9/30 Agency Tour – McGarrah Jessee

By: Tiffany Lin

McGarrah Jessee is on the corner of 6th and Colorado (photo: McKinney York Architects).
McGarrah Jessee is on the corner of Sixth and Colorado (photo: McKinney York Architects).

Best known for its work with Frost, Shiner Bock and Whataburger, McGarrah Jessee is a local full service ad agency founded in 1996. Their cozy yet spacious workplace is made to house no more than 150 people, which they believe is large enough to efficiently operate while still being able to interpersonally communicate with each other. Our guides, Marketing Director Heather Snow and HR Manager Jennifer Blank, explained that the agency favors face-to-face interactions versus emailing each other, which would be preferred in larger agencies. “When we do our best, we do it together,” said Snow. And when an agency gets too big, communication tends to suffer.

A view of the escalators, lobby and mural (photo: Lost Laurel).
A view of the escalators, lobby and mural (photo: Lost Laurel).

Originally built for the American National Bank in 1954, the agency’s five-story building has a lot of history behind it, including Austin’s first escalator and a three ton mural by Seymour Fogel, which is the centerpiece of the lobby. The building has even been featured in Architect magazine for its restoration. Located upstairs is Chicago-based media agency, Kelly Scott Madison. The KSM office performs the media buying aspect of the PR business, allowing McJ to focus on the media planning. The rooftop of the McJ Building has chairs on an island of artificial grass, a mini helicopter, and a beautiful view of downtown Austin, making it the perfect setting for hosting the agency’s monthly happy hour.

McJ's rooftop (photo: Michelle Hill).
McJ’s rooftop (photo: Michelle Hill).

As the tour winded down, we met with Eric Webber, the public relations and social media director. Webber mentioned that some of the greatest challenges of PR are the misconceptions of the field such as how PR doesn’t cost money – which leads to budgeting and control issues. Unlike paid media, PR associates have to work smarter, not costlier. To be at the right spot at the right time is difficult; after all, what is a great story if there is no one to tell it to? PR isn’t just about the great story though; it is also about the storytelling.

McGarrah Jessee treats social media as a creative outlet – similar to a print ad. What is exposed out on social media stays indefinitely in an Internet database. Webber favors the immediacy of social media because of how quickly one can respond to a complaint and how it directly connects the company to its public. However, he advises against spending too much time on social media because it’s easy to be consumed by it. In terms of damage control, it is important to “man up” and take responsibility. Sometimes, all a company can do is listen, and acknowledge and take responsibility.

Webber says that PR is great for people who have short attention spans because this job can sometimes quickly shifts from one client to another. It’s also a research-heavy industry with plenty of planning and strategy; there are always surveys to be performed and critical thinking on what the brand is all about. It is important to put yourself in the client’s shoes and think about what the client wants and what success looks like to them. Focus on an ultimate goal and leap towards it. Important questions to also ask yourself are: how much leeway is the company giving me and are there specific guidelines to look at? Taking from his experience with Red Cross, Webber recommends working with pro bono clients because it allows you to “do good” and enjoy doing it.

One of Webber’s favorite clients has been Shiner Bock, whose infamous Shiner-Heineken ACL clash has been a writing topic of many UT advertising and PR students. Shiner had mischievously one-upped Heineken, a prominent ACL sponsor, by handing out Shiner Bock printed coozies to ACL attendees, who then used them to keep their Heineken beer cold, so it looked like everyone with a coozie was drinking Shiner. After this promotion, Shiner’s trust for McJ strengthened and McJ started participating in product packaging, publicity, events, and social media.

McGarrah Jessee is an agency that is proud of its diverse and creative staff, whose dedication has allowed the agency to mature and grow. Their offices, each decorated a little differently, paint an atmosphere where ideas and interaction are always welcome, and it is the teams’ experience and resourcefulness that has propelled McJ into the PR spotlight.

The Sixth Street entrance of McJ (photo: AKA Builders).
The Sixth Street entrance of McJ (photo: AKA Builders).