We first connected with David Frost, founder of Australian PR agency PRDeadlines, back in 2001.
He flew into Hong Kong as part of our team, presenting a regional brief to Juniper Networks.
We’ve been working with David and his team ever since.
Given his firm’s milestone, I thought it was high time to pepper Mr. Frost with questions on life, liberty and the pursuit of a good story.
Here’s the exchange.
Lou: Congrats on celebrating 25 years of operation. What were those early days like?
David: Fascinating and a little scary until the cash began flowing. Although I missed the days of ‘walk-in’ computers, people in the industry were still discussing them. Our first news conference announced that a big Aussie consultancy had taken on NCR’s ADDS computers, which ran the Pick operating, system; the hot debate in those days being open systems, Pick vs. Unix.
Lou: Any leading-edge technology in your own operation starting off?
David: I had one of the first fax machines which cost $3,500 at the time. I often couldn’t resist getting up at dead of night to check what fascinating info was appearing before my eyes from exotic places like California, London, Israel and elsewhere.
Lou: You went from the prestigious Australian Financial Review into PR. Did your colleagues think you were crazy?
David: Most of my colleagues were crazy too. Apart from a few star writers, most had their own agendas and used the Fin as a convenient cash cow while they pursued other dreams: writing books, doing PR on the side, and more. A benign 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift allowed me to look after our two school-age children while my wife worked negotiated hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. as deputy editor of Vogue Living. I was the Fin’s production editor as technology evolved from hot metal printing towards fully computerised pagination.
Lou: Explain hot metal printing for our under-40 crowd.
David: Essentially copy editors would do the type-setting as they edited reporters’ work: every change of typeface, font size, style or column width required them to punch in the codes. On the production floor, their work emerged as strips of sticky cardboard which were pasted together jigsaw-like to form a page. I found it sad: the traditional hot metal compositors with years of experience, who built up each page by fitting together slugs of metal type – some of whom were absolute artists who took a deep pride in their work – were losing their jobs to teenage girls.
Lou: Why did you make the jump?
David: First, a step back to the days when 28-year-old me was assistant night editor on the British national newspaper, the Daily Mail, and aiming high. Journalism was consuming me, so my wife and I sat on a Corfu beach and resolved to forget ambition and balance work with lifestyle. A youthful aim had been to become a schoolteacher – not to shape young minds but to enjoy 10 weeks of annual holidays! When I learned on the Fin that a PR outfit needed someone who could write, I negotiated all school holidays off as part of the deal. To look after the kids, of course. A couple of years later, I set up PRDeadlines.
Lou: And now your son Luke joins your operation. Is that really you and Luke in the photo? You look like you’re threatening him?
David: Luke lent that pic to his former publishing company for a promotion. Reactions were polarised: men saying “Hey, that’s cool;” women declaring “Oh, poor child.” In my defense, note Luke’s serene countenance and consider that his mum took the photograph. Luke was, and is, blessed with a serene nature – clearly takes after his mother. Pic was taken on a 10-acre New Zealand farmlet which cost us $22 a week – we were utterly pissed off when the rent was raised to $25!
Lou: Have you ever had a client so bloody dull, securing interest from the media was hopeless?
David: Not quite, we have been able to glean some media-worthy output from all of them although it has been touch-and-go in some cases. Over the years we have fired a couple of clients for refusing to accept our counsel, insisting on doing things their way then blaming us for poor outcomes.
Lou: How have you seen storytelling techniques in the tech sector evolve through the years?
David: We tell short stories for pitching complex IT information in a simple, easy-to-understand format, sometimes using shock pictures to grab media attention. We tell longer stories in thought leadership features and for case studies. Unlike some PR agencies, we resist the urge to tell tall stories.
Lou: But do you think storytelling has changed?
David: I believe all these storytelling techniques and categories have evolved in recent years because today’s media people have far less time to consider any PR approach. Copy-tasters for most Australian tier-one media have maybe 10-15 seconds in which to assess the news value of any pitch. So we make the headline and intro count, and the story compelling. Make them read it: subject, active verb, object – Man bites dog.
Lou: Be both compelling and concise.
David: Right. Remember, one of literature’s most compelling sentences was short: “Jesus wept.”
Lou: When you reflect on PRDeadlines’ track record, have you crafted one client story that you’re particularly proud of?
David: The best return on investment we ever achieved helped enterprise content management vendor FileNet to win three $1 million-plus contracts. Again, storytelling did the trick. We crafted a series of hard-hitting snail mail shots. Examples: “Do you really want to go to jail!” (FileNet automates compliance); and “1,000 Government customers in 74 countries… and only one is off the planet!” (NASA). We targeted C-level execs in a Top 200 Aussie organisations database, and scored a 4 percent response, which led ultimately to those big contracts. The country manager loved us.
Lou: Any other thoughts in wrapping up?
David: That philosophy of work/lifestyle balance is still working well, though business and lifestyle tend to merge at times since I love playing with technology. It’s all so enjoyable. In the ‘good’ old days I could not have held down global clients. Now it’s simple. So here I sit, in a tiny village just north of the greater Sydney metropolitan area, surrounded on three sides by national parkland and on the fourth by a pond of sorts called the South Pacific which we call the Tasman Sea hereabout. I too make waves, whose ripples span the globe. It’s a good life.
Lou: I think this is when I say g’day