When you meet Marla Russo, you immediately recognize that she’s a force to be reckoned with—more specifically, an intelligent, articulate force with great shoes and perfect hair (how do you do it, Marla?). A Strasberg-trained actress who fell in love with the fast pace of PR, she founded Bella Public Relations over a decade ago, at the ripe old age of 24. Since then, she has worked with clients large and small, focusing primarily on the fields of beauty, fashion, lifestyle and entertainment. Three years ago, she was prescient enough to see that the writing on the wall was actually being done on social networks, so she created a content arm to her business and hired a team dedicated to social-media based content. She’s a foodie, a world traveler, and a woman after my own heart: within moments of meeting we were talking clothes, romantic relationships and the meaning of life. Read on for more.
You’re in PR. Tell me a little bit about your background and how you got started.
My major in college was psychology—it had nothing at all to do with PR. At the time, I was also going to acting school in the city. I was studying at Hofstra University and at the Lee Strasberg Institute, and going back and forth between the two. Acting was my passion. I loved it. I was in a few off- off- Broadway shows, and right before I graduated I auditioned for a movie, and I got the third leading role. I was going to be working with Alec Baldwin. Then the director died of a massive heart attack, and Alec Baldwin didn’t want to sign on another contract—he wanted to do Macbeth in the park. So the whole project went sour. I continued with school, graduated, and a friend of mine told me, “My sister-in-law is looking for an assistant, and she’s in PR.” I thought, “Okay, great. I don’t know anything about PR, but let me go and see what it’s all about.” I went in for an interview, and it sounded great. My boss was pregnant at the time, and the next thing I knew, I was running a large Unilever account. I was like, “How did this happen?” but I really picked up the trade. I fell in love with it. I loved the fast pace, and the fact that every day was different. I loved being in contact with the editors, and I think at the time my boss’s feeling was, “Get creative, let’s see if we can do it.” As a very creative person, that was exciting for me.
And then what?
I was at that agency for about four years, and I went to the Oscars, and we did a whole B-roll…
What did you wear to the Oscars?
I wasn’t actually on the red carpet, but we were part of the whole getting ready process. We were with Marcia Gay Harding, getting her hair ready—we were working with her hairstylist. It was a very cool, behind the scenes type of thing.
And very hands on.
Yes, very hands on, and really great. So I was there for four years, and then I went on to a smaller agency for about three months. And I thought, “I can do this on my own.” I just knew that it was part of my character to work for myself and have my own thing. I loved acting, but I wasn’t 150% dedicated to it, which you have to be, and I was just being very honest about that. At the time I was 24 years old. One night, before I got on my train at Mott Street, I was walking around and I called my father. I said, “You know what? I really think I could do this on my own. I really think I could start my own agency.” My father started his own company in his garage, a printing company, and at the time he had two kids, so we come from a very entrepreneurial family. The following week I quit my job, met with a lawyer to register my name, and started working out of my apartment on the Upper East Side.
What year was this?
This was in 2002.
So you guys have been around for a while.
Yes, a little over thirteen years. One client led to five and then to ten, so I got office space on 8th Avenue in the Garment District, and I was there for twelve, thirteen years. We recently moved to a new space up the street. It’s great. We have small niche brands, and I have six full-time girls, an amazing staff. I really think that the agency is where it is today because of them, their dedication. And I let them know it. I’m in the office every day, but I give them freedom. I think they really appreciate that. It’s exciting, and having a client like Revlon with us now means a lot.
Well, it’s a marker of where you are and what you’ve done.
Absolutely. It’s nice to have it on our resume. Along the way I’ve met really amazing people. Work relationships have turned into personal relationships, and that means a lot to me. Really, my goal is always to build long-term relationships. We have clients that have been with us from day one, which says a lot about how far we’ve taken their brands.
There’s nothing like it. It’s a whole different ball game to know that you have started something, that you have built it successfully and that it belongs to you—that you’ve done it.
It is, it is. I really love what I do. It’s my baby. People ask, “Where would you want to go with it?” and I feel like I just want to keep growing. The sky’s the limit. Maybe one day we’ll be bought out, but when I say that I mean working with an agency that doesn’t have a beauty and fashion sector. They’d need us to come in and partner with them. But it is nice to say that it’s mine, and to be able to call the shots.
As a business owner, it’s hard to take time for yourself. Are you able to get away?
I am. I’m a big traveler. I love going to Europe. The biggest thing I’ve done recently was travel to Italy to watch Andrea Bocelli perform. It was on my bucket list. What’s so great about my girls is that I know I can go, and rely on them to get the work done. So I do travel, and I do go away, and that’s really important to do. You have to try and have a life outside of work. But when I do go away I’m always looking for a new client or new relationships. And so through my travels in Europe I’ve gotten clients that are based in London and so on. It’s exciting. My friends and family are always asking me, “Where are you off to now?”
Maybe this is a stretch, but how does the traveling enhance what you do? How does it change your perspective in a way that’s productive?
I think you become more culturally aware. You’re meeting people in different areas and seeing how they work. You’re seeing how PR is done in the UK and how it’s different from the way we do it in the US. You take a little bit of that exposure with you. I think it’s really important to be meeting those CEOs, and having conversations with them where you can say, “I’ve been here, I’ve done this, I’ve met this person.” That’s how you develop a relationship.
It’s a personal connection.
Exactly. It’s not just business. I want you to believe we can work together. I think people are intrigued by that.
How has PR changed since you’ve been in the business, and how are you adapting to that?
Social media has transformed everything. I started a social media company three years ago, since I knew that’s where it was going. Magazines are closing, or their editorial departments are getting smaller. There’s more of an online presence. Will the hard paper magazines ever go away? No, I don’t think so. As the daughter of a printer, I like being able to hold magazines in my hand.
What are the biggest challenges for you as a leader in the field?
Staying on top of trends and figuring out how we’re going to differentiate ourselves from other agencies takes a lot of work. We have to offer a client something new and exciting.
So you have to think about your own brand story.
Exactly. Through my relationships, I’ve helped my clients build partnerships that are totally outside of PR. At the end of the day we aren’t only doing PR, we’re helping clients get involved in things that are outside the box. The other day we brought a jewelry line and a fragrance house together, because the jewelry line was interested in making beautiful perfume bottles. Our clients love that we can bring more to the table for them.
What do you like and dislike about social media?
It’s funny. I have a whole separate staff that handles the social media. You know, with Facebook, I always feel like I need to get off it, but the minute I think I’m going to get off, I get a new business opportunity. So I can’t really go off it.
Do you think of your own use as an experiment for how to use social media successfully?
I do, but after awhile, I’m like, why am I doing this? Who cares? But then you find out that people follow you and they say, “It’s pretty cool what you do, I have a friend who’s looking for PR or whatever.” It works. So I can’t really close that door.
How do you think your acting background has helped what you do now?
I love going in on new business meetings because I believe in my work, and that’s something I got from acting. When I was going on auditions, I learned that you have to believe in your tools, and you really have to believe you’re there for a reason. At new business meetings I love being able to walk in there and say, “This is who we are, this is who I am, and let’s just work together.”
How does having all of this experience and such a rich internal life benefit or shape what you do?
At the end of the day, I’m a hard worker. You have to get experience, and you have to earn that experience. I’m very dedicated, and I hope our clients see that, as well as my girls. At the end of the day, your work is your home and your home is your second home, and these girls are like my family. I come from an Italian background, so I collect family, and they appreciate that.