Cathie Anderson

Sacramento-area marketing, communications firms in growth mode

Marketing and communications firms across the capital region have been announcing expansions in their personnel and, in some cases, offices.

Earlier this year, my colleagues Bob Shallit and Mark Glover wrote about the communications firm Runyon Saltzman & Einhorn opening an office in Southern California and advertising agency MeringCarson expecting to add a dozen employees by year’s end.

The growth is not limited to these two firms. Sacramento’s Lucas Public Affairs has had three new additions and moved into a larger office space this year, and founder Donna Lucas told me she’s always on the lookout for more talent. Merlot Marketing, also in Sacramento, recently added five people to its team. And Roseville’s Prosio Communications started the year with seven employees but expects to double to 14 staffers by December.

The company founders all cite various reasons for their expansions, but many say the uptick in economic activity has prompted businesses to expand their marketing and public relations budgets. While Merlot and other mature firms have not yet matched peak employment numbers, they are seeing steady revenue gains.

“The housing and construction industry is definitely coming back,” said Debi Hammond, who founded Merlot 16 years ago. “If you just drive around our region, you see a lot of construction. We have quite a few clients in the high-end home building category nationally … We’re having a hard time finding candidates. It seems like everybody is looking for marketing professionals.”

Prosio Communications launched in July 2013, just as many businesses began spending again, and the firm has seen rapid growth. Much of the business, founder Lori Prosio said, has come because she had established relationships with state and local government agencies that wanted her to continue her work on their public education campaigns. In some cases, Prosio’s growth has come at the expense of competitors, she said.

“When several public contracts came up for renewal, we competed for them as Prosio Communications, and we were awarded those contracts,” Prosio said. “The California Office of Traffic Safety is … one we were able to secure, and a contract for the Sacramento Metro Air Quality Management District came back up for renewal. They chose my firm rather than going with the firm I used to work with before.”

In fact, Prosio’s previous employer, Katz & Associates, closed its Roseville office earlier this year. Seven of Prosio’s 11 employees had worked previously for Katz.

Prosio said she’s also seen a big uptick in private-sector businesses that want people who know the regional market and the regional press. She, Lucas and Hammond said they are seeing an increasing number of local business leaders opting to hire a local firm rather than going with national firms. All three women say they have collaborated with other local firms or hired freelance experts as needed to serve their clients’ interests.

Lucas, who is now operating in the public affairs space, actually started another business in 1990 that focused on public relations. With a partner in Orange County, she grew the business so much that it attracted a buyer, the international PR firm, Porter Novelli. Lucas and her partner sold the firm, and she worked in Porter Novelli’s global practice for three years before going to work for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Two years ago, Lucas hung out her own shingle once again. Lucas Public Affairs does strategic consulting for clients who want to move a policy agenda or have reputation management issues. While Lucas said she wouldn’t call her business recession-proof, she’s found that her clients value having an ongoing relationship with a firm that has learned their issues and positions.

“There will always be a need for good strategic communications help in this public policy arena,” Lucas said. “California is … the second-largest public affairs market in the country next to Washington, D.C. And I think we’re next to Brussels and other capitals. The more that our legislators take on challenging issues, the more that foundations and corporations will need assistance.”