Published on October 14, 2019, at 5:00 p.m.
by Gabrielle Sirois.
Grace Leong was studying for her Intro to PR class at the University of Delaware when she came across the name Barbara Hunter in her textbook. She read about how Hunter and her sister were the first women to own their own PR agency after purchasing Dudley-Anderson-Yutzy in 1970. It became Leong’s goal to meet and work with Hunter. Leong achieved this goal, and much more.
Leong has served as the CEO of HUNTER for 20 years, an agency that she helped Barbara Hunter create. As the agency’s 30th year comes to a close, it continues to be a leader in the communications field, servicing prominent clients such as Tabasco, 3M, Amazon and Johnson & Johnson. What has allowed HUNTER to stay successful after all these years? The answer is simple; the agency has earned it.
What exactly does “earning it” mean? “We believe that everything we do has to be earned, whether it’s the consumer attention, client relationships we have and certainly the dedication of the staff must be earned every single day,” said Leong. Donetta Allen, a partner who oversees the digital practice at HUNTER, said that she tries to earn the respect of her clients and her specialists every day. She also knows that everywhere she goes she is a calling card for HUNTER, so she must make sure that she is earning respect for the agency as well.
This year the agency went through a rebranding from Hunter Public Relations, to just HUNTER, an integrated marketing communications agency.
According to Leong, this rebranding was a reflection of what was happening naturally in the company. “Our clients have helped us realize that we have been doing more than just PR for years, and our name wasn’t reflecting this,” she explained. “The rebrand was really just a way to be better reflective of who we are today — one team of experts on different subject matters in the marketing field surrounding the client and bringing a total solution opportunity to these clients.” Allen echoed that the rebranding has opened up more opportunities for the agency to continue branching out into work outside of the traditional public relations realm including consumer insight work and creative services.
HUNTER’s comprehensive services have made it a king of client retention. Its first-ever client, Tabasco, continues to work with the agency today, 30 years later. Many other clients have long tenures with the agency, several of them for over a decade.
Leong chalked this longevity up to the agency’s willingness to say yes. “We’re really good at saying yes, yes and we will figure it out. Some of our best clients came to us with a problem that we didn’t even think we could solve but we said yep, we’ll give it a try. I think that clients like agencies that have guts, that have ingenuity, that are curious about what could happen,” she said.
Allen also noted the dedication of the staff as a driving factor in client retention. “We have had the same leadership here for decades, which is very rare in this industry,” she explained. “What comes with that are people who have a passion and a drive for the work. You are committed 100% to the people of the agency, as well as our clients. That is why we are blessed to have so many clients with us for so long. Our tenure with these brands is because of the people who are working on the business and who care about the business.”
HUNTER isn’t just great at keeping clients happy; it is great at keeping employees happy as well. In 2018, HUNTER was named one of PR Week’s Best Places to Work. Leong said, “When I look back on my career, I am most proud of what I have done in HR, not PR.” To explain the culture that she has worked to create at HUNTER, Leong used the analogy of a fish out of water: “Fish can’t swim without water, and it has to be clean and it has to be healthy, it has to be constantly running, it has to be refreshed, full of nutrients and things that help that organism grow.”
Leong and the rest of the management team intentionally try to keep the agency small (the agency currently has 120 employees with an office in New York and in London), so that they can maintain this culture, which both Leong and Allen described as a family-type environment. “We really do care about the people. We care about how people are doing, their own growth, their own enjoyment and satisfaction of the work — that’s important to us,” said Allen.
“I have a stack of thank-you notes; I keep every single one,” said Leong. “I pull them out from time to time and read them to remind myself what my real job around here is, to create a culture here where people are inspired, where they can work hard, where they can earn their work, they can feel respected, they can feel creative, they can feel supported by a family.”
HUNTER has been no stranger to awards in its tenure and one place where it continuously stands out is in its digital strategy. Allen contributed the agency’s digital success to approaching the content with an “earned sensibility.” Digital and social media is seen as an owned media source since brands are able to tell their own stories without having to go through a media gatekeeper. Allen said that a lot of people tend to approach digital media from an advertising perspective, to just get the content in front of the consumers in hopes that they will pay attention.
“We approach our digital strategy looking at insights,” she noted. “What are our consumers interested in, what drives them, what’s gonna get them interested in our story?” She said that HUNTER remains able to stay at the forefront of digital trends because first and foremost, the employees are digital consumers too. Their love for the digital industry drives them to want to keep up with what is happening in the world and to explore different platforms and how brands can tap into them.
When asked what is next for the agency and where they see it going in the future, Leong and Allen both knew one thing with certainty — they would continue to “earn it.” In the long term, Leong said that the agency has lots of opportunities for growth, particularly within the digital and entertainment spaces, as well as in the client services space.
Leong believes no one does client services quite like HUNTER, because of the amount of care their staff invests into each of their clients. They work to create great experiences for their clients because people are drawn to experiences and not things. “We have plenty of clients who we might not deliver the results we thought we could, but the experience has been illuminating and fun and educational and insightful, and long term that’s our opportunity — to continue to deliver great service,” she said.
Allen added that it is hard to predict where the agency will go in such an ever-changing and evolving industry. “I can’t tell you right now what’s going to happen 10 years from now,” she said. “Who knows where we will go 10 years from now but the core thing is to always remember that people need to feel connections, they need to feel like they are understood. That’s where this whole approach that we have of earning attention and engagement comes from, knowing what consumers need and want, so that is going to continue to drive everything we do.”