If you Google the words “PR agency” or “PR firm,” the top results belong to 5WPR, whose owner and CEO, Ronn Torossian, enjoys the reputation of being the most intense, in-your-face PR man in New York.
Gawker has an entire section of its site devoted to negative stories about Torossian, including the time he sued a competitor who bought the URL “rontorossian.com” and pointed it to the Summer’s Eve website.
The reality is that Torossian’s 90-employee shop is best-known for the sheer volume of media pitching it does, mostly for consumer products. It is not unusual for writers in the business press to receive three emails or calls a day from 5W staffers. When they’re launching products, 5W execs can send up to 60 pitches a day to different media outlets. “Everyone here pitches media, from myself to my most junior employee,” Torossian told B.I. “We are very intense.”
Torossian gained fame for representing celebrities in early 2000s. Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment was his first client. He’s also represented Pamela Anderson, Snoop Dogg and Lil’ Kim.
More recently, 5W has worked for blue-chip brands such as Barnes & Noble, Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, Evian, and Microsoft. It also promotes Hint water, Cold-Eeze and grey Line New York sightseeing, plus off-beat products such as LifeStyles condoms, “sexy lifestyle brand” Booty Parlor, and the Shake Weight. In fact, every employee gets a Shake Weight to use at their desk when they’re hired. “Shake Weight works,” Torossian told us. He’s also authored a new book on his craft, “For Immediate Release.”
This week, Torossian told Business Insider why he works the way he does. He let us spend some time interviewing his staffers and allowed us to take photos inside 5W. Torossian even offered to show us his agency’s tax returns. We got an unusual level of access — the marketing business generally doesn’t like “behind the scenes” coverage — which says something admirable about the agency’s transparency. Torossiann isn’t afraid of scrutiny. Most everyone else is.
The result is a rare look at what it’s like inside one of the U.S.’s busiest, most effective PR shops. If you don’t like working from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., or being constantly rejected by reporters, then this is a tour through your personal workplace hell.
On the other hand, if you want to see how an agency that isn’t afraid to “get its hands dirty” (as Torossian describes it) in the media sausage factory, and is enormously successful at doing so, then this is for you.
This is 5W's reception desk. The waiting area is fully stocked with TVs, magazines and other choice media. 5W wears its priorities on its sleeve.
Ronn Torossian formed 5WPR in 2003 with just himself and an intern. He was just 28 years old. (He's now 37.) The company has moved offices five times in the last nine years to accommodate its growth. Before 2003, Torossian worked in the New York office of MWW Group, a New Jersey-based PR agency.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx, Torossian went to New York public schools. His first name -- those two n's are the correct spelling -- is not a nickname. 'My mother hated the name 'Ronald.' Ronn is my name,' he says. 'Don't ask me why.'
In person, Torossian is completely unlike his media persona -- he's calm, personable, and not the caricature the media has made him out to be.
The agency is currently located at 888 Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. It's opposite Carnegie Hall.
Most of the other tenants in the building are hedge funds or private equity groups, such as Soros Fund Management, George Soros' company. Torossian isn't interested in being on Madison Avenue or somewhere more trendy like Chelsea, Soho or the West Village, where a lot of PR shops can be found. He wants to be seen with the serious players, in the heart of Midtown's high-rises.
Clients tend to spend between $100,000 and $500,000 a year for 5W's services. Most large firms try to offer clients 'strategic advice' -- they want to become 'big picture' corporate strategy partners to their clients. Torossian, however, doesn't believe that's the primary role PR firms should have. 'They're doing two-year research reports. I don't think a PR firm should be doing that.'
Companies want PR because they want the media exposure that drives sales. 'Many large firms don't like to get their hands dirty' with media, he says. 'I have a hard time charging clients $150,000 a month' and not doing media.
In 2011, 5W's business was up 20 per cent over 2010, and the company will book in excess of $12 million in revenues, Torossian says.
In a typical day, Torossian gets up at 5 a.m., responds to messages that have arrived overnight from Asian clients, and then goes to the gym.
He then has breakfast with his kids and is in the office by 8 a.m. (His home is within walking distance of the office.) From 9 a.m. onward he's in meetings with clients or staffers. He gets about one email every minute. he works through to about 8 p.m.
Torossian could have sold his agency to a holding company like Omnicom, Interpublic or MDC Partners years ago, but he wants to remain independent. 'I've had a few good offers,' he says, but he cannot imagine not running his company. 'I wouldn't know what to do with myself.'
Torossian is young for a midsize PR agency owner, and his relative youth is one of the reasons he struck out on his own: 'Most midsize or large PR agencies are owned by really old people,' he says. 'When I say 'old people' I mean old in age and old in thinking. Let me preface that by saying, Donald Trump is not old. Donald Trump is 60-something, and he is not old.'
'Most who own PR firms are people who wear suspenders at the age of 60 or something, and they're not young and creative and fresh.' To prove it, he pulls out a list of competing PR agencies and rattles off the ages of their owners. 'He's in his 60s, … she's in her sixties,' and so on.
He claims 5W is the only independent top 50 firm owned by someone under the age of 40.
Torossian devotes a corner of his office to sample products made by his clients.
A B.I. reporter wasn't allowed to leave the building without a Shake Weight, a bottle of Hint flavored water, and a packet of LifeStyles Thryll 'ultra-studded' condoms.
5W represents about 35 consumer product clients that target women, so there are small bunches of flowers scattered in parts of the office that clients are likely to see.
'It's like a presentation thing,' says Erika Kauffman, an svp who runs the consumer/female brands unit.
Torossian has declined to say how he managed to persuade Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to dress baby Shiloh in this trendy 'Pots & Pans Band' rocker T-shirt for her first photo-shoot.
5W represented Belly Maternity, a Denver retailer that sells the shirts. The design was by Kingsley Aaron. The cover shot led to a run on sales.
Women's magazines, and magazines that women read, are a favourite target for 5W staffers.
Before he went into PR, Torossian worked for the Likud Party when it formed the Israeli government in the 1990s. The image at right is of Torossian with former prime minister Ehud Olmert. Politics gave him a taste for advocacy: 'I love politics. I think PR is a nice mix of the law and psychology. It allows you to be a little bit of a lawyer a journalist and a psychologist.'
He also forged links with the Christian right, and 5W currently represents Pastor Benny Hinn, a televangelist. The agency formerly handled Pat Robertson's university. 'I think they are people who are often misunderstood by the media,' he says. 'They are great friends of Israel.'
When it is put to him that the Christian right's interest in Israel (as a centre of End Times prophecy) isn't the same as the Jewish community's, he says: 'Let's worry about that when the messiah comes or when the second coming comes. ... until then, in a world where Israel is surrounded by enemies, and Israel is hated by much of the world, I'm not concerned about that fight. For now, they're great friends.'
5W has also represented John Hagee, who has been accused of anti-Semitism in the past. 'I think the media has reported he said anti-Semitic things but I'm not someone who believes what he reads in the press is always the truth,' Torossian says.'He is someone we know very well. … We would never represent a political interest that is anti-Israel or anti- the Jewish people.'
Kauffman's clients include female-oriented brands such as the the Shiseido cosmetics line. She came to 5W in 2004.
She starts work around 9 a.m. and usually makes it home by 8.30 p.m. 'But I'm always on my phone until 11 o'clock at night,' she says, emailing clients and staff and scheduling new business. Staff aren't expected to work those crazy hours -- most try to keep it to 9 a.m. through 6 p.m. -- but some do.
Few new staffers flame out at the agency despite its long hours and performance pressure because 5W's recruitment process has become more rigorous. Even interns must go through up to three interviews before being hired. 'They're not coming in like a deer in headlights,' she says. 5W likes candidates from 'good schools, because good schools tend to breed better writing skills.'
Next we got to meet some of 5W's staffers. From left to right:
Elizabeth Engelhardt, an account supervisor, handles consumer brands. A current client she works for is the Original Soup Man chain (founded by the guy Seinfeld christened the 'Soup Nazi' in the 1990s). Shaquille O'Neal recently invested in the chain.
Jason Marshall, account supervisor, handles public advocacy, lawyers, M&A advisory, and 'thought leaders.' He also represented artist Andy Golub who paints on the bare skin of models in Times Square, drawing large crowds (more on that in a moment).
Kristen Merlino, a senior account executive, handles the Bytox hangover skin patch. Users apply the patch 45 minutes before they start drinking and leave it on for eight hours. It delivers vitamins and claims to prevent hangovers. On a normal day she will attempt to make five or six 'strategic' media placements with reporters or editors she knows are likely to be interested. If she's launching a new initiative, however, she might contact up to 60 writers a day.
Emmanuel Getachew, the marketing manager, prepares 12-15 new business pitches to clients every month, from cold calls to final presentations.
Austin Rotter, an account executive, works in 5W's corporate division, mostly digital marketing companies such as Appitalism, 'the world's largest app store.'
During our chat a couple of them were dragged out of the room to deal with client calls. Everything else takes a back seat when clients call 5W.
In October, the police arrested one of 5W client Andy Golub's models for public nudity. This image shows the model, Zoe West, in handcuffs in the back of a police van. A judge later ruled that Golub's painting was protected speech, but that he should only do it after dark.
It's walls are lined with prints by Kandinsky and Jasper Johns.
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