THE HYPE MAN
PROFILE MAGAZINE | EXPERTISE | ADAM NELSON, CEO, WORKHOUSE
Workhouse Publicity’s Adam Nelson helms a PR wonderland with playful workspaces and an all-guts attitude
“My original vision was simple: I wanted to eat every day. Not much has changed except today I’m hungry in a different way.”
In 1996, in a rented kitchen on a wayward side street in SoHo, with nothing more than a telephone, a fax machine, and $196 dollars in the bank, Adam Nelson launched a PR think tank. One move to a Chelsea loft, 15 employees, and over a decade later, Workhouse PR is a funhouse for publicity genius, rubbing elbows with the likes of P Diddy and Versace, and hosting events for Sundance and Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. With a whimsical workspace and an industrious work ethic, Nelson spills on what made him hatch the agency, what drives him everyday, and even what makes him cry.
Why did you want to start your own company?
Desperation. Workhouse only came about because my world caved in. The celebrity agency that employed me had closed its doors, and I found myself out of work in the middle of an economic depression. Much like today, employment wasn’t an option. No one was hiring. I had $196 in the bank and one client: the photographer David LaChapelle, who so very graciously agreed to allow me the honor of continued representation. God bless him.
So how did you do it?
I rented the kitchen of a Soho film outfit and just plain hustled. I pitched new business completely cold, took every client I could for pennies on the dollar, gathered a group of interns, and slowly built it from the ground up. My original vision was simple: I wanted to eat every day. Not much has changed except today I’m hungry in a different way. After a few years, I took possession of the entire space. My wife, who was my vice president at the time, and I transformed it ourselves through old-fashioned elbow grease, paint, and tile work. We created a black-and-white, Sam Spade-detective-style agency replete with a private garden. Six years down the road, we relocated to our current home, a 3,000-square-foot Chelsea loft. We’re celebrating our 12th anniversary, and trust me, it feels like it.
What’s the meaning behind the name Workhouse Publicity?
Workhouse celebrates a history of builders who, once upon a time, went to produce honest work. The very concept of our “Workhouse” is to recount a history of invisible masses, unsung orphans, hotel pageboys, secretarial desk clerks, and other servants of business. Our humble task is to bring attention to a roster of clients’ work unseen.
The agency dubs itself “A Creative Playground for Serious Business.” What does that mean?
The intention is really to create a den of curiosity. Warm wood tones and a jamming soundtrack keep it all very mod and 21st century, a kind of modern-nostalgia. There’s a definitive, aesthetical vision, but there is always some new design that comes along to discover and embellish. Like our corporate culture, my guess is that it will expand forever. The office should be a wonderland inspiring both staff and clients alike, yet promote a sense of play. That's the sweet spot between uptown sophistication and downtown soul. We’re a fortunate lot. We still get to play with toys, swing on a grass-covered swing, scratch the right brain, and keep our eyes on the prize. Challenge is found within the risk that we create for ourselves. It’s a high bar and we always aim to finish strong.
What would you say is the highlight of your career?
Before we were fully staffed, I produced Interview Magazine's 30th Anniversary in two weeks without a budget. This meant aligning massive corporate sponsors over 10 working days to even build the thing. A seemingly impossible task given that I was in Paris when we got the assignment. However, David LaChapelle’s incredible vision transformed New York’s Kit Kat Club into Hotel LaChapelle. The room was filled with massive rows of twin beds, night stands, Bibles, alarm clocks, neon signs, topless Bell boys adorned with pasties and suspenders, giant inflatable dolls, cupcakes by Donatella Versace, and a transsexual Amanda LePore leaping out of a giant birthday cake. Entertainment was provided by Elton John, Lil' Kim, and Groove Armada. A who's who of arrivals included Demi Moore, Russell Simmons, Diane Von Furstenberg, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Jon Bon Jovi, Fran Lebowitz, and Moby. It was straight Warhol circa 1999. The kind of electric night you couldn’t completely comprehend in a city that never sleeps.
What is the funniest thing that has happened to you at work?
It involves a whiffle-ball bat and a bottle of Jack. Suffice to say that a good PR man knows when to keeps his mouth shut.
How has being a family man affected your career?
In building my business, it was take no prisoners. I could burn the candle nightly or let the ink run dry. If you've ever had the grit to built something from the ground up, love it or loathe it, you deeply understand the struggle. But then I had children. I needed the open-heart surgery that only the magic of childhood could produce. Where once I had been an emotionless surveyor, when the kids came along, I was crying on a dime. We can all certainly use a wordsmith who may be emotionally attached. It does makes for better copy. I'm an idea man. That's always been my stock and trade.
SIDEBAR: STRATEGY TO SHARE
HONOR YOUR WORD
Handshakes mean something. They are moral compasses to better business. “Let’s shake on it” is more than a gesture. It’s the true definition of character. When the stakes are high and the chips are down, my word is my bond. In a world of lip service, I stridently work to remain true to my word. I look for exactly the same thing in my staff. Still having the guts. The creative manpower. The stuff. Methodically building, brick by brick. Ten years from now, our hands will still be dirty. Just the way we like it.
1996: Opened Workhouse Publicity in a rented kitchen in SoHo
2002: Relocated to current offices in Chelsea
2003: Won the National Congressional Committee’s 2003 National Leadership Award; elected to serve as an Honorary Chairman of the Business Advisory Council
2004: Selected by the International Who's Who of Executives
2009: Received the U.S. Commerce Association's 2009 New York Award in the Marketing/Branding division
2010: Acquired by the Morris + King Company; Nelson appointed president of company
2011: In a desire to recapture independence, Nelson negotiates a buyback, repurchases WORKHOUSE and takes the company private
2012: Workhouse sweeps three of the industry's highest honors when it is bestowed with the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Silver Anvil Award, the PR News' Platinum PR "Wow Award" and the Bulldog Reporter Silver Medal Award. The agency was also named a PR Daily/ Dow Jones "Grand Prize: PR Campaign of the Year " Finalist
BY THE NUMBERS
3 years: average employee-retention rate
5 years: average client-retention rate
ADAM NELSON CEO, WORKHOUSE
Adam Nelson is the Founder & CEO of WORKHOUSE. Widely regarded for his original thinking, imaginative ideas and strikingly unique hands-on approach, he brings a keen understanding and deep expertise to the agency's consumer spaces. In 2012, Workhouse swept three of the industry's highest honors when it was bestowed with the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Silver Anvil Award, the PR News' Platinum PR "Wow Award" and the Bulldog Reporter Silver Medal Award. The agency was also named a PR Daily/ Dow Jones "Grand Prize: PR Campaign of the Year " Finalist. Established in 1999, Workhouse is a leading boutique agency that develops stylish marketing campaigns and successful worldwide events for a wide range of legendary clients including The Rolling Stones Ronnie Wood, Francis Ford Coppola, David LaChapelle, Interview Magazine, International Emmy Awards, Galleries Lafayette, Virgin, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wantful.com, Henri Bendel, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tony Shafrazi Gallery & Versace. Prior to Workhouse, Mr. Nelson was a senior publicist at Jason Weinberg & Associates, where he represented Tim Burton, David LaChapelle, Lennox Lewis and Sean "P Diddy" Combs, among others. Previously he was a senior publicist at the Peggy Siegal Company, overseeing the Warner Brothers account. Mr. Nelson has been recognized for his outstanding creative, receiving the U.S. Commerce Association's 2009 New York Award, the National Congressional Committee’s 2003 National Leadership Award and was elected to serve as an Honorary Chairman of the Business Advisory Council. He was selected by the International Who's Who of Executives in 2004. He earned his BFA from the University of the Arts and attended certificate programs at both Yale and Oxford University. He is married to Alison Nelson, founding owner of the Chocolate Bar whose locations include New York's West Village and 30 locations in Dubai and the Middle East. They have two children a daughter, Lulu Scout and a son, Sailor.
Specialties: A strategic visionary with a clear sense of purpose and urgency when faced with diverse situational challenges during periods of both declining sales and rapid growth. Skilled at establishing operational excellence within culturally diverse environments, translating conceptual PR models into specific growth strategies, and planning executing multi-faceted global business development campaigns designed to improve market share. Public Relations, Marketing, Promotion, Special Events, Advertising.