The Best Investment an Agency Owner Can Make: A Q&A with Steve Cody, Co-Founder of Peppercomm

By Brenda Barwick, APR
Owner and President, Jones PR

A natural comedian, Peppercomm founder Steve Cody has incorporated humor into employee training and pioneered the creation of insights for his agency. He was named one of 50 Game Changers in PR last year by PR News. A long-time leader of Counselors Academy, Steve has shared some of his insights and a sneak preview of Spring Conference in Toronto.

Brenda Barwick: What has Counselors Academy and the Spring Conference meant to you over the years?

Steve: It’s an advanced MBA degree. I have been involved in Counselors Academy Spring Conference for 20+ years. One of earliest memories involved having the privilege of listening and learning from Kathy Cripps and Ken Makovsky. Each had created incredibly successful agencies at a time when I was still trying to figure out how to scale Peppercom from five to 10 people. Each was incredibly transparent in terms of sharing the good, the bad and the ugly of transforming a neophyte agency into an industry force. Like an advanced MBA, Counselors will enable you to learn best practices, how to avoid minefields, how to prevent one client from representing too large a percentage of billings, and discover new, and creative, workplace initiatives. As an entrepreneur, Spring Conference is the best single investment I ever made and has paid for itself multiple times over.

Steve Cody, Peppercomm CEO

Steve Cody, Peppercomm CEO


BB: What is different about Spring Conference from all other conferences?

Steve:  It’s like Vegas. What happens at Counselors Academy, stays at Counselors Academy. The sense of community, collegiality, and intimacy does not exist elsewhere. It’s a safe environment to say, “I have this problem, and what do I do about it?” Everyone is there to help you succeed. Counselors Academy is directly responsible for my having been able to create lifelong relationships with professionals I am honored to now call friends. Thanks to Counselors Academy, I can now call upon a coterie of experts in different fields and regions who can help me deal with an opportunity or challenge. That is priceless.

BB:  As the pioneer of creative insights, what insights will you be sharing in Toronto?

Steve:  I will be sharing research revealing the #1 pain point for Fortune CCOs and CMOs: Taking a stand on societal crises ranging from mass shootings and illegal immigration to environmental rollbacks and tariffs. The findings are a result of a co-branded initiative with the Institute of Public Relations ( in which we conducted real-time qualitative interviews with 25 Fortune 500 CCOs and CMOs from a wide array of industries. Each not only provided best practices for standing up and speaking out on critical societal issues of the day, but also shared insights into the myriad ways in which they are coping with the plague that is fake news.

BB:  You have published a very successful book. Tell us about “What Keeps Your Customers Up at Night.”

Steve:  The book actually helps people to go to sleep (a key benefit in today’s world of uncertainty). I partnered with a top sales organization and combined best practices of media and sales training to better understand how to differentiate and identify breakthroughs in sales meetings. Agency leaders will learn ways to approach (and close) other C-Suite decision-makers within prospect organizations.  The book is flying off the shelf, particularly in Asia (where sleep deprivation is a huge problem), and has been translated into seven languages.

BB:  What excites you about the future of PR?

Steve: The best is yet to come. Competitors in other disciplines do not have the training or acumen to counsel clients through the crises-driven news maelstrom in which we find ourselves. PR counselors are uniquely qualified and better positioned to advise clients on strategy and messaging in today’s environment.

BB: What is PR’s role in today’s integrated marketing environment?

Steve: We should own it.  We understand the sensitivities of the marketplace and the divisiveness in a climate where clients simply want to sell products and services. We also intuitively know when to speak up and when to remain silent. It may seem counterintuitive, but we possess a better sense of where a client should advertise and what they should say than ad agencies do (that’s because the latter are programmed to sell at all costs). We can also better evaluate a client’s supply chain partners and determine if those organizations’ values and purpose are in alignment with that of our client’s. That’s becoming table stakes nowadays.

BB: What is your best tip for agency owners?

Steve:  Resiliency. It’s the hallmark of a great agency owner. Prepare to fail. One has to learn to deal with the loss of a large client, key executive or some other unforeseen crisis and keep going. The best way to do so is to be continually asking, “What’s keeping my prospective client base awake at night?” The answer(s) to that question will continually drive innovation and ensure your resiliency.

BB:  Who inspires you and why?

Steve: CEOs who have the courage to stand up and speak out. There have been multiple examples this year alone, such as when, in the aftermath of the Parkland, Fl. school shootings, Edward Bastian, Delta’s CEO, said his corporation’s values were not for sale (in response to Georgia lawmakers rescinding their incentives).

BB: Thank you, Steve. We will all look forward to the C-suite insights you will provide on fake news in Toronto on Monday afternoon.