MP&F: A History of Comebacks for 30 Years

Mark McNeelyBlog, home1 Comment

This has been a remarkable year for MP&F Public Relations.

We have celebrated our 30th anniversary, in ways large and small, all year long.

It has been the best year in our history, with more than $8 million in billed fees.

The future is bright, and as long as we can continue to attract the smartest, most motivated, effective and caring people, I know that the company will continue to prosper.

It hasn’t always been like this. I wanted to look back over the past 30 years at some of the major challenges, and successes, that the people at MP&F have been involved with. There are too many of each to list, but as we come to the end of this eventful year I will try to highlight a few. And forgive me if you’ve heard these stories before.

When I started it as a one-person consultancy in 1987, I had one paying (but not much) client. The first year, I grossed $11,000, which I considered a victory since I had decided that breaking even would be an attainable business goal. I stepped out on my own because I couldn’t figure out how to pay for myself and my two newspaper reporter pals Mike Pigott and David Fox (we had been plotting and scheming going into business together for years).

As Keith Miles would say,”This one has five pound potential.”

But Mike joined with me in November 1988 and David was on board by January 1990. We were all good writers and had good community contacts, but the first few years were very rough. When I started, I had to decide between buying an IBM Selectric typewriter or a clunky early version of a word processor. I chose the Selectric.

When Mike got there, he brought with him a little portable electric typewriter. We had those dinosaurs for years, even after we bought our first PC, and then, added to our desktop inventory with spot, cheap purchases from Sam’s Club.

Mike had been a reporter for The Nashville Banner for more than a decade, had won every major reporting award that existed statewide, and had an excellent source network that included every elected official in the county. But we quickly found out that those talents and assets didn’t necessarily translate into paying clients. We met two or three times a week to review prospects and strategize on new business. We were stubborn. We worked hard. We could have – maybe should have – failed. The times were very lean. When David – also a former Banner reporter — came on board, we only had two desks and no additional office space, so he spent his time stationed at a nearby client’s office, working from a card table and folding chair.

Our first big break came in late 1990, when a British-owned, Nashville-based car auction company hired us and severed ties with their former agency, which at the time was the largest PR firm in America. We promised them personal service, and access to all three partners. Their CEO asked if the media would take a news release from our firm as seriously as the big national firm. We told him we would put releases on their company letterhead, not ours, and that we would never think of putting ourselves in front of a client. They became our largest client, and we still work with them today, 27 years later. David had developed a friendly relationship with the CEO through a charitable event both worked on, proving that community service definitely has its benefits.

In 1991, we started working with an unorthodox New York born politician who was elected mayor – Phil Bredesen.  That led to our  being involved in almost every major civic improvement project for the next decade, including the Arena, the Titans and their stadium, the Country Music Hall of Fame,  the new Downtown Library, and many others. The year 1992 saw the addition of a student intern, Jennifer Miller (now Brantley), who worked on many of these projects.

Jennifer Brantley early in her career.

Jennifer is the only person to have started as an unpaid student intern and worked through the ranks to become a partner here.

Partners Katy Varney, the late Mike Pigott, Mark McNeely, Jennifer Brantley, David Fox, Alice Chapman and Keith Miles.

By 1993, our staff had grown to about a dozen and we brought Katy Varney and Dave Cooley on as partners.

Keith Miles, Katy Varney and Dave Cooley.

Katy’s requirement was that we have an annual “staff retreat,” which we did and have done every year since.

An early MP&F staff retreat photo.

We really didn’t know what we were getting into, and the first year a good deal of time was spent on such details as office supplies and whether we could afford a copier. We did develop the basis for our mission statement, to do the best work possible, to be a great workplace, and to be successful enough as a business to share any successes with everyone who worked here. The headline version – Do Great Work, Have Fun, Make Money –derived from those sessions.

That first retreat, Cooley and Pigott spent most of their time talking to Bredesen about a possible run the next year for governor, which he in fact did do. Pigott and Cooley took leaves of absence for almost the entire year of 1994, which saw the Republican party sweep into office, leaving Democrats like Bredesen, U.S. Sen. Jim Sasser, and U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper defeated and/or out of office. That meant that, in 1995, Sasser aide Keith Miles was available, and, as fate would dictate, we had just bid on, and won, our first ever federal government contract, to do communications work for the eight-state Southeastern region of a youth training program called Job Corps. Keith and Katy have been instrumental in growing that work, and we have been the national communications partner for the program for almost 18 years.

Our net fee billings doubled in 1994 to $1 million. Whether Alice Chapman and Keith joining the staff the next year was the catalyst or not, it more than doubled in 1995, to $2.2 million, and continued to grow in 1996, to $2.6 million.

Alice and her cavemates (“The Cave” is what we affectionately called the space where our entry-level staff would begin their careers.)

Fueled by national work on behalf of non-profit hospitals and healthcare systems, the growth continued unabated until it exceed $5.1 million in 2000, with a staff of 58.

We had grown every year since 1987 at a double digit pace. Then Sept. 11, 2001 hit. Service businesses across America were paralyzed, their clients too traumatized to order new work or pay for old work. It was the first real jolt to our growth, but using a lot of financial discipline, we worked our way out of the dip and ended 2002 with another record year. Cooley again took a leave of absence that year to guide Bredesen’s successful campaign to finally be elected governor, a post he held from 2003-2011.

We were in another expansion mode, and 2007 was our best year ever, until this year. Things were going smoothly in 2008 until the economy imploded that fall and the Great Recession hit with a vengeance.

The next few years – 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 – were extremely challenging, flat at best or lower in some years. Our billings dropped by 25 percent the first year alone. Some of the survival lessons we had learned to be effective after 9/11 were instituted to help us get over the hump. We did well, but we didn’t prosper. The partners decided that if there was anyone on payroll who wanted to stay here, we would do everything in our power to protect their jobs. So there weren’t as many promotions, raises or bonuses during that stretch, but no one at MP&F lost their job because the company could not sustain their cost.

That last year – 2012 – proved especially difficult with several unexpected challenges, but the partners persevered. Alice’s promotion to partner helped steady the ship, as did all of the other partners’ workmanlike approaches to moving on and focusing on the future, and not the past.

David Fox and Katy Varney accept The Tennessean’s Best Workplace Award in 2013. MP&F has won this award for five consecutive years.

Since 2013, things have turned around nicely. We have grown each year. We have added creative, advertising, marketing and digital capabilities and several high-performing staff members.

This has been a banner year. We completed our 24th consecutive staff retreat earlier this month.

MP&F 2017 Staff Retreat at Barren River Lake State Park in Kentucky.

Our special guest speaker was Tom Hoog, an industry icon and retired CEO of the national PR firm Hill & Knowlton. He gave a deeply personal and inspirational presentation to our staff based on the premise that all of life’s setbacks can be overcome.

We were beyond privileged to have as our special guest, Tom Hoog, a good friend of the firm, who generously shared his time and insights with us over the course of two days.

It energized our entire staff, who now enter the fourth decade of a small business started on a wish and a promise in 1987 – the desire to be the very best it could be and the vow to never be outworked.

Over the past 30 years, there have been countless setbacks and comebacks, to borrow from Mr. Hoog. Losing our beloved partner Mike in 2015 has to be the lowest point, but his legacy lives on here on a daily basis.

Mike Pigott and Mark McNeely at a staff retreat a few years ago.

There have been too many technological changes and advances over the past 30 years to even list, but we all know technology will continue to drive innovation and new ways of doing things. We know that truth and transparency will always – ultimately – prevail over falsehoods, lies and cheap attacks on anything negative as “fake” news.

We know the only thing certain about our business is change, and we know the businesses that can adapt most quickly to these changes will always have the competitive advantage.

That is what MP&F will continue to strive for going into its 31st year.

One Comment on “MP&F: A History of Comebacks for 30 Years”

  1. Mark, I love hearing the story of MP&F over the past 30 years. I’m so proud of the firm and all that you guys have accomplished!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *