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How should Pittsburgh tell its own robotics story?

Pittsburgh Robotics Network tapped homegrown marketer Joe Zeff to tell the world about the region's industry prowess — you know, all that "robotics capital of the world" talk.

Pittsburgh Robotics Network partners with Joe Zeff Design.

(Courtesy photo)

With some industry leaders pointing to a lack of outside marketing as a reason for why Pittsburgh isn’t a bigger tech hub, a Pittsburgh native with a globally renowned design firm will tackle a persistent challenge for the local industry.

Pittsburgh Robotics Network announced last week that it had formed a new partnership with Joe Zeff Design, a local creative agency that previously worked with the network to make an interactive website mapping out Pittsburgh’s growing robotics industry. This new partnership aims to solidify that previous work and give more network members and partner a chance to share their expertise and build Pittsburgh’s brand as the robotics capital of the world.

So, how can a city best tell its own tech story? Here’s how Zeff is going to try.

A homegrown marketer’s quest

Joe Zeff, president of Joe Zeff Design, operated his company out of New York City until last year, when he moved back to his hometown of Pittsburgh after conducting a marketing campaign called “The Pittsburgh Test.” Promoted as a monthlong experiment Zeff conducted in July 2021, The Pittsburgh Test was a chance to see whether or not a relocation to Pittsburgh after two decades in New York was feasible. The question Zeff and his creative agency faced in that choice was: Are there compelling stories in Pittsburgh that can benefit from the skills and tools a company like Joe Zeff Design offers? The results, as reported on the Pittsburgh Technology Council website, were positive, and Zeff moved his business to Pittsburgh full-time in October 2021.

“I’ve always loved my hometown, but was skeptical there was enough here to match what we had in the New York City area. Our monthlong Pittsburgh Test dispelled that notion. One of the biggest surprises was the technology ecosystem, particularly robotics,” Zeff told Technical.ly via email. “I’m seeing tremendous opportunity to make robotics less intimidating — the technology behind it, the benefits offered, the opportunities created for people and companies. It’s an industry poised to stand tall as the economy whipsaws, so from a business perspective it makes sense, not just for my company, but for anyone.”

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Even before launching his own agency, Zeff had a long career in optimizing storytelling in the digital era. He began as the graphics director at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette before moving on to positions at leading news companies like The New York Times and Time magazine. Just before launching Joe Zeff Designs, he was the president and chief creative officer of Scroll Motion Blue, which he says built apps for clients for the likes of Apple, General Motors and Genentech. And through his current role, he’s worked on with top global companies such as Amazon, American Express, AT&T, Google, JPMorgan Chase and WPP.

As for what Zeff and his agency will be doing in this new partnership, in a statement, PRN Executive Director Joel Reed noted that Zeff will help the organization develop and amplify the messaging around Pittsburgh’s robotics sector, with the hope of drawing more attention to the city from job seekers, investors and tech firms both large and small.

“We’re moving from a project focus to strategy, identifying ways to cut through the clutter and showcase Pittsburgh and its ecosystem. Next week we’ll be in Detroit with a booth at Automate, the largest automation conference in North America,” Zeff said via email regarding specifics of the new partnership. “[Newly hired] Advanced Construction Robotics CEO Danielle Proctor will be there, too — not in person, but through an augmented reality experience through which attendees will learn from virtual Danielle how being in Pittsburgh has benefitted her company, and how their products make worksites safer and smarter. We’re also planning a series of workshops to help PRN members fill gaps in their sales, marketing and training using effective business storytelling.”

Putting ‘a human face on the robotics industry’

Zeff’s work in telling the story of Pittsburgh tech comes at a time when local founders are clamoring for a way to put the city on the map more — something many think will draw in new money and talent to the region. Already, the city has shown significant signs of progress with a favorable ranking from a Startup Genome report last year to increased venture capital deal sizes at the start of this year. But while that concrete data is certainly painting an early story of success for Pittsburgh tech, Zeff wants to help outsiders see how they could fit in here by putting “a human face on the robotics industry.”

And perhaps Zeff, who has wide-ranging experience with markets and clients that have shaped the global tech industry, knows how to tell this local story best.

“I’ve never lived or worked anywhere more accessible than Pittsburgh. It’s big enough for innovators to thrive, building billion-dollar companies and developing world-changing ideas, yet small enough that you can bump into one of those people at Giant Eagle and strike up a friendly conversation. People freely collaborate here,” he wrote in an email. “At the same time, the landscape can be fragmented at times, with overlapping organizations competing for attention and philanthropic funding. Combine that with a bit of an inferiority complex, that for whatever reason because something is happening in Pittsburgh and not in New York City or San Francisco people think it’s not as good. That’s simply not the case. These stories need to get out there, and that’s a big reason I came home.”


Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments. -30-
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