a real affinity and loyalty to the traditional media outlets. But, we can explore with clients the notion that the company is its own news organization.What do you think is next for traditional media?
JAMES: I think the approach they have all taken, that an outlet has to be constantly feeding news and running online all day, is what’s working the best at the moment. I still read The New York Times every day and I read stories and think, ‘This is the perfect story for the Home section of The New York Times. I want to be reading this story in this outlet.’
LESLIE: To me the evolution of traditional media is about brand extensions. The traditional brands are going more digital, but they are also looking for brand extensions—a TV channel, a restaurant, a club, etc. That’s an opportunity for all of us as well.
What behaviors do you think the best in the business exhibit?
LESLIE: They’re creative. Creativity and the brilliant idea are key to success. Also, being a risk-taker and defying the status quo drives brands and fashion designers to be leaders.
JAMES: This may be a really practical answer but they have built a strong internal team that we can partner with. I am a little more comfortable when a client walks in and there is a chief marketing officer and maybe a senior vice president of publicity or communications.
LESLIE: That’s great. I just tend to really like creative people who, I hate the words ‘thinking out of the box,’ but people who are innovative and push boundaries.
Have you seen people engage you in the development of big PR play as the entire marketing strategy?
JAMES: Where it’s happening a lot in the industry is the Super Bowl, not necessarily this recent one, but we have done one in the past where the ad during the Super Bowl was essentially a publicity stunt. The brand sees value in the investment due to the amount of eyeballs they get on the broadcast. What they really are paying for as one of the Super Bowl advertisers is leaking the content of the ad early and relying on publicity and social media to push the content out. That paradigm follows a lot of other industries and categories that we have done many ‘ad campaigns’ for, where there is a well-known person or photographer, or both, and the reality is that the media on it has been us releasing the images to the public.
LESLIE: Integration is the key buzz word and most of our clients like to see all disciplines involved.
Are you finding that other industries are on-boarding to the way fashion has marketed and promoted itself?
JAMES: Yes, a target of the agency’s diversification over the last twenty years is that even at the beginning, hotels were coming to us wanting coverage in the fashion and lifestyle press. The same went for real-estate development or consumer-package goods. Everyone wanted and still does want a piece of fashion.
And why is that?
JAMES: I think it’s because fashion is so much fun. It’s more fun to shop at Bergdorf’s than Travelocity. If brands can make shopping for a vacation or for auto insurance feel like shopping for a cashmere sweater, that’s always going to be better.
LESLIE: People love glamour. The fashion industry is glamorous. There’s glamour, there’s intrigue, there’s excitement, there’s entertainment, there’s prestige, there’s fun and people are drawn to that.
Can you share any of your thoughts on the growing number of fashion shows now?
In some way I still feel like everyone is focusing on the same thirty shows, but then there are other people who have made room on the calendar for new designers to come forward. In other words, it makes sense that there are more shows because there are more people who want to go to shows.
There’s a finite amount of seats for shows. How difficult is it to curate that list these days with so many vehicles for coverage?
JAMES: There’s no one lost. Every show has a specific list for that specific designer and we have to be very realistic with the designers that we work with about who is really going to come to the show. We have to rely on our relationships with the people who we want to be in those seats to know if they really are going to be there. There’s a new reality check that’s going on where people are really honest with us about whether they are going to make it or not.
With the advent of Fashion GPS, have you seen technology help out in any other places where you thought, ‘Thank god we don’t have that fax machine anymore?’
LESLIE: We can now create lists for each event, fashion show, store opening, etc. much more quickly and with more precision. Technology also allows us to send invites with the click of a button and has helped us disseminate information to a wider audience.
JAMES: And all the measurement tools that exist now for traditional media and key messages that appear in a story. We are able to monitor media globally and in real time so all of our clients that are breaking important financial news can get up-to-the-second updates on who’s reporting what. With so much of it being online, we can ask people for corrections and they are very willingly to work with us to get the story as accurate as possible. All of the social media measurement tools for traction, interaction and sentiment make what used to be immeasurable and unquantifiable.
You’ve got me worried that outside of sleeping neither of you take a break. Is that the case?
JAMES: No! We have very balanced lives around here, don’t we Leslie?
LESLIE: Sleep is overrated. You can sleep when you die.
How do you guys recover from all this, I imagine there is really not a break in the year for you ever?
JAMES: We get one at the end of the year, between Christmas and New Years. The fashion industry also goes quiet for a little bit at the end of June, but the beauty of the fashion industry is that it never becomes silent.
LESLIE: I meditate.
What’s next for the agency?
JAMES: Global domination! (Laughs) No, we take one day at a time. I think more variety; we both love a lot of different things. We both love fashion and we both love luxury so that’s always going to be in the agency’s DNA. So, I see the agency doing more new things and maybe more old things we haven’t seen in a while.
LESLIE: Universal domination! And keeping the lights on. We love to explore new industries and keep learning and growing. Social and digital are key focus areas for us, but having fun and working with fantastic people are key.
We look forward to watching your continued success.
JAMES: Thank you.