BackBay Communications: 10 Lessons Learned in 10 Years of Business

October 28, 2015

- Bill Haynes, Boston

As BackBay Communications celebrates its 10th year in business providing branding, marketing and public relations to financial services companies, it’s a natural time to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going, and lessons learned along the way.

“BackBay Communications has attempted to stay ahead of this change, offering content-driven marketing programs built around thought leadership.”

As an entrepreneurial organization, what have we learned that could be instructive for other entrepreneurs?

  1. Focus. Focus on the industry you know best and where you have experience and relationships.
  2. It’s All About the People. In professional services businesses, in particular, the capability and commitment of your team is vitally important. As is the trust they inspire.
  3. Build a Strong Culture. Assembling a professional services team is like building a sports team with a mix of specialists that complement each other’s skills. They need to want to be teammates, bring out the best in each other and work toward a common goal.
  4. Be Confident. You’re the expert and your skills are valuable. Generate fresh ideas, build connections, work hard and demonstrate value. You may be helping CMOs and CEOs at major institutions solve important issues, and you should be compensated well for it.
  5. Punch Above Your Weight. Through strategic positioning, development of thought leadership, and the wise use of an array of digital marketing tools, your business can have outsize presence and influence in its target market.
  6. Publish. Create a blog, use Twitter and LinkedIn and other social media tools to provide thoughtful insight and commentary.
  7. Build Strategic Alliances. Team up with an association in your target industry, join a committee or eventually a Board of Directors, and demonstrate your expertise, ideas and success.
  8. Be Open Minded and Selective. Don’t lightly dismiss new ideas, alliances and opportunities, but be selective, and for the ones you choose, fully commit.
  9. Keep Learning, Work Hard and Have Fun. Being an entrepreneur is a process of continuous learning, hard work and worry. Making your company a success is likely the first thing you think about when you get up each day and the last thing you think of before bed. Make time to celebrate your company’s accomplishments and have fun.
  10. Have Integrity, Nurture Relationships and Be Thankful. Your clients, employees, partners, family, industry and community are all important to you. Take the time to engage with them, understand where they’re coming from, help them, learn from them and thank them.

Where We’ve Been

This fall, BackBay Communications celebrated its 10th anniversary. It seems like yesterday I was walking around the city on an early Saturday morning taking pictures of landmarks in Boston’s Back Bay. That amateur artwork would soon give life to a website and mark the launch of a new financial services public relations firm in Boston.

Before starting BackBay, I had much to consider. My wife was not working outside the home, I had two young children and a mortgage. I had some limited savings and a 401(k) I could tap if necessary. Before quitting my day job, on the advice of a friend, I took out a home equity line of credit. I hired a firm to develop a logo and a very basic website, and I handled the photography as well as the copywriting duties.

The way I saw it at the time, I just needed two clients and then I could finally take the leap. I mentioned my plan informally to a few friends. One of them had just become CEO of a financial technology firm, and over hotdogs and beer at a Fenway Park he offered, “How would you like us to be your first client?” Excellent! One down and one to go, I thought. The second client came about in a similar fashion, and with that, I quit my job and launched BackBay Communications.

The website went live. I rented office space in the stately Ames-Webster Mansion in the Back Bay. Full days in the office were followed by late nights working at home, seven days a week. Within six months, I hired the firm’s first employee and could finally take a day off. We also gained capacity to take on new clients.

The thesis when I started BackBay was to provide senior-level attention, offering advice and guidance to firms looking to elevate their profile. The old public relations model typically had the most experienced team members in sales roles, while the day-to-day client service often fell to the most junior people on the team. In consumer PR or retail, this model may have worked. In financial services, however, clients needed professionals who understood their business and could collaborate with them to find the right positioning in a competitive marketplace.

BackBay’s senior-level approach was a differentiator that resonated, and through word of mouth, as well as knocking on a lot of doors, we began to make a dent in the market.

One of our big breaks took the form of a contract with a large national association of middle market private equity and growth capital firms. The endorsement and exposure paid off as it gave BackBay an entre to senior private equity executives. We soon became a go-to firm for deal announcements and fundraising PR projects. We also locked down a number of annual retainer relationships, underscoring our role as a trusted advisor. We were also seeing parallel interest from the growing fintech community, given our experience and success with our first client.

Less than a year after BackBay was founded, we moved to a new, larger office on Boylston Street, across from the Boston Marathon finish line and still in the Back Bay.

Just as our firm was growing, so too was our service offering. We responded to client needs for new positioning, logos, websites and marketing materials. We subcontracted with a designer and oversaw logo and website design and worked on a number of projects that became ongoing outsourced marketing and PR retainers. We hired our second fulltime employee and an intern.

My decision to open BackBay proved somewhat prescient, when two years after our launch, my former PR firm folded. We took the opportunity to hire a former colleague of mine, who brought along a large private equity firm as a client.

Eventually we outgrew our space. We were able to take advantage of a more favorable rental market and sublease a larger office at 20 Park Plaza, still in the Back Bay, where we remain today. Instead of telling clients and prospects looking for directions to our office that we were above Pizzeria Uno, now, we could say we were near the Public Garden, across from the Four Seasons Hotel.

While we were focused on marketing our clients, we realized that we had to raise our own profile as well. We were a growing firm, with a lot of momentum. To keep it going, we updated our website and also reached out to a potential partner that at the time was making a name for itself as a PE database and newsletter. We conducted a joint survey on branding for private equity firms, which led to a whitepaper and a news release, and generated more buzz than we had ever imagined.

This was shortly after Dodd-Frank was signed into law. We started receiving inbound calls from private equity firms that were spinning off from banks and needed help with message development, naming, logos, websites, marketing materials and PR. We worked with Wachovia Bank spinoff Pamlico Capital, D.E. Shaw spinoff Stellus Capital, BofA spinoff Ridgemont Capital and HSBC spinoff Graycliff Partners. It’s a small industry, and our clients were generous with their referrals, and through it all, we were able to carve out another niche in the market, lining up similar mandates for PE firms, RIAs, asset managers and others seeking help clarifying their message.

In 2010, we opened our first outpost outside of Boston, when one of our long-time employees, who is now a senior leader at the firm, opened our New York office. A year later, we hung our shingle in Europe with the opening of a London office. We could now support clients on both sides of the Atlantic and in three major financial centers. And we continued to grow.

Last year, we decided to take our design work in house and hired a Creative Director. This year, we hired a Director of Content Development and brought on another journalist to write additional content. We also expanded our Boston office. Today, BackBay Communications is a recognized leader in financial services branding, marketing, advertising and public relations, with particular expertise working with private equity firms, fintech companies, mutual fund companies and registered investment advisors.

Where We’re Going

Over the last few years the media landscape has changed dramatically. As the business media continues its retrenchment, technology continues to allow firms to disintermediate traditional media, giving them more opportunities to reach their constituencies directly. While this presents a great opportunity for companies and financial firms – particularly those with expertise to share – the need for strategic integrated content marketing programs has accelerated.

BackBay Communications has attempted to stay ahead of this change, offering content-driven marketing programs built around thought leadership. We can deploy an array of tools available to today’s marketers, including public relations, email marketing, search engine optimization, social media, advertising, infographics, surveys, videos, websites, conferences and proprietary events. Together, these tools can complement each other in an efficient and effective, digitally linked, marketing program.

What will the future hold for financial services marketing? Developing a strong, compelling and consistent brand with passionate advocates is critical. I believe insightful content coupled with cutting edge design will remain vitally important. Telescoping information – packaging it in a way that is compelling and accessible and offers the opportunity to dig deeper and engage directly – is key. An informative, creative and responsive website is essential. Industry specialization and being seen as a successful, trusted contributor and thought leader within an industry’s ecosystem is important for new business referrals.

Looking forward at BackBay, we strive to stay ahead of these changes and offer an array of complementary services while maintaining our financial services focus and continuing to earn our clients’ trust.