Creative Space

Power Publicists Jennifer Allen and Melissa Kates on Lessons Learned and How to Spin a Scandal in 2020

Yuri Hasegawa
"PR is never an exact science," says Jennifer Allen (left). She was photographed Dec. 18 with Melissa Kates in Viewpoint’s Beverly Hills offices.

Ten years after exiting PMK to launch their own talent publicity firm, the Viewpoint co-founders open up about client challenges (including firings) and the delicate art of navigating negative news: "The key decision is in timing."

Pat Kingsley is a legend in the world of personal publicity, but to Jennifer Allen and Melissa Kates, their PMK boss was a mentor, trusted confidante and, as she remains to this day, a friend. So, in December 2009 when Kingsley left as PMK/HBH merged with rival BNC, Allen and Kates did something that was years away from becoming trendy: They struck out on their own, left PMK and launched their own talent PR firm. Allen, then a partner, had been with PMK for 20 years to Kates’ 13, so leaving was not easy nor obvious.

Over Chinese food from a now-closed L.A. restaurant served on Allen’s dining room table with their respective husbands leaning in, the duo made a list of reasons to stay opposite a list of why to leave. The latter prevailed so, without telling friends, family or even such clients as Jodie Foster, Molly Shannon or Matt Damon (at first), they opened shop, eventually bringing close to 35 clients apiece to the new firm.

During the past decade, the company they called Viewpoint (“We bring a point of view to every single thing that we do with our clients,” says Allen) has expanded with offices in L.A. and New York and the duo currently employ 22 staffers including senior and junior publicists along with support staff, most of them female. While rival firms like Rogers & Cowan, Slate PR and 42West merged with larger companies or diversified into corporate clients, the duo have remained focused on talent, charging about $6,000 a month, according to industry sources, for about 275 clients. 

It’s never not busy for the two who manage the entire business but in recent weeks, work has been insane. Allen helped steer the launch of Ford v Ferrari starring two longtime clients Matt Damon and Christian Bale (which just passed $200 million worldwide) while Kates continued to guide longtime client Shia LaBeouf to serious awards contender as screenwriter and star of his personal “Honey Boy.” Kates’ client Dwayne Johnson — a weekly staple at the top of THR’s Social Climbers chart for his dominant social media presence — starred in the latest Jumanji installment that just crossed $600 million worldwide. And they just signed newly-minted talk show superstar and multiple Grammy winner Kelly Clarkson.

To mark Viewpoint's 10-year anniversary, Allen and Kates invited THR to a Beverly Hills conference room overlooking Wilshire Boulevard to discuss lessons learned from Kingsley, how they deal with tragic client deaths and their goals for the next decade.

Jennifer, your first client was Matt Damon. How did you sign him?

JENNIFER ALLEN I work with Tommy Lee Jones who directed a TV movie for TNT called The Good Old Boys and Matt played Tommy's nephew. Tommy introduced me to him at a screening at the Directors Guild. Matt and I just had a nice, brief conversation, and I thought, well this is, you know, a young, interesting actor. He had done School Ties and [Geronimo: An American Legend] at that point. I became friendly with [Matt’s longtime agent] Patrick Whitesell and after two years of asking, ‘When is the right time, when is the right time?’ Matt got cast in the Francis Ford Coppola movie based on the John Grisham novel, The Rainmaker, so I flew to San Francisco to meet Matt on the set. That was 1996. My son was three months old and I was still on maternity leave.

Melissa, who was your first client?

MELISSA KATES My dad, a longtime agent, was friendly with a manager named Ray Rio who introduced me to Molly Shannon’s then-agent who is now her manager, Steven Levy. She was on SNL and just sort of coming up and they said, "If you fly to New York, she'll meet with you." So, I flew myself to New York, paid my own way, and I was so nervous because I had never taken a meeting by myself. I'm the epitome of a California girl; I didn’t know New York at all and was nervous to hail a cab by myself. I met her at a park and we sat there for three hours and that was it. I still represent her today.

What's the most valuable thing you learned about publicity from Kingsley?

ALLEN Quality over quantity. Always do it with a smile and with grace. Be honest. Loyal.

KATES Everything. Publicity can't necessarily be defined because I think that for every person it looks differently but Pat really embodied what it meant to be a publicist. For anybody coming up, she set the tone and standard for how to be — both personally and professionally. She’s a no-nonsense lady and to this day, I look up to her for that. She took Jennifer and I under her wing and supported us as we built our own book of business. She gave us unbelievable opportunities and because of those opportunities, we met people in the business and built reputations. It’s an incredible gift we were given and we still talk to her regularly.

What sorts of opportunities?

ALLEN When I got promoted, Tom Cruise became a client so I was on his team with [Pat]. I was in every marketing, distribution and advertising meeting alongside her, taking it all in. Listening to conversations about posters, like what are we trying to communicate in a one-sheet? How many people are we trying to reach? Who’s this movie for? Those are opportunities that don’t come along for someone at that point, so early in our careers.

KATES By the way, they still don’t unless you represent a certain caliber of client.

Publicity has changed in the age of social media and the rise of bloggers and TMZ. Kingsley once said publicity was all about control. What is it about today, and what is your biggest challenge?

ALLEN The biggest challenge for me given the wide range of media — traditional and non­traditional — is maintaining a strict focus. Coming up with the right combination in a cohesive way becomes crucial in executing the campaign to the client's satisfaction.

KATES We understand that PR is an art form and that it cannot be easily defined or duplicated. It doesn’t fit into one cohesive design. We specifically tailor and customize our approach to each client and campaign based on the needs of the individual assignment. We have represented many of our clientele for the majority of our careers which means that we have actually grown up together in this business. Loyalty is to be earned over time and it is at the center of our Viewpoint culture — and that applies to who we represent, who we employ and how we conduct ourselves.   

You only rep talent. Did you consider expanding to brands?

ALLEN We have made a concerted effort to remain focused on what we do best. Should the right opportunity present itself, we would consider growth.

How did you decide on Viewpoint as the name?

ALLEN It’s the word that made the most sense because we bring a point of view to every single thing that we do with our clients. Everything has a point of view or a perspective, a strategy, a reason why or why not. It just seemed to be the word that defined who we are.

Can I ask you to describe the other?

KATES Jen is everything that a partner should be: She is available, open, honest — sometimes too honest— nurturing and supportive. Over the past 25 years, we have shared advice, maternity pants and many bottles of wine and there is nobody who I would rather be on this adventure with.

ALLEN Melissa is the great partner and the perfect balance for me. She is kind, loyal, supportive, the best listener and is somehow always able to articulate my thoughts in the best way possible. She is my co-captain and always keeps us on course.

What's been the toughest thing you've had to deal with?

ALLEN The deaths of clients. We've had a handful of them. I represented Anton Yelchin and Andy Whitfield, the Spartacus actor who had cancer very young. He was in remission and completely clean but then died very quickly thereafter. I also represented James Garner from the day I started at PMK, working on his team. It's heartbreaking under any circumstances when you lose someone you're that close with.

KATES I was representing Aaliyah when she [died in 2001] in a plane crash and Cory Monteith. [The Glee star died of a drug overdose July 13, 2013.]

In that moment, you're grieving the loss of a friend while managing a professional obligation and dealing with family. How hard is that?

KATES With Cory specifically, it was devastating. You process the loss and give yourself the moment you need to collect yourself, and then you realize that you do need to protect the legacy they leave behind in some capacity for their family and loved ones. You gather yourself and you do it.

What about a loss on the other end of the spectrum? How many clients have you had to fire in your career?

KATES I anticipated this question. I fired four.

Why?

KATES You get to a point where you realize that if you're not giving your client the service they're paying you for — meaning they're not hearing certain things you're suggesting or you don't have the latitude to express yourself the right way — it's time. It can be hard to say goodbye and can be very emotional. You're also running a business so you must ask yourself if it’s a business decision or an emotional decision? If you get to the place where you feel that you're no longer capable of doing the service the right way, … you have a responsibility to take yourself out of the equation.

You both have guided clients back from scandal and/or public relations disasters. What are best practices in terms of helping someone recover from a terrible situation?

ALLEN Honesty and a quick assessment are the two most important factors. The key decision is in timing. Is the crisis credible, will it have lasting implications, and what is the best way to counter its allegations? Each situation dictates its own response.

When it comes to negative stories, is there a specific client issue that is the hardest to deal with?

KATES I think that if somebody else outside of that person gets hurt, that presents different challenges for me. I am very capable and comfortable dealing with a situation where a client is potentially in trouble if it only affects them. It's [difficult] when other people are involved.

What are you most proud of?

KATES We are most proud of the fact that we have built this company together while simultaneously raising our families. We want Viewpoint to be that place for everyone that works with us. It’s a rarity to achieve balance in this business and that is something that we both prioritized from a very young age and probably what drew us together in the first place as partners. And we want that for our entire Viewpoint group.

ALLEN We take great pride in the company that we have built and the talent that we represent. As Viewpoint approaches its second decade, we will strive not only to preserve our position in the PR landscape and to continue to be regarded as leaders and colleagues in this quickly evolving industry. We were fortunate to work for some incredibly strong female mentors throughout our career. We both worked for Nanci Ryder and Pat Kingsley to name two — both of whom led with dignity and experienced a great deal of success. We hope to represent that same level of integrity for those around us. 

Where do you see Viewpoint over the next 10 years?

KATES We want to preserve our place in this evolving industry. We appreciate all the competition, but Viewpoint occupies its own special place as the link between the classic PR companies of the past and the new generation raised on an evolving image-making culture. At Viewpoint, more than any other agency, you get the best of the classic PR structure as well as the most up-to-date image enhancing strategy.

Between clients, staff and other reps, in the hour we’ve been sitting here, how many emails have you missed?

KATES Two hundred, I'm guessing.

Is there a record for the number of emails in a day?

KATES It could be horrendous.

ALLEN I was out of the office two days this week and when I sat down at my desk [this week], I said to Sean, my assistant, "Oh look, 600 more since yesterday."

KATES On a crazy day, you are breaking a thousand.

How do you get through it? 

KATES I have no idea. I swear, I don't know. I sometimes lay in bed not sleeping, wondering what I'm missing on my phone in that very second.

ALLEN You have to make peace with it.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.