Meaner and Nicer: Reflecting on 20 Years in Communications

By Ivy Cohen, President and CEO, Ivy Cohen Corporate Communications

May 15th marks 20 years since I launched Ivy Cohen Corporate Communications. I am proud of our achievements and filled with gratitude to the hundreds of clients, partners, staff, and journalists that have enabled us to continue our journey into a new decade.

The title of this article, Meaner and Nicer, expresses the realities of starting and owning a business. It reflects the advancing and changing environment in which my firm was built, as well as the marketplace’s reaction to the evolution in needs, attitudes and world views that spans two decades.

The Business Landscape: Tech Rises and Trust Declines

Born in a word-of-mouth world, I began as a strategic partner to thought leaders who wanted to make better communications decisions, just as e-commerce came on the scene as a viable channel for business. Startup culture emerged and collapsed in what seemed a heartbeat, only to re-emerge with some lessons learned for improvement, many recycled bad decisions, and a growing pool of entrepreneurs, investors and ideas participating across many sectors.

We were founded during a recession and we’ve navigated through a couple of economic downturns and a pandemic. In our second decade, concepts like “influencers”, “UX”, “AI” and “engagement” came of age. Buzz words have come and gone. Emojis are used to say so many things. And everything has achieved “synergy” after it failed the test of being “innovative.”

Through our work with clients, news media and a plethora of target audiences — customers, industries, business partners, investors – we’ve faced a communications enigma that seems to be getting worse instead of better. Despite more interest in purposeful missions and personal relationships, we see more public and vocal disagreements with less self-editing and more disrespect, not just from social media followers but from customers, investors and even employees.

Since 2001 the trust index has been on life support. The horse race between the most revered and reviled has pitted government, corporate leadership and the news media against one another.  Many are more anxious than ever about the declining level of confidence we have in each other.

A Media Revolution

The past 20 years have seen the realignment, collapse and creation of new media platforms, channels and brands. Gen X and Gen Z writers have made their mark in the digital-first era of media. There have been countless acquisitions and failures while blogs, podcasts and video-first outlets are growing at a head-spinning pace for professional and citizen journalists alike.

From Asking the Customer to Monitoring Transactions

The customer has changed, along with all of the lanes that marketers measure and seek to engage. We are engaging with increasingly diverse audiences and more commerce is global.  We have more distinctive generational characteristics. Youth have aged faster and become digitally native. There are more small businesses, yet large companies continue to command the big buying power. America has become more immigrant-dependent and immigrant-averse.

Where we once depended on focus groups and surveys to provide answers to questions that we hoped mimic how people behave in real situations, now we monitor real-life behavior based on transactions and plan based on the last known routes. My hope is that we will course-correct to bring together the need for nimbleness and changing market dynamics with the ability to understand what products, ideas, creative and messages mean to prospective customers.

Digital Is Everything

I’m not pining for the Millennium. Advances and changes to the ways of work, business and consumerism have been good to me. Perhaps I’m a bit nostalgic as I reflect on the re-framing of so much.  Because we have come so far and left so many behind, done damage to the planet and amplified social injustice, this review of 20 years is a bit of a catharsis for me.

Portability is prized. Anytime, anywhere. 24/7/365 was a mantra when ICCC started when it referred to ATMs and convenience stores, even customer service hotlines. Nowadays 24/7/365 means that work hours may be at all hours.  Screen time is all the time. Customer service is a chatbot or someone in another country who may not be familiar with your concerns.

In 2021, knowledge of technology, data, supply chains, and sustainability practices are important for communicators and marketers who work in most sectors.  I’ve found that it’s not enough to be an expert at strategic communications and public relations; you must respect and have a working understanding of the decisions and operations that lead to business growth, failure and marketplace change.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

The thirst for independence and ‘making it big’ led many to go out on their own, and the PR landscape today is comprised of countless boutique agencies, freelance consultants and a realigned group of global agencies that have transformed from “traditional” public relations to “PR + Social Media” to “PR + Advertising” to “PR + Digital Marketing.”

Yet tried-and-true principles are still at the sector’s core. Strategy matters, differentiation is essential, relationships are critical, and communications are vital to building community. Trust bonds individuals and entities, and getting results keeps us in business.

Still, we remain durable and flexible with the test of time and will continue to compete, grow and deliver excellence despite and because of the meaner and nicer society around us.