Good Promotions

Peg Devlyn and Pat Heffernan of Marketing Partners in Burlington help firms make social responsibility profitable.

by Mark Pendergrast

Photos: Jeff Clarke

Too much lip balm. That was Kevin Harper's problem in 1994.

As the founder/CEO of Autumn Harp, nHarper had already established himself as the "chap stick king" of the natural foods industry. In 1992, he had hired Marketing Partners, a new Burlington firm headed by Peg Devlyn and Pat Heffernan, to launch the business as a more mainstream entry. They advised him to name it "Un-Petroleum," to take advantage of its main difference from oil-based competitors. They had garnered tons of free publicity through press releases to consumer publications, women's magazines and food editors around the country, resulting in a flood of articles on winter skin care and the like.

Peg Devlyn & Pat Heffernan

Peg Devlyn (right) and Pat Heffernan of Marketing Partners in Burlington focus on clients who see beyond the bottom line. "They want to be financially successful," explains Devlyn, "but they also want to leave something else of value behind."

In 1994, someone at the Bristol Autumn Harp factory had goofed, making a huge batch of lip balm missing a tiny amount of one ingredient. The product was still effective, just not quite as advertised. Harper went to Marketing Partners with his quandary. He didn't want to sell it at discount and undermine his dealers. He didn't want to dump it, either. Could they figure out some way to give the stuff away and generate publicity?

It happened that 1994 was a severe winter, with 17 snowstorms in a row. "The road crews were exhausted," Devlyn recalls. "Everyone was snow-weary. So we came up with the Winter Heroes campaign." They sent packages of the lip balm to mayors' and governors' offices throughout the Northeast, encouraging them to give the soothing salve to their road crews while designating them "Winter Heroes." It worked. They got rid of all the lip balm and received a bunch of thank-you letters. When the Boston mayor held a news conference to recognize his road crews, specifically thanking Autumn Harp for its contributions, the company became front-page news in the Boston papers.

That's the kind of success story that makes Marketing Partners unique. "Their clever use of resources paid off over and over again," Harper recalls. "For instance, Peg and Pat somehow got the attention of the editor of Good Housekeeping, which has laboratories to test products. I was invited down, told our story, gave them some products, and they reviewed them along with several other brands. About half of the recommended products were brands we made. It cost us nothing, and we got a good color spread and the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."

Autumn Harp was Marketing Partners' first client in 1992, when it opened in Devlyn's Colchester living room. Since then, they have served an interesting array of clients, ranging from the Vermont Department of Health to N.E.O.S. Inc. What most of their clients have in common is a commitment to social values, a clean environment, and a need to use their limited marketing funds wisely.

By the time Devlyn and Heffernan, now 57 and 53 respectively, launched their firm seven years ago, they had extensive combined experience that made them ideal partners in such a venture. Both grew up as eldest children who learned responsibility early on. "I lost my parents very young," Devlyn recalls of her Philadelphia childhood. She moved to Vermont in 1969, in search of a better place to raise her four children. Her husband worked for IBM. "I began to write for The Burlington Free Press as a freelancer, then began to write about health issues and eventually got a degree in health education." By that time, Devlyn was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. "As a child, I had wanted to be a doctor, and then as a patient I was frustrated. Thirty years ago, people were not into empowering patients to improve their own health and situation, and I always wanted to get things into my own hands, to find better ways to do things."

Because of her work for the American Lung Association and other health freelancing, Devlyn began to do staff work for the Clean Air Coalition of Vermont, then, when that organization convinced veteran Sen. Robert Stafford not to retire, she worked for him from 1982 to 1986, when he finally did retire. After that, she joined the now-defunct Sandage Advertising and Marketing in 1987, where she met her future business partner.

Heffernan's father worked for a major oil company, and she grew up in various places -- New York City, England, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia. Her summers in Vermont at the family camp near Lake Bomoseen (no running water or indoor plumbing) felt most like home. "There was never a question in my mind that I would live in Vermont."

She moved to the family camp, then into a bunk at the Killington Ski Area, where she ran a nightclub from 1968 until 1972 and met her future husband. Then she worked at the Woodstock Country School, a progressive institution with an emphasis on outdoor education. "We fished and walked and spent a lot of time outdoors. It was restorative and calming to me. I really believe in 'biophilia,' an innate human response to certain landscapes." Like Devlyn, Heffernan had chronic health problems: epileptic seizures now managed through medication.

In 1974, Heffernan was hired by Vermont Law School at its inception as associate dean. She helped focus the infant institution on environmental law and by the time she left in 1983, it had grown from 80 to 450 students and was fully accredited. With skills partly obtained through an MBA from Suffolk University, Heffernan started a consulting firm a year before she left, specializing in research and marketing for law firms, medical schools, and museums. After spending four nights a week outside the state for a year, she longed for more Vermont work as well as colleagues with whom she could share challenges and laughter. In 1987, she merged with Sandage Advertising, where she found one colleague -- Devlyn -- with whom she shared not only a lot of laughs, but many values.

Staff

Marketing Partners employs six people and brings creative personnel aboard when needed. From left: Norma Wagner, Kathleen O'Dell-Thompson and Mike O'Farrell.

At Sandage, the two worked together to tell the stories of Jogbra, Breadloaf Construction, and the New England Organ Bank, among others. They were among the founding members of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) in 1990. Over time, they began to dream of their own firm. "We had paid our dues," Devlyn recalls. "Our children were mostly on their own, and we wanted control of our own business, with a focus on businesses that believe, as we do, in a dual bottom line. By that, I mean that they want to be financially successful, but they also want to leave something else of value behind."

Many of their clients have come to them as fellow members of VBSR. Early on, their commitment to values-based businesses paid off. In September 1992, as the fledgling firm was moving out of Devlyn's living room and into the Maltex Building on Pine Street, they arranged for a client to be filmed for a Vermont ETV segment on socially responsible businesses. "While we were there," Devlyn recalls, "the director decided to feature us, too." They had no furniture in their brand-new offices, so they rushed to a near-by used furniture store. The manager agreed to an emergency loan and his workers brought over an impressive oak conference table, with chairs. Afterward, the store gave them a great price on it to avoid lugging it out again, and two years later Marketing Partners took it along with a growing staff to its current Battery Street location.

The marketing company's combination of savvy public relations and commitment to community ideals is exemplified by its work for Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. of Websterville. "Peg was intrigued with our story," owner Allison Hooper says, "because it was so real, not contrived. She and Pat helped us prioritize how to market ourselves, which is like eating an elephant one bite at a time." First, they suggested the firm compete for Vermont Small Business of the Year. After the cheese company won that honor, Marketing Partners suggested that, rather than merely throwing a smug party of self-congratulation, that Hooper's firm throw a party for the entire industry. The result was so gratifying that it formed the nucleus of a new trade organization, the Vermont Cheese Council. "Peg emphasizes that it's best not to think about how to get more market share," Hooper explains, "but how to make the pie bigger."

Marketing Partners has also done a good deal of work for the Vermont Department of Health, beginning with the Ladies First campaign, to encourage older women to get free breast cancer screening. Thanks primarily to Heffernan's research, they determined the best way to reach the target audience was with posters in public rest rooms. It worked. Later, for the Vermont Families Talk campaign, Heffernan conducted focus groups around the state with parents of 10- to 13-year-olds to identify the barriers to communication with their children. She discovered that while parents were usually comfortable talking about the perils of drinking and driving, they weren't good at talking about sex and its clear link to drug and alcohol use. In a series of ads, the firm targeted that issue.

At any given time, Marketing Partners has approximately 15 clients, a mix of traditional Vermont firms such as Maple Landmark and Concept II, non- profit organizations such as Annenburg Rural Challenge and the Peace & Justice Center, and Vermont agencies, including the Departments of Health, Social Welfare, and Taxes, among others. Contracts range from $10,000 to $300,000 in annual fees. Devlyn and Heffernan have intentionally kept their firm small. They will take on any project, but they hire creative people such as photographers or video producers as needed. "We're big enough to do whatever people want an agency to do," Devlyn emphasizes.

Their six full- and part-time employees range in age from 23 to 73, including Dave Bowers, production and traffic; Kathleen O'Dell-Thompson and Mike O'Farrell, public relations; Mike Rapoport, marketing associate; Norma Wagner, project assistant; and Gaylea White, marketing and media analyst. Their interests and talents are wide-ranging. The youngest, Rapoport, is a sky diver and skier. Wagner, the oldest, was a dairy farmer for more than five decades as well as a medical secretary and is now a freelance writer. Devlyn called her after reading an article Wagner wrote for The Burlington Free Press about moving to the city and looking for a part-time job. "She had the right attitude for us, and she's been a wonderful addition to the team. Plus, we get her stories at lunch-time." For her part, Wagner absolutely loves working at Marketing Partners. "I feel like Cinderella," she says.

Staff

Many clients have come to Marketing Partners as fellow members of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, which Peg Devlyn and Pat Heffernan helped found in 1990. From left: employees Gaylea White, Mike Rapoport and Dave Bowers.

The firm's name has a double meaning. Devlyn and Heffernan were the original partners, and after eight years in business together, they are still truly friends. The second meaning implies that the firm tries to be a true partner to clients. "We don't say, 'Just hire us, and let us geniuses go off and do it,'" Devlyn explains. "We're collaborative. We like finding consensus. At the same time, though, we're not order-takers, and we do take the lead on research and creative aspects."

Their clients certainly appear to be well satisfied. "We have gotten fantastic results through them," Harper says. "Both Pat and Peg are bright, sincere, genuine, and consummate professionals." While they both work on every project, Heffernan focuses on research, while Devlyn, who still thinks of herself primarily as a writer, does most of the writing and public relations. "Peg is a great thinker," Harper observes. "While we tend to complicate things, she gets to the heart of the matter and is a great copy writer." Nancy Erickson of the Vermont Department of Health is particularly impressed with Heffernan's research and communication skills. Glenn McCrae, the first executive director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, and a client, simply says, "I'm constantly amazed by both of them. They have always said that you can do business with a conscience. And they never approach a project as a pro forma matter. They really struggle with it and truly listen to clients and get to know their businesses and needs intimately."

Hooper of Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. concurs. "I like the idea of working with a like-minded company. I never have to defend my core values to them." She adds that it isn't easy to work with company owners. "We're fairly strong-willed and have lots of our own creative ideas that may not be too focused. Peg and Pat have a nice way of dealing with that. I can just be myself with them." Judy Geer of Concept II, a Morrisville rowing equipment/exercise company, interviewed several marketing firms before choosing Marketing Partners. "I like their socially responsible attitude. It's nice to work with people you know aren't pressuring you to do things that don't fit your beliefs."

Nowadays, many more people know Devlyn's beliefs, since she is a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio. "I always talked back to the news," she says, "so when Steve Young at VPR asked if I had something I wanted to talk about, I took it as a challenge." She's offered her nuanced opinion on everything from special education, health issues, and Ritalin overuse to the tax cut bill and the Iowa straw poll. "I might alienate some people with strong views," she says, "but on the whole I think it's good for business. At least no one has said they won't use my company because I annoy them."

That's not likely to happen, either. Even McCrae, who sometimes disagrees with Devlyn's VPR commentaries, admires the effort and craft that go into them. "She gives an enormous amount of thought to her comments, just as she does to her clients."

Mark Pendergrast is a free-lance writer living in Essex Junction. His latest book is "Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World" (Basic Books, 1999).