Twenty-five years ago, Murphy O’Brien Public Relations was a company of two employees, run out of a tiny apartment in Century City. Today, from its home in the Roll Global Building, it is one of the most sought-after public relations firms – both for potential clients and employees.
Owned by Palisadians Brett O’Brien and wife Karen Murphy O’Brien, the firm has grown its business to include nearly 80 clients and close to 50 employees. A majority of the couple’s clients now come to them through referral. The Highlands residents still remember the way-back-when of face-to-face pitch meetings and the blood, sweat and tears on which they built their glowing empire – and a family of four.
Making their home in the Palisades with their two sons – Nicholas, a freshman, Varsity football player at Harvard-Westlake and Christopher, a member of the National Children’s Chorus – the founders of Murphy O’Brien are currently celebrating 25 years as one of the largest travel and hospitality firms in the country.
Brett O’Brien had just graduated from Wharton, where he studied finance and entrepreneurial management, when he found himself in Southern California living next door to the senior vice president of an influential PR firm, Karen Murphy.
“Karen was always down at the pool with a stack of magazines and I always wondered what she was up to, so I introduced myself,” Brett said.
The introduction led to a first date, a logo drawn on a paper napkin – and finally, a business plan. Young and ambitious, the pair launched their brainchild, Murphy O’Brien Inc., on May 1, 1989 with one client in their arsenal – Sunset Marquis Hotel & Villa.
“We were highly motivated because we didn’t have any money. We had to wake up every day and make things happen,” Brett said. “For the first couple years it was day and night, seven days a week.”
At the time, timesavers like email weren’t yet available to the Murphy O’Brien team. Although the development of today’s technologies have fast tracked the workday; it’s a double-edged sword that requires careful handling.
“Back then, it was really all about the in-person visibility, meeting and greeting, and talking on the phone. Even with new business, we would send the presentation in person and wait to hear back,” Karen recalled. “We didn’t have email – nothing was instant like it is now. The flip side of that is that today, everyone wants results now.”
But what was key then that is still key now, according to Karen, is staying relevant.
“I remember when we first started, 25 years ago, we would go to pitch and people would ask us, ‘Where are your parents?’ I think with a name like Murphy O’Brien they expected two old, cigar-smoking guys,” Karen said. “We like to think that we have stayed relevant but now we have that history – clients that have been with us many, many years. A lot of [new business] comes our way because people have heard about us. Our clients share the secret.”
A Legacy of Loyalty
Of the 80 clients on the Murphy O’Brien roster, many have been with them for a significant number of years, including one very close to their heart. Karen is on the Board of Chrysalis and their company has been doing pro bono PR for them for approximately 12 years.
“It’s a pro bono account but people just clamor to work on it because it’s so rewarding. We’re changing lives,” she said. “Part of our culture at Murphy O’Brien is giving back, so we do support a lot of different charitable organizations, but that’s really the one we have thrown ourselves behind.”
In addition to having legacy clients who have been with the firm for decades, Murphy O’Brien also boasts a loyal list of long-time employees. Their senior management team has been with the firm for an average of 14 years.
“It was never about becoming the biggest, but we were really, really focused on being the best,” Brett said. “Having the best team and the best environment to work in and having the greatest clients in the world – which we’ve managed to accomplish – and that attracts the best people because people want to work with great brands.”
Murphy O’Brien continually ranks high in the Los Angeles Business Journal “Best Places to Work” list and has won awards for their work with clients like Peninsula Hotels, Hilton Hotels, Auberge du Soleil Resorts, The Cheesecake Factory and a range of luxury real estate developments.
“We have won many awards for our clients for the campaigns we develop for them, but I think why clients stay with us is because we keep generating the kind of visibility that turns into a big return on investment.”
So it would appear that in pursuing quality, Murphy O’Brien has also attained a quantity of clients within their three areas of expertise: travel, lifestyle and real estate.
“We’re very focused in those areas because our knowledge is very extensive there. We’re the best at what we do in those areas,” Karen said. “We’re creative and we’re energetic, but at the end of the day we generate really amazing exposure that, in many cases, our clients couldn’t afford to buy. We can get them the third-party endorsement. If it weren’t adding to their bottom line, then as much as they might love us, they would leave us.”
Their mantra, said Karen, is all about building solid relationships – with the media as well as with the client.
“In our business, those two things will get you to the good and through the bad times.”
A Balancing Act
While Murphy O’Brien has found a way to stay relevant – tapping into fresh tools like social media and digital campaigns – they also maintain the stability that comes from decades of hard-earned business and loyal clients who often prefer more traditional forms of media.
“We have very high-end clients and many of them very much still want to be in the glossy magazines but likewise, they also want to have the social media channels at their fingertips,” Karen said. “A lot of people would say it’s doom and gloom for print now, but it’s not, it just opens up more opportunities. I don’t want to say I’m old-fashioned, there’s something about seeing the living page.”
Even at home in the Palisades, Brett and Karen know there is value in tangible media because it offers something technology can’t.
“We love the Palisadian-Post. Everyone talks about how newspapers are dwindling, but I think the Post is great,” Brett said. “Everyone loves a good community paper.”
Karen added, “You can see all of your friends and their kids and what everyone is up to. It’s more than Facebook, it’s something we can still hold on to,”
On the flip side, Brett brings his own savvy to the business, working more with the operations, finance and technology. It’s the best of both worlds, he says.
“We’ve continued to cultivate the relationship with top-tier media and now with technology there’s even more opportunity. It’s still all about breakthrough, creative ideas and now there are just more ways to reach the target consumer for our clients. It’s been exciting.”
The balancing act between the power couple doesn’t end at the office, however.
According to Karen, the reason Murphy O’Brien has been so successful – both as a firm and a family – is because they’ve learned to embrace their different strengths and find the harmony in their fortes.
“With me more on the creative side, working with the clients to come up with the ideas and with [Brett] being so focused on the finances and the operations and sales – we each have our own areas of expertise so that we coexist very happily. We compliment each other. I defer to him, he defers to me and we have a great team.”
If you ask the duo about their plans for the future – they’ll tell you they include a family vacation, football practice, choir rehearsal and an optimistic outlook for the next 25 years at Murphy O’Brien.
“We’re big planners, but we’re the kind of people who really enjoy the journey,” Brett said. “We wake up every day fired up because we love what we are doing.”