“If you view us as service providers, we’re in the wrong relationship. We need to be considered partners and extensions of the brand.”
On a recent episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Brew PR founder Brooke Hammerling talked about how she got her start in the business and why — despite creating a profitable business — selling to a London firm was a good ides.
You can read some of the highlights from Peter’s interview with Brooke at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Peter Kafka: I’m here with Brooke Hammerling, who’s got a big smile on her face. Before we get to Brooke, I want to say thank you to the folks at Digital Media who are bringing this episode to you on a very quick turnaround. Thanks to Chris Basil, he’s the guy who’s doing all the engineering to make this stuff work. While we’re being thankful, I want to thank you guys for listening to this thing. I realized I’ve been doing this for about a year or so, which means I’ve been podcasting a lot, you’ve listened a lot, it’s great, thanks to all our guests. It’s a cool ecosystem, right? We get awesome guests, we have a good conversation, you guys tell us you like it, we get more awesome guests, it’s a virtuous cycle.
So speaking of awesome guests, here’s Brooke Hammerling. Hi, Brooke.
Brooke Hamerling: Wow, that’s quite an intro. Hello.
What do you do, Brooke? How do you make money?
Ay yi yi.
Tell people about yourself. Conduct the entire interview for me.
Okay, I will. Can I turn it back on you?
What do you do?
I podcast. I get on podcasts for a living.
One year! Podcasting! You’re a podcaster.
Brooke is … can I say you’re in PR? Do you get offended?
Yeah, no — I am. I am the founder of a communications company called Brew, and we certainly started in PR. PR for technology companies.
You are a famous PR person. The New York Times has profiled you. Among others.
That’s an interesting story that never got told. I said no, and they said they were going to do it without my participation, and I felt that I could then be involved in it and it would be maybe more interesting.
Okay, so you managed that story correctly.
You have to manage the stories, yes.
So you run a PR communications company.
With my business partner and esteemed colleague Dena Cook, who is CEO, and I’m founder of Brew. We started 11 years ago [as a] communications company focused on technology companies. Eleven years ago, that was a very siloed industry. You were either in tech or you were in fashion or you were in media or you were in finance, and now …
You did one of those things for PR. You did tech PR or …
We did PR for tech, yeah. And so you did one of those things and our industry was focused entirely on technology companies and executives and founders and telling that story to media. Media that are focused on —
Wait, wait, don’t tell the whole thing yet.
Okay, I won’t.
We’ll get there. So I wanted to have you [on the podcast] because you’ve built a business which is interesting, you do comms which is interesting. We normally talk to people who are making media, and you’re one of the people who helps people make media, right? You help sort of message and figure out how to tell a story correctly. You’re also my friend, we should get that disclosure out of the way.
It doesn’t mean we always work together.
Sometimes we fight.
But we try to play nicely.
We sometimes do.
Yeah, you can’t make me cover a story.
No I can’t. Oh, man, have I tried.
And I can’t make you give me a story.
And you can’t make me not still come to you on a story you don’t want me to come to you on and try to get you to do something.
But we get along. Thanks for coming.
Thanks for having me, it’s fun being on this side.
Oh yeah, you’ve sat in the audience and watched.
With a few clients, yeah.
What’s it like to be on the podcast instead of watching the podcast?
It’s hard for somebody with control issues like myself. There were a couple times I wanted to jump in and say things I felt my clients could have also added, but they always ended up being fabulous.
It’s worked out so far. Let’s talk broadly about what your job is. Very often, you’re working with startups that want attention — you’re helping them get attention. But not always. Sometimes, you’re working with bigger established companies, you’re helping them field questions from assholes like me. And then — somewhere in the middle, right?
Yeah, I mean, there is no rule book and I certainly, I think due to my ADD, I don’t have the same day twice. Brew’s core business is working with companies that could be really early-stage businesses. We sometimes work with clients that are friends and family that haven’t had anything more than a seed round. There are reasons for that, and we can work with them all the way up through [being] publically traded, massive companies that have entrepreneurs and founders that understand the nimbleness of the communications world right now and want to be more startup-like. And then the startups obviously want to be brought to a bigger platform and want to have their story told in a more concise and bigger way.
So when someone pays you, they pay you money, [or] sometimes you get equity in the company. Do you still do that?
Yeah, we do. Now that we’re part of this bigger organization, called Freuds, in the U.K., we’re looking at things a bit differently, but we do. We do believe in our companies.
When someone buys a service from you, what is the thing they most often want? Do they want to become more famous, do they want to be on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, do they want their stock price to go up? What is the thing that you’re trying to sell for them?
All of those things. I think, for the most part, emerging companies, new startups, they need first and foremost — the reason why we actually choose to partner with certain entrepreneurs is [that] they understand that communication is a process. If somebody comes to us and says, “We want to be famous, we want to be on the front page of the Journal,” right off the bat we are sort of skeptical that that’s going to be the right partner for us. Because as you know, there are so many things that go on behind the scenes. The tangible is definitely the print, the article, the podcast, whatnot. That’s the tangible. But [we want] the entrepreneur who understands and values the nuances that go on behind the scenes, creating that messaging platform, because they’re going to have different audiences.
But they don’t understand that, right? That’s why they hired you.
They don’t know how to do it, but they understand that. If someone comes to us and says, “We’re launching a product in two weeks, we want PR,” we’re like … The entrepreneurs who really get it — and there are — they come, or maybe their investors or their advisers come to us, three months prior, four months, six months prior to a launch of a business and say, “We need your help in helping shape that story.” They may have different agendas. Their agenda may be to launch a product and get consumer awareness. It may be that they’re looking to get attention from investors, partners, advertisers, any number of those things.
What’s the thing they don’t get most often when someone comes to you. Because you’re describing a pretty sophisticated client. [For many of them], their ideas of how the world works aren’t lined up with reality.
There are lots of entrepreneurs that don’t get it. They say, “We’re launching in two weeks, and we want to be on every morning show, and we want 500 press kits.”
Okay, so they’re super dumb. [BH laughs] But there are people who are smart who still don’t get how it works. What’s the thing that people most often don’t get about what you do?
They think there’s a secret — not a secret sauce — like it’s just a formula.
You press a button …
We press a button, we call people, we get the stories written. [As if] we’re doing them a favor. Like they could have called you, but they don’t have the time, so it’s just a matter of us making a phone call. I think people think it’s very turnkey like that, and it’s just not. There’s so much that goes on behind [the scenes] in relationships and storytelling and explaining to a client who is the right person to tell that story to versus who isn’t. And having a strategy going in. Their strategy, many times, is just the most amount of press wins. And that is, as you know, not a winning strategy.
Very often these are people who have been successful before, right?
A lot of times. And the people who are successful before, they certainly are more sophisticated in their knowledge of how things work, but then they also can be a bit more dangerous because …
They go, “Oh, I know how this works, I did this last time.”
“I know how it works,” yeah.
And even if they haven’t done it before, if you’re starting a company, if you’re in a position to hire you, it means somewhere in your background you’ve got some level of success, or at least money or resources, and you’re used to getting stuff your way. I would imagine, in a lot of cases, they’re looking at you as a service provider the same way they would look at a caterer.
Right, it’s a really good point. One of the things we always say at Brew, [whether] we’re talking to a potential client [or as] a reminder to our existing clients, is: We don’t view ourselves as service providers. If you view us as service providers, we’re in the wrong relationship. We need to be considered partners and extensions of the brand. That’s why, whether it’s Brew or with so many of the other amazing communications companies out there like Outcast, we work with the founders, we work with the executive, the core team. And that, whether it’s a five-person company or a 500,000-person company, we need to be with the decision makers who really want to make a difference in moving the needle on their communications.
How much do you think the lack of respect or misunderstanding of what you do is gendered, as they say? Is it fair to say the PR profession is predominantly women or dominated by women, or there are many more women in that business?
It is. I think in technology you see more men, and I love to see that, but definitely. I mean, you know, it’s the age-old — which is sexist for me to say — but women are better communicators. I think I was pushed into that world. I come from a generation where maths and sciences were sort of left to the other gender and I was pushed into English and creative and whatnot. So I was naturally drawn to a more communications-based industry.
So when they don’t understand what you … This is my hunch: They’re very often dudes, they work with other dudes. If they work with women, often those women are in marketing or comms. And there’s something in their head that says this stuff is less important, and it’s women’s work almost.
I think it’s certainly one of the reasons why Brew came to be, because I was very fortunate early on to work with some male clients who didn’t see it that way and created such a difference in experience for what I was dealing with, and saw me as an equal, as a partner. Whether that was Sky Dayton or Zach Nelson, the CEO of Netsuite. These are men that really valued what we were doing, what I was doing, and saw me as a partner.
There were many times where, yes, we were basically treated like secretaries, note-takers. The cute girl in the room that’s taking notes while I’m being interviewed by so-and-so. They did not see the value. I hope to change that, that’s one of the things that Brew has been really outspoken about. And Dina and I, we definitely have men and women at our company, but we’re very outspoken about women’s issues and if we ever get feedback from anyone on our team where they feel they’ve been disrespected or mistreated by a reporter or by a client, I don’t care if there’s all the money on the table there, we take action immediately.
But there’s a level of discomfort that a lot of people put up with day to day, in any job, right? “I don’t like it, but it’s my boss, it’s my client, and I’ve got to put up with it.” And I would assume, for people who do what you do, there’s even more of that. And there’s some level that you will accept and some level that you won’t accept, and maybe you’re just constantly sort of moving that line around. Because someone’s going to be creepy with you, there’s a level of creepiness you can probably accept, and a level you can’t.
Yeah, sure, you’re probably right. But I do think that we have taken a firmer line. And I do think that the acceptance of that creepiness is much less now. We’re much less tolerant of that than we were even 10 years ago. Ten years ago, there were clients and press that would call me “baby,” that would say, “Come over here, sit next to me, sweetheart.” That kind of thing. Which, when I’m starting out in my career, I was certainly not going to shy away from, and I probably would have laughed it off even though there was anger or embarrassment inside of me. But I hope the next generation, certainly the women that come through my doors, are learning that that’s not acceptable. I come in and I can be, like, a mean mama bear, and I drop the hammer, as they say.
So it’s partly that you run your own company, you can turn down clients. And do you think the climate is actually … I mean, I was thinking about this with the Billy Bush/Trump stuff, right?
Yeah. It’s gross, so gross.
But I wonder how much of that is like, all right, well, that was 2005, and things have changed? Or maybe they haven’t changed.
I think that’s absolutely right. I can’t speak for every industry. I think sexual harassment is a problem, and I think that we still, certainly with some of the older-school clients that we’ve seen, like coming just from that Vanity Fair conference, seeing some of the people in the LA mindset, there was this clear difference and disrespect that I myself was encountering.
So the LA people have not …
Some of the senior Hollywood executives that I encountered who didn’t know who I was …
Like? Name names.
[laughs] I’m not going to name names. I saw some incredibly bad behavior from some of those guys.
In 2016. From people who run big media companies.
Mm-hmm. I sure did. Disrespect.
And they treated you disrespectfully?
Well, they treated people disrespectfully. But certainly that I was less significant because they didn’t know who I was. I didn’t seem to be of importance to them.
Worse than SIlicon Valley?
Everyone knows you in Silicon Valley.
Yeah, but you know what? Growing up in Silicon Valley, in my career, you know, I’m very, very fortunate to have been around people [who] showed me respect. And maybe it’s because I demanded it, maybe it’s my personality, maybe because … I don’t know. But I honestly am very grateful that I didn’t have any horrifying experiences with men in power on the client side that I got to work with. Not to say — I’ve had some terrifying experiences. There was one with a journalist that was so … I remember collapsing on the street in San Francisco in awe of how I was being treated.
A prominent blogger at the time, who I had been friendly with, woke up one day deciding I was the enemy. Most likely because of my friendships with certain people, I think, my friendships with Lockhart Steele, at the time being at Gawker, and my friendship with your colleague, Kara Swisher. This person had decided that I was public enemy No. 1 and was not to be trusted.
I’m trying to do the math here. I have some guesses. So that person did what to you?
That person sent a vile note to me, that person told me I was … called me quite a bit of names. And told me he was going to — can I curse on here?
Yeah, yeah. Swear up.
He said he was going to “fuck me over.” He was a very powerful blogger and had a very powerful network behind him at that time, and he threatened to call my clients, which he did, some of them, to say if they worked with me they would not be covered by his blog. It was a client who’s a remarkable person to this day, who pushed back on him and said, “Stop it, this is bad behavior.”
So this is always the question when I hear about someone acting like an asshole. Now I know who you’re talking about, and I go, “All right, that person’s an asshole or worse,” and is that because he’s a male asshole or just an asshole? When I hear about people behaving badly, when I talk to women they go, “No, no, that’s a gendered thing, they wouldn’t speak that way to a man.” And I say, “Well, no, an asshole’s an asshole.”
Yeah, I do think in some cases an asshole’s an asshole. But he sexualized it and he called me words that are referred to women in a very derogatory way. There are a lot more words for men to use towards women in that way than there are for women to use towards men. And this was a pretty bad one.
And actually, Jason Calacanis wrote about it at one point. So it was a dark time. I literally collapsed on the streets of San Francisco thinking I was like Chicken Little and the sky is falling, and I thought my career was over and I couldn’t believe how I was being treated, and I actually said I was going to have to apologize to him, for what I did not know, but I was willing to apologize just to make it stop and make it go away. Which I think, unfortunately, is the case for many people.
And this was when you were already successful.
This was when Brew was already a couple years old.
Yeah, you were Brooke Hammerling.
All right, but well, things worked out.
Things did work out, things did work out. And I hope that the people that work for Dina and I never have to experience that.
So while we’re on an up note, let’s hear from one of our many fine sponsors and we’ll back in a minute.
We’re back here with Brooke Hammerling who has more tips on how to not run a startup or how to not do comms. I want to talk about how you got into the business and how the business has changed. You run your own agency, prior to that you worked at an agency. How did you get into PR?
Oh my gosh, I’ve worked on the agency and I worked on the startup side. I didn’t study it. I know a lot of people have communications degrees. I actually was as theater kid.
That seems like better training.
I was a child actor, in fact.
What were you in?
I was in some commercials. I was in this really funny movie. I don’t think it was funny, but this cheesy TV movie called “Sentimental Journey” with Jaclyn Smith.
Really? I’ve known you for a decade, I’ve never known about your acting career.
Yeah, oh yeah, I was really into it. And I went to summer theater programs, that’s what I really wanted to do. I studied theater and then I was an English and creative writing major, and I was planning on getting my MFA in creative writing, that was going to be my goal. I was going to do the typical take a year off after college and explore myself and then become a great American writer and live in Spain and fall in love with a bullfighter while smoking cigarettes and drinking wine and writing.
You’ve done a bunch of that, right?
[laughs] I’ve done it a few times. Also when living abroad while I was in college, I discovered this thing called the internet which for some of you listening did not exist when I was in high school. And you know, it was just starting out when I was in college and I found a cheap way to communicate with friends with this thing called email. This was in ’94-95. And I just devoured everything that I could.
Yeah, really. I didn’t understand how it worked, so I started reading about Mosaic and Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf and obviously Mosaic and Marc Andreessen and I just became really hooked on it. But my dreams were still of going to graduate school.
And then I had tragedy in my life: My mom and dad — who were my rocks and the people that raised me with the belief that I could do anything, they were beautiful, passionate explorers of the world — died when I was about 22. Unexpected, sort of. My mom was sick and my dad died of a broken heart. And that threw me into a tailspin of “what am I going to do with my life?” And “you have these different opportunities.” I had friends who were like, “Let’s go …” Jerry Garcia had recently passed away but like, “Let’s go follow the Dead or Phish or what not!” and, “Let’s do a ton of drugs and live out of a van.” That sounded appealing. There was another that just said …
Yeah, it’d be a normal reaction, right? Like, “I’m checked out, I’m checking out.”
Checked out! At that time, I had been working for my sister-in-law who had a consumer PR firm in food. And I had been doing food PR and that had given me … She was just giving me an outlet to keep me busy when my mom was ill. But I got really hooked on that feeling interaction and communication. Back in the day, before, really we were’’t emailing, it was faxing or phone calls, I would pick up a phone to pitch a journalist on something, they had no relationship to me, so they had no problem hanging up on me. And that for me was the worst feeling. Rejection. Just like, oh my god. So in my mind I said, “Well if they knew me, they wouldn’t hang up on me.” They still may be like, “Brooke, not a good time,” a la Kafka, but they would have done it with a bit more warmth. So I decided to move out to Silicon Valley and sort of “go west, young man,” and work my way up.
You wanted to go to Silicon Valley to do what? To do comms?
I wanted to be in the tech world.
You didn’t know, just something.
Yeah, at that time, actually when I moved out, my parents had still been alive and they gave me that belief that, you know, “Go, follow, do something, you have this sort of path.” I didn’t know it was going to be a career but I knew that it was different.
I needed to get out of this sort of dark cloud of sadness that was surrounding me when my mom was ill. And San Francisco, California, it just seemed so bright and shiny. And I’ve said this many times, but going to San Francisco in ’96-97 was like going to Hollywood — I imagine — when it was just starting out and there were like five movie stars. Everybody was open and accessible and it was this feeling of …
Right, there was money but it wasn’t huge money.
No, it was right before the dot-com [boom].
It was full of smart people, and the MBA dudes and the chinos and the blue denim shirts hadn’t shown up, or they were just starting to show up.
No, San Francisco was pretty diverse at that point. There was still art culture, there was a lot of different industries still there. But there was this feeling of excitement, this [feeling that] you’re on the cusp of something really great. And you’re in this sort of inner circle, this inner club of people that are sort of ahead of things.
So you just show up and they let you in? Or did you have to work?
Literally I just showed up. I knew a few people and had some amazing contacts who helped me every step of the way. I got to see the inner workings. Mark Pincus was somebody who was a friend of my boyfriend at the time and we played video games. And Marc Benioff, who was this amazing marketing manager at Oracle. And you know, these are people that have obviously become household names, certainly in technology. But we were all this sort of motley crew in the late ’90s.
So you’re hanging out in the late ‘90s. Now there’s money, now CNBC is on a sports bar, etc. And you start working for an agency?
I did. I started working for an agency and they had their interactive division.
So you were a digital person.
Our business car had a lightning flash to indicate we were interactive.
Yeah, that makes sense.
And I was a big video gamer, believe it or not. I actually still am. I can’t be near a game system for too long or I get sucked in. So I was a big gamer. I was as hardcore gamer.
That’s not very plausible.
I know, it’s true, it’s true. It’s secret. Actually, I was immersed in the game world. We represented Sega and then Imagine Media, which was Chris Andersen, now the good Chris of TED, who runs TED. But before that he was sort of party Chris who ran this company called Future Publishing which became Imagine Media in the U.S. and they published all the video game publications like Next Gen and PC Gamer. All my friends were hardcore gamers, and musicians. [laughs]
This is always my question about PR agencies, to get nerdy for a second, or media-y. It seems like that’s a really bad structure. I know you own an agency, so this is touchy, but it seems like what happens is clients go to an agency, the agency says, “We’re going to perform this awesome thing for you,” generally they bring in their best person, their most senior person. “This person’s going to work with you.”
Oh, to close the deal.
To close the deal. And then they go away. Then usually the most junior person gets that work.
The person who’s working there may mean very well but doesn’t know the company, generally doesn’t know the people they’re pitching. So I’ll get these pitches all the time still, and if I ever do sort of get engaged in the pitch, my first ask is, “All right, let’s get the agency out of the way.” Even if they’re trying to do a good job, all they’re doing is standing in between me and the client.
I would think it’s different than if I’m talking to someone who does that same job but it’s for the company. That person knows how the company works, that person can help me answer a question, that person can get me access to somebody I want to talk to. So, you worked at an agency, then you worked and created your own. How do you fix that problem, that structural problem?
Right, well, I think in many cases that’s probably very true. That is what happens with agencies, they’re sort of over-promising and under-delivering. And I certainly was a 23-year-old novice. I was thrown in as anybody is and sort of given a stack of press releases to distribute and contacts to just send it to without having the knowledge. And it was over trial and error, my mistakes of reaching out to the wrong person about the wrong thing where I was like, that doesn’t feel good.
So you get better over time.
But mentorship, I think, was really key. I had a mentor at my agency out in San Francisco named Monica Madrid and she really took that time. And so that’s what we find, that it is mentoring. Being able to be a hands-on apprenticeship. If you find a good mentor who tells you, “Listen, take the extra time, spend those extra hours outside of the office really researching, understanding the businesses, the people.”
That wasn’t necessarily how every agency was run, it was sort of siloed depending. I was really lucky to be taught that and have these very hands-on clients who were like, “Okay, we’re dealing with this 23-year-old, this is what we got, let’s help her do the best she can.” And I also learned by being really transparent with reporters and clients and saying like, “What’s the value and what’s the hindrance that you guys are seeing? I don’t want to be a block.”
When you have that direct relationship with a CEO and all of a sudden a PR person comes in and says, “Please deal directly with me,” you’re like, “Wait a minute, I’ve already been dealing with this CEO.” But you have to understand from our side, certainly the more seasoned people, we can help make sure that the conversation runs smoothly. We can help push it forward. We shouldn’t be blocking and saying, “He can’t comment on that.”
So what you’re saying is, “Peter, you’re right, but we’re the exception that proves the rule. We’re better at being an agency.”
I think there’s some, and I certainly don’t say just Brew, but I do think we take the time to really understand and navigate the businesses and the clients. And we become partners with them and we are really honest. We don’t just cut in when a reporter is speaking to a client directly, we’ll jump in and just say, “Let me help you, we’re here to sort of move this further along.” Oh please. I see you. Peter Kafka’s rolling his eyes right now. For those of you who know Peter, you know that is one of his favorite!
I’ve gotten calls from you when I’ve reached out to one of your clients without looping you in.
Yeah! It’s only because what happens is they’ll forget.
It’s happened this calendar year.
They forget to respond or they’ll say something and then they come to us and say, “Oh, I didn’t mean to say that, please get that out.” And I now have to say to you, “I know you were talking to them on the record but it wasn’t.” It sucks. It’s insurance.
I’m sorry. I’m not really sorry, I’m going to keep doing it.
[laughs] You are.
Is there a fundamental — other than there’s much more media, right? There’s many more places for your clients to engage with people, for people to engage with their clients: Is that the fundamental thing that’s changed between when you started and where we are today? Or is there something else going on?
That is certainly one. When I first started it was a solid list of the same people with the same deadline. We weren’t talking blogs, we didn’t even have …
Journalists at magazines and newspapers.
Yeah, magazines, newspapers, same deadline. And generally speaking, if you had an announcement going out it was sort of set to whatever the New York Times’ and Wall Street Journal’s embargo times were to get into print and making it clear that it will be in a global newspaper.
Right. “This story needs to be in the Times so they can get it out by 10 o’clock so it ends up in tomorrow’s newspaper.”
Yes. And there was this set of journalists. It was a much simpler format at that point. As we’ve evolved and we have bloggers, we also have people now who aren’t writers but have a voice, have influence. So whether they’re called influencers or just people who have their own passions about things. And whether it’s on Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat or just their own blog.
So you treat them as a publisher.
We do, in many cases we certainly do. We have to navigate that because obviously there’s a different impact there. So that’s certainly changed. There’s a lot more money so there’s a lot more companies and there’s a lot more companies thinking that they’re ready for primetime because they have a famous investor giving them some money or something. And so we get a lot more pitches — like, weekly — from companies than I’ve ever seen. So we have to weed through a lot.
You have to weed through a lot, and then I normally ask you, or I did ask you, what are the things that your clients get wrong, what are the things that people don’t understand? [BH laughs] What are the things people like me get wrong? What am I doing wrong?
How long do we have? [laughs]
We could go for like two hours.
Listen, what we do, what you do, there’s no science. So somebody can have a bad day … You know, we’ve had some bad experiences, I’ve had bad … I mean, there’s some great ones. There’s one that comes to mind. For those of you who don’t know, when you say something is “off the record” you go into an agreement with a journalist. There are people on our end who do it wrong. You can’t send a note to somebody saying, “This is off the record,” and then give them the information. There has to be a transaction, if you will. I say, “Peter, is this off the record, is this okay, it’s off the record.” “Yes Brooke, it’s off the record.” We proceed.
So we had a journalist actually attend an event of mine, who wanted to be there, and I asked if they could be there making sure that everything there was off the record. That journalist agreed and I let him stay. Then a few days later he let me know that he knows and he’s sorry that he had agreed to it being off the record, but there was just too much good things that he got from there. So he was just disregarding that. That’s not great behavior.
So you’re breaking a verbal contract.
Breaking a verbal contract. There are some reporters that have an absolute agenda. They’re like, “We’re going to go with this story, we want to go with this story.” Forget “no comment,” I have said, “That story is unequivocally untrue. Actually untrue.” They still go ahead with that story but don’t even put that comment in. That’s irresponsible and we’ve seen that. And we’ve seen that with some proper publications.
There’s an going tension, right? Because a journalist may have a story they want to tell or they may in the course of the reporting decide this is the story they want to tell.
Or they feel they have a source that is so …
But let’s say everyone’s doing their best job. So they have information, and they have a narrative, because eventually you have to tell a story as a writer. You guys and your clients want to tell a story. Sometimes those things are going to sync up. Very often, even if people are all doing their job properly, they don’t sync up. So how do you deal with that? Do you go to your client and say, “I know we said that we were going to deliver this story to Peter, but he told it a different way, what are you going to do?”
And they go, “Well no, that’s your job, your job is to make Peter tell that story that way.”
Yeah, so the belief that people feel that we can go and make you do your job, like the way we want it to be done, that is just. There are certain very straightforward stories. A company gets funded or it’s launching a consumer product or blah blah blah. Pretty straightforward, but there’s still going to be a tinge of personal opinion in some of them.
So we’re very clear, we have to tell the companies that we work with, we aren’t magicians. We can’t make it the way [they want]. What we can do is certainly help give all the information. What we do, though, is we make sure that we have done all the research. So if we’re going to brief you, Peter, on a media company in XYZ category, we know everything that you’ve had an opinion on. We’ve read everything, we’ve listened to every podcast, so we are able to give them a solid foundation and background, saying, here’s the positives of things that Peter’s seen and the negatives and what he’s said.
So we go in there with a very very realistic understanding of what might be the end result. We never promise, we never promise positive coverage. We can’t do that. But we do our job to the best of our ability.
But you still got to sell yourself. You’ve got to say, “We’re going to help you achieve these goals.”
We do help. Certainly we work with companies, and all of our companies are people and businesses that we truly believe in. We have a lot of hard conversations that you never see behind the scenes where we will tell clients, “You’re not ready. We can’t put our reputation on the line with press to show them this product because it’s not ready.”
We won’t be doing you any favors, and I won’t be doing my company any favors. So there was a lot of pushback. We are not in the “yes” business at Brew. And I think in the modern day, communications people aren’t. We have to do a lot of navigating and helping them know when it’s the right time.
But they come to you and they go, “Look, I’ve got $40 million in funding, I’ve got a Stanford whatever degree, so and so is backing me, I know what I’m doing, we’re launching —”
Right, go find another agency. Especially when these founders come to us and say, “We have this prominent investor and we have $40 million, we want to announce that,” with no business or no understanding of when the timing of their business is going to be ready. If you want to lead with financing and lead with your celebrity investor, we just tend not to be attracted to that kind of business.
You’ve been helping people with their startups forever. You started your own company, what, 11 years ago?
Yeah, it’s funny. There are some people I have dealt with — there is a bit of misogyny in this — where I remember there was a conference that was only invited founders of companies. And I actually asked this person years ago, I said, “I would love to be involved.” And he said, “Well, it’s for founders.” I said, “Well, I’m the founder, I started Brew.” He said, “We don’t see service companies in the same way.” So I said, “Wait a minute, because I’m actually profitable, because I haven’t taken investment from anybody, because I’ve been running a business from the beginning at a success rate, okay, great.” So we’re not the same as a venture-backed company in their minds. I think that’s funny.
So you started the company, you didn’t take venture money, 11 years later you sold it. Service companies are famously hard to sell.
So why’d you sell and how did it come about?
Yeah, I think certainly when they do sell it’s generally to another company in that space, a holding company, where they get absorbed into [something] bigger.
Right, and traditionally they do that and they get paid and then they get paid to stick around and they’re not very happy.
For a bit and then things change and everybody bitches about it and then those people [leave].
So they got some of the money they were paid but not all of it and they leave and they said, “I’m never going to do this again, I’m never going to sell.” And you’ve seen that a million times. So what’s going to happen this time?
I think Dina and I are incredibly lucky in finding a partner like Matthew Freud and his team. And Matthew, for those of you in the U.S. who don’t know him, he’s just a genius communications master.
He’s a Freud too, right?
He is a Freud, yeah he is. He’s one to examine my brain. But he’s Sigmund Freud’s great-grandson and he’s an amazing extraordinary man and creator. He’s a guy who has created campaigns. He was one of the creators of the Red campaign, for example. God, I hate this: When I say the story of how Matthew and I met it sounds really bad.
Yeah, do it. Does it involve someone famous?
But the creator of [Red] is a well-known Irishman named Paul Houston, otherwise known as Bono, and he introduced Matthew and I many years ago at a TED conference. And we both knew who the other was.
Can we do a sidebar about how you know Bono? [BH laughs] And how you know other famous people?
Well, I do have a passion for music. I like music, I like people who make music, I like artists. But yeah, when I was young and just starting out in my career, I fell in love with a musician whose name is Mike — hi, Mike! who will listen to this I’m sure — Mike Mills from REM. And it was at the time when music and technology were two separate worlds entirely. And neither the two shall meet. Nobody thought they would speak the same language.
And as I’m in this world and getting to know the technology world but also on tour with REM and meeting their friends which included the Irish band U2 and many many other amazing artists, Napster came about. And all of a sudden we’re right in the center of “Which side are you on?” It was really interesting to be able to talk about the knowledge that I was coming from and seeing in the tech world.
So you become the tech person who speaks music and the music person who gets tech, and you’re kind of intentionally bridging those worlds, right?
Yeah, it was perfect timing, it was very Malcolm Gladwell “Outliers.”
And to this date, right? It’s part of your thing, you don’t explicitly say it, but you know lots of famous people, both in business and entertainment.
I think it goes with success, right? I’m really drawn to people with a work ethic and a drive, and those people tend to end up becoming more successful, whether it’s fame or not, it’s just, you know, it’s who I definitely learn from on a day-to-day basis. So Bono introduced Matthew and I …
He says — I’m not going to do the accent because it will be kind of embarrassing — he says…
[laughs] I do pick up an Irish accent after I’ve hung with Irish people for a while.
So Bono introduces you to Matthew Freud and says, “This is Brooke.”
Yeah, we meet at a dinner and we both knew who one another were and I was captivated by his brain and his just pure knowledge of things on all levels. And he wasn’t focused on tech but he knew so much about what I was doing. He has an encyclopedic brain.
And you say, “I want to sell you my company.”
No, no, no, that was years ago. We have very similar senses of humor and stay in touch and I would run things by him. And when I was in London I would always stop by and see him and say like, “Let’s do things together, we should do this together and that together.”
And I think Dina and I also saw the potential Brew needed to scale. We had so many clients, whether it’s Refinery29 or Netsuite. So many of our clients that were [in the] U.S. [were] going global. And they were looking for communications partners, certainly in London and that whole world. And we were tasked with finding them a partner that we would then have to manage. And we’re saying, “Why aren’t we doing this ourselves?” And in stressing that frustration with Matthew, he was like, “Maybe we can do something.”
But you’re profitable, you’re making money, you don’t have any investors that you have to pay off, you’re running a cool business and you get to set your own hours. So why sell? So why not just keep doing what you’re doing? It’s your thing. If you need to find a partner,. you do a partnership with Freud. Again, you’ve seen people screw up this transaction before. What made you think, “All right, I’m going to sell now”?
You know, it’s a very good question, and we talked a lot about it. I do think I give credit back to Matthew, who structured the deal where we weren’t being absorbed into a company never to be seen again and treated like employees. Matthew really sees us as partners, we get to remain completely independent and get to grow our brand and be a valued partner of Matthew’s and his team.
But also the Freud’s world, they have so many incredible things, like a media studio, and literally the smartest people in the room in communications in the U.K. work at Freud’s. So you know, veterans of BBC and just these brilliant minds that we get to now be a part of and tap into. And they also have a broader network. And for us to just think we could saunter into London and plop down and just start to build without that sort of network behind us, it would have killed me.
Even with Bono’s help [BH laughs] it would have been difficult.
Even with the crazy Irish. But it’s been amazing. And we’ve started our office in London and Brew London is up and running and we did that in a flash and we are West Coast, East Coast, London. It’s cool.
Different accent there.
I do pick up a different accent in each city. For us, it’s trying to find the best talent and the best partners. Our clients are … I mean, we’re so lucky.
So you’ll do this for a couple years and then you’re going to get an itch, right?
Yes, Matthew, I just want you to know I’ve got six months left and then I’m moving to Bali. No! I don’t want to do anything else. The thing that we get to do at Brew is we do get to ebb and flow into other industries. We’re not just media. We are at times bringing in investors to our clients or entrepreneurs we know. We’re matching them up.
You told me at one point you want to actually start doing investment.
Investment, yeah, that’s something that I’ll keep in my back pocket for now, but I think Dina and I and Matthew and whatnot, I think we’d be freaking great at it.
You’ve seen enough of this, you’ve seen 20 years of people screwing up.
Yeah, yeah, some of the greatest people that I get to see on a daily basis, whether it’s the people at Kleiner Perkins or Atomico or Index or Benchmark, they’re the smartest people in the room and I love being with them and we get such deal flows sometimes even before they do. So there’s a natural partnership there, I think.
So you’re going to fund my next company. [BH laughs] I’m kidding, I’m never going to start a company.
Don’t ever do it.
It looks really hard.
It’s hard, it’s so hard.
You have a hard job too: You put up with me. So thank you, Brooke,for coming and putting up with me here.
Thank you, it was so fun.