McBee Strategic finds a new calling

Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post - Steve McBee, chief executive of McBee Strategic.

Uber, the sleek car service app. 1776, the D.C. start-up hub. DC Brau, the fast-growing local craft brewer.

And McBee Strategic, a lobbying and advisory firm that works for Fortune 500 companies such as American Airlines, Boeing and GE.

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It may sound like a game of One of These Things Is Not Like the Other, but it makes perfect sense to Ray Glendening, the new vice president of innovation at McBee who recruited the companies to provide beer and car rides home from his firm’s launch party next week celebrating its ramped-up digital communications division.

“They’re all new, modern, consumer-driven brands thriving on digital communications as their primary branding strategy,” he said.

And that is exactly the type of branding McBee is seeking to do for its clients, said Glendening, a former Democratic strategist who was hired to be the firm’s face for digital strategy. Glendening is best known among D.C.’s start-up community for co-founding, an online network that connects people with similar political views.

It is a vision the firm has not always prioritized. McBee, founded by former Democratic aide Steve McBee in 2002 with three clients, began as a lobby shop. It slowly added business units over the years: a government capital group that helps companies compete for government grants and contracts, a business advisory unit, and a research and analytics group. In late 2012, the firm acquired public affairs outfit Gibraltar Associates, and folded in its 20 employees and all its clients as the firm’s fifth business unit, the communications group. The advocacy and communications units together make up more than half of the firm’s overall revenue, though McBee declined to disclose exact figures.

McBee said the push for a digital strategy offering — which includes social media campaigns and messaging through interactive Web-based media channels to target specific audiences — is not to offset losses in traditional lobbying revenue. But the firm, like many others, is seeing a steady downward slide in lobbying earnings, a phenomenon tied largely to gridlock in Washington. McBee’s fees from lobbying slipped 12 percent between 2010 — a peak year for business on K Street — and 2012, going from $13.2 million to $11.6 million.

McBee now sees digital communications as a critical part of his business because companies are changing the way they interact with policy makers and consumers.

“We think the industry in Washington is about to be disrupted, and we think one of the major disrupters is going to be the introduction of digital media into how companies communicate and impact the environment in Washington,” McBee said. “Washington is quite a ways behind the rest of the world in how communications and media is done. It’s still considered innovative to drop an op-ed and throw some signage up on the Metro. . . . I think you can do so much more for so much less cost using digital media. We want be on the front side of that.”

The firm recently helped unveil a major digital project for Gilead Sciences, a Foster City, Calif.-based biopharmaceutical company that makes, among other drugs, treatments for HIV/AIDS. Gilead is partnering with Emory University’s school of public health and other health and advocacy groups to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS; as part of that campaign, McBee helped conceptualize and build, an online trove of resources including data about the prevalence of HIV at the national, state and city level, as well as information about HIV testing and treatment centers. The firm drummed up mentions of the online tool in The New Republic and Buzzfeed, Glendening said.

In a sharp contrast to the firm’s roots, McBee is now looking to hire programmers, Web designers and other technology specialists to beef up its digital communications manpower.

“It’s an interesting time to recruit,” McBee said. “That talent doesn’t really exist in Washington. We’re using our networks in Silicon Valley. It’s changing the complexion of the company.”

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