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Image courtsey No. 29
Interview

Melody Serafino & Erin Allweiss

06.18.18

Public relations doesn’t exist like it used to. And nobody knows this better than Melody Serafino and Erin Allweiss, co-founders of No. 29, a full service communications company. Together they tackled traditional PR and found a new way to meet the ever-evolving needs of their clients who range from Veja, a sustainable sneaker brand, to The 7 Virtues, a perfume brand working with farmers in war-torn nations to source natural, organic and fair trade essential oils, to Dr. Harvey Karp’s the Happiest Baby/SNOO bassinet. You may be asking what do these brands have in common? But Melody and Erin have a clear vision for their agency: work with well intentioned brands who are all doing things differently. The two women are writing their own rules, forging a new path in communications led by their shared goal of changing the world in some way.

Interview

How did the two of you meet?

Erin and I met when we worked together at our former communications agency. Despite an office of only 20 people at the time it somehow took us nearly four months to cross paths and have a real conversation. Guess that’s a good indication of how heads down, work focused we both were! It wasn’t until one evening when all of our colleagues had already fled New York to go home for Thanksgiving that we found ourselves the last two standing in the office. We instantly connected, going on to oversee the strategic communications team, sharing a cozy office and serving as each other’s sounding boards for work, relationships, and just about everything else.

What are your backgrounds?

Erin started her communications career in DC, working for a progressive congressman before she made her way to New York City. Her original plan was to go into environmental law, but found she could make an impact through storytelling and bringing attention to the issues that mattered most.

I’ve always worked in media relations on the agency side, but I grew up in a family deeply committed to the arts and giving back, so those passions have carried through to my work. Before we started No. 29, I was always searching for ways to incorporate that into my after work life because I was craving it.

Maybe it’s the liberal arts education talking, but one of the things we encourage our team to do is to find their passions outside of work. We want people with diverse interests and perspectives who pursue passions of their own because that ultimately makes them better at their jobs.

I also try to pursue those things by serving on the Rising Leaders Council for New York Cares, the largest volunteer network in New York City, and on the Alumni Board for Fairfield University. I’ve also taught media writing at NYU.

Was communications always your area of interest?

I was a communications major in college, but I never had a clear idea of what I wanted to do with that. At the time, there weren’t many careers where you could combine a love of the fast-paced media world with an interest in more meaningful, impact-driven work. You either went to work in media or at an NGO. I was always looking for something that could marry the two in a way that felt authentic. That’s why we started No. 29 Communications – to work with the people and companies that are changing the world, or at least leaving it a little better than they found it.

Whether it’s The 7 Virtues, a perfume brand working with farmers in war-torn nations to source natural, organic and fair trade essential oils, or Veja, a sustainable sneaker brand using plastic bottles and upcycled tilapia skin to make shoes, we want people to see that it’s possible to be both beautifully designed and committed to issues that matter.

As a boutique media relations firm- can you describe what this means in this current cultural climate?

For all the chaos roiling in the world right now, the optimist in me has to believe there is a lesson to be learned, some small silver lining. Previously silenced voices are coming to the forefront, and more importantly, actually being listened to. Space is being made for people who were never allowed to take up space. We’ve been jolted from our sleepy slumber and forced into action. There is still so much work to be done and so many stories to be told. I’m not sure we ever could have foreseen this when we started No. 29 nearly five years ago, but this is our moment to do what we do best: amplify the voices that need and deserve to be heard.

What types of clients do you have?

Our clients really run the gamut, from non-profits to for-profits to artists, and everything in between. On any given day, we might be coordinating a New Yorker reporter visit to the Off Grid Electric headquarters in Arusha, Tanzania, for a story on the rise of solar energy in Africa or organizing an intimate conversation on meditation as a tool to deal with loss with the co-authors of Just Sit: A Meditation Guidebook for People Who Know They Should But Don’t. The thread that ties them together is that they are all doing things differently or changing the world in some way. they are all doing things differently or changing the world in some way.

Do you have certain criteria for taking on a new client?

We’re particular about who we represent. Like any interpersonal relationship, it’s critical that the partnership between client and PR professional is built on trust and mutual respect. Our aim is always to serve as an extension of our clients’ teams, working in close collaboration. We aren’t interested in working with companies looking to use PR to green wash or for a quick moment of glory in order to position themselves for an exit. We look for authenticity, passion, and shared values.

One of the first things we did when we launched No. 29 was create a company manifesto. This was long before we had employees, but still serves as our set of guiding principles today. One of my personal favorites is: “We don’t act like assholes. We don’t work with assholes.” This business isn’t for the thin-skinned, but when we launched the company we really wanted the people we worked with to reflect what we believe in and how we purport ourselves. It’s much easier to do well for a client when you actually like them!

What’s an average day like at your office?

Ever-changing. It’s one of the reasons I really love what I do. There is no cookie-cutter day at the office. Some days I’m prepping for a client launch, furiously writing press materials and developing a communications plan. Other days I’m running clients around the city to meet with reporters. Erin and I have tried to make Mondays meeting-free. In theory it means we don’t schedule weekly client calls and avoid out of office meetings so we really focus on pitching, writing – getting the real work done!

Can you describe your most challenging professional moment- how did you overcome it?

In PR, there is no shortage of challenging moments but I’ll stick to one that was pivotal because it taught me that I can be scrappy, resourceful, and deliver when under pressure.

I was 26. It was 10pm on a Wednesday night in New York. I was out celebrating my roommate’s birthday and a client emailed to say he needed a story placed at that exact moment. His app had hit a certain number of downloads and it was imperative that the tech press knew. It couldn’t wait until morning – nevermind that every East Coast reporter had long since shut down their computers for the night. Nothing less than what he envisioned (glowing headline, front page news) was acceptable. This was the same client that just weeks earlier had accused me of ruining his business because he wasn’t getting enough press, marking the first time I had shed tears on the job. I’m not a crier, so this was humiliating to me. How could I let this man shake me? I knew I had worked hard and delivered, but sometimes the job is client therapy and I was the punching bag that day.

Back to 10pm. I was panicked, standing in the middle of a dance floor at a noisy bar already feeling defeated. How could I possibly pull this off? Even if this was breaking news (it wasn’t), who could I convince to write this story? I had to think fast. I called a friend who was at home and walked her through how to log into my media database (inaccessible on my BlackBerry) to look up the email address of a well-respected West Coast reporter with whom I’d worked on past stories. I sent him an email bulleting out all of the reasons why the story mattered to his readers, oh, and by the way, could he do me a favor and make it happen that night? I must’ve built up some good will with him because miraculously he agreed. Within 45 minutes, the story went live on one of the top tech websites with a headline I couldn’t have written better myself – and all of the impressive facts and figures my client insisted I have included. Success!

Or so I thought…

The next day I showed up to work only to find out he’d fired my agency. There was a stat in the story he didn’t like, despite having explicitly asked me to share it. I thought it was a bad joke when my boss told me. Fortunately, he was on my side having watched me take one too many verbal lashings from this person for far too long. Within a week, a box of chocolates from the same client thanking me for my “great work” appeared on my desk. My first thought was, “are they poisoned?” I couldn’t understand it, but it served as a much-needed wake-up call to not take my job personally. And in some ways it reaffirmed the need to always go above and beyond, regardless of the outcome. My boss knew I’d worked a miracle even if the client didn’t. And from that day forward, I was deemed the person who could “handle the difficult clients”… for better or worse.

PR and its metrics have evolved so much in the last ten years- how do you measure success for yourselves? Your clients?

Success for a client used to be a top-tier story placement, but now it can come in many forms: influencer engagement, a well-attended event or experience, an Instagram post. The PR landscape is evolving and what used to count for everything is now just a small piece of the pie. We’ve had to be more creative in our approach. We host more panel discussions, press trips, and intimate dinners and events for clients, convening both reporters and influencers. Our role now goes far beyond traditional PR and encompasses marketing too.

Talk to me about fashion- what do you love? Favorite designers?

I’ve never been a person who can rattle off the names of designers, but I’m very tactile and interested in how clothes are made and they story behind them. From a young age, my mom instilled a love of vintage in me and an appreciation for the history of a garment. One of my favorite spots for vintage jewelry is Pippin Vintage in Chelsea. I also pick up clothes when I travel. I love buying from local designers.

Anytime Erin or I need an outfit for a meeting or event, ANTHOM in Soho is our go-to. Ashley Turchin, who owns the shop, curates an incredible mix of designers. My latest obsession from there is a Henrik Vibskov floral embroidery drop waist dress that I’ve been wearing everywhere.

Where do you see yourselves/the company in the next 5-10 years?

Growing. We aren’t trying to be a massive agency, but we’d love to be a team of 20-25 smart, creative people who are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and continuing to work with the people who inspire us.

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