Jun 15

¿Qué pasa?

I was in the midst of a much-needed Spring cleaning of my home office when I stumbled across a true relic: a book called, “F’d Companies: Spectacular dot-com flameouts.” The book was published in 2002 by someone named Philip J. Kaplan.

I wouldn’t waste your time (or mine) except the handbook included a particularly nasty review of a one-time Peppercomm client called Quepasa.com. It also triggered an of-the-moment cautionary tale I thought might be educational (stay tuned). In his magnus opus, Kaplan skewered QuePasa.com, which he described as “…a portal and community site for Spanish speakers.” And that it was.

And, as was the case with about 45 or so other dotcoms we represented, Que Pasa paid us northwards of $40k per month to issue a press release a day to incite market interest. And it worked.

Que Pasa raised a staggering $68 million in their IPO.

But as Kaplan pointed out, Que Pasa offered “…free e-mail, news feeds, even chat rooms!” and, as he added: “….just about everything you needed $15 and a free Geocities website to accomplish.”

Ouch! Needless to say, when the technology bubble burst in April of 2000, Que Pasa said adios amigos to the business world.

Fast forward to today: start-ups are back in a big way and popping up more often than yet another laughably absurd Qanon conspiracy theory.

And truth be told, I fell prey to the very same circa 1999 dot-com double talk that a travel insurance start-up recently laid upon me.

The 2021 “version” put us on a microscopic retainer, but “promised” they’d raise massive amounts of money in their second round of funding and immediately increase the fee to $20k per month.

Not.

They never raised the money.

Instead they sent one of those classic “Dear Agency” e-mails in which the CMO stated in an impassive, impersonal note that “…..moving forward, we’ll be handling social, media  and influencer relations in-house.”

I was tempted to respond by asking, “Que Pasa?”

Alas they would ‘t understand the inside joke and I was too busy kicking myself for believing the same faux hype I’d heard 20 years ago.

So, caveat PR agency owner: Many of today’s start-ups aren’t very different than their dotcom predecessors.

Kick the tires. Be sure they do indeed have funding and, whatever you do, don’t buy into the lie that “…once second-round funding comes in, we’ll dramatically increase your fee.”

Trust me, you will NOT enjoy reading a Philip Kaplan follow-up. The inaugural was chock full of truly offensive, misogynistic and F-bomb laced prose.

And if there’s anything I despise, it’s an individual (or a firm) using the F bomb for pure shock value.

###

Mar 15

Good-Bye to You

I received my vaccine booster this past Saturday and, within 12 days, will be 99 and 44/100th percent immune from the ravages of COVID-19.😅

And while I’ve personally bid adieu to the scourge of our lifetime, I fear the ignorant, uniformed and belligerent will trigger a second wave of the deadly virus within the next 30 days (or sooner).

All one has to do is follow what’s happening in countries such as Brazil, Italy and France to see that the virus is absolutely delighted to perform an encore when safety precautions are ignored.

We can easily avoid what’s happening overseas but, as the ubiquitous Dr. Fauci warned Americans yesterday, we need to “mask-up” and continue to social distance. Good luck with that.

Thanks to our former president and his cultish followers, some 45 percent of Republicans say they will not wear masks.

To make matters worse, the “Immortals” (aka college kids on Spring Break) are partying hard sans masks and social distancing in what are obviously super spreader events.

Yesterday Fauci asked Trump to step up and ask The Base to wear masks.

That’s akin to asking New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to voluntarily step down in light of the ever-increasing number of sexual and workplace harassment suits he’s facing.

Neither Trump nor Cuomo will do the responsible thing.

So who will take the heat when, like Italy, Brazil and other parts of the world, we soon see wide swaths of Texas, Alabama and other bastions of The Base forced to shut down for a second time? The answer is obvious: Fox, et al, will concoct a number of ersatz reasons to blame Biden, the Democrats and the Left-Wing media.

I yearn for the day when I can say good-bye to COVID and ignorance alike but, alas, the latter’s become firmly ingrained (and enabled) by a Republican Party that has no moral compass whatsoever. And, like a rapidly spreading virus, it will only get worse.

###

Feb 22

You can always tell how smart someone is by what they laugh at

I’d like to claim credit for those insightful words but they belong to Tina Fey. And they’re just one of countless astute observations made about the tremendous power of humor in business in a brand new book.

Fey, along with other comedians, as well as some of America’s best known CEOs and leadership gurus all contributed pithy comments to the book, “Humor, Seriously: Why Humor is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life.”

The authors are two Ph.D’s who teach a REQUIRED course about the importance of humor in the workplace at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

They’re doing so because, based on their extensive research as a behavioral scientist and leadership guru, respectively, the authors have proof positive that comedy not only differentiates an individual, it’s also a key attribute of the very best leaders of today and tomorrow.

I’ve known this stuff for years since, as a highly mediocre stand-up and improvisational comedian, I’ve seen laughter help me in business to build rapport, increase creativity and, yes, even help close deals.

It’s also why we’ve trained our employees in stand-up, tied it in to our charitable fundraising and, hold for shameless self-plug, provide comedy workshops for clients of all kinds.

In fact, self-deprecating humor has been proven to make ALL leaders who embrace it seem more empathetic, vulnerable and, get this, intelligent (I’m an obvious exception to that rule).

But don’t take my word for any of the above.

Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, the co-authors of Humor, Seriously say, “Humor charms and disarms (in a business setting). Even small gestures of levity are powerful in negotiations.” (note to self: Try your New Jersey Transit material the next time you negotiate with a procurement officer). “That’s in part because they (humorous words and phrases) spark human connection — and when we connect as people, we often get more of what we both want.”

I dare say we all want to spark more human connections as we battle our way through this horrible period in history.

But the words comedy, laughter and humor actually scare many uptight business executives who take themselves and their work far too seriously.

I can think of one head of internal communications at a global corporation who, in response to my suggesting we conduct comedy training for their fast trackers in order to combat anxiety, depression and poor morale, said, “I’m just too afraid that, in this cancel culture world of ours, someone will say something during the training that would trigger a lawsuit of some kind.”

Possibly, but not if the proper parameters are established in advance. When we comedy train everyone from rocket scientists and lawyers to bankers and oncologists, we take a deep dive into each organization’s culture to determine what is, and isn’t, appropriate before any training occurs. So, to borrow the vernacular du jour, we make the training a “safe place to be.”

The results can be game-changing, especially for Gen Z and Millennial employees who have either been sheltering alone in an 800-foot studio apartment or moved back into the same bedroom they had in high school (which HAS to be brutal).

I could go on, but must insert another pearl from the authors: “Research PROVES that humor can be one of the most powerful tools we have for accomplishing serious things. Humor makes us APPEAR more competent and confident, strengthens relationships, unlocks creativity and boosts our resiliency during difficult times.”

I will end with a most excellent application of humor that was used by President Obama during a State of the Union Address (btw, just try to imagine the off-the-charts anxiety you’d be feeling in the moments leading up to delivering a speech of that magnitude). Here’s what Obama said when explaining the need for heightened government efficiency:

“The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in saltwater. But the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in fresh water.” Obama took a long pause and then added: “I hear it gets even more complicated when they’re smoked.”

Republicans and Democrats alike laughed out loud (and when’s the last time that happened?).

 

 

# # #

Feb 02

Saluting the Danderoo

We’ve made a point of never forgetting the passion and pride the late Virginia Dandridge Stevenson brought to work every day of her many years serving as my executive assistant at Peppercomm. 

In fact, this is the third consecutive year we’ve asked our employees to vote for the peer who best personifies The Danderoo’s qualities and attributes.

These include:

  • A great sense of humor
  • A never quit attitude
  • A heart of gold
  • A passion for enjoying life to its fullest
  • Pride for working at Peppercomm
  • Unflappable resilience (an especially critical attribute in light of the events of the past 11 months).

I’m pleased to announce that Ashley Grund is this year’s winner. Ashley will receive $250 for herself and an additional $250 to donate to the charity of her choice.

Among the many compliments shared by Ashley’s peers in selecting her for the award were these:

  • “She’s the definition of a team player.”
  • “She’s so positive and is a beautiful person, inside and out.”
  • “Ashley’s always there whenever you need an extra helping hand.”

As you can tell, Ashley is pretty special. And I’m willing to bet that, wherever she is at the moment, Dandy is giving Ashley Grund a well-earned and rousing round of applause.

Winning PR Week’s best workplace award and PR Daily’s Best travel & tourism campaign of the year are both very special. But nothing means more to me (and the many Peppercommers who fondly remember her time with us) than in announcing the latest recipient of The Dandy.

Congrats, Ashley!

###

Nov 17

Sunday Spammers

I hate spammers. You hate spammers. We all hate spammers. And yet their numbers seem to grow exponentially with each passing week

I’m contemptuous of Sunday spammers in particular. And I find myself especially peeved by those who don’t bother to conduct any due diligence before spamming you on a day that really should be sacrosanct (for believers and non-believers alike).

One Sunday spammer crossed the line about six weeks ago when he sent our agency marketing team (of which I am a proud, if non-participating, member) a group e-mail containing the salutation:

“Dear Steve and Ed….”

This got my attention since we have been free of anyone named Ed for well nigh on three years. I decided to respond in a way that people who know me will appreciate:

“Dear Dudley,” I wrote to the spammer. “Ed’s been busy of late, but I’m sure he’ll respond as soon as he comes up for air.”

Dudley sent me a quick thank you note.

Then, sure as rain, the agency marketing team received another unsolicited Sunday spam from Dudley the next week.

The salutation read: “Dear Steve and Ed. Just following up to see if you had 15 minutes free this coming Tuesday for a product demo that will absolutely blow your minds!”

Ignoring his hyperbole, I responded: “Hi Dud (I thought we’d reached the point in our spammer/spammee relationship where I could address him by his nickname). As I‘ve already mentioned, Ed handles these sorts of inquiries and will be in touch shortly.”

Dud once again thanked me.

Then, last Sunday, Dudley came knocking for a third time. His unsolicited pitch letter began: “Dear Steve and Ed: With Thanksgiving now just 15 days away, I wanted to lock in a 10-minute product demo that will knock your socks off.”

Not wanting my mind blown or socks blown off, I thought I’d throw Dud a curveball. I wrote: “Thanks, as always, for your follow-up. Unfortunately, Ed suffered a freak injury while raking leaves yesterday and has lost the use of the fingers he’d otherwise use to respond to your once-in-a-lifetime offer.”

I didn’t hear a peep from Dudley yesterday.

Perhaps he was taken aback by the note and wasn’t sure how an inveterate spammer should respond to a spammee reporting a key player having been placed on the disabled list?

I tried to go inside the head of a spammer. Should Dudley take the high road and ask for an address to send flowers to Ed?

Should he offer an immediate 30 percent discount on whatever the hell he was trying to sell in the first place?

It’s a spamming conundrum that demands resolution. Does…

– Dudley continue his spamming next Sunday?

– He make a note to circle back in, say, 30 days of Sunday’s? I mean, how badly could Ed have injured himself with a rake?

– Or does he take the high road and say to himself, “Dammit Dudley. Let’s just remove Steve’s and Ed’s names (as well the agency marketing team’s group e-mail address) from the database and move the heck on? They deserve some peace and quiet.”

Time alone will tell if I scammed the spammer and did my bit to keep our collective Sunday‘s free of at least one unwanted spam in our in box.

Oct 29

Stay Well with Kel

One of the true joys in the otherwise dismal seven-month period since the pandemic hit home has been the emergence of Kel, our superb IT director of 16 years, who has blossomed into our resident wellness guru at Peppercomm. 

Every two weeks or so, we’ll set aside 20 minutes from the usual, twice-weekly virtual staff meetings to have our “Stay Well with Kel” stretching, deep breathing and yoga training sessions. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to step back from the keyboard, stand, pick up a few light weights, roll one’s shoulders and neck and forget about, however fleetingly, our worries of the day.

So I thought now was a good time to give Kel a break from his normal routine and learn a little bit more about the man behind the machine…

How has COVID impacted your professional and personal lives?

I had to make a few adaptions to my workflow, e.g., not having a proper home office, I had to use my laptop on my lap for many endless hours, which after then affected my posture causing stiffness on my neck and shoulders. On a personal level, food shopping felt like going to the airport, not just any airport, but LaGuardia Airport.

As an IT professional, are there any unexpected ways your job has changed since the start of the pandemic?

Since video conferencing became the norm, I have only had a handful of actual voice only calls.

Which “meeting” platform do you prefer? Zoom, Teams, neither and why?

Teams is my favorite now; it does the things we need in an elegant and simple way. I like Zoom too, but the gallery view hurts my eyes.

How do you stay current with all that’s new in the ever-changing technology world?

Webinars, online keynotes. It is a never-ending process. But I would say that trying to stay current with technology can be costly and creates disruptions.

Aside from my usual ineptness with Zoom 101, what’s the most frequent request you receive from our employees?

There is no one most frequent request. This depends on what kind of client work we are doing at the time.

What’s Plan B if, god forbid, NYC goes off the grid? 

We are ready to go back to using smoke signals and African drums to replace all forms of communications with clients. I have been studying celestial navigation for years now.

Tell me about your fitness background, the classes you lead, etc? What got you started in fitness?

My fitness background from studying different martial arts throughout the years. The fitness movements I teach are not designed to help anyone get stronger or look tough or big. Instead, they are designed for functional mobility. I (virtually) teach a self-defense class, and there is nothing more challenging than that.

You lead our twice-a-month “Stay Well With Kel” sessions. Can you describe them for the reader and how do you intend to take us to the next level.

Twice a month, we take a few minutes to practice a few stretches and shoulder mobility exercises to improve our posture. This video explains it best.

What’s your secret to maintaining a positive, upbeat attitude? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you down or upset.

A long time ago, at the start of five-day hike through the Appalachian trails, my instructor had this to say: “this trip is what you make of it”. Work is what you make of it. Well I got a smile for everyone I meet.

How do you unwind? 

I love riding my bike, hiking in the outdoors, it’s a feeling that I can’t explain.

Oct 13

Indefatigable

In my quest to find just the right word to pay homage to the late Virginia Dandridge “Dandy” Stevenson, I chose the word indefatigable. Webster’s Dictionary defines indefatigable as “…someone or something that cannot be tired out.” That fits her like a glove. 

Dandy, who passed away some 26 months ago, was my long-time executive assistant. But labeling her as an executive assistant is akin to describing our country as experiencing a bit of unrest at the moment.

Dandy was so much more than an executive assistant.

She was tirelessly optimistic, creative, opinionated, energizing, protective and beyond proud of everything we’d built at Peppercomm. (Note: I hired Dandy in the immediate aftermath of her being downsized as the EA to the CEO of Porter Novelli. I knew a good thing when I saw it.)😊

Everyone who came into contact with Dandy over the years has a story to tell. She loved to be deeply involved in everything from creating new business decks and critiquing the type face and color on business cards to contributing creative ideas to our legendary holiday cards and videos as well as taking notes at staff meetings.

Her note-taking is arguably the best illustration of Dandy’s indefatigable DNA. She wouldn’t just distribute a mundane report of who said what at the meetings. Instead she’d channel a combination of Lewis Carroll, ee cummings and Franz Kafka to create some of the most original (and, yes, bizarre) employee communications known to man.

And I’m intent on keeping her memory alive.

To do so, we’ve created an annual Dandy Stevenson Award in which we ask our employees to nominate the one person who most closely defined Dandy’s multiple qualities, which we listed as:

  • A great sense of humor
  • A never quit attitude (See: Indefatigable above)
  • A heart of gold
  • A passion for living life to its fullest
  • A deep sense of pride in working for Peppercomm
  • Unflappable resilience (Note: Were she still alive, I have no doubt Dandy would have found myriad ways to keep herself and the agency energized as the days, weeks and months of this endless pandemic dragged on).

Last year’s recipient of the Dandy Stevenson Award was Hannah Robbins, one of our superb West Coast employees. Hannah received $250 for herself and another $250 to donate to her favorite charity (www.eastbayspca.org). Dandy would have loved that. She absolutely adored her two cats. 😉

In closing, one might describe me as indefatigable in continuing to pay homage to one of the most memorable and important persons in Peppercomm’s 26-year history and my professional life.

# # #

Sep 30

Nostalgia

Is there a better word to encapsulate what so many of us yearn for nowadays? And when I use the word nostalgia, I am most definitely NOT anxious to return to the country that existed prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. 

In case you’re interested, the word nostalgia comes from the Greek nostalgias (meaning “native land”) and algos (meaning suffering and grief).

Seventeenth century physicians believed nostalgia was a medical condition, by the way, caused by being away from one’s home country (the author doesn’t mention whether doctors of the day considered nostalgia a pre-existing condition or if United Healthcare of Padua saw it as a reimbursable expense).

I am nostalgic for many things, including:

1.) The country in which I grew up where mass shootings didn’t occur every other day, long-standing relationships between families and friends weren’t incinerated based upon one’s political views and each generation was confident they would fare better than the one before it.

2.) The US was seen as the envy of the world and not pitied by every country except Tanzania. Ya gotta love Tanzania for still allowing Americans to enter their country.

3.) Despite their many short comings, Presidents who left me with an overall feeling that they wanted to bring us together, regardless of political affiliations (Richard Nixon notwithstanding).

4.) A time when the vast majority of Americans understood the need to protect our environment for future generations.

5.) A time when politicians worked together to reach a compromise that would benefit the nation as a whole and not their individual career. (See: Tip O’Neill for a textbook example).

6.) A time when hope was a reality and not a pipe dream.

While I am nostalgic for what once was, I am painfully aware that that America was anything BUT great in oh-so-many ways:

1.) The Glass Ceiling was very much set in stone (see: Mixed metaphors).

2.) Black Americans, Native-Americans, Latino-Americans and the LGBTQ+ community were ignored, ridiculed, and or, often frightened for their lives.

3.) Big Tobacco was allowed to run wild and addict millions of unsuspecting Americans.

4.) Greed was good (See: The movie “Wall Street” and Gordon Gekko’s speech).

5.) Far too many public relations firms were all too happy to represent the interests of repressive regimes if the price was right (See: Hill & Knowlton and the government of Kuwait or “Wag the Dog.” Your choice).

6.) Management by fear was not only pervasive but often encouraged.

I could go on but I wonder if you, too, are nostalgic for the positive aspects of what once was (See: List A).

Please feel free to weigh in, add, subtract, agree or disagree. I only ask one favor: Do so in a civilized way.

###

 

Sep 10

Brilliant marketing. Bad listening

I’ve been a fan of Shinola watches (www.shinola.com) since the iconic American brand first set up shop in Detroit (and played a key role in the city’s attempted comeback). 

Since then, I’ve purchased four Shinola watches but, like many Americans, have cut back on discretionary spending since the Coronavirus ushered in the new normal.

But that hasn’t stopped Shinola from continuing to bombard me with new offers for new and expensive watches.

But, I must say, their latest marketing effort is positively brilliant. It’s aimed squarely at the middle child in any given family (which tells me that Shinola has way too much personal data about me since I’m a middle child).

But I’m not buying the “Middle Child Detrola” for two reasons:

  • It’s way too pricey at $600.
  • It looks just like a $99 Swatch (and I’d have to be paid to wear any watch that ugly).

I understand Shinola’s desperation. And desperate times do indeed call for desperate measures. But listening before acting is more important than ever.

The marketing folks at Shinola (or their agency) need to do a far better job of listening to what their audience does and does not want and can and cannot afford.

The clock is ticking. And the brand Shinola saves may very well be their own.

###

Sep 08

Review and Revert

Every now and then, the editors at Cody’s ConsultantSpeak Style Guide (not to be confused with the A.P. Style Guide, the Oxford English Dictionary or Roget’s Thesaurus) publish an updated Top 12 list of grossly abused and overused ConsultantSpeak words and phrases. 

For the uninitiated, ConsultantSpeak is the “inside baseball” jargon used by a large percentage of the professional working world.

I’m guessing it’s called ConsultantSpeak because, having represented a couple of The Big Four accounting firms and a host of strategy consultants, I was always hearing (and reading) new words and phrases that they, and they alone, understood (but were later adopted by the business community at large).

In any event, due to the Coronavirus, my editorial board has advised me to update my Top 12 list with three, new ConsultantSpeak words:

1.) Pivot: Every CEO, CMO or CCO is constantly peppering her or his commentary by declaring how critical it is to pivot the business and adapt to the New Normal.

2.) ReSet: See Pivot for explanation.

3.) Furlough: Many businesses had to announce they were being forced to furlough employees due to the pandemic’s impact on their bottom line. Sadly, and especially in the travel, tourism and hospitality sectors, the ConsultantSpeak word furlough has now been replaced by another F bomb: Fired.

But enough with the new additions.

Here’s the previous Top 12 list. See what you think. (Note: We follow the David Letterman approach of counting down from 12 to one):

12.) “There are no bad ideas”: Why does every brainstorm have to be prefaced with this introductory phrase? C’mon. There are LOTS of bad ideas. Why is it politically incorrect to say, “Wowza, Mike. You REALLY missed the mark with that thought! Ugh.”

11.) “Marinate”: We once employed an account supervisor who HAD to use the word marinate in every e-mail or phone call with clients or colleagues (“Let’s do this. We’ll marinate on the ideas and come back to you with a recommendation STAT!”).

10.) “Solutions provider”: Do you know of any white collar organization that doesn’t refer to itself as a solutions provider? Many of these very same companies also yearn to be a disruptor. Alas, few businesses have disrupted and problem solved at the same time. But there’s a pot of gold waiting for anyone who can.

9.) “Synthesize”: I can’t think of too many meetings I’ve attended in which someone didn’t suggest we synthesize our ideas before finalizing a program. Does synthesize mean prioritize? If so, why not say so?

8.) “Socialize”: Arguably my favorite ConsultantSpeak word, socialize simply means sharing ideas with teammates. So why not use the word sharing? The answer is obvious: Some consultant decided that synthesize sounded a whole lot more sophisticated (and, in consulting, the more sophisticated the word and phrase, the higher the fee).

7.) “Circle back”: “OK, well let us think through what you’ve told us and circle back with a recommended strategy.” Why do we have to circle back? Can’t we just come back (or go back, if you prefer)?

6.) Hard stop”: “Just a heads-up before we begin that I have a hard stop at 3pm.” Ok, well what time does your soft stop begin? Should we factor that into the conversation? And is a soft stop a two-minute warning for a hard stop?

5.) “Walk back”: “You’ll just have to tell the reporter we need to walk back that quote. It’s taken out of context.” You may disagree, but I believe the Trump Administration deserves full credit for popularizing the words walk back (as well as their ugly step sister, walking back).

4.) “Shifting sands”: You don’t hear this one very often, but it can be a killer when used properly. “Look we’re dealing with shifting sands and no one knows how this will turn out.” Not having grown up in the desert, I never knew sands shifted. But I immediately understood the meaning. And for the editors at Cody’s ConsultantSpeak Style guide, “That’s gold, Jerry. Gold.”

3.) Yada, yada”: Since we’re speaking of Seinfeld, I’ve often wondered if the Generation Z workforce knows why yada, yada, has replaced etc., etc., in most e-mails and text.” #ElaineBenes

2.) “Sunset”: This is a beautiful ConsultantSpeak word to let you know that an underperforming person, product or service is being shown the door (See: Furlough).

1.) “Review and revert”: Review and revert is the Babe Ruth of ConsultantSpeak. I didn’t invent it, but I fell like a ton of bricks for the phrase when a long forgotten BNY/Mellon client responded to my draft of a press release by telling me he’d review and revert. It simply doesn’t get any better than that.😎

So what say you? Do you agree with our editorial board’s Top 12 list? Would you suggest we drop some and add others?

If so, please socialize the blog, ask your friends to marinate on it before they synthesize their thinking and circle back to you with a response.

In other words, please review and revert.

###