Girl Power

Once upon a time, Philly public relations was dominated by anonymous men churning out bland press releases. Today? PR has turned into a party, honey, and the women are taking charge

One night last December, Denim, Rittenhouse Square’s first and only velvet-roped nightclub, hosted the holiday party for Nicole Cashman’s public relations company, Cashman & Associates. Inside, some 300 Philadelphians of various statures — the invite list included professionals, athletes, and assorted boldfaced names like the Daily News‘s Stu Bykofsky and WYSP’s Couzin Ed — munched on hors d’oeuvres, networked, and went home with gift bags containing postcards promoting Vine Street Imports, entries for a contest sponsored by 32ª, and sample-sized products from beauty retailer Kiehl’s. These were physical reminders of the brands — Cashman clients all — the guests had been exposed to during the evening.

To the same end, Level, the new vodka from Absolut, had provided liquor for cocktails, which were festively named after the Associates themselves: the Nicole, the Susan, the Meredith, the Carrie, the Kate, the Kayce, the Monique and the Jacklyn. The real-life Associates, meanwhile, flitted around the party in little black dresses, making introductions and small talk.

“How are you doing?!?” Cashman senior account executive and former Sixers dancer Carrie Nork asked a guest enthusiastically, her eyes reflexively flitting over his head. “Excuse me a sec, hon.”

Then Nicole Cashman herself appeared, wrapped in a low-cut black dress and a massive fur coat, and swooped in to greet guests with an air-kiss and a minute adjustment of her bra strap. One 26-year-old investment banker, a regular at Cashman events, smiled appreciatively. “You gotta love Nicole,” he said, sipping a Nicoletini. “She’s just trying to make Philadelphia a little bit more fabulous.”

In many ways, the Christmas party didn’t differ from the 80 or so other events Cashman & Associates threw last year. The Metro newspaper, Philadelphia Style magazine and the St. James condominiums were all celebrated in variations on this theme, the common factor being that of all of the brands in the room, the most obvious thing being promoted was Cashman & Associates itself.

In other words: The publicist isn’t just selling the drink — the publicist is the drink.

How the publicist went from clipboard-toting anonymous toady to fur-clad glamour queen can be explained, in part, by a 2002 book that could have used a more glamorous title. Al and Laura Ries’s The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR is one of Nicole Cashman’s favorite books, and it’s easy to see why. The authors claim that ad agencies lost their way when hipper-than-thou, indecipherable ads replaced the actual selling of product. Everyone loved the talking Taco Bell chihuahua and the Budweiser Whassup ads, but did they actually move burritos and beer? Companies were better off, the Rieses argued, spending their dollars on niche marketing and public relations.

It’s a valid point. Why funnel all your money into obscure 30-second spots when you can do a surgical strike on your target audience? Instead of an ad in a magazine, why shouldn’t Denim just hire Cashman to throw a fabulous party and invite 200 of Philly’s hip young things? In all likelihood they’ll get drunk, hook up, then tell another 200 friends how fabulous Denim is. Similarly, if a developer wants to schmooze with the movers and shakers who can approve or deny zoning variances, should he and his firm schlep through a monotonous stream of charity events, or hire someone like Kelly Boyd, of Center City’s KB Consultants, to choose the exact ball where they can do one-stop shopping?

Of course, this being America, you’re frequently just trading one oversized personality for another. Say goodbye to ad-guy ego and hello to flack hubris. Call it the Grubman Effect, after Lizzie Grubman, the New York publicist who made headlines after she rammed her Mercedes into a crowd of Hamptons club-goers. She was rewarded with her own MTV reality show, PoweR Girls, which chronicles Grubman and her cadre of not-so-bright young things. But can anyone name even one of her clients?