Inside Track: Flying solo was right decision for McLoughlin’s PR firm
Work on nonprofit boards led Mary McLoughlin to expand her marketing and communications capabilities to include fundraising.
This year, Mary McLoughlin is celebrating the 20th anniversary of her firm, McLoughlin Communications and Public Relations, which she opened in 1993.
The celebration is especially warranted given that, in a market with several larger full-service firms, it hasn’t always been easy to compete.
“There is no question that I’ve lost clients and projects to larger agencies, but where I’ve been successful has been with the scope and quality of my work and the depth of my experience, and the fact that I can provide, I believe, greater value.”
Before starting her firm, McLoughlin gained extensive experience, first in-house with a medical research organization in Ann Arbor and then as the director of communications for an accounting firm in Detroit.
Her big break came when she was hired as the corporate director of marketing and public relations for Detroit-Macomb Hospital Corp., which owned and operated several hospitals and physician practices in and around Detroit.
“They were in the process of closing three of their Detroit hospitals and building a replacement hospital right on Jefferson Avenue, about a mile east of the Renaissance Center,” McLoughlin said. “It was an extremely busy and exciting four years, and I learned an incredible amount.”
McLoughlin went on to gain additional experience doing agency work in marketing and advertising firms.
Then she and her husband decided to leave Detroit for West Michigan, increasing their proximity to their favorite Michigan destinations.
“We had two very young daughters and we decided that if we were ever going to move from the Detroit area, that would be a good time — before they had actually started school.”
During her first five years in the Grand Rapids community, McLoughlin developed a strong track record with clients and became an active member of the community through her involvement with the Grand Rapids Art Museum and YWCA, serving as president of both organizations’ boards at one point.
Wanting to have more control and flexibility in her career and her personal life, and having built up a strong professional network and reputation, McLoughlin felt she had a solid enough foundation to begin her own firm.
“I was able to make a lot of connections in five years and because I did agency work during that time, I also had a group of clients who knew me and considered my work valuable,” she said. “Within less than six weeks after I left the advertising agency, I had a signed contract with Butterworth Hospital and that put me on great footing. Then there was another client, health care related, that I was able to sign.”
Those two clients provided her enough work to keep going, and her breadth of health care experience and overall communications knowledge — advertising, marketing and public relations — helped her provide the expertise clients needed.
“Because I had a particular expertise in health care, I was able to get a lot of work with health care organizations throughout West Michigan,” she explained. “As a result of that, I’ve worked with virtually every single hospital in West Michigan. In addition to that, I’ve worked with major insurers, too.”
“As long as the work is getting done, clients don’t care if I’m up at 4 a.m. working, so I can leave for a board meeting at 2 in the afternoon,” she said.
Involvement in community and professional groups has been important to McLoughlin since starting her career.
“I was very serious about my career so it just made sense to me to join professional organizations where I could become involved in professional development, board work and networking,” she explained. “Then a colleague of mine was on the board of the Detroit Institute of Arts and he suggested that I get involved, which I did.
“Then, when our family moved to Grand Rapids, a client of mine asked if I would do some work for the Grand Rapids Art Museum — to write a marketing plan for them, actually. I was very excited about the opportunity and agreed. Soon after that I was asked to join the board. It was also at that time that I began volunteering at the YWCA, and soon they, too, asked if I would join their board, which I did.”
Her involvement with nonprofit boards has caused her to expand the services she offers to include fundraising.
“Because I had worked so long with nonprofit organizations on a volunteer basis, specifically the GRAM and YWCA of Western and Central Michigan, I was asked to get involved with all their fundraising. I did it as a volunteer, but I loved it. I really enjoyed it. Most people don’t but I really did. I was so passionate about their mission and what they did and what great value they provided to the community that I was very happy to talk to people about that and to ask people if they would like to support it.”
When one of McLoughlin’s clients was seeking fundraising help and the firm it was about to hire dropped out, the client asked her to take on the job.
She has now been offering fundraising services for more than 10 years.
“What I have found is that most people are flattered to be asked for money. They are. Most people do donate to organizations that they feel strongly about. … I think once you have matched a particular donor to an organization that they feel connected to, you’ve done a good thing. You’ve done a good thing for the organization as well as the donor.”
It’s not surprising that in the 20 years of owning her own firm, McLoughlin said the biggest change she has seen is the introduction of social media.
“That is huge. It opens up a whole new avenue and way to promote clients and influence audiences and to educate people about services and your products.”
Additionally, she said outsourcing needs for businesses have changed.
“When I worked at the Williams Group, their big client was Steelcase,” she explained. “So everyone who worked at Williams Group, even if Steelcase wasn’t their sole focus, it was a huge client and all of us at some point or another worked with them.
“Steelcase has downsized quite a bit since then, and I use them as an example, but it’s certainly not the only example. Major corporations throughout West Michigan have changed the way they do business, and lots of organizations are bringing some of the things that they would farm out to agencies in-house. They are not as willing to hire out for everything.”
That’s one of the reasons McLoughlin thinks her firm is well positioned to compete with larger agencies.
“I can staff up and I do. I have had large projects where I’ve had to hire as many as eight to 10 people to help see me through. … I’ve made strong connections with a number of people who have the skill sets that I need and I bring them in.”
McLoughlin said while some of her friends are looking at retirement, she doesn’t see that in her near future.
“I love the diversity of my work … and it is something that keeps every day fresh and challenging.”