Apr 16

Call me an advocate

plusssmbinEvery six months or so, I have the distinct pleasure of breaking bread with one of our industry’s preeminent thought leaders. This is a gentleman who pioneered strategic partnerships, enjoyed countless successes and reinvented himself many times over.

So, I was more than curious when he recently shared a story with me.

He’d been approached to join one of our industry’s top trade groups.
“I said no way,” he told me.
“You didn’t see the cost-benefit ratio?” I asked.
“I don’t want to join a PR industry group because I don’t want to be known as a PR firm anymore,” he responded.

I know what he means. We abandoned the PR moniker about three years ago, and now describe ourselves as an integrated strategic communications firm (whatever that means) and now have full advertising capabilities.

PR firms everywhere are struggling with the same name game. The best, and brightest, have expanded into many new fields and now routinely compete with ad agencies, digital shops, word-of-mouth specialists— you name it. Sometimes I half expect to be told we lost a pitch to a plumbing outfit that offered to handle the prospect’s PR and HVAC repair.

I don’t get hung-up on the name game. In my mind, it’s easy to differentiate what my firm does from just about every other one. And, I use words and visuals that wouldn’t occur to most.

I see Peppercomm first, and foremost, as an advocate. But, we’re no longer solely an advocate for our client. We also represent the best interests of the multiple audiences our client is trying to engage.

So, we listen to the wants and needs of each.

I then draw an intersection on a white board. I call one line ‘Client Street.’ I describe the other one as ‘Audience Avenue.’ And I sketch the figure of a traffic cop in the middle. ‘That’s Officer Peppercomm in the middle,’ I say. ‘It’s our job to understand exactly how and where you and your audiences need to meet. If we don’t listen long and hard to both of you, one of two things will happen:

- You’ll pass each other by (and there will be no interaction at all).
- You’ll collide head-on (with the consumer suing you for reckless and unnecessary messaging).

Getting back to my buddy’s desire to distance himself from PR, I often wonder what our industry trade groups and media must be thinking right now:

- Does PR Week (which already has a naming problem since it’s a daily and a monthly, but not a weekly) become MarCom Week? Ugh.
- Does the Public Relations Society of America become the Engagement League (since everyone and his brother wants to engage in authentic conversations with audiences).
- Does PR News become U News since everything nowadays is all about personalizing the messaging in order to become an important part of each, and every, audience member’s life?

Beats me. I’m happy directing traffic and being an advocate. I’ll let my breakfast buddy and the industry trades and media figure out how they want to handle the name game. One thing’s for sure, though: PR is just too limiting a term to accurately define who we are, and what we do.

Apr 14

Why male role models are more critical than ever

Bart_Simpson-Role_ModelHave you noticed how it’s become both politically correct and socially acceptable to bash males early and often during the workday? I know many men have.

As a sort of mild rebuttal, I thought I’d share a compelling argument for the growing NEED of more male role models from a most unlikely source.

A New York Times feature quoting a Major League Baseball survey said only 8.3 percent of players on Opening Day identified themselves as African-American or black. That compares to an all-time high of 19 percent in 1986. In fact, there are fewer blacks in MLB than at any time since 1959.

So, what’s that got to do with male role models, you ask? Bear with me.

Like many other know-it-alls, I’d always assumed the reasons for black flight from baseball to football and basketball were obvious: the latter sports were just a whole lot faster and cooler.

Well, according to the Times, that’s NOT why blacks have abandoned baseball. Rather, the reasons are two-fold:

- Division I college baseball programs offer only 11.7 scholarships per team and those few are divided among many, many players. As a result, says the Times, choosing baseball over scholarship-rich football or basketball programs made little sense to gifted young athletes from low-income families.
- As the Yankees’ C.C. Sabathia told the Times,  “Baseball’s a sport where you learn how to play catch with your dad. There’s a lot of single-parent homes in the inner city, so it’s hard to get kids to play.” As an aside, a SmartCEO profile of FUBU founder Daymond John said he was raised by a single parent after his father left home when he was 10. John turned to clothes instead of Little League, and the fashion industry’s gain became MLB’s loss.

I can relate to the second scenario. My uncle, Buddy, made it his business each and every Saturday morning to take my cousin, Barry, and me, into our backyard beginning when we were three or four years of age. He taught us how to catch, hit, throw and run the bases.

Buddy also made sure Barry and I played Saturday Morning League, Farm League and Little League baseball. While neither of us made it to the Bigs, we had a male role model who might have enabled it. That’s a distinct competitive advantage.

So, the next time you pick up a book asking if men are still necessary, read another business magazine extolling the countless reasons why women make better leaders or overhear a co-worker say something like, “What do you expect? He’s a man,” think about ALL of the missing male role models in so many American families today. And, think about the impact the missing male role model is having on the development of someone’s son or nephew.

Forget about whether the kid will play major league baseball or not. Boys need the steadying hand, guidance and counseling that can ONLY come from a trusted and competent male role model.

OK, ladies. Go for it. Bash me for being just another typically boorish Neanderthal.

Apr 10

Truth In Advertising (A rebuttal)

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer Matt Lester.

matt TVSince 1912, the credo of McCann Erickson has been, ‘Truth Well Told.’ I believed in it when I started there as a young art director working on the Coca-Cola account, and I still believe in it today, years after leaving the company. As far as I’m concerned, it’s what every advertising writer, art director and creative director should strive for: Tell the story of a brand in an intelligent, engaging, emotionally bonding and, yes, truthful way.

Modern history can be told in a series of impactful, truthful tag lines, alongside the advertising that goes with them. The most perceptive lines are a reflection of their time, mirroring the societal comportment of the moment in a way no one had heard before, yet everyone can instantly relate to. Some speak directly to the zeitgeist, emphatically echoing the defining social spirit of the time, and some go so far as to change it and the collective dialogue for generations to come.

The feminist movement of the ‘70s was given a calling card with L’Oreal’s ‘Because I’m Worth It.’ To this day it instills self-confidence, pride and moxie in women around the globe.

Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ splashed every shoe box they sold with inspiration and, along the way, brought out that little bit of big-time-athlete in us all.

In 1984, Apple computer was launched by the most famous Super Bowl spot in history with the claim: ‘On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984.”’ That seminal spot ran just once, and the brand that ‘Thinks Different’ went on to change the world.

For nearly 20 years, who hasn’t reacted to MasterCard’s ‘Priceless’ campaign, with its narratives centered around one of our universal truths: meaningful experiences with family and friends trump money.

Of course, nothing ruins great creative more quickly and thoroughly than a bad product. There are those times when, after creative is developed and executed, quality control drops the ball or service just generally declines. Unfortunately, “truth well told” can quickly become “lies well sold,” and those once lauded products just as quickly become part of a standup bit in the blink and twinkle of an ad agency’s eye. The solution? Come up with a solution. The offending agency should have been the first to honestly admit the problem, then go about fixing it.

And, needless to say, public relations campaigns aren’t immune to this phenomenon. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re dishonest. That’s just too simple. When good advertising goes bad, you can’t always blame the creative. That’s just too simple.

Now, that’s truth in advertising.


Apr 08

A germ of truth in a Petri dish full of lies

youre-on-diet-coke-realisticI’m an entrepreneur who plies his craft in the wonderful world of public relations. I’m paid to generate factual and accurate information either directly to the consumer or through an intermediary, AKA the media. People often confuse PR with advertising, but they are two different animals.

Advertising continues to make totally bogus and unrealistic claims in its messaging, while we end users experience something far less desirable.

The most recent instance of such a transgression occurred when Diet Coke decided to connect with my fellow entrepreneurs through a campaign, titled: ‘You’re on Diet Coke.’.

You can peruse the details, but the gist of Diet Coke’s ad strategy was to position their product as THE ideal solution for the time-starved, information-overloaded entrepreneur who needs to get mountains of work completed before sunrise.

As might be expected, health experts objected, suggesting that Diet Coke was knowingly encouraging my fellow Terps to add Diet Coke to their existing list of such stimulants as kale, Rosa Labs’ Soylent and, of course, caffeine.

Instead of admitting the truth, a Diet Coke spokesperson said the ad targeted, “ambitious young achievers from all walks of life and the ‘You’re On’ reference served as a nod to Diet Coke’s ‘uplift for those moments when you need to be on.” Yeah, sure. And, the Mets will win the World Series this year.

Had I been counseling Diet Coke, I’d have advised them to close the gap between their value proposition and the actual end user experience. Maybe a headline that read: “Need to finish that business plan tonight? Easy. Wash down two Adderall with a Diet Coke and call us in the morning. And, let’s all raise a glass to your Series A funding!”


I’m pleased to report I’ve found a glimmer of sunshine in advertising’s otherwise cloudy skies. And, it comes from JetBlue, whose new campaign, “Air on the side of humanity” tells it like it is.

Sadly, though, JetBlue is a rare germ of truth in a Petri dish full of false advertising promises.

United’s “Fly the friendly skies” is laugh out loud funny considering the airline’s consistently horrible rankings in annual customer service rankings. I recently dealt with a five-hour plus United delay in Las Vegas because a broken part wasn’t available at McCarren, and had to be flown in from Newark! That prompted me to suggest a new destination-specific motto for United: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Especially United Aircraft.”

McDonald’s is just as bad. Their brand promise is, “I’m lovin’ it!” I suggest they be more specific, and rotate the word it with others, such as: high blood pressure, obesity and stroke.

And Coca-Cola’s new slogan is, “The world of ahh.” Now, that’s just two letters away from authenticity. Had it read, “The world or argh”, we’d be in business. Coke’s Argh could refer to everything from the bloated, unclean feeling one experiences after consuming a Happy Meal, or it reflect the pain of having to buy a whole new wardrobe to accommodate a far larger frame.

I walk the talk when it comes to authentic taglines. Whenever I perform comedy on stage, I warn audiences to “Expect less.” And, I deliver on that promise each, and every, time.

And, after Crain’s New York Business named Peppercomm’s the city single best workplace (topping 930 other competitors, thank you very much), it provided us with an authentic slogan for the following year: “Nowhere to go but down.”

When will marketers finally wise up and align their messaging with the actual audience experience? I’d suggest the 12th of Never as the entire industry’s response to the question.

Apr 07

Your listening tour is experiencing an indefinite delay

NJTddddI had to chuckle when I read New Jersey Transit’s most recent passenger newsletter, titled, ‘FYI.’

The chuckle was prompted by the lead story. It was written by Ronnie Hakim, NJT’s brand new executive director, and titled, ‘It’s an honor to serve you.’

In the text, Hakim reports that she’s spent every day since March 1st riding the system, introducing herself and listening to what we commuters have to say. I guess it’s Hakim’s version of Hillary Clinton’s legendary, if ill-fated, listening tours of 2008.

NJT’s new top kick says that, when our paths ultimately cross, she’d like me to tell her what’s on my mind and how ‘we’ can build a first-class transportation experience together. I think that line in particular elicited a laugh out loud chortle.

Hakim noted that, in her 23 years of service at the New York MTA and nearly four years at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, her focus had centered on three critical tasks:

- Identifying priorities
- Motivating people
- Achieving results

She plans to do the same at NJT.

I honestly wish Hakim well in her new assignment. But, I’d also counsel her to begin by managing rider expectations with authentic language and realistic goals.

For example, we will NEVER, EVER make NJT a first-class transportation experience. I’d settle, instead, for achieving a third-class, third world experience. That would be an upgrade.

And, I think it’s easy to identify realistic priorities:

- Reduce the endless number of indefinite delays.
- Encourage conductors to treat passengers with some semblance of respect instead of contempt.
- Provide rest rooms that don’t make the black hole of Calcutta seem inviting in comparison.

I’d also suggest Hakim resurrect NJT’s tagline from a few years back. But, I’d add one key word to the brand promise:

‘Getting you there (eventually).’

Consumers respect brands that own up to the reality of the experience they provide. So, if it’s less-than-stellar, admit it.

Hakim should apologize for the role her transportation system has played in spoiling so many commuters’ days for so many years.

And, she shouldn’t enumerate vague, feel good goals. Instead. She should tell me the specific, concrete steps you’ll put in place to at least make the NJT commuting experience palatable.

Be honest with me, and I’ll lighten up on the various Tweets and Facebook postings I’ve written over the years. Until then, I suspect the only time our paths will cross will be on @NJTransitSucks.

Apr 03

The Spoiler

Few things infuriate me more than brands who promise one thing in their messaging and then provide a very different, often abysmal, end user experience.

unfriessssssssssssnd1Coca-Cola, for example, promises happiness. But, their empty-calorie drinks only expand Americans’ waistlines while the sugary liquid rots away our teeth.

There are many other brands who do the same thing (either hoping their upbeat words will somehow entice people to forgive their lousy service or, perhaps, simply not caring one way or the other).

No business, though, can match United Airlines for the sheer hubris of their message (‘Fly the friendly skies’) or the fresh hell of their actual service.

aaaaaaaaaaaaaIMG-20140402-00056I’m writing this in the midst of a typical United Airlines Twilight Zone episode.

United Flight 1271 from Las Vegas to Newark was scheduled to depart yesterday morning at 10:57 am (PDT) and arrive at 7:01pm (EDT).  “That’s a surprisingly quick three-hour, 51-minute trip,” our enthusiastic captain informed us as we buckled up.

And, then, as sure as lost wages in Las Vegas, the captain spoke again: “Ah, ladies and gentlemen, as I’m sure you can appreciate United Airlines employs some of the finest flight mechanics in the world. Well, one of these eagle eyes just spotted something amiss in the cockpit. So, please pack up your belongings and de-plane. We’ll keep you posted. Oh, and thanks again for choosing United as your carrier.”

And, so we de-planed. And, we sat. And sat. And sat.

Finally, a gate attendant announced, “Well, the mechanics have found the problem. It’s a part problem. But the problem with the part problem is, well, we don’t have any extra parts here in Las Vegas. So, we’re checking ALL of our hubs to see if they have the problem part. Once we determine that they do have it, why we’ll put it on the first available flight headed this way. Oh, and once it does arrive, we figure the mechanics will need two hours to install it. We do thank you for your patience AND for flying the friendly skies.”

Trust me. Had I been holding that missing part at that precise moment, I would have whipped it right at the gate attendant’s head.

Instead, I continued to sit.

As I fiddled my thumbs, I thought of a new, unique and memorable nickname for United: ‘The Spoiler.’

United: ‘Give us the opportunity, and we WILL spoil your business trip or vacation. Give us the opportunity, and we WILL spoil your day, your week, your month or even your year.”

United: ‘The Spoiler.’

Apr 02

How to Hire Your Next Communications Agency

Today’s guest post is by WALEKPeppercommer Brian Hickey.

keep-calm-and-make-the-right-choice-3If you’re a professional services firm and shopping for a communications firm, you’ve confronted the pros and cons of an in-house approach to communications, which affords its own advantages and disadvantages.

The code for successfully outsourcing communications isn’t a secret.  But it does require some key ingredients requiring specific input from both the client and the communications agency:

1.  Begin at the end.  A grasp of agency economics is critical tool to assess compatibility and prospects for long-term success.  Understanding the economics of the agency you’re contemplating hiring is crucial.  What kind of business does this communications agency wish to build?  What are they trying to accomplish, and how will you factor into their pursuit of profitability and growth?  Will your business be firmly seated among the top third of the agency’s clientele, or will you be somewhere in the middle of a long list?

2.  Let your communications agency succeed.  You can’t just hand the reins to your new agency… you need to provide the horse, too.  A successful firm/agency partnership will hinge on the client having the right people and processes in place to permit the agency to succeed at what it’s been hired to do.  At the least, this means clear communication channels between the agency and key marketing people.  Also critical is providing access to someone in the firm with broad institutional knowledge.

3.  Be clear; be strategic.  Professional services firms and their agencies can do themselves a big favor by establishing clear expectations from the outset.  What do we want to accomplish by working together?  What’s included in the fee, what’s not?  The best outcomes for outsourced communications efforts will be found in firms that have linked their underlying business strategy to a clearly defined communications strategy that links up to the practice-group level.

4.  Prune where you must.  A communications agency taking on a new professional services client is often surprised to find themselves inheriting a clandestine relationship between an individual partner deep in the firm’s galaxy of professionals and a second, competing communications firm.  Often the partner is happy, the communications interloper is happy, and you, the in-house marketer, have one less headache.  You’ll need to deal with that at some point if you bring a new agency on.

5.  Stay in your lane.  Given the day-to-day hurly-burly of professional services marketing life, it’s not surprising to find “drift” occurring in a firm/communications agency relationship.  It happens just as often among in-house teams.  Keeping tabs on how the external communications team is doing relative to the targeted practice groups and desired objectives will help you avoid that.

6.  Think small.  The best results start with small steps.  Agree with your new agency from the outset that you will focus on a finite number of partners in a clearly defined space.  This is your “beta” group.  Success begets success.  Don’t underestimate the ricochet effect a few high-quality placements for one practice can have in creating buy-in from recalcitrant partners.

7.  Expect knowledge.  At the risk of stating the obvious, a communications agency professional should understand precisely not only how your partners work, but how your firm and your clients’ businesses work.  There are no shortcuts – i.e. they either understand the difference between an underwriter and an issuer or they don’t.  If they don’t, they have no business sitting down with the head of your securitization practice.

8.  A fast start.  You want a firm that hits the ground running from day one.  While planning is absolutely necessary, it should represent a straight line to results, not a detour.  An agency’s job is to help you become a star within your firm.  Fast results are a great first step toward that objective.  Trust your gut.

9.  Consistent results.  At the end of the day, communications is about brand support, which means saying the right things, in the right places to the right audiences on an ongoing, consistent basis.

The secret to hiring the right communications firm is no secret: Measure twice, cut once.

Apr 01


New York, April 1, 2014 — Peppercomm today announced that George Washington, the nation’s first president, had joined the firm as chief ethics officer.

The position is Washington’s first since passing away in December, 1799.

April fool aaaaaaassaWashington with Peppercomm Co-founder and CEO, Ed Moed.

Steve Cody, Co-founder of CEO of Peppercomm, noted that Washington was selected after a lengthy interview process.

“We knew every global agency had already cornered the market on any living ex-politico, so we decided to dig deeper as it were,” he explained.

Stiff Competition
Cody said that, in addition to Washington, his firm had interviewed many other deceased candidates, including:

- Winston Churchill (“The cigar-smoking was a deal-breaker.”)
-  Mahatma Gandhi (“The sandals revealed surprisingly ugly feet that we felt would be off-putting to clients.”)
- St. Francis of Assisi (“The man turned out to be a one-trick pony. His only real area of expertise was animals.”)

Cody said that, like so many other former Inside-the-Beltway types, Washington would serve as both an adviser to current clients and help with new business development.

“That said, we’re not letting George near any clients or prospects in the oral hygiene field,” noted Cody. “I’ve seen some bad teeth in my day, but George’s are beyond the pale. Literally.”

Like quite a few other Peppercommers, Washington will telecommute from home. “He’ll continue to be headquartered in his Fairfax, Va., grave, but will periodically visit our offices or join a new business team on-site when needed.”

Roles & Responsibilities
Cody expects Washington to have an immediate impact on the firm’s culture as well as its ability to serve clients.

“What other agency can say they have an ethics officer who won a war, served as the first president of his country AND never told a lie?” mused Cody. “No offense, but not even that annual Trust Barometer can trump George’s cherry tree story.”

When asked to comment on his new assignment, Washington responded to reporters’ questions by knocking once for ‘yes’ on a Peppercomm conference room table and twice for ‘no.’

Based upon those knocks, Washington indicated he is pleased to once again be contributing to society, believes that slavery was, indeed, wrong and still sees the Beatles as little more than a passing fad.

George 2.0
The former president has already activated multiple social media channels including his own Facebook page, LinkedIn profile and a blog entitled, ‘FirstInTheHeartsOfHisCountrymen.com.” His Twitter handle is @RottenTeeth.

Martha, Washington’s wife, is less than thrilled with the former president’s presence on Twitter. “She’s worried I might become the next Anthony Weiner,” he grinned, exposing a mostly toothless upper jaw. “And, she told me she’d leave me for Benedict Arnold if I ever started to Snap-Chat.”

Peppercomm is an integrated strategic communications firm headquartered in New York, with offices in London and San Francisco. Washington is said to be advocating for a fourth office to be opened in Valley Forge, Pa.

Mar 31

Food, glorious food.

Today’s guest post is by  Greg Schmalz, president, Schmalz Communications.

Movie-MCC-FinaleThe calendar may very well indicate it’s spring, but the weather has been far from spring-like. Sure, there’s been an occasional nice day with sun and some warm temps, but overall, the northeast has been cold and I have lost count of how many snowstorms we’ve endured.

Combine bad weather (who wants to brave a snowstorm unless they have to?) with a volatile economy and restaurant owners, among other retailers, have felt the pinch. Unfortunately, a high number struggle to survive and too many mom and pop restaurants and diners have closed their doors for good.

Meals at restaurants sometimes cost three times as much as the same meal prepared at home, consumers have been tightening their belts and cutting expenses wherever possible to make ends meet.

According to an industry analyst from market research firm NPD, there could be light – make that daylight – at the end of winter’s long dark tunnel. Data shows that more than 77 percent meals were prepared at home when the recession begin back in 2008. That number rose to nearly 80% last November.

However, consumers say they will dine out less frequently next year. Why? Not because of finances. Because of concerns about health.  The most recent survey found that 60 percent of consumers said they want to eat more healthfully in the next year, rising from 50 percent of respondents in the first quarter.

So while the weather may clear up, another storm is brewing for the already beleaguered restaurant industry.

But what about you… have your dining habits changed over this winter? Are you considering more healthy choices when dining out in the future?