6 Lessons Learned Through 25 Years as CEO of Vantage PR: An Interview with Ilene Adler

Stephanie Waxman

Ilene started Vantage PR 25 years ago. When I asked her if it feels that long, she said, “it feels like seven years max. No, that’s an exaggeration, probably more like five. Even that sounds like a long time!”

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In 1990, Vantage PR was one of the first tech-focused PR firms. “Many people didn’t understand what I was doing. I would try to tell friends what I did and they didn’t get it.”  Ilene grew up on science fiction, so she’s always been interested in futuristic, big ideas, and particularly how those ideas can change our world and our lives. “It still fascinates me. I’m more intrigued by things like Elon Musk’s SpaceX program than I am about the Tesla, as much as I love the Tesla.”

I started off this interview asking Ilene how things have changed in 25 years. “For one thing, of course, the Internet has literally touched every person’s life and changed the world. However, in the early days there was much more face-to-face interaction. I’d go to Korea or Sweden for a meeting, which you rarely do today when you can meet over Skype. In a way, we had better access to people. I worked directly with the President of Samsung, who was a client for a number of years. Even at that time, they were one of the largest companies in the world at $80 billion. Today, we would be working with their marketing department, not directly with the president. It was the same working with top executives at Ericsson’s headquarters in Stockholm. It’s hard to get that kind of access anymore. With the press, I have relationships with editors I’ve known for decades.  We formed deep relationships, solidified by frequent face-to-face meetings (some of whom even came to our wedding).”

I wanted to hear about the lessons Ilene has learned over 25 years running a successful tech PR agency. She struggled a bit trying to think of only a few lessons because she said the business has constantly changed every year, and she has been constantly learning. Out of all of the lessons we discussed, here are a few of my favorite:

#1 I’ve learned to let go of wanting to be liked

I hate to start this off with a gender stereotype, but it is no secret that in general women like to be liked. Ilene has learned that she must let go of that. “It is a hard one. Something I’m still working on. It is part of what makes us successful with clients – the need to be liked and wanting to please them. However, I’ve learned over the years that I like to work with the kind of companies and people who appreciate real advice, up front and direct, and who want us to push back and disagree when necessary to do what’s best for their bottom line.”

#2 I’ve learned to accept my quieter side

In PR there are people who are great at tooting their own horn, who have big personalities and are all about the limelight. “I used to kick myself because I’m not like that. I’m on the shyer side. However, I’ve learned this is a good thing – I put my clients in the limelight rather than myself.  I love to promote my clients, talk about how great they are, and give them the attention. I’m happy behind the scenes, and have learned to accept and appreciate that about myself.”

#3 I’ve learned that the way we did it yesterday does not apply today

Ilene does not allow her team to say things like ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ There is always a better way. The business and industry is always changing. “You can’t look backwards, you must always look forward – where is the hockey puck going, not where has it been.”

#4 I’ve learned to be more numbers–focused

Ilene says she has a consultant’s mind. “My parents are consultants, so it’s in my blood.” She has learned over the years that there is a difference between being a consultancy and an agency – as a consultant, it is all about the client and nothing else. As an agency, corporate culture is very important, financials are important, the business is important. “Of course, clients are always first, but in order to do our best for our clients, we had to build a healthy company and team. We needed to become more specific about our work and account for our time – that was a big lesson learned. If I wanted my company to grow, it had to grow as an agency, which means I have to pay more attention to the numbers and be less involved on the day to day with each client, a hard thing for me to move away from.”

#5 I’ve learned that people hear things, process things, and do things very differently

Four people will perceive the same exact message and tone in four completely different ways. “I’ve learned that you must take the time to understand each person’s individual personality and preferences, and communicate with them in the way that works for them. Each team at Vantage PR has a particular personality. If you change just one person on the team, it changes the personality. Finding the right balance of personalities paired with the right team leader and team composition is a something that can be a challenge, but when it clicks, it is incredibly effective and rewarding.”

#6 I’ve learned (and am still learning) how to let go

Ilene feels farther and farther away from the skills and expertise that led her to start Vantage PR in the first place. I think that is very common for entrepreneurs who start a company doing something they are passionate about – moving away from ‘the work’ as the company grows. “My job now is to focus on the big picture and know that the team I have built is going to do a great job. And they do! I’m continuously taking small steps away from direct client work in order to focus on the continuous growth of the agency – the people, infrastructure, training and resources.”

As much as Ilene has learned over the past 25 years, I think I speak for the entire Vantage PR team when I say that we have learned so much more from her. Her quiet, yet powerful, leadership style is something to admire. We all can’t wait to see what the future holds for Ilene – who knows, my next blog post may be about her trip to Mars with Elon!

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