At 32, Marlo Fogelman knew it was time to start her own public relations agency. Armed with four years of experience and an impressive client roster, she got to work establishing marlo marketing as a full-service partner for brands who want to tell compelling stories. Follow along with Marlo’s Five-Year plan to find out how she went from lawyer to business-owner.
I spent my junior year of college abroad in Paris and absolutely loved it. I think the biggest lesson I learned there that’s really stayed with me ever since was how to incorporate my work into my life.
When you’re in college in the states, you go to classes, you go to the library to study, and you go out with friends. It’s all very segmented. When I was in Paris, facets of my life had a way of integrating in a more organic way. For example, on my way to the library, I’d stop at a café and meet up with a friend. Or, I’d take a break from studying at the Pompidou and listen to music or see a movie on a different floor of the building. Dinner tended to be later there, so after a full afternoon of studying, I’d meet up with friends for dinner. This was way before everyone was connected 24/7 and it gave me a solid foundation in the art of balance. It’s an invaluable lesson that I still use to this day.
By 25, I’d been in Boston for two years. I always felt some connection to this city. I’d studied political science and pre-law in college, and thought I was going to be a lawyer. I worked for a state rep in my home state of Michigan, and had a few other internships along those lines. Honestly, I didn’t really know what I was supposed to be doing. The one thing I did know was that I wanted to live in Boston, even though I had never visited. So, I only applied to law schools in the city, and I ended up enrolling in a dual J.D. and Master’s program in International Relations at B.U.
For me, law school was pretty stereotypical of what you hear about that experience: in year one, it breaks you down completely and your self-confidence is shattered, only to build it back up to be stronger than you’d been before by the time you graduate. From an intellectual perspective, particularly in terms of teaching you how to think differently, I grew immeasurably. Also, I really tapped into a strong work ethic and sense of perseverance while there. And probably most importantly for my continued growth, it helped me start to view life with a different perspective on priorities.
After I graduated from law school and passed the New York and Massachusetts bar exams, I was kind of at a standstill. I really enjoyed law school. I just wasn’t sure how much I was going to enjoy the actual practice of law.
I kind of just messed around for a couple of years, I called it my “pre-life crisis.” At around 27, I worked at a tech startup as the assistant to the president. Right as I came on board, a deal for them to be acquired by EMC got underway. I helped with the transition and investors, and I also took it upon myself to enhance the company’s culture, which they had never paid much attention to before. I loved, loved, loved that part of my job. I discovered my natural flair and interest for messaging, creating memorable experiences and developing relationships. It was very cool to discover that about myself.
I then had the choice to work for EMC or move on. I decided to move on, and ended up at John Hancock as part of this 500-person ADR team they had created to deal with shady sales practices. They staffed one of the divisions exclusively with attorneys; we called ourselves the Island of Misfit Lawyers. We either couldn’t find jobs or we didn’t know what we wanted to do––I fell into the latter category. While I was there, I was always organizing fun outings or taking responsibility for group gifting. Also, while I was there if staffers weren’t happy or there was dissension among the ranks, management would throw an ice cream social or a pizza party. I was like, “Seriously? This is how you’re motivating people, by giving them pizza?” There was just this tone-deafness to big corporate life. So that was also a good learning experience for me.
Around that time, a friend saw a job advertised in Lawyer’s Weekly for a PR firm and told me I had to apply. To be completely honest, I had never even heard of PR as a profession, let alone taken a class in it, but I trusted her advice and sent in my resume.
They got more applicants to that job posting than any other in the company’s 15-year history. And out of five-hundred applications, I got the job.
Clearly, for someone with the wisdom and knowledge to be able to look at my resume and see what I’d done in my jobs, internships and hobbies, and know that I’d be the right fit for the role, selecting me was probably a no-brainer. It’s very easy when you’ve had a certain amount of life experience to look at someone’s life choices and be like, “Oh my god, this person would be amazing at X.” But you might not see it when you’re in your twenties and don’t know what your path should be. I’m grateful every day that someone there saw that potential in me.
In my role, I was basically running the Starbucks New England account pretty much single-handedly. When I left that first job after two years, Starbucks followed. I went to a small three-person agency that couldn’t afford me, but I paid for my own salary with a Starbucks retainer.
After a couple of years there, I realized it wasn’t a fit. I started marlo marketing when I was 32 after four and a half years in the industry. Starbucks followed me again, as did the Nantucket Wine Festival and American Seasons -- both clients until they were sold a few years back -- and the Grafton Group, which is still a client today.
By 35, I’d been running my business for about three years. I’d moved our office from Newbury Street to Boylston Street, right at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Another important thing that came together around this time was marlo monthly. Social media wasn’t a thing yet, so our work was mostly messaging, events and media relations. Media relations can still be super effective today, and back then even more so, but especially in the restaurant and hospitality space, if a client was having an event, we wanted the media to write about it two weeks before so you could read about it and plan to go. That started me thinking about the connection between PR and ROI. So I started this little newsletter and I called it marlo monthly. It was an opportunity for me to get the news out about our clients on our terms. It’s gone out every month since January 2005; we’ve never missed an issue. It’s a commitment – both from a consistency and quality perspective – but, in my humble opinion, ongoing consistency and quality is what brands must commit to in order to grow.
We made it through 2008. That was tough, and like everyone, we lost a lot of business during that economic crisis. I was forced to dip into our savings significantly in order to keep our team together, but I knew the economy would eventually turn and having a solid team in place has always been worth the investment to me. We’d always done a lot of pro bono work but, during the downturn, it became much more indoctrinated into the culture of the agency; I kept the team busy by donating a lot more of our time to nonprofits.
It was also around this time that the agency started to expand significantly beyond hospitality clients. It became much more of an overall consumer agency, and in 2011, I hired my first creative director. We grew to do more of the full-service marketing work like branding, logos, websites, packaging, etc. for which we’re known today.
It’s also worth noting that when I was around 40 or 41, a bunch of agencies started to approach me about acquisition. None of those opportunities felt like a good fit for our brand and what we’d built. I felt like we had a lot left to accomplish before going down that path.
Around the time I was 45, our lease at the Marathon finish line came up. It was hard to leave the neighborhood but we needed to accommodate the expansion we were going through. I was looking at 6,000 square feet in the Back Bay, and my realtor said he could get me 9,200 square feet for the same amount of money in Downtown Crossing, a neighborhood that had already been “up and coming” for over 10 years at that point. But I liked the space so I took a chance and I signed an 11-year lease.
It was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done, hands down.
Getting us through that move was basically a second job. I designed everything from scratch in a completely gutted space. Since we moved a little less than four years ago, we’ve continued our expansion into more national clients.
When I look back at the experiences that have led me to where I am now, I recognize how fortunate I am to be part of an industry that has innovated and changed so rapidly in such a short amount of time. It’s been incredibly rewarding to help build some of the most recognized brands in the region and beyond – and to rise to the daily challenge of doing so in a thoughtful, authentic and strategic way as the pool of potential marketing tactics continues to expand.
What I’ve learned through it all is that there’s no shortcut for delivering quality results and ROI for clients – work ethic, commitment and honesty have been the foundation for everything I’ve accomplished so far, and I know that they will always be the keys to bringing success for my clients and my team as well.