Jan 31

I recognize your sneeze

I’ve always disliked political correctness, finding it both reactionary and intrusive. I won’t bore you with the myriad examples that rub me the wrong way but, right at the top of my list are:

1) PC names for traditional job titles ("sanitation engineer" instead of "garbageman")

2) PC names for physical infirmities ("hearing impaired" instead of "deaf")

3) The lovely quota systems that reward mediocrity over excellence.

I think political correctness hits rock bottom when it enters the classroom and messes with our kids’ senses and sensibilities. My daughter’s college, for example, just issued a mandate insisting their faculty no longer respond to a student’s sneeze by saying, ‘God bless you.’ Instead, believe it or not, the PC-approved response is now, "I recognize your sneeze."

Prayer in the classroom is one thing. But, banishing the time-honored response to a sneeze is way, way over the line, and clearly calls for a big "gimme a break!"

I don’t know what’s more pathetic: the PC response or the person who came up with it in the first place. It says a lot about an institution’s image and reputation when it allows this degree of nonsensical mind games to be played.

I’d be interested in knowing how the phrase "god bless you" is offensive or inappropriate in the classroom. Whatever the explanation, I’m giving the administration at Catharine’s school a big fat "F in Common Sense 101.

Thanks to Catharine "Goose" Cody for her thoughts.

Jan 30

And, we’ll be back in two weeks with exactly the same segment

Am I the only one who’s noticed that the morning network talk shows recycle the same health, fitness and nutrition stories every other week?

Whether it’s Ann Curry of The Today Show summarizing an "analysis" of over-the-counter anti-wrinkle creams by asking an expert, "So, I guess the bottom-line here is that we’re paying too much money for some of these creams?" Or one of her peers on the other shows, exclaiming, "So, if you don’t include exercise with dieting, you really won’t see any significant results." And vice versa, and vice versa. The same stuff makes its way from one show to the other and back within a fortnight.

Gimme a break. How can The Today Show announce yet another hour of programming each day when it, and its rivals, recycle such dreck?

Are viewers that forgetful (or that needy) when it comes to the same old, same old, that they’ll continue to view slight variations on the identical subject week-in and week-out?

Segments on good and bad cholesterol have also been recycled at nauseum (Yes, we get it. The "H" in HDL stands for "healthy" and the "L" in LDL stands for "lousy.").

In my opinion, the morning shows have been in a downward image and reputation spiral for quite some time. The first half hour or so contains some newsworthy elements but, after that, it’s pure pablum.

So, who’s watching and re-watching this stuff over and over?  Does the fault lie in the programming or the audience that watches?

Regardless of where the fault lies, it seems to me we need another hour of recycled stories from The Today Show and its ilk as much as we need another hour of unbearable reality shows.

Jan 29

I’d refer to them as ‘The Detroit Debacle

Putting the final nail in the collective image and reputation coffins of GM, Ford and Chrysler, industry trade icon Automotive News announced this week (subscription required) that it will no longer refer to the trio as "The Big Three."

Instead, because Toyota has passed by Ford as the number two global auto maker, and other international manufacturers are circling the three top U.S automakers like vultures, Automotive News will henceforth describe the Big Three as "The Detroit Three."

How sad. How the mighty have fallen. All the lay-offs and all the recalls and all the bad press can’t possibly hurt as much as this image demotion from the bible of the automotive media.

So, where do The Detroit Three go from here? From an image and reputation standpoint, the troika are decades away from recapturing their once lofty brand reps. That’s because Americans have given up on the erstwhile Big Three from a product quality standpoint. It will take years and years of outstanding cars before GM, Ford and Chrysler can ever hope to be once again seen as the pinnacle of automotive image and excellence. In fact, in my mind, they should be called "The Detroit Debacle." It’s a more fitting descriptor.

Jan 25

Understanding the business of a prospect’s business

A survey of 209 business-to-business marketers by BtoB Magazine confirmed what most of us already knew anyway: when it comes to selecting a new agency, nearly two-thirds said demonstrating an understanding of the business/sector was their number one criterion. That was followed by chemistry (a surprisingly low 17.9 percent), creative and pricing.

The big ‘ah ha’ for the BtoB editorial staff was the relative unimportance of creative in a prospect’s decision-making process. They quoted several client-side spokespeople who said creative is important, but not the be-all and end-all of a pitch.

Having led and been involved in countless pitches over the years, I’ve seen different takes on creative’s role in decision-making. Several Fortune 500 companies have hired us simply for our creative ideas and, in fact, went out of their way to say that industry experience and knowledge of their business was not only unimportant, but a detriment since they were tired of the "same old, same old."

On the other hand, we’ve lost pitches because we presented too many, pie-in-the-sky ideas that didn’t tie together or resonant with the prospect’s short-term needs.

The big survey surprise for me was the low ranking of chemistry. In my opinion, chemistry shares equal billing with "understanding a prospect’s business." And, it definitely trumps every other consideration. Sure, industry expertise, creative and other factors are key, but clients want to work with a team they like, respect and sense will be "fun" to work with. At least, I know I would if I were in the prospect’s shoes.

New business presentations are like first dates. You certainly want to look and sound your best, but you also want to listen and empathize. In fact, we believe the more a prospect talks in a new business presentation, the better chance we’ll have (we call it the 51 percent solution). That said, once the relationship begins, results (or lack thereof) will trump chemistry every time.

So, for what it’s worth, I’d counsel agencies to study the BtoB survey, but not overreact to it. You might win the "understanding" battle, but end up losing the "chemistry" war.

Jan 24

Nine men out

With Monday’s news that Johnathan Joseph was charged with possession of marijuana, the Cincinnati Bengals now sit astride the NFL standings for most player arrests in a nine-month period: nine. That’s an impressive 17% percent of the overall team roster.

I’m not positive, but I have to believe the Bengals, whose uniforms are ironically adorned with stripes, may hold an all-time single-season sports record for criminal misconduct and wrongdoing.

In response, the Bengals’ team management has issued several apologies during the season and PaulHelmet  Daugherty of the local Cincinnati Inquirer has even been supportive of the gridiron miscreants (i.e. "If I were a millionaire at age 22, I’d probably have acted like a damn fool too."). Doherty may have a point, but I think the Bengals’ problems are indicative of a much larger issue and need to be taken more seriously.

It seems to me the system is far too lenient with sports stars. The best players are treated like rock stars as they make their way through high school, college and pro ball. Actions, behaviors and comments that would not be tolerated in either the workplace or society in general are either overlooked or, worse, encouraged (I’m thinking here about the end zone celebrations and those maniacal post quarterback sack chest poundings and tauntings that are now S.O.P. at every game).

Then, there are the serious incidents involving drugs, spousal abuse, drive-by shootings and god knows what else. Most players receive slaps on the wrist and commentators wonder how the ‘absence’ of a key player or players will affect Sunday’s upcoming game.

For the good of the sport, not to mention its image and reputation, the NFL needs to enforce a much stricter code of ethics and behavior. I’d suspend a player for a full year if he’s arrested and found guilty of, say, burglary or illegal possession of drugs and weapons. And I’d permanently ban any player involved in actual physical violence.

It’s time we stopped making excuses and lowering our standards for professional athletes. There should be an accountability clause in every player’s contract spelling out the price he’ll pay for inappropriate behavior. If we don’t, the Bengals’ 2006-07 "nine players arrested" record will soon fall by the wayside and be superseded by other, even more thuggish teams in the future.

Jan 23

Fresh thinking can help a board reinvigorate an organization and change its image

I’ve had the opportunity to serve on a number of industry boards over the past few years and have gained invaluable insight, made terrific friendships and come away with a much greater appreciation of what constitutes a good (and not-so-good) board.

I joined one of the boards quite a few years back and have seen players come and go. What’s struckBi40sl  me about the most recent batch of board members, though, is their fresh thinking and near total lack of political agendas. For example, many long-standing board members had tenaciously defended programs and service offerings that had long outlived their usefulness and revenue potential. Why? Because they thought it simply wasn’t right to abandon a program that had been in effect for so long and which the organization had pioneered. In contrast, the ‘newbies’ are open to debate and discussion and are driven only by what makes the most sense moving forward. If something doesn’t make sense, they drop the offering. Period.

In fact, "what’s next" as opposed to "what was" is the best way to describe the board transition I’ve witnessed. No matter how well intentioned they were, the older board members were resistant to change.

Infused with new talent, new thinking and no agendas to speak of, the board is as healthy and vibrant as I’ve ever seen it. And, the beneficiaries of the new approach will be the association members and the organization’s image.

While it may not be applicable to the realities of publicly-traded companies, rotating board members in and out after a set number of years is a very smart business and image strategy. I wonder if we’d be seeing as many board/CEO scandals as we are if the Fortune 500 adhered to strict term limits for their board members?

Jan 22

Some citizen journalists are making mistakes not seen since the dotcom days”

Intent on breaking through the virtual clutter of the blogosphere, more and more bloggers seem intent on formalizing and distributing their ideas through press releases sent out by such services as ExpertClick’s News release wire. One blogger (who shall not be called out) has actually made a new year’s resolution of posting at least one press release a week. The releases would provide the blogger’s views on news of the day in the hope that virtual, industry and other types of media either pick up the quotes or call her for additional comments.

Yikes. Talk about information overload. Does the world really need a press release a week from bloggers? And, have we learned nothing from the dotcom days? It seems like only yesterday that hoards of 26-year-old Stanford MBA-toting, pre-IPO dotcom CEOs (and their stock options rich CMOs) were flooding the newswires with press release after meaningless press release. Hellbent on either attaining or protecting that coveted ‘first-mover’ status, the dotcom firms worked 24X7 to launch their new web-enabled product or service. Key to their business "strategy" was communicating to the legions of day traders who, when the dotcom went public, would be instrumental in their subsequent success.

And the PR firms (ours included) went right along with this non-strategy. Two, three, four or more press releases were issued each week. And, 99 percent contained no news of value whatsoever. In fact, it wasn’t even about the news with the dotcoms. It was about cueing up the public offering.

I sure don’t miss those days or those demanding dotcom execs. But, looking back, one would think bloggers would be more sensitive to press release mania. As a firm, I know we push back hard now when we question the newsworthiness of a client announcement. The blogosphere needs some sort of ‘pushback’ mechanism as well. Otherwise, strategies such as the press release a week will overwhelm a medium that is already long on content and short on quality.

Thanks to Linda VandeVrede for her thoughts.

Jan 19

Now who do we trust?

Ever since its inception, Consumer Reports has been the de facto trusted source of facts, figures and performance when it came to consumer products. As the image and reputation of other pillars of society have fallen by the wayside (think religion, government, business, sports, entertainment, etc.), Consumer Reports remained our one, safe haven in the storm. Not anymore.

Consumer Reports recently issued a highly misleading study of child car safety seats that they were forced to pull ONLY after worried consumers alerted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. NHTSA analyzed what Consumer Reports had done, and requested the publication pull the audit.

This isn’t just a fender bender of an image crisis for Consumer Reports. It’s a head-on collision.

First off, Consumer Reports’ editors didn’t catch the problem themselves. Then, while they did agreeCarseat  to yank the report, there were no apologies made (they did promise a complete re-test however). Third, according to reports, the publication outsourced the child seat testing (see video) to a sub-contractor. I don’t know about you, but when I hear that a product has received a top grade from Consumer Reports, I assume THEIR experts have tested it. Last, but not least, what about the image, reputation and sales damage the erroneous study has obviously wreaked on the companies who manufacture the child seats? Will we be seeing lawsuits? Will there be some sort of ‘make good’ from the publication?

The other, big picture question that comes to mind is this: if Consumer Reports botched the child car seat safety test, what other past studies may have been tainted as well?

If I were advising the publication, I’d recommend an immediate investigation into their test standards as well as an aggressive public relations campaign that:

1.) Admits fault

2.) Announces an internal fact-finding investigation (and explains why and how many product tests are sub-contracted to others)

3.) Re-dedicates the publication to its mission of impartial and accurate product reviews.

Over the years, I’ve seen many clients in similar crises, opt for silence. Sometimes, the strategy has worked. Sometimes it hasn’t. In my mind, silence is not an option for Consumer Reports.

Now that their brand has been tainted, I’m not sure who we can trust anymore. Consumer Reports needs to reassure me and everyone else that this was a one-time event.

Thanks to Deb Brown for her thoughts on this.

Jan 18

Who’s to blame when programming goes too far?

We’ve seen two extreme examples of reality programming go awry in the past few weeks. In one, a San Francisco radio station held a promotion offering a Ninendo Wii to the person who could drink the most water and wait the longest before having to relieve him/herself (Hold your Wee for a Wii). Sadly, a woman died as a direct result of the stunt.

In London, a top reality show has caused an international stir and strained relations because of the portrayal and treatment of an Indian woman on the program.

In the radio station case, three morning disc jockeys and a raft of other staff members involved in the ill-conceived promotion were sacked. In London, the events are still playing themselves out, but top politicians in India have said the show has ‘strained relations’ between their country and Britain. With all the uncertainty in the world, who needs TV to further fan the flames?

Both programs reflect poorly on the producers and the networks. But, in their defense, aren’t they just following popular trends and pushing the envelope ever further? Aren’t viewers flocking to shock shows that elevate outrage to the next level?

And, aren’t advertisers pouring their money into sponsoring such fare?

So, who should be held accountable for allowing this sordid stuff on the air in the first place? The individuals who came up with the original programming/idea? The networks? Advertisers? The FCC? Or, is this all about looking in the mirror and, quoting the Bard of Avon, admitting that, "the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves."

Whatever the cause, the effect is scary. With more and more reality programs popping up, I’m afraid we’ll only be seeing more and more examples of bigotry, boorish behavior, inexcusable stunts and, sadly, fatalities. Taking a big picture view, such fare also goes a long way towards reinforcing radical Islam’s views of our "decadent" society. It’s time for someone or some institution to put down the remote control, step up to the podium and say enough is enough.

Jan 17

And another one bites the dust

The firing of Kerri Martin, Volkswagen’s Director of Brand Innovation (aka CMO) after less than two years at the helm comes as no real surprise. If memory serves, the average chief marketing officer only lasts an average of 23 months, which seems like the blink of an eye when compared to the average CEO tenure of 54 months. Yourefired_1 

Most CMOs are in an untenable position: because of Wall Street’s relentless pressure on the chief executive to satisfy shareholders, the CMO’s impact on sales is always being scrutinized by the harried CEO. There is no real time for the CMO to measure attitudes, conduct deep competitive analyses or test a couple of different approaches. Nor is there any leeway to learn from mistakes (which reminds me of the time we were hired by a mega Fortune 500 corporation and told by the number two communications person that we had ‘one and only one chance to fail.’

Needless to say, such stress doesn’t produce the most creative thinking). Anyway, hot shot CMOs such as Martin are brought in like the hired guns of the Old West to turn things around. Their sole job is to shoot the bad guys and drive sales. In her previous job, Martin had done just that when, along with uber hot ad agency Crispin Porter Bogusky, she introduced the Mini to the U.S. The campaign became legendary in marketing circles and Martin was lured to VW, where she immediately fired the incumbent agency, Arnold, and brought in Crispin. Now, advertising pundits are waiting for the other shoe to fall at VW and to see if Crispin ends up in the same ditch as their client. In situations like this everyone’s image takes a hit. The high-flying Martin and her bizarro campaigns for VW (i.e. "Unpimp my ride") didn’t drive sales. Crispin’s Superman-like invincibility that saw them featured on the cover of BusinessWeek has taken a hit and VW management looks like it spins agencies around faster than a Beetle on black ice.

As long as the Street keeps squeezing CEOs and the corner office keeps pressuring CMOs to work overnight miracles, we’ll continue to see Mayfly-like lifespans from the Kerri Martin types. The only saving grace is the occasional enlightened CEO who understands the need for a long-term marketing strategy. Here’s hoping Ms. Martin finds such an anomaly in her next position.