PR Consultant

James LaForce

Saul Taylor / July 2, 2019

James LaForce learned from the best. After moving to New York from Wisconsin to study at Columbia (making Studio 54 and Mudd Club his second home in the process), LaForce started working with legendary PR maven, Eleanor Lambert. He never looked back, and now employs almost 100 staff at his eponymous communications agency.

You worked for PR guru Eleanor Lambert. What was that like?

I worked at her agency for five years, learning the publicity business the old fashioned way from someone who invented the discipline in a time just after the war when publicity and public relations was being born. When I joined she was 80 years old and she was the only woman working in a media landscape completely dominated by men. She was very inspiring — even at that age — and so active and passionate about working for her clients. She lived to be 100 and worked until she was in her early nineties. Clients would give her a small monthly retainer just to have her in their life because she was so inspiring to so many people.

And now you’ve become something of a guru yourself. What did she teach you?

She had boundless curiosity. If it was an interesting client she’d find something about the product and if the product wasn’t interesting she’d find something about the consumer that it was targeted to. And if that wasn’t interesting, then she she’d always turn it into a challenge. She was extremely focused on keeping her agency small and skewed to artisanal luxury products. I really appreciate that and I still understand and respect people who have a razor sharp focus. I have turned out to be much more of a generalist. We still work on luxury brands but we also work on quick service restaurants and consumer packaged goods. I think that curiosity and drive to succeed helps motivate the people that you work with. That works for me and she certainly had reached a stage in her life that she didn’t need to come to work every day but she couldn’t stop. She loved it and loved the world that opened up to her by working in this business.

How do you approach high-end and more democratic brands and stay true to their identities?

It is about recognising that these are two very different things and that there are press audiences that are interested in both. What worked in my favour over the years is that the luxury brands are taking information from what mass brands are doing. It used to be that the luxury marketers were exclusive and felt they wanted to live in the hothouse with other luxury brands and imagined that there was a consumer that only lived in the luxury world. I’ve been responsible for helping Target promote their designer collaborations since the programme began 14 years ago. That has been the ultimate democratization of fashion, by bringing high fashion ideas to mass or big box retail formats. It nicely syncs up with my agency’s history that the walls around luxury have broken down. Now, Louis Vuitton is learning from Nike and they’re collaborating together. The worlds don’t live in their separate ghettos any longer.

How important are events to your business?

We are committed to suggesting events as a strategy to generate earned or social coverage or for creating content. The scale of them varies greatly. If you look into our conference room across the office, it’s filled with racks of clothing and we’re inviting fashion editors in to see the designer’s collection. We’ve made an effort with the flowers on the table and even with the cookies that we’re serving. On some scale everything is an event. Then, at the other end, we recently helped launch the “Vineyard Vines for Target” collaboration. We were working alongside event production specialists who built a giant pop-up store in Battery Park City which included a big party venue and a fully-realised shop that was open to consumers for the weekend. So the scale of the events that we’re involved in goes from a plate of cookies to a multi-million dollar installation.

Tell us about the Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic.

That’s a really interesting project and something we’ve been involved with for more than 10 years. It started with the scenario of creating a daytime event that would promote champagne consumption in the sun. There are plenty of settings where you see champagne in elegant interior spaces and people dressed up for the evening. But the corporate directive was to show a lighter, sportier or casual context where you could go along with a picnic blanket and sun dress; not just the red carpet and evening gown. It was built essentially as a backdrop for the brand and besides being an entertaining event, it was an opportunity for us to generate a lot of earned media coverage with celebrities and fashionable people dressed beautifully.

Ten years ago our measurement tool was the earned media coverage and publicity generated from the cavalcade of celebrities and the social life of the event. It grew and became more and more successful. The public wanted to be a part of it so much that we worked to create opportunities for them to buy tickets. They enjoyed getting dressed up as much as the celebrities and the fashion people that came to our small VIP tent. It grew into this big commercial opportunity where the brand very successfully sells a lot of product and the hospitality scenario is as successful as the publicity.

With the rise of content creators and social influencers, the backdrop of the polo match became more important. We’ve built all kinds of interactive content elements into the production like scenic set-ups and gif booths and all sorts of photo and video opportunities. We have seen an enormous rise in social engagement and content produced at the event, both from the influencers who come as our guests as well as the public producing their own content as consumers.

It started as an event whose success was measured by publicity impressions — and we still get those — before we added a general consumption and product selling measurement tool. And then we added social media engagement and the growth and content production measurement. In an age where all our clients ask for a demonstration of effectiveness, this event has, by evolving, developed new ways to measure its success as it continues to grow and we exceed ourselves every year.

What else have you been working on?

We recently did the opening of Intersect by Lexus, which is an interactive brand experience for the car company in the Meatpacking District in New York. There is a restaurant that is overseen by Union Square Hospitality and has been a showcase for architecture installations and fashion presentations. It opened and defined a new category. There may not necessarily ever be a car there. There’s a café and a full restaurant with a revolving chef programme and a gallery space on the top floor. We organised a series of events reaching out to different communities from art and fashion to architecture and design. They have been extremely successful and it’s an ongoing project that’s defined by events.

What makes a great event?

For me the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s the event you missed and you regretted you weren’t invited or you didn’t get to go to. I know that’s a little hard to quantify. But we’ve all been to so many events and we’ve all certainly gone to plenty of just ‘okay’ events and there’s always one that your friend tells you about and you kick yourself that you didn’t go. That, to me, is the essential thing about why events are so effective — they are ephemeral. It may never happen again and you might miss something so you better show up. FOMO is a great thing for those of us in the event business because you see things that are not nearly as exciting as they appear on an Instagram post, but it reminds you that there are cool things happening out there so you better suck it up, say yes you’re coming and show up on time with a smile on your face.