Oct 12

Saab Story

Saab As I was working out this morning and listening to my favorite classic rock radio station, I heard what initially seemed to be a clever spot from Saab.

The voiceover narration began by lamenting the "sameness of our modern lives." The TV shows all seem to have the same basic plots, said the disembodied voice. Same thing goes for major motion pictures, which all seem to be remakes of 35-year-old sitcoms. Saab punctuated the point by reminding listeners that we all seem to wear pretty much the same style of clothing these days.

But, when the spot ended, I realized that something wasn’t ringing true. And then it hit me. As the narrator bemoaned the sameness of today and contrasted that drabness with the unique qualities of new Saab automobiles, the background music was The Who’s 1969 song entitled, "I’m Free." Bingo. I realized what was wrong with the spot. In an attempt to differentiate their client’s car by talking about its unique safety qualities and stylish curves, the ad guys goofed by using the same advertising approach every other car company has been using of late: leveraging songs from rock and roll dinosaurs such as The Who, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones to connect with baby boomers who still think of themselves as being hip and relevant.

How sad, I thought. Saab had come so close to breaking through the clutter by correctly positioning its car’s very different attributes. Instead, Saab blew it by using the same old rock songs everyone else uses.

So, in the end, Saab marketers ended up embracing the very sameness they criticized in their copy.

Oct 11

Can’t Buy Me Love (or Job Security)

Well, well. The vaunted Yankees, with baseball’s largest payroll, went down in flames last night in Anaheim. No surprise, really. This really isn’t a team but, rather, an amalgamation of high-paid hit and pitch men. Angels_1

As a longtime Mets fan who enjoyed seeing the Bronx Bombers’ demise, I still see the Yankees as a great image and reputation case study, especially when one views the uncertain status of Messrs. Cashman, Torre and Stottlemyer. When they inked their contracts with George Steinbrenner the three had, in effect, made a pact with the devil. Steinbrenner’s "win at all costs" mentality placed a tremendous strain on both managers and players. All knew that each game could be their last if the Yankees didn’t go all the way to the World Series and win it.

Steinbrenner’s abusive management style may achieve short-term gains but not long-term success. I know first hand; I once worked for a Steinbrenner-type executive at J. Walter Thompson. I agreed to join the firm because of the financial package that the CEO dangled in front of me.

That turned out to be a very bad move for me. And I have to believe that, deep down, Torre rues the day he made his pact with Steinbrenner.

Healthy organizations don’t rely on fear to motivate employees. They build talent from within and nurture it. The best organizations encourage risk-taking and see failure as a smart, healthy and productive way for employees to become better.

Shooting for the stars is fine as long as the organization is patient and empowering. Working for a CEO who screams, shouts and threatens is no way to live, especially when life is so short. In addition to poisoning the internal organizational culture, management-by-fear has a toxic effect on image and reputation. Who would want to work for a firm that emulated the Yanks’ style? What clients or customers would want to do business with employees who are paralyzed by fear? And what competitor wouldn’t delight in besting this sort of company at every opportunity?

I realized my mistake and left JWT after a short while. I hope Torre and company pack up their kits and head somewhere else. Money can’t buy love. As the Yankees are demonstrating on the national sports stage, it can’t buy security either.

Oct 09

UPS = Unbelievably Poor Service

To: Michael Eskew, CEO of UPS
From: A former customer
Re: Big Disappointment from Big "Brown"

Sorry to bother you, I can only imagine how busy you
are. I have some suggestions on how you
should run your business. By the way,
for the record, I have no experience running a global company. Furthermore, I am not an expert by any means
in the art of package delivery or supply chain services.

With that said, I do have a few recommendations based on
some first-hand experiences that I have had with your company. Recently, your company lost or
"misplaced" or "failed to deliver" a package (whatever your
employees want to call it) that had time-sensitive tickets to a major sporting
event. Besides seriously disappointing
the people who were planning to attend the game, your company’s failure to
deliver the package by the agreed upon delivery date resulted in the loss of
about $200. Needless to say, it’s not a
great deal of money but enough that it is worth mentioning.

However, it’s not the initial mistake of losing the package
that is so disappointing. After all,
mistakes do happen. Instead, it is the
way your customer service reps handled the situation. To make a long story short, after hours of
being transferred from one rep to another, they finally conceded that there was
nothing they could do to rectify the situation, and besides refunding me the
delivery charge, I was told I needed to live with the disappointment. No joke.

So, here’s my recommendation for you. Stop spending millions of dollars on your
"Brown" ad campaign. All the
marketing in the world won’t convince a disappointed customer that UPS is
worthy of their business. Stop investing
in technology upgrades unless you can invent something that prevents you from
ever losing packages again. Stop
worrying about your competition and what they’re up to next.

Instead, have someone sit down with every customer rep in
your vast organization and make sure they know how to use common sense and help
someone who has just been royally screwed over by the missteps of your
organization. Have these people learn
that the power of one customer’s disappointment is more powerful than a
compelling 30-second spot during on TV. Tell them that all customers, especially those being royally screwed,
should be treated as though the company’s bottom line depended on their

Mr. Eskew, your organization, and its reputation, is only as
strong as your weakest link. And that
weak link just cost you a customer. 


Oct 06

Image Repair 101

Class, today we’re going to examine how and why our country’s image and reputation is so poor in most countries around the world. We’ll also be discussing how we might begin to turn our negative image around, perhaps by drawing on case study examples from the private sector. As you know, these are key discussion points in our Image Repair 101 syllabus.

Before we examine the root causes of our country’s poor image, however, let’s discuss yesterday’s Senate vote to begin regulating the detention, interrogation and treatment of prisoners held by the American military.

Despite vehement White House opposition, 90 of 99 senators passed the new measure, which is great. It’s a smart, first step in what will surely be a very long road toward restoring our country’s image abroad. With these new guidelines in place, we should see much less abuse of the type inflicted by Lynndie England  and her cohorts at Abu Ghraib prison, and much more of the caring and compassion our country had hitherto been known for.

And, class, looking at the private sector for a second, how long do you think the average CEO would hold onto her/his job by totally ignoring the organization’s image in key markets? Does anyone believe that alienating potential partners and customers is a smart way to transact business or to create positive goodwill for your institution? Hmmm, no hands are being raised. 

Now that the Senate has brought clarity to how our military should be treating prisoners of war, let’s hope that the House of Representatives follows suit so we can put this measure into effect. Then, maybe, we can move on and explore other ways to improve our country’s image abroad. One smart step might be to appoint a senior public relations executive to a post specifically designed to accomplish that goal. White House crony Karen Hughes was recently appointed to do something akin to that task, but seems to be stumbling badly in her efforts to connect with the Arab world.  That’s probably because she doesn’t possess decades of relevant experience undertaking similar image repair assignments for corporate clients.

So, does anyone have additional thoughts? What else can we do? Ah, there’s the bell. Tomorrow, let’s discuss the image and reputation implications of a CEO’s appointing senior-ranking executives with no relevant experience to highly visible posts.

Oct 03

A Parable of Corporate Loyalty

Long ago and far away, we once represented a very big corporate client. As a small, start-up agency, we were overjoyed to have bested those big, bad competitors from the galactic agencies. This win, we reasoned, would really put us on the map. And indeed it did. And indeed, life was good. But not for long.

For at the very outset of the relationship, we were warned by the client CMO that, like most marriages, client-agency relationships only lasted five years. We chuckled to ourselves and proceeded to do great work, year-after-year. But, with the passing of each year came the same "five-year" warning. And with the warning came such comments as, "it just doesn’t seem as fresh and new as it once did." And "it seems like we’re starting to take each other for granted." Duly concerned, we would brainstorm and come up with ever-more creative program ideas, winning big industry awards in the process and, more importantly, dramatically improving our results from the previous year.

Then, one day, a call came in to tell us this client was "spinning off" from its parent and would be putting the account up for review. We were told not to worry, but we were also told that "we’d had a good five-year run."

And sure enough, as our client contact introduced us to his CEO at the final presentation, he said, "Well, it’s been five good years and nothing can last forever." And, sure enough, we lost the account (only to win it back a few months later when the client realized he’d been "…seduced by a flashier, sexier model that couldn’t match our performance levels.").

All of this came to mind the other day as I was reading what had happened to poor Arnold Communications, which was just summarily dumped by Vollkswagen after doing years of award-winning work. Why were they dumped? Because the new CMO, who had come over from Mini Cooper, wanted the same agency she’d worked with in the past, to represent her at VW. So, is that reverse loyalty? Loyalty in a bizarro world? I’m not sure. But what I am sure of is today. And only today. Because the era of decades-long client-agency relationships is long dead. And with it, the concept of corporate loyalty.

Sep 30

Cuts Like a Knife

Am I the only one who’s noticed the return of regular, stainless steel knives to airplanes and airport lounges? At first, it didn’t register, then I began thinking, "What’s up? Have we officially won the war on terrorism? Are we no longer worried about terrorists using these potential weapons in nefarious ways?" And we can now tote scissors, as long as they are of the plastic handled sewing variety.

So, who is responsible for this particular stroke of genius? TSA? The individual airlines? Homeland Security? Each of these entities already has enough image and reputation problems to fill one of those new Airbus 380s many times over.

So, can someone please wake-up and bring back those plastic knives and reinstate the no-scissors ban. Scissors are scissors and plastic knives may not cut as well but, hey, that means they may not cut as well. Get it?

Sep 29

Good Morning Advertising Industry. This is Your 7am Wake-up Call.

I’m in the midst of reading former BBDO Chairman Phil Dusenberry’s entertaining new book entitled, "Then We Set His Hair on Fire." The book chronicles Dusenberry’s various exploits and uber Dusenberry successful campaigns for the likes of Campbell’s Soup, Pepsi-Cola and the 1984 presidential campaign to re-elect Ronald Reagan.

As might be expected, the book has been receiving favorable reviews in the ad trades as well as the Wall Street Journal. While it is a fun read, Dusenberry’s book reflects the still-prevalent mindset among advertising types that their craft is the be-all and end-all when it comes to reaching consumers and "moving the needle" as Phil describes it.

While that may have been the case when Dusenberry was in his heyday, it simply is no longer true. The rise of technology such as Tivo, the internet, video games, and 500-plus cable channels has totally disintermediated advertising’s once unchallenged supremacy.

Consumers are completely overloaded with information and choices. Gone are the days when a 30-second spot would reach a vast majority of a prospective customer audience and induce them to buy a product or service. Instead, we’ve seen the rise of word of mouth marketing, street-level events, and public relations as the best, most effective ways to reach consumers in a one-to-one, personalized way.

And, yet, Stuart Elliot still writes about massive advertising expenditures in his New York Times column. And, we still see mindless and totally indistinguishable car commercials on TV featuring soundtracks from Rock’s dinosaurs (I defy anyone to watch five or six of these commercials in a row and then correctly name each car). As a matter of fact, except for the Geico and Mastercard commercials, I’d be hard-pressed to name any TV spots that actually break through and register in my personally overloaded mind.

So, all I’m asking is that advertisers wake up and start spending their money in smarter, more direct ways. Dusenberry and his ad agency buddies had a great run. But, the times they are a changing.

Sep 22

An Organization is Only as Strong as its Weakest Link

The CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation told an interesting story about a nationally-known and highly-regarded car service he’d taken to go from point A to point B. Throughout the trip, the driver complained to the CEO about the limo company, its hiring and firing practices, horrible pension program and parsimonious outlook on life in general. When he exited the car, the CEO said he vowed never to use the limo service again.

I’ve had a similar experience with a major credit card company that handles our corporate account. About a year ago, we signed up for their super duper deluxe service and paid a steep annual premium for the privilege. And that’s right about the time the relationship started going South.

Consider these horrific experiences: The card company’s "24×7 concierge service" told my assistant she was confused in thinking that John Wayne Airport in California was different than JFK in New York. In fact, the agent said, they were one and the same airport (the CSR must have been chewing some top-grade peyote to have come up with that one). Another CSR insisted that Irvine, California, didn’t exist (which must be a real bummer to the folks who live there). A third agent refused to book a reservation on JetBlue because the card company didn’t receive compensation from that particular carrier for doing so. The list could go on and on.

Great customer service has an immediate and direct impact on an organization’s image and reputation. As mentioned in my previous columns, the greatest marketing and branding program in the world will fall flat on its face if a limo driver is trashing the company or a customer service rep is flat out incompetent.

So, what are we doing about our present card company? Being forgiving types, we’ll give them one more chance. But only one.

Sep 21

On Being Boorish in Business

Most of us in the business world attempt to sell our products or services to others. In doing so, we try to present the best possible plan, ideas, etc. In exchange, we hope to be hired, or not. In either case, though, we expect the courtesy of a response or explanation if our services aren’t desired.

I’ve noticed a truly alarming rise in plain, old bad manners when it comes to this aspect of business decorum. For example, we’ll spend countless hours researching a proposal, developing creative ideas, pulling together a massive document and shipping it off to the prospective client in advance of an agreed-upon deadline. Then we’ll wait. And wait.

In one recent instance, I received an e-mail saying nothing more than "Thanks for your ideas. We’re going with another firm." In another impersonal e-mail, the CMO of a large professional services firm wrote a cursory note informing us we hadn’t advanced to the next round but offered himself for follow-up questions. I e-mailed asking for a date and time to speak. No response. Still others don’t even bother returning phone calls. My favorite example of business boorishness occurred a year or so ago when we were in the midst of a three agency pitch and were anxiously awaiting a decision. Leafing through one of our industry rags, I noticed an article announcing that a competitor had been selected. Needless to say, I wrote that particular erstwhile prospect a real "come to Jesus" note.

So, what’s become of common decency in business? Don’t these people realize that their poor behavior reflects badly on their firm and its reputation? In the final analysis, we’re all only one or two degrees of separation away from being customers or consumers of one another’s products and services. I like to think that if the roles were reversed, I’d treat fellow businesspeople with a little more respect.

Sep 19

Why Mission Statements are Bogus

I’m in Napa Valley at a PR industry conference and just attended an interesting presentation by Jason Jennings, author of "Think Big. Act Small."

Jenning’s book examines the traits of those companies that have produced 10 percent increases in growth and profits every year for the past decade. Incredibly, fewer than 20 companies can lay claim to such an accomplishment.

Those that can share similar traits (i.e. casusal dress codes, a CEO who gets his/her hands dirty by staying close to the customer and pursuing a long-term cause as opposed to short-term quarterly earnings). They also share one other trait: none of the great companies had a mission statement.

That finding really hit home with me. I’ve always thought mission statements were totally bogus and were nothing more than warm and fuzzy statements with lots of feel good words. Just because an organization says it does something doesn’t make it so. Rather, it’s the actions of an organization that define its success, its points of differentiation and ultimately, its brand and reputation.

The best mission statement in the world will fall flat if its products, people and performance are mediocre or less. I once worked for a $500 million integrated marketing agency whose mission statement was "we build brands over time and sales over night." I remember the snickering when the CEO read it out loud to us and had it posted along all the hallways. It was purely aspirational, had no basis in reality and, in point of fact, actually alienated clients, prospects and employees. The company went out of business about five years ago.

Not that we’re remotely close to the organizations profiled in Jennings’ book, but you won’t see any mission statements in our hallways. That’s because we believe actions speak louder than words. Especially the words of mission statements.