As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Roger Darnell.
Roger is an author, communications consultant, publisher, and speaker. Already central to billions of positive media impressions worldwide through his work with The Darnell Works Agency, his ambitious collaborations with entrepreneurs and media luminaries continue soaring to new heights.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My mother, Lila Ridings-Darnell, was a very gifted writer. Over the course of her life, she used words lovingly and artfully, to connect with everyone throughout our extended family, and many others she formed bonds with, added to her address book, and surprised with beautiful letters and cards on special occasions. To me, her poetry was as touching and profound as anything I read from Dr. Seuss or heard people singing on the radio. With her encouragement, I grew up confident that writing would be a big part of my future.
With that inspiration, I pursued the writing craft diligently, and wound up establishing myself as a creative freelancer in my early 20s, while also working my way into the film and television production industry.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Following a huge career break where I worked on an epic HBO production, my wife and I relocated to LA, and I started networking and pursuing possibilities. Despite having a lot of connections and experience, within six months, I desperately needed a job. In other words, I just didn’t know how to use my experience to set myself up to operate independently to make a decent wage.
My first stroke of good luck in LA came when I was hired by an ambitious post-production company in Hollywood. That allowed me to leverage my previous writing experience, but also add the essential component of media-relations. A year later, I landed as an Account Manager for Michael Terpin’s high-tech PR firm The Terpin Group, which operated offices in Marina del Rey, San Francisco, and New York. Two years after landing that first LA job, I left The Terpin Group to start The Darnell Works Agency, and have been working with creative-industry All Stars ever since. After a very successful first year in LA, we relocated to the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. I’m very happy to say that this career trajectory has taken me well beyond my wildest dreams.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
For the early part of my life, I aspired to emulate many writers — for some reason, I failed to recognize that most of them were dead and gone. Nonetheless, I did my best to write poetry and a few short stories that were innovative and fresh… and sent them off professionally, with high hopes that my talents would be recognized, and my star would rise among the literary avant-garde. While these efforts seemed mostly fruitless, I did score a few redeeming publications. Notably, I had much more success with my nonfiction and trade journalism work.
Here’s the part that’s funny about all of this, to me: All that work I did to research contacts at various publications and do diligence in submissions paved the way for me to be successful pitching stories to editors and journalists.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I had the massive advantage of coming out of The Terpin Group, a very successful PR firm that was supremely well-positioned, and internationally recognized in high-tech business. Also, I knew of some other colleagues working in the PR field where their specializations did not afford the same opportunities for premium pricing.
For The Darnell Works Agency, I carried over the passionate approach to excellence in communications that was The Terpin Group’s hallmark. Distinguishing myself meant going more in the direction of client companies working in the film, television, and creative industries … but also, committing to being extra dynamic, with the ability to turn on a dime, if that’s what my clients needed.
More succinctly, my vision was serving the PR communications needs of executives in the creative and high-tech industries, and my purpose was giving them extraordinary service that was committed to being agile.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
A lot. First, I used the tagline of “Dynamic Public Relations” for 20 years in my brand materials and positioning… and only transitioned to “Strategic Public Relations” during the pandemic, as a means for emphasizing the agency’s strategic focus and expertise. Meanwhile, DWA’s mission of being extraordinary on behalf of its clients is well known to both internal and external contacts, and that is the service standard all know to expect.
This commitment to sterling customer experiences is also reflected in the agency’s own storytelling, where the achievements and accolades of our clients represent DWA’s track record, and we are always either gearing up for or participating in the next big event.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
To me, the commitment to extraordinary customer service has absolutely guided me through ups and downs over the past 21 years of operating The Darnell Works Agency. It has helped me focus on determining what that means, and what it doesn’t mean … and given me the confidence to navigate accordingly.
One component of this analysis has to do with how problems are dealt with when they arise. Not every client is always going to be a perfect fit, and while I have learned to seize the day and make new friends whenever new business opportunities arise, positioning myself to provide extraordinary service means not over-crowding my plate. Especially when a situation is keeping me up at night or proving to be very difficult to manage, my system allows me to maximize my efforts around those things that are working.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Thanks to some amazing people in my life — especially philanthropist, education and arts activist, and rainmaker Lisa Cleff-Kurtz — those early days of DWA in LA were full throttle and 100% awesome. The more challenging times came when we moved to North Carolina, and I was in a new time zone compared with much of my network. Our relocation also coincided with starting a family, and although we were celebrating a lot of joy and excitement in our personal lives, 2001’s challenges also included a recession.
Thanks to both of my parents, I have always had a strong work ethic, and with our growing family, I knew that if I wanted my business to be successful, I had to pour everything into it. So, I made regular trips back to California, attended industry events up and down the East Coast, and bent over backwards for my clients. By persevering, I secured new clients in LA, San Francisco, and New York, and in their service, my reputation for excellence expanded.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
As the owner of The Darnell Works Agency, I feel like I have been successful since day one — in a career that I never imagined for myself. This legacy owes a lot to everyone mentioned in this interview, and many others.
Living in a couple of big sports towns, I have seen what it’s like to have your local team win a championship: Suddenly, every fan feels like a champion. That’s how I felt when I was at The Terpin Group, and ever since then.
Having clients that appreciate my dedication to extraordinary customer service is quite a blessing, and I feel very lucky to have connected with the executives behind more than 50 companies — especially those who are still my partners. There is also an amazing community of creative people all around the world that I feel very close to, and draw inspiration from every day.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
Thanks to Lisa Cleff-Kurtz, I connected with global creative agency ATTIK back in 2000 and wound up working with them for over 12 years. They were experts in brands, branding, and brand marketing — and that education taught me to appreciate the deep powers of this discipline, in experts’ hands. Given this knowledge, for anyone wanting to create a very successful business, I encourage them to learn the importance of brand development, and apply that in distilling their distinct personal brand. That leads to suggestion number two: Once you know what it takes to create a personal brand, apply that approach and build a strong business brand.
The third component may also require considerable diligence. To have every opportunity to attract customers and earn their trust, leaders must build and fortify their reputations.
Fourth — what is it that qualifies you to operate in your niche of business? Whatever type of credentials, case studies, or portfolios will prove to customers you have what it takes to earn their money, build that mastery, and keep on improving it and using it to engage.
Finally, regardless of where your company is in its life cycle, the dedication to professional communications — attuned to the needs of all the right target audiences — is a standard requirement for success.
- Build your personal brand.
- Build your business brand.
- Fortify your reputation.
- Build your expertise as necessary to qualify your offerings.
- Dedicate yourself to proactive professional communications.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Fresh out of college, I was very lucky to earn apprenticeships with two stellar leaders in Central Florida’s film and television industry. First, as the owner of his own digital production company, Randy Baker had extensive experience and was actively working on one project after another at the time when I started freelancing. Simultaneously, Pamela Tuscany was VP of Sales for Century III, the tele-production and post-production venture that made its home at Universal Studios Florida. Working freelance with Randy on productions and exploring original project ideas together — and writing momentous press releases under Pamela’s direction — I learned how freelance opportunities could be shaped into a career, and saw how strategic storytelling and PR could be used as shrewd marketing tactics for an enterprising business.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
You will gather that I pretty much “found my way” in business, based on perseverance, determination, and some good fortune. If we had met in high school, I could not have told you I wanted to be an independent communications consultant, because I had no sense of it being a viable career. Going back a few years, it became important to me to illuminate this career field to others, and to share the secrets of my profession, in the hope of helping others launch their dream careers. My book “The Communications Consultant’s Foundation” is just out, thanks to Taylor & Francis/Routledge, and based on early feedback, it is already making an impact for a growing “movement” of people.
By year’s end, the companion volume “The Communications Consultant’s Master Plan” will drop. That edition gives readers all the rest of my professional insights and knowledge, plus proposals, pitch letters, and client reports that feature original intellectual property building on everything I learned at The Terpin Group, and ever since.
Again, my hopes are to pay everything forward, inspire people, and provide the leg-up needed to those wanting to work remotely, independently, and meaningfully, from anywhere they choose.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I am ‘rkdarnell’ on Twitter and Instagram, and you can find me and register for VIP email updates at rkdarnell.com.