Barbara Wagner, President of Barbara Wagner Communications, shares her journey of starting an agency amid the pandemic. She shares insights on working with clients in the arts and real estate space. Barbara also shares best practice for building a story and pitching to the media.
>> More episodes here
About the Host:
HOST: DOUG SIMON
GUEST: BARBARA WAGNER
DOUG: Congratulations on starting your own firm, in the middle of a pandemic, and you did that after a successful career at Rubinstein, in a senior role, in their residential real estate division. Can you maybe share about the transition, lessons learned, and new lessons that you’re learning?
BARBARA: I led the residential real estate group for probably about 5 years. I had a fantastic experience. The clients are great, my colleagues were great and smart, and really, I treasure all of the backgrounds I had at Rubenstein, but part of me has always kind of wanted to see what I could do on my own. I have always been able to bring in business, so I wasn’t really afraid of that, and during the pandemic, well, a couple of things. Well, first I got COVID very early and very badly. I wasn’t hospitalized, but I was, I mean, you really think, you rejigger kind of your perspective. Well, my job, it’s not the most important thing in my life, but of course, I even worked through some of COVID and we were working at home for so long. I set myself up so comfortably that became easy to think about, well, what if I did just go out on my own, and see what happens, and be more of a general, still in the real estate, but do culture and lifestyle as well, because after a while you don’t want to get pigeonholed, and even though I always brought in ideas into my work at Rubenstein, I was the head of residential real estate to the world. So, where I want to keep that expertise I have, I just made a decision in early January of 2021 to go out on my own, and in February, late February I started this firm.
DOUG: And as a testament to you, you’ve been able to maintain good relationships with the people you worked with at Rubenstein. For others who may be watching and sort of had the thought of starting their own business as well, do you have any advice? And let’s talk first about maintaining that good relationship.
BARBARA: It was very important for me to resign properly, to give enough notice, which I did. I spoke to my bosses and gave them as much time as they want to be, and they ended up asking me if I could stay an extra week, which I did, but I did it on the condition that I could kind of work on my own things as well, which everyone agreed to. So, that was important to just be extremely respectful and to let them know how much I had learned, and how much they have given me, and how much I have appreciated my job and career. So, that’s really important.
DOUG: When I started, one of my early clients was the company, the agency that I’d been working for previously, and that helped me get a start. Now, also that you have, are there any thoughts about the transition to starting that you might want to mention or just share with some people, some advice that could help them?
BARBARA: I was fortunate enough to feel that I had a cushion of money that I could put into it, so not everyone has that. My husband works and I work, so, that’s something that some people don’t have, that flexibility, but I thought if I started with that, if it worked, if I lost it, I’d be ok, but I didn’t lose it, and so that that’s important, and I know I’m lucky to have that and the confidence to be able to get clients. I think some people are good at that. So, if you are someone who is good at bringing clients in, it is really something to consider.
DOUG: Yeah, and that’s great. You mentioned wanting to be broader in what you do, but you still found there’s some sort of overlap and similarities, both in real estate work you’ve done and in the art world.
BARBARA: Yeah, and that keeps coming up. In fact, Douglas Elliman was one of my clients for about 17 years, and I have a great relationship with them, even though I’m not working for them. They called me about a project that was a cultural project that they couldn’t handle, so I took it over. It was a great project in Greenwich Village with Village Preservation cultural figures who were from the village, and I and I did get a big New York Times story with that. So, it wasn’t exactly state and art, but it sort of was.
DOUG: A big part of what you do is also about earning media. Can you maybe tell us how you go about building a story?
BARBARA: I have to hear a story. I actually think if a client has a meeting with me or is talking to me on the phone, I can hear when a story is good. I know when I’ve got a story, and when I don’t have the story. Sometimes people think that they have a story or they are the biggest or the brightest, and I know it’s that everybody thinks that they have a story that may not be so great. So, one thing that became clear to me about a year after being a publicist is, I really try very hard not to send a writer something that’s not a good story.
DOUG: What’s your advice if you don’t know a reporter, that based on what you’ve read from them or seen them do or on-air, they seem like the story might be a good fit for them. How do you start to build that relationship?
BARBARA: Well, pitching the story is critical, and knowing how to get your point across in a few sentences, and with a good reference line is key. And if they are interested, you’ll often get a response, and from that response, working with the reporter being very, very, quick to answer them, asking if you can help in any way is extremely valuable. I worked with several reporters in the past few days where I’ve never worked with them before. I’ve had two very good stories for the two different reporters, and I’m just very quick to answer, I’m really on top of it. If I don’t get an answer right away if they’ve given me their cell phone, I actually will text them and just be as helpful as possible. In fact, there were some errors in what they did, but I very gently will ask if they can please correct it if it’s an online story. And then I write back to them about how nice it was to work with them, and then they generally say it was nice to work with me, with one of them. I gave him a story on Friday, and then I got another story yesterday, and I thought it would it’ll probably work with him. He was thrilled, I gave him the scoop. So, he got two scoops into that Friday and Monday, and now I have a relationship with him.
DOUG: That’s awesome. We haven’t had a chance to cover much about pitching, art, and culture in this world post-pandemic. There’s been some attention, but it’s not a topic that some people think, hey, you’re going to get this pitching and booked easily. What is some advice you have for people who have that interest to be able to work to help people in the art field, be successful in getting your message out because it’s highly competitive as well?
BARBARA: It is, and I’ve been lucky in that I have had some clients where they’ve got really compelling stories or I have to find the compelling story. I have a client who is an artist and he loves jazz. And during the pandemic, he has a place in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and he has some friends in the jazz world. He invited them down to do concerts, and he would paint while they played music, and they both were inspiring each other. From that, he decided that he would try to raise money for jazz artists who had trouble during the pandemic, they really weren’t performing. So, he came to me and I thought he had a really good story. He was going to be performing, and I pitched the story to The New York Times and The New York Times. And this was in March of 2021, the reporter I went to told me that he had been shuffled off to the obituaries, so he couldn’t do it, could I write to another reporter? I wrote to the other reporter, nothing. We got some small hits, but by September, my artist was paying a lot, paying money to me, he wasn’t unhappy, but he also thought, I really can’t keep this going. And I said, I know I have a story and stick with me and let me just, you pay me half of my retainer if I don’t get this story, fine. But if I get it, I want the other half. I went back to the reporter who I had pitched, who had been doing obituaries, he’s now doing a daily column in The New York Times, and he took the story and it was excellent. And then I got my money that was in a few hours from the artists. So, it’s perseverance. It’s believing in your client. I mean, another thing I would say is if you don’t believe in your client, you shouldn’t take that client.
DOUG: Yeah, and you’ve created sort of a good package, there were often times when we’re dealing with clients, it’s about the client and that’s what they feel the story has to be about. But you did a couple of different things. You made the story, not just about the artist, but about the musicians. The jazz musicians became part of it, which was not necessarily anything material to your client independently, but by packaging it together, along with creating a charity and donation angle. So, you sort of added different layers to the story, which can be an effective technique. I think that’s a great lesson for those watching. And, you know, if the brand is really a brand focused on what the story has to be would like guardrails that you can’t go outside the brand to make news, I think a good approach be to work with them, to encourage them to be open, to see how you can build a story that’s part of the narrative of what’s going on. As we begin to wrap up on time, do you have any final thoughts, any tips, any advice for people either trying to do PR in the art world? So many people are passionate about art and would love to get that story out. I know you also do a lot of real estate work, but it’s sort of a unique positioning with the artists as well, any advice?
BARBARA: To go to museums, to go to galleries, to keep yourself aware of who the writers are and I’m going to Art Basel in Miami Beach next week because I think it’s an important place to be to look at art, to get an idea of what trends are, to read the stories that will be there. I don’t have a client there this year, but I have in the past and have had some great stories in the NFT and The Times again, by pitching good stories, new ideas to these places. But it will be good for me to go next week just to get an idea of what I can do next and possibly get some new clients.
DOUG: Yeah, and travel safe most importantly. Thanks so much for spending time with us
BARBARA: Thank you, thank you