Bryan Scanlon is the founder and principal of Look Left Marketing. Over the decades, he's helped hundreds of tech companies launch (he wrote Red Hat's first press release) and grow. Here's a peek into how he helps startups build a meaningful presence in the market and where he thinks tech PR's headed.
Just the other day we were discussing how you joined the tech PR industry in 1994—which means you’re coming up on nearly 30 years of experience in the Tech PR industry. What made you want to get into it in the first place?
Like Nick Offerman says in his most recent book, “Well, because, money.” I love to write, but getting a creative writing Ph.D. probably wouldn’t have paid the bills. I really wanted to be a journalist, but the full-time offers I got wouldn’t even pay my student loans, let alone the rent. Because I could write, I ended up in technology PR at an agency run by a former journalist and gifted writer.
On a less practical note, I’m a sucker for a good story. Books. Comics. Chatty cab drivers in Ireland. All of it. I’ve always loved the writing and storytelling aspect of PR. Technology PR is storytelling in a practical sense. How do you say something interesting, help people solve problems and explain technical concepts with a dash of cleverness?
You often tell stories about working with Red Hat and PayPal — two companies that exploded exponentially over the years. What can early-stage startups today learn from those companies that were launching in the earliest years of the internet?
Red Hat was about the race to market leadership, where out-marketing actually was a huge competitive advantage. There were many Linux distributions, but Red Hat raced faster than any of them. The company had a really interesting story and executed better on the fundamentals. It believed the story could be the differentiator, and that proved to be the case.
PayPal was the market leader when I worked with it, and it was being attacked from all sides because it was viewed as “old.” It was really fun to be on the other side and defend and outpace startups with a story woven from so much success and determination to stay true to its values and promises (at a time in Silicon Valley when many promised, but almost no one delivered). In a sense, PayPal had to become like a startup again.
What drove you to start your own boutique PR firm?
I love what I do, but I didn’t always love doing it for someone else. I have worked at terrific places — and I’d trade none of that experience. But my creative side wanted a story that was mine from the start. The funny thing now is the story isn’t really about me — it’s about all these amazing superheroes at Look Left and our cool (nerd alert) clients. The story has gotten so much bigger and more interesting than I ever dreamed.
Looking back at over seven years of Look Left, compare the experience to your initial expectations.
In creating something new, the temptation is to label everything that’s old as bad (see the PayPal lesson above). But the truth is that all that experience has so much value, and there were many times I reached into the metaphorical garbage can and flattened out that old crumpled paper.
One of the most common compliments clients share about Look Left is that the employees really “get” what the clients do. Why do you think, even as Look Left grows, that the culture of connecting with clients as true partners has permeated through each employee?
Our people are curious. It’s one of the most important characteristics we look for. Every employee is going to have (or develop) their own superpowers, but we all have to be curious about our clients’ business, technology — and, most importantly, about the problems they solve. That curiosity lets us get beyond “what” we’re doing and to “why” it matters, which changes the perspective and opens up all kinds of possibilities to help our clients achieve their goals.
Over the last 20-30 years, PR and marketing have undergone continuous iterations to keep pace with trends and new technologies. Other than the very recent AI boom, what has been the biggest change you have seen in the industry?
Digital optimization is by far the most critical. I can write really clever stuff. But you know what? If Google doesn’t see it, then the world never reads it — all that smarty-pants creativity is wasted. We call this Story Mechanics™, and it’s the balance of the art and science of storytelling. To tell compelling and persuasive stories, you have to look through four lenses at every problem: the market (opportunity), the buyers (business problem to solve), the builders (how people engage and use the tech) and the bots. And you need to get people in order to tell them a great story. You don’t automatically get that opportunity just on the strength of the story alone — and if you do succeed on bringing someone in, you’d better make that journey worth it.
How has your day-to-day changed as Look Left has grown?
Well, I’m certainly doing less client work and more work on the business. But I’ve set some hard rules: I spend 50% of my time with clients, no matter what, because I love the clients more than operations. That’s the fun stuff!
When looking for prospective clients, how do you determine whether Look Left will be a good fit for them and vice versa?
If a potential client says the word “vendor” to describe the relationship they’re looking for, then we’re likely a bad chemistry match. To succeed together, we have to be partners. You have to let us in, so we can be a real extension of your team. I think that’s why we have clients in their fifth year with us — it’s because the relationships we create are different from what the competition offers.
Look Left started out as a PR firm with strong writing skills, then grew its content arm, and eventually branched out into full-on digital marketing. What do you see as the next leap for the agency?
It’s all about balancing the art (storytelling) and science (digital optimization) of what we do. Not all companies need the same things in the same ratios. The question is: How do you take the resources available and build a recipe (program) with the most impact?
AI is the here and now, but what do you see as the next big change in PR and marketing?
Journalism and marketing are going to face a crisis and eventually emerge from it into an age of authenticity. We’re flooded with more and more automated crap, but the real stories, the real reporting, the real useful stuff, will be even more meaningful. But that real stuff will be harder, for a time, to find and validate — and that’s where the authentic people (storytellers) paired with the great optimizers will shine.