We (Eric and Sarah) recently sat down to talk with Tim Colbert, the latest addition to the growing Shift Team. Our new Public Relations Director is returning to his adopted hometown after 10 years in New York City, where he worked as a director (and award-winning video producer) at a global Business-to-Business marketing and public relations firm advising industrial manufacturers on branding, business development, and media relations.
His most recent venture, TC Communication LLC, embraced a blend of corporate and local businesses clients.
The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity and, we hope, interest.
I was born in Cleveland (don’t worry my family is from Western PA and I inherited the Steelers-fan gene), attended Duquesne University, and worked in the non-profit sector for many years, including very happy and productive tours of duty in PR and marketing at Pittsburgh Public Theater, The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the Pittsburgh Opera, and Phipps Conservatory. World-class organizations I am proud to have been associated with.
Then, in a complete change of pace, I took the plunge — and my chances — in New York, where I first worked for a boutique agency specializing in modern dance (Alvin Ailey and Merce Cunningham were clients), classical music groups, and theater companies. It was an eye-opener.
The competition for coverage was unlike anything I had experienced earlier in my career. The agency was extremely well connected and we still spent hours every week just making sure that our clients got into the listings sections, let alone developing the long-lead pitches to generate favorable feature coverage. It was a whole new game. It forced me, in retrospect, to toughen up in that very tough environment; fools were not suffered gladly.
Professionally you need to stretch and challenge yourself. There was an entire world out there I was hungry to learn about – the ways of corporate America, the manner in which innovation is nurtured and harnessed to develop new products, hot to generate big coverage with international trade media; these were all very, very green fields. I was fortunate to work my way up the ladder and lead global accounts in the plastics, chemicals, and printing industries for multi-billion dollar Fortune 500 companies.
We achieved great success because (A) I had smart and ambitious people working with me who were never satisfied with the status quo; we pushed one another very hard and (B) this sounds counter-intuitive, but my background in non-profit was the best secret weapon you could imagine.
The virtues I learned in Pittsburgh’s non-profit community served me extremely well in New York: innovation, creativity, collaboration. Look at this way, if you’ve spent your entire career working for large companies or in one industry then the all-too-human tendency is to stick with the tried and true, be it in business development, branding, or your external-facing communications.
So if anything I brought a different world view and drastically different set of skill-sets than those large industrial clients were used to seeing. And it worked out very well.
The difference between promoting a new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical to pushing performance additives for transportation coatings (what civilians call “Car Paint”) isn’t as much of a stretch as you’d think — Good PR is Good PR. Develop a strong value proposition, make sure you’re telling a good story, and get the word out in a timely fashion to the right people in cost-effective and efficacious ways.
And I don’t need to tell you both that the Social, Local, Mobile era provides opportunities and challenges for clients in lots of different spaces.
It was seeing all the coverage of that big duck. I wanted in on the duck action (laughter).
It’s pretty simple: I do my best work when I work with smart people who have a passion for this business. I’m referring to both of you of course. And while you are both very nice, you also have edge. As an entrepreneur myself, I know what it takes to start a business and run a small business. It’s exhilarating, terrifying, and gratifying…and all before noon.
Two, you put the clients first. This is the key thing for me. As entrepreneurs and as veterans of the non-profit space you both have the experience and the feel for the challenges they face. And as a result Shift brings all that to bear on how to best strategize and execute on their behalf. You’ve lived it and it’s to their benefit.
But edge is important. It keeps you nimble and keeps you creative. It doesn’t mean you become “edgy” in interpersonal dealings. It is an awfully powerful furnace that keeps generating the heat of fresh thinking.
I’m really going to miss my friends and neighbors. But I will be in and out of town depending on what sort of media coverage we need to generate in New York; I have many couches on which to surf.
But as within any small ecosystem here’s the one thing I won’t miss and why I’m so happy to be joining Shift: Client Focus.
Not to be Pollyanish about this, and indeed every agency publicly trumpets their clients, but I think the competitiveness for plum jobs in the NYC market breeds far too many agencies and agency people to focus on the wrong things. Too many are obsessed with producing work that gets them buzz and recognition but doesn’t truly address what the clients actually need to be successful. When your audience is other agency people the client is inevitably short-changed.
This business needs to be about developing the long-term relationships and producing the superior work that enables clients to meet their objectives. Too often I have found that it’s about furthering an individual’s professional aspirations. That borders on malpractice in my opinion.
In the same way that my Pittsburgh non-profit experience benefited these enormous corporate entities, my expertise in communicating value across global supply chains equips me with a respect for the metrics, processes, and rigor required for client success.
My perspective is different, and I believe that adopting some corporate best practices will ultimately help our clients grow and meet their goals. I don’t judge a corporate path versus a non-profit path — both have value and both sectors have important lessons for each other. In that respect I’m sort of a translator between these two worlds.
I’m also obsessed with the power of the story. Every organization and every entrepreneur has a great story to tell — sometimes it’s pretty obvious (“This cures Halitosis!”) but it usually requires some digging and finesse. Get the story right, compellingly and consistently communicate it across the right channels to the right publics, and evaluate. Keep it simple and the clients benefit.
What are you most looking forward to?
Personally, it’s all about reconnecting with so many old friends and colleagues and members of the media — and not being one of just a few people dressed in black and gold on Steeler Sundays.
Professionally, I am thrilled to collaborate with the smart Shift People and start busting my ass on behalf of our clients. They count on us to deliver great value and results. That’s where my focus rightly is.