Jeffrey Lambert is CEO and managing partner of the public relations, investor relations and public affairs firm Lambert, Edwards & Associates. He co-founded the company in his basement in 1998 and has built it into a top-5 Midwest based agency with over 100 clients based in 20 states and six countries. Jeff has led LE&A through a 18-year track record of growth, five acquisitions including John Bailey & Associates in Detroit and Sterling Corporation in Lansing, and two “PR Firm of the Year” honors – PR Week and PR News – culminating in the firm’s position as Michigan’s leading PR firm and a top-15 investor relations agency nationally. Jeff is a regular author and speaker including addresses at the PR Firm Management Summit in New York, the Michigan PR Society’s annual conference, the Brandt and Zabrusky lectures at Michigan State University, the Michigan Bar Business Law Institute and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. He was also a winner of the Ernst Entrepreneur of the Year, named among PR Week’s “40 Under 40” national leaders, honored as PR Practitioner of the Year by the West Michigan Public Relations Society, and the second winner ever of the Grand Rapids Business Journal’s “40 under 40” Distinguished Alumni award.
How did you get into the industry?
I went to school to college to be veterinarian, but it turns out liking animals isn't enough to succeed in that field! So, I figured I was a good writer and switched over to advertising, which ultimately led to an internship in public relations and a job at the agency soon followed. I learned quickly that in order to succeed, it was as much who I knew as what I knew, so building relationships became my secret weapon.
Any emerging industry trends?
The buzzword in the industry is convergence of media – the coming together of traditional advertising, marketing, public relations and social media. This is certainly the case and we are investing in create talent and web developers and branding resources to ensure we can meet this new normal. In addition, I think the next industry trend is going to be in consulting where our counsel to C-Suite executives on their business issues extends beyond just communication challenges. We know our clients business and industry and culture and challenges and have an informed, external lens that will be in demand.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
LE&A went through an internal strategic planning process two years ago that helped us address chronic industry issues like staff and client turnover and over-service, while refining our focus as an agency, which led us to the conclusion that other organizations similar to ours could use this consulting service idea. We've now added a business line around consulting led by a formed consultant and President to help organizations like ourselves grow. What was really an internal process has now become a practice and area of expertise.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
LE&A’s tagline, “The PR firm that can read an income statement,” best defines our vision and was something that we know we do differently from other PR firms. We felt and continue to feel that public relations is much more of a business tool than its traditionally applied - I think that's our difference as an agency.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
Our growth has been fueled by a combination of great talent, a handful of acquisitions, which has got us into new markets, geographies and practice areas, and the addition of service lines such as digital and creative along with business consulting. Where we are today is now an integrated firm that includes public relations, investor relations, public affairs and business consulting.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
I think the most difficult challenge was, first, the buyout of my founding partner 13 years ago as we were headed on different paths for the business. But more recently, our biggest challenge is turnover. This includes retaining talent, developing the stars and key contributors, and those that exit, maintaining a relationship with them. We currently have five former staff people who are now clients. At the same time, you hate to lose those individuals as turnover creates angst with clients and disrupts the team.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
A great example is a company called Spartan Motors (NASDAQ: SPAR), which is both a long-term client (they’ve been with LE&A all 18 years) and was the firm’s largest client in 2016. Our work with Spartan has spanned public relations, integrated marketing, public affairs and investor relations, and we’ve weathered three CEOs and four CFOs.
Our relationship is deep within the organization but begins with the CEO and includes work on federal contracts, public company work to promote their stock and share ownership, and extends to trade show marketing and messaging in vertical markets across their organization. Furthermore, our work in 2016 also included communications support and strategic counsel around a major transaction, which is another part of our service model for clients that's unique.
How do you motivate others?
Motivating others has been a work in process. Starting an agency as a practitioner with no leadership experience, I've had to learn along the way that you can't just lead by doing, you have to lead by giving others opportunity. I try to pepper in a level of creativity and new opportunities or ideas to hopefully inspire people. Empowering employees and giving them the opportunity to succeed – and sometimes fail – is important. But I am still working every day to transition from a CEO-centric model to a team lead approach, which includes letting staff have both the authority, accountability and ability to succeed or fail.
Career advice to those in your industry?
My biggest pet peeve with our industry is its disconnection with business and the tendency of PR and marketing people to minimize the value of business acumen. I think when speaking to a CEO, learn the language of their business and always apply your work to organizational and financial outcomes in order to remain relevant and remain a necessity. But most importantly, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.