Besides being a trailblazing innovator in the industry (and remarkably successful), Mr. Landis has been a good friend of Bulldog for many of those years—he’s imparted his thought leadership on our site, shared his thoughts on the future of PR, participated in lots of our events, and generally been a reliable and knowledgeable go-to source for many moons.
So it was our pleasure and privilege to engage this illustrious agency vet in some insightful and irreverent conversation about his take on agency life, notable events and experiences as a firm leader, looking back at his rise to stardom, and where he thinks PR is heading. His insights here are poignant, offering plenty of know-how for his peers as well as young upstarts seeking to replicate that success with their own firms:
Thanks. I don’t know if “elite” is a good thing—or just a euphemistic way of saying “old.” 😊 In past years, PR had influence, but it was one dimensional. The major way that PR professionals spoke to their clients’ audiences was through the media, who then distributed the news. Nowadays, as everyone knows, there are so many channels and platforms for distribution that you can be the master of your own PR. So, my opinion is that PR is even more important these days: if you don’t get it right, it’s a problem. It’s also your own fault. Sadly, that also means there are numerous cases on display (witness the current White House) where people think they can make up facts and distribute them as truthful. The true PR professionals still adhere to the PRSA Code of Ethics, which is quite clear: “Don’t lie.”
If you were a young industry warrior now, compared to back in the late 80s, would you have the same drive and desire to start an agency up? The practice of PR has certainly changed over the years, but has running an agency changed to the same degree?
Yes, I think I would have that same drive. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. One thing that few people know about me is that I started my career studying to be a classical pianist at Northwestern University. Before that, in the suburbs of St. Louis, I went door-to-door selling piano lessons to neighborhood kids for $1/lesson. So that sense of wanting to make it on my own was instilled from a very early age. That said, I think everything is harder these days. I admire the young professionals who are starting out, especially now during COVID. It takes determination and fortitude as well as a willingness to roll with the punches. Has running an agency changed since then? Well, tactically what we do has changed but in the end, we’re still doing the same thing: helping our clients through communications initiatives to be more successful with their businesses.
In an age where plenty of people change careers at the drop of a hat, what is it about public relations that has kept to you in this game for so long? Are there still accomplishments that have evaded you?
The reason I love this business of public relations—and especially agency life—is because no two days are the same. One minute, you’re taking a company like Velodyne Lidar (which makes the technology that allows self-driving cars to “see”) public. Then the next minute, you’re trotting out the CEO of client Save the Redwoods League to comment nationally on the impact of wildfires and how that is a direct representation of climate change. There’s never a dull moment. You’re constantly learning—about new businesses, new industries and new ways to deliver your client’s stories. Are there still accomplishments that have evaded me? Yes. That long-elusive book I want to write (although I do pen a food column for the San Francisco Bay Times called “The Gay Gourmet). Oh, and playing cocktail piano at the Holiday Inn lounge. (Anybody reading this do PR for the Holiday Inn?!!)
Can you recall the first big “win” for Landis Communications back when it all started? That could be a hard-fought client win, a huge coverage score, an influential partnership or hire, or even you got your first office computer. Describe that moment when you realized that your agency was going to do alright.
There are several that stand out for me. We did PR way back when for Seventh on Sale in San Francisco, which at the time was the biggest fundraiser for AIDS. Through that event, I met Gap executive Richard Crisman because the Gap was a sponsor. When the company launched Old Navy, he took a chance on our then little agency and he said, “I know you’ll grow with us.” We did and we helped establish Old Navy as a powerhouse retail brand. Another was helping Match.com become the #1 online dating platform and taking them public. PR Manager Trish McDermott (and a colleague of mine, marketing whiz Patty Gessner) again took a chance on us. We helped grow that business 1,100% over three years (just through PR) and also made Trish the national go-to “VP of Romance.” Both of those were turning points for us. Also, moving the business from my bedroom on lower Fillmore Street in a less-than-desirable neighborhood to the lower Haight (just as less desirable), which became my first office. I had to befriend the homeless people who encamped in our doorway each day – as well as the hipsters at the coffee shop next door, who would be all smiles when I wore nothing but black, but sneer at me when I was dressed in a suit and tie. While at that first office, we pitched British Airways. We thought the home-made croissants would impress them, but we forgot to do research on their competitors! Lessons learned!
Of all the changes, both revolutionary and incremental, that the industry has gone through in 30 years, what do you think has been the most important development for PR?
Technology has changed our industry—and our lives—forever. The way we think about how to communicate now isn’t so much of “how do you pitch this to the New York Times” (although that’s still important), but where can this story have the greatest resonance for our client’s audiences? Adapting to new technologies has to be an intrinsic part of the DNA of a PR professional – or you won’t be successful.
We’ve done a lot for many clients—Whole Foods Market, University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), Stanford Children’s Hospital, Save the Redwoods League, MetLife, Walmart, California Bank & Trust and more. But I think our proudest moments—and what makes us different are our unending commitments to our community. That doesn’t just mean representing nonprofits (which we do), but it means volunteering, donating and sometimes providing pro bono services to help. One thing I’ve said repeatedly is that no business is successful without the support of its staff, its clients and most of all, its community. It is our responsibility to pay that back in spades and celebrate our success by giving back to the community. That’s why for our 30th anniversary, we launched the campaign #LCI30. We asked all of our staffers to nominate deserving nonprofits and each day in October (30 plus one to grow on!), we are donating $300 to a different charity.
Which of the new-ish developments in PR/comms are you most excited about? And which do you wish would just pass out of style and go away?
Well, I really wish the Kardashians would just shut up and go away (oh, right, their show just got cancelled!). If you’re going to follow an influencer, why not follow Michelle Obama, for goodness’ sake? But besides that, I think AI holds the most promise. We’re at the infancy of that technology and we think of Siri or Alexa when we think of AI. But mark my words: AI will transform the communications business in ways we can’t even imagine right now.
At LCI, we certainly have a long ways to go. We’re lucky to work in an innovative community like San Francisco and Silicon Valley, where imagination fuels new ideas and businesses daily. We are representing new companies in the fields of healthcare, technology and the environment – and I think those sectors will demonstrably change our lives in a positive way post-COVID. That excites me. Secondly, I may be old school, but writing still gives me goosebumps. Finding the right word to put to paper (or to a computer screen) is a thrill. Finally, as a gourmand living here – there are so many great San Francisco restaurants yet to try!
When he’s not busy running his agency, you’ll find David travelling with his devoted husband Sean Dowdall to far-flung places (except now), playing the piano, walking his pound dogs Gaston and Alphonse and penning “The Gay Gourmet” column for the San Francisco Bay Times.