After a decade of being othered, here’s why this publicist started an agency for ‘misfits’

evie smith hatmaker

Since this time last year, Portland and Los Angeles-based public relations agency Rebellious has managed to double its client list. The agency is queer, women-led with a diverse staff: Rebellious is small, but mighty and is made up of 10 LGBTQIA+-identifying staff members — five staffers who identify as Black, four who identify as Latinx and one who identifies as multiracial, according to an agency spokesperson.

After a year of protests pushed the marketing and advertising industry to commit to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, Rebellious PR founder and CEO Evie Smith Hatmaker suspects her company’s uptick in business could have stemmed from business owners looking to put their money where their mouth is and work with more diverse agencies. Clients include health and wellness fertility brand MyVitro, CBD brand Canapa, Partake Brewing and others, according to the agency’s website.

Smith Hatmaker founded the agency five years ago after feeling othered as a queer woman working in Silicon Valley. Since then, the agency has grown to include social media and influencer marketing services, as well a pro-bono program for Black and brown businesses. Digiday caught up with Smith Hatmaker to talk about intersectionality in DE&I, diversity (or the lack thereof) in public relations and how the industry should be thinking about change.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

You say Rebellious PR is the most diverse agency in Portland, Oregon. What does that mean? And what pushed you to found it?

I came out of Silicon Valley, where I had worked for about 10 years. I’m gay and I frequently felt really othered in most rooms that I was in. Not so much with clients, but definitely with the agencies I was at. I was the token gay person. I’d have really awkward conversations with co-workers, where they’d tell me about a second cousin removed who was gay and that was the only time they’d ever talk to me. It was really a big driver for me to initially want to leave PR altogether.

It sort of just turned into the opportunity to start [freelance] working for myself for the first time ever. Within the first year, [work] is booming. My little freelance projects, experiments before I get my next real job, is all of a sudden an agency. Five years later, we’re a million dollar business and have almost 20 full time employees. 

It wasn’t like I want to work with a bunch of queer people because that’s my community. It was like I want to work with everybody who has ever felt othered at other PR agencies. We describe ourselves as a band of misfits. But we’re kind of the secret sauce for most of our clients. The reason they’re out there in the world is because they’ve got people from all different backgrounds and ages and geographies and races and sexual orientation, telling their stories in this way that is relatable to everybody.

We can make donations. We can make pledges. But really being able to offer an organization our services and superpowers to help get their word out when they can’t afford PR. That felt like this is how we can actually help. 

The events of 2020 has really forced the industry to take a hard look at DE&I efforts. How does Rebellious PR fit into that landscape?

For agencies, DE&I is their main pain point and they’re having such a hard time figuring out what initiatives they should use. The way they talked about it was mind blowing and I was like, just hire more people of color and then figure out what’s going to make them stay to retain them. It just felt like they were trying to go around the moon and do book clubs and training and all these things.

For us, we’re not having to retroactively look at ourselves, and we were so DE&I aware before people were using DE&I as a common term. For us, I was very aware of PR being a really white industry and not interested in that, [instead] building in diversity at every single level. We definitely have a lot of white, queer employees, but I think it’s really as simple as being really aware of your pool of candidates that you’re bringing in.

Even if a company is hiring more diverse candidates, they don’t think about the retention factor. I think the retention factor is what they should actually be concerned about, and figure out ways to build community within the organization. 

Your client list — at more than 40 clients currently — has doubled since this time last year. What do you attribute that growth to?

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Last year, a lot of people were cutting services, having to streamline budgets for Covid and so much uncertainty. We saw some of that in March and April of last year when [it] was looking pretty dire. But then we started seeing this turnaround where people wanted better partners but really needed help to tell a 2020 story. How do we get into the news cycle when there’s a presidential election, a pandemic and a civil rights movement and we still have to sell products?

We’d tell clients people aren’t going to care about your news. They care about how your product or service is going to help people right now during this time of need. We set the boundary with the client that we know best. Success kind of attracts more success and all of a sudden, our agency doubled in size. 

When marginalized people are hired at some of these other agencies, there’s the propensity to be the token person. What are your thoughts on that?

Don’t ask me to weigh in on Pride month.

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