Alan Kelly, agency founder and industry iconoclast

Alan Kelly, who died last week at the age of 64, was one of the PR industry’s true iconoclasts, an out-of-the-box thinker and frequent critic of what he saw as hypocrisy or naivety in the profession.

After working at legendary tech PR pioneer Jennings & Company in the 1980s, Alan Kelly founded his own company, Applied Communications, in 1991 and grew it into one of the largest and most respected agencies in the world. Silicon Valley.

Applied grew into a 120-person company with offices in San Francisco and Amsterdam during the height of the dot-com boom, though most of its customers were software, hardware, and enterprise networking companies, including Oracle, HP, Cisco, Genentech, PayPal, Veritas and Informatica. It was also one of the first PR agencies to recognize the critical importance of data and analytics and to create its own research division.

In 2003, Kelly sold Applied to Next Fifteen, parent company of rival tech PR brands such as Text 100 and Bite Communications, and embarked on a second life as an educator and consultant. He created a new company, Playmaker Systems, which developed a typology of “games” that communicators could “race” to outwit their competitors – a strategic guide for those who, like him, saw communication as a competitive sport. In doing so, he challenged practitioners to think differently and more strategically about what they were doing.

He wrote a book, “The Elements of Influence: The New Essential System for Managing Competition, Reputation, Brand, and Buzz”, he became a blogger for the Huffington Post, and later a commentator and political analyst for SiriusXM. He was an adjunct professor at the Annenberg School at USC and the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, then a lecturer in strategic communications at the University of Maryland, making him one of the few public relations practitioners to bridge the gap between practice and academia.

He was also a frequent critic of professional organizations such as the Arthur W Page Society, questioning the emphasis on mutually beneficial relationships between stakeholders as an attempt to downplay the sometimes cutthroat competitive activity of world public relations. real world characterized by pieces that “put down” rivals as often as they protected or enhanced the client’s own reputation. I often found myself on the opposite side of these arguments, but while Alan was never afraid to criticize ideas he disagreed with, he was never uncivil, and the result was a vigorous debate that challenged conventional industry wisdom.

And when public relations professionals began exposing the waves of misinformation being perpetrated on our political system, he was quick to point out the role of the public relations profession in spreading misinformation into the mainstream. His last correspondence with me came after an article I wrote on Russian disinformation, urging me not to ignore the historical role of public relations professionals in creating a climate of skepticism and doubt.

“The world of business and political communications lost a true trailblazer last week,” said Tim Marklein, founder and CEO of Big Valley Marketing, and Professor Annenberg Burghardt Tenderich, who worked alongside Kelly at Applied Communications. “And many of us have lost a valuable mentor and friend.

“Kelly was part of a group of Silicon Valley marketing and communications pioneers who helped grow the technology industry, advocating new innovations and helping companies use communications to drive demand, create brands, creating categories and defining new markets. Kelly did not view communications as mere words and ideas shared in verbal or written form. On the contrary, he approached it as an elementary science where every action elicits a reaction among players in a market, often leading to very real business or organizational results.

Lou Hoffman, Founder and CEO of The Hoffman Agency, added, “I got to know Alan as a competitor in the 1990s and early 2000s when he was building Applied Communications into a powerhouse. who was walking towards his own drummer. At one point, I considered Alan the smartest person I’ve ever met in the PR industry. My view on this has never changed.

A Gathering Us page created by Marklein, Tenderich and former colleagues Shannon Mollner O’Neill and Christine Kerst featured numerous posts from former Applied employees paying tribute to Kelly’s leadership and stewardship.

“Alan was also a master talent scout,” Marklein recalls, “recruiting waves of people from different walks of life to manage the high-energy technological battles of the time. He ingrained ‘competitive communication’ in all of us, and we have developed and practiced it religiously through every action, every press release, every media pitch, every analyst briefing and every client interaction.”

Josh Reynolds, who worked at Applied before taking on leadership roles at Hill+Knowlton and Blanc & Otus, adds, “Working for him at Applied was like a wake-up call, like being shown The Matrix and all the strategic possibilities rhetoric and communications. Applied was more than an agency, it was an innovation and talent incubator.

Kelly was a devoted family man and is survived by his wife Kim and children Katie and Leo. He was also an avid sailor on both coasts and continued to outfit other boats after recently selling his.

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