In the conference room at a Brooklyn shared work space called Williamsburg’s Secret Clubhouse, Small Girls PR sits around the table planning out the week ahead.
Mallory Blair, the company’s 24-year-old co-founder, runs through the prospective clients that have approached the agency: an iOS social app called Ketchup, a line of shoes called Portovelo and a new line of pants for petite girls called Lilipantian. “Which is awesome, because we’re small girls,” said Ms. Blair. (It didn’t pan out, though, according to Ms. Blair, because the fledgling company couldn’t afford her agency.)
Since its launch two and a half years ago, Small Girls has, among other things, organized an anti-SOPA party for Google at last year’s SXSW, promoted the opening of Brooklyn’s first Pinkberry outpost, and helped General Electric plan an innovators’ brunch at this year’s SXSW, where the company showed off a “Barista Bot,” a 3D printer of sorts that takes a picture of a human face and etches it into latte foam.
The pairing seems unlikely—the sixth-largest company in the U.S. and an adorbs startup—especially if you consider the Small Girls website, which calls to mind a bowl of Lucky Charms (pink bows! silver studs! red hearts!) more than, you know, Thomas Edison. What the Small Girls seem to have figured out is that few things are more compelling to a stodgy brand than a cloyingly cute one to front for them. (To paraphrase Edison: Branding is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent branding.)
Whereas public relations has traditionally functioned via an invisible hand, Small Girls leverages their bubbly-fun factor by putting themselves front and center in many of their clients’ campaigns. To promote an online retailer of prom dresses, Ms. Blair and Bianca Caampued, the company’s 28-year-old co-founder, dressed up as if for prom every day for 30 days. For HowAboutWe.com, the dating website, Ms. Caampued went on a live-streamed blind date while Ms. Blair offered live commentary. “The Internet has really shifted the way that people do business and how they talk about their lives and themselves,” said Ms. Caampued. “There’s a level of oversharing.”
Even when they’re behind the scenes, the Small Girls often manage to pop up for a cameo. As part of some campaigns, they send bloggers and journalists “care packages” containing promotional materials and a postcard starring illustrated versions of Ms. Blair and Ms. Caampued holding a terrified-looking anthropomorphized cupcake.
“Any client that we represent has to fit into the Small Girls story,” said Ms. Blair. They’ve turned down plastic surgeons, for example, and clothing lines that they would not deign to wear. “Something that we wouldn’t actually use ourselves is impossible for us to do,” said Ms. Blair. “If we’re going to promote a brand, it has to be something we feel passionate about.”
Small Girls, which has four full-time employees (and was hired by The Observer to publicize the Betabeat launch in 2011), bills itself as “a creative agency specializing in social interaction both online and off.”
Offline, the founders’ social calendar brims with parties and panels (including one recently at Harvard Business School). Ms. Blair counts 4Chan founder Christopher “Moot” Poole as a close personal friend. She wrote her senior thesis at NYU about Mr. Poole, and the two traveled to Europe together last summer.
“They seem to know everybody,” said Mark Mangan, chairman and co-founder of FlavorPill, which hired Small Girls to promote the relaunch of its site. While acknowledging that it is unusual for a PR agency to be so thoroughly branded, he said, “They seem like they’re having fun.”
That last point is hard to deny—they are fun! But since when does that matter so much? As brands creep like kudzu through our online social spaces, public relations people are never far away, with watering cans and Miracle-Gro in hand. Products of this milieu, the Small Girls have made the conscious decision not to hide their tools, but instead to festoon them with bows and paint them in pastel.
“Right off the bat, we knew that a huge portion of this was going to be about the two of us,” said Ms. Caampued, referring to the Small Girls enterprise as a whole.
It started three years ago, when Ms. Caampued first met Ms. Blair at her 21st birthday party. The two hit it off, dancing until long after everyone else had quit. Later, Ms. Caampued randomly discovered a picture of Ms. Blair—who had a small degree of celebrity thanks to on-screen gigs at Paper TV and mtvU—on her then-boyfriend’s Tumblr feed, and she decided to track her down.
They wanted to work together, but aside from a promotional YouTube video for Ms. Caampued’s employer, Cure Thrift Shop, they couldn’t figure out how else they might leverage their chemistry into something more salable. One night at about 3 a.m.,
Ms. Blair emailed her new girl-crush with the subject line “We are so dumb,” and the body, “Why don’t we start a PR company together?” Ms. Caampued wrote back: “LOL. I’m down. Small girls, big business.” And so, the company’s name and motto were hammered out before Day One—brand preceding business.
Ms. Caampued, who attended LIM in Midtown, worked in advertising for Lucky Magazine and did PR for Cure Thrift Shop. She brought the only concrete PR experience the company had to its 2010 launch.
The closest Ms. Blair had come was an internship, while she attended NYU, at WHY-Q, a Soho-based brand consulting firm with a roster of major brands as clients (starting with the As: Apple, Adidas, American Express, AT&T).
“She’s always been a great self-promoter,” said Teddy Liouliakis, a principal at the firm who speaks fondly of Ms. Blair and affectionately calls her “Big Mouth.” “That’s why PR is her calling—because she’s doing promotion for her clients now.”
Even with a handful of blue-chip clients, the agency’s youth comes through in a variety of ways. Blogging on the company Tumblr about their launch of Mr. Poole’s DrawQuest app, the Girls tout that they managed to pull off a “widespread” press embargo—a non-event of the highest order, akin to BP announcing when it has not spilled oil.
And while it isn’t exactly compelling blog content (the post only got seven notes), it is telling about the Small Girls approach to PR.
To them, this habitual information dump is a natural element of their business. “I’ll make a blog post about the reasons I wore this outfit [just like] we’ll make a blog post about the reasons why we decided to promote a company a certain way, you know?” said Ms. Caampued. Ms. Blair sees it as being true to their message: “If we’re telling our clients, ‘Create your brand voice and amplify it and live in that space,’ then we have to do that ourselves, too.”
According to their clients, it can work. “They’re great, and their enthusiasm is infectious,” says Natalie Ebel, marketing manager at Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. “They just go a great job of drawing a crowd in and giving everything a personal voice.”
Not everyone in the industry sees it that way. “Some of the best PR is stuff that doesn’t get written about,” says Steve Barrett, editor in chief of PRWeek. Mr. Barrett acknowledged that social media has changed what is expected of PR professionals, but said, “you don’t want the PR people becoming the story.”
Let us not speculate on why E! News’s Michael Yo was reading a listicle written by Julia Allison on Nerve.com called “The Ten Sexiest Web Geeks,” but according to the Small Girls, that is how he came to be in touch with them about making a reality show.
It started as a docu-series about the Small Girls office and morphed into something akin to The Simple Life meets Nick Kroll’s sketch PubLIZity. In Blair’s words, the concept was: “Let’s send you to, like, middle of nowhere America and have you flip over brands overnight. And it’s gonna be a new brand each episode.” Perhaps a farmer might need a better social media strat, for example.
The deal ultimately fell through, but Ms. Blair said they have been approached several different times with various reality concepts. “I don’t know if this happens to everyone or what the deal is, but I guess Bianca and I are in that age-appropriate demo,” she said. Both now agree that a show would only be viable if it didn’t interfere with expanding their business, but that wasn’t the case just 18 months ago when they were first approached by Yo. “A year and a halfago, that would have been on the top of our list,” said Ms. Caampued.
And so the brand, which preceded the business, must finally submit to it. For the time being, anyway.
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