Apr 30

When does responsible journalism become reckless histrionics?

Untitled My, but the mainstream media do love a crisis. Dismayed, perhaps, by the slow, but steady, trickle of good economic news, the media beast has been anxiously prowling for another fresh crisis upon which to feast. The appropriately named swine flu seems to have provided the much-needed meal.

As soon as the first cases began to break, the media began circling like vultures. Clearly, they sensed a fresh, easy kill (read: ratings).

And, so teams were duly dispatched to every conceivable transportation hub and Janet Napolitano, secretary of homeland security, has suddenly become this month's Chief Moose. Remember him?

Despite assurances from leading government officials such as Mayor Bloomberg and the Governator that all proper measures are being taken and that those who were infected recovered quickly, the media frenzy has only increased. The morning talk shows are devoting the first 15-20 minutes exclusively to the swine flu and freely bandying about the dreaded 'P' word: pandemic. Even historians are being trotted onto talk shows to discuss the 1919 global pandemic that wiped out 20 million people worldwide. Nice.

Clearly bummed that our severe recession is showing definite signs of letting up, the media wolves are licking their lips and sharpening their knives over the swine flu. And, hey, if that peters out, here's hoping the media get a rash of unusually severe tornados or some other freakish act of nature to sate their insatiable appetites.

I'm all for informing the public in a cool, calm and collected manner. But, the swine flu media hype makes some of these so-called 'journalists' look like the real pigs.

Apr 29

This cannot be good news for Sparks, Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris

April 29 - no_red_meatA newly-released study of more than 500,000 Americans confirms that men and women who consume the most red and processed meat are likely to die sooner, especially from heart disease and cancer. Results of the decade-long survey were published in a recent issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

As a long-standing fan of fish, the news comes as comforting confirmation that I was right in withstanding all that peer pressure over the years from the Ed Moed's and Art Cody's of the world who'd say, 'C'mon Steve. You're at a steak house. Order a damn porterhouse!'

More to the point of this blog, thought, it'll be interesting to see how the meat packing plants, trade associations and multiple steak houses will deal with this news (not to mention good old McDonald's which, in this blogger's humble opinion, has done more damage to more arteries than any other entity in the history of mankind).

How will the pro-meat spin doctors spin these new facts? My guess is they'll trot out some medical shill who's been on some company's payroll for awhile. Taking a page out of the tobacco industry strategies of the 1960s, said 'medical expert' will present contrarian evidence proving that meat is a beautiful thing and, like those Wonder Bread commercials of yesteryear, '……helps build strong bodies in 12 ways.' (Note to Wonder Bread: What, exactly, were the 12 ways white bread helps build strong bodies?).

So, if you're a Peter Lugar, Morton's or Sparks Restaurant whose claims to fame are outrageously tasty steaks, what strategy makes the most sense?

- Aggressive counter-claims
- Reactive messaging to be trotted out only if, and when, the subject comes up, or
- Simply adopting a 'this too shall pass' philosophy?

Image aside, what are the moral and ethical implications of continuing to dish out a food product that has now been directly linked to disease? Do I see a Surgeon General's report in the making?

As for me, I'll continue to order the Dover Sole and keep my fingers crossed there isn't another study underway that links fish consumption to, say, leprosy.

Apr 28

Books are the training weights of the mind

April 28 - Books That's not my quote. It was written by Epictetus sometime around the year 99AD.

Thanks to a suggestion by RepMan, Jr., I just read 'The Art of Living,' a summary of the words and writings of Epictetus, a long forgotten, but highly influential Stoic. Ho hum, right? Wrong. While he may have been waxing poetic some 2,000 years ago, the Stoic's words are spot on for dealing with the oh-so-many nightmares of modern-day living. I won't belabor his many and most excellent points, but Epictetus is all about understanding what's important in life and what isn't. He's also all about dealing with life's many curveballs in a, well, stoical, kind of way. He's also all about happiness, the pursuit of which seems further away than ever. Get the book. It'll change the way you look at things.

Here are some other quick recommendations:

'The Thunderbolt Kid,' by Bill Bryson (one of my favorite authors). This is laugh out loud grist for any Baby Boomer who grew up with the Dick and Jane reading books, 'Father knows best' and grammar school janitors who looked like Richard Speck (Bryson's words, not mine. And shame on you if you don't know who Speck was or what he did).

'1453' is a Zara Lintin-recommended book that, in the re-telling the story of the fall of Constantinople also provides perspective on the ageless war between fundamental Christianity and its doppelganger, fundamental Islam. It also depicts torture tactics that make waterboarding seem like a walk in the park.

Outliers'  is another Malcolm Gladwell home run. I loved it. In essence, it explains why people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the Beatles became successful. Success, says Gladwell, goes far beyond talent and perspiration and can be ascribed to everything from the month of the year in which one is born, the year in which one is born, the amount of hours one is able to commit to becoming proficient in one's future craft, and stuff like that. The book also gave me a whole new way of looking at brainstorming which we've begun to incorporate at Peppercom.

I love reading, and typically I read three or four books at a time. But, lest that sound boastful, allow me to end with a quote from Epictetus on the subject of reading: 'Don't just say you've read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. (They) are the training weights of the mind.'

Ya gotta love it.

Apr 27

Useless

April 27 - PlaxcoUntil a few seconds ago, I was blissfully unaware that Henry Feintuch's birthday was a mere seven days away. Now, though, thanks to the fine folks at Plaxo Pulse, I'm not only forewarned, I'm forearmed. Phew! That was close.

Truth be told, I have no idea who Henry Feintuch is. I'd guess he's a member of the Feintuch clan. But, that's mere speculation on my part. He could be one of the Kentucky Feintuch's, the Iowa Feintuch's or, heaven forbid, the Dakota Feintuch's. I've heard some of the Dakota Feintuch boys ran into trouble a while back.

I wish Henry a very happy birthday in advance (and many more as well!). But, I have about as much use for this information as I do, say, for the price of tea in China (a dated expression that may be considered politically incorrect in today's PC world).

So, cutting to the image and reputation chase, what good is a service that has done absolutely nothing for me since I registered? Facebook is fun, since I can occasionally check out new pics of old friends. And Linked In is an absolutely essential new business and networking tool, or so our strategy consultant tells me (truth be told, though, my 300 or so Linked In connections really haven't done anything for me). But, Plaxo and its birthday greetings? Gimme a break.

Call me old school but, when it comes to business development and networking, I'm an F-to-F guy (that's face-to-face).

Henry, do have a happy, happy birthday. But understand that my feelings for Plaxo and its advance birthday warnings can be best summed up by the immortal last words of a mortally wounded John Wilkes Booth, who stared at his hands and sighed, 'Useless. Useless.'

Apr 24

You guys do know that’s our competitor’s product, right?

April 24 - Doh I tend to rail about the boorish behavior and mean-spirited treatment we’ve experienced at the hands of some prospective clients over the years. Typically, they involve prospects who demand a proposal within a very tight timeframe and then hang you out to dry. Or, others who pick your brain and then never respond to your inquiries about next steps. Then there are the clients who put the account up for review, tell you not to worry because the incumbent always has the advantage and then fire you.

All
that said, we can be just as dysfunctional as any prospect. We once so badly
mangled a new business opportunity that it’s actually become part of agency
lore.

The
prospect was based in the Midwest so we decided to have our New York and San Francisco offices 'co-own' the pitch. That was mistake number one. No one truly owned it
at all. Then, we had a few key people take vacations while the presentation was
being put together. That was mistake number two. Finally, we didn’t decide upon
the actual pitch team until the night before and never actually rehearsed. That
was the nail in the coffin.

Since
the prospect was at least three connecting flights away from any major airport,
we opted to present by phone. Naturally, the technology froze. When we finally
got started, our ideas were met with stone-cold silence. The silence became
deafening. At one point, we asked, ‘So, what do you think of that idea?’ ‘We
tried it and it failed,’ they responded. Oh.

Then,
we presented a program theme based upon a classic rock song. We hadn’t done our
homework in order to find out another company was already using the same tune.
Ouch.

The
coup de grâce came when we presented an ‘out-of-the-box’
idea that involved having the product ‘show up’ at unexpected places (i.e. rock
concerts, sports stadiums, etc.). Again, silence. Finally, the prospect said,
‘You guys know that’s our competitor’s product on the screen, right?’ Game.
Set. Match.

The
meeting went so poorly that we had to laugh afterwards. Then, we buckled down
and got serious. We installed a number of new processes to make sure we never
again took a lead so lightly. In these times, leads can be like gold
(especially if they’re serious leads). So, I think I can safely say we’re done
showing a competitor’s product in any future new business presentations.

Apr 23

Referencing the wrong reference

I’m a big fan of networking and believe very seriously in the importance of references and referrals. All three have been fundamental to my success.

April 23 - hire me What happens, though, when the image and reputation of a reference is less-than-stellar? For example, I’d expect a baseball manager would be much more likely to give an aspiring baseball player a try-out if the player said David Wright suggested he contact the manager (as opposed to, say, Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens).

This sort of thing just happened to me. I received a note from a job seeker that referenced someone we both knew, but whose reputation is, shall we say, less than stellar. Truth be told, Pol Pot had a better image.

The job seeker began his note in this way, ‘I’m writing at the suggestion of (insert name of anti-Christ reference) who thought I’d be the perfect, high-level fit for Peppercom….’

Talk about a non-starter. Talk about the kiss of death. Talk about a classic Pavlovian response. I replied to the job seeker in a courteous way, but let him know we weren’t hiring at the moment. But, even if we had, I’m not sure I would have given him a chance. I know that’s wrong. But, aren’t we judged by the company we keep?

For me, it’s a great example of the type of due diligence necessary in today’s incredibly competitive job market. It’s no longer enough to have a great reputation. Nor is it enough to know people who know people who can open doors. You need to also make sure you know the right people with the right reputations. With so few jobs and so many aspirants, referencing the wrong reference is a sure fire one way ticket to Palookaville.

Apr 22

Talk about pain-based selling

April 22 - Soap in Eye How many
hundreds of millions of dollars a year do you think the large consumer products
companies spend in research and development? My guess is ‘many.’ How many years
have the mega consumer brands such as Unilever, Procter & Gamble and
Colgate-Palmolive been in business? My guess is ‘many.’ So, how come they still
produce soap and shampoo that burns the bejesus out of my eyes when I use them?

Today was
a textbook example. I was minding my own business, finishing up what had been a
most uneventful shower when I applied some Pantene shampoo to my scalp (my
daughter loves this stuff). Sure enough, I started to feel a slight sensation
in my right eye and then, bam! lights out as I double over in agony. I blindly
groped for a towel and scrubbed until the slimy, scalding substance was out and
the pain subsided. The same thing happens with Dove Soap. Make one little
mistake and, bam! seaming pain.

So, why,
I ask can’t the highly paid and highly respected researchers and developers at
these companies find a painless solution? I think they don’t want to. In fact,
I think it’s a well-kept industry secret that a small, but select, cabal of
white-coated lab technicians gather annually at the Annual White-Coated Lab
Technicians Trade Show and Convention and secretly plot to keep creating soap
and shampoo that makes us cry out in pain. I imagine a conversation like this:

Sinkowitz,
Colgate-Palmolive
: ‘Hey, before the magician and kegs of beer arrive, can we
just discuss the ‘soap issue’?

Dalrymple,
P&G
: ‘If you like, but we’re good to go on my end.’

Angleterra,
Unilever
: ‘Ditto. We have no intention of making either soap or shampoo that
won’t continue to fry retinas and sear corneas.’

Sinkowitz:
 ‘Do I hear  a motion?’

Dalrymple:
‘I move that we once again refuse to research safer, gentler versions of soap
and shampoo.’

Angleterre:
‘I second.’

Sinkowitz:
‘All in favor?’

All:
‘Aye.’

Sinkowitz:
‘Opposed?’

Sinkowitz

:
‘The motion is carried. Now, how about discussing eye drops? Let’s really hit
them where it hurts.’

Apr 21

This is wrong in so many ways

Can you believe US Airways Flight 1549 Co-pilot Jeff Skiles is being represented by a 15MIN speakers' bureau that is positioning him as a for-hire expert authority on training, teamwork and corporate culture?

It's unconscionable and yet another example of the shameless society in which we live.

Skiles deserves all the credit in the world for the heroic work he and good ol' Cap'n Sully did in landing the crippled airliner and achieving what New York Governor Patterson memorably coined as 'The miracle on the Hudson.' But, our hero quickly goes from mythological to moneygrubber status when he tries to cash in such a patently bogus way.

Leading Authorities, the bureau representing Skiles, is asking somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $20,000 for an hour-long speech from this overnight management guru. And, you know what? A few clueless organizations will pony up the money. Skiles will rake in an extra hundred grand or so for the next year or so (or until he becomes yesterday's news.) And, Leading Authorities will collect a handsome commission.

The whole tawdry tale cheapens what occurred on the Hudson that day and, in the final analysis, is really sad to see.

But, Jeff Skiles isn't to blame. We are. We've allowed our standards of basic human decency to sink in the same precipitous way US Airways 1549 sank beneath the Hudson that fateful day.

Call me old fashioned, but heroes of the past simply didn't capitalize on their 15 minutes of fame. In our reality TV show world of 2009, though, Jeff Skiles is just the latest in a long line of get rich quick schemers and dreamers that includes Joe the Plumber and every single contestant to ever appear on “American Idol.”

It's almost enough to make me want to take the train the next time I travel. Almost.

Apr 20

Trust me, ad agency types leave the doors open

I really enjoy the TNT series “Trust Me,” which depicts the inner workings of a fictitious Trust_me Chicago advertising agency.

The cast is outstanding. The plot lines are compelling and credible and the writers deftly co-mingle real-world accounts like Rolling Rock and Dove Soap with ersatz ones like ArcMobile.

Mason and Connor are the show's protagonists. One's a creative director. The other's a writer. Their relationship has been strained because the former was promoted and now this once tight team has to deal with the fact that they're no longer equals. They both work for an amazingly idiosyncratic group creative director named Tony Mink, who is at war with the agency's other group creative director, a totally obnoxious Brit.

Anyway, the show is very cool and nicely complements my other favorite ad show: “Mad Men.” I only have one issue with “Trust Me.” The agency executives all work behind closed doors! What's that all about? It doesn't ring true, especially for an ad agency in the year 2009. Most have amazingly open workspaces, accented by exposed brick, arched ceilings, and Stanley Kubrick-like ductwork (I have no idea what that means, but it sounds right.) What they don't have is what the “Trust Me” office sports: old fashioned, individual offices with doors that are not only closed most of the time, but locked as well.

RepMan readers know I'm not a big fan of the craft of advertising. But, I do admire many of their uber cool office environments I've visited over the years. Firms like Chiat Day pioneered the open office environment that encouraged creativity, communication and a communal esprit d'corps.

So, trust me, you'll like “Trust Me.” But, someone needs to clue in the writers about the office layout. It doesn't ring true and blemishes an otherwise spot-on depiction of the mostly brutal, brutish and sometimes brilliant lives of modern-day mad men.

Apr 16

We are now engaged in a great Civil War

I often think of those words from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address when I read Ad Age. April 16 - lincoln-gettysburg-banner

Since the market
meltdown, the publication has become a horrified witness to the advertising
versions of Antietam, Shiloh and, yes, Gettysburg itself. Every week, one advertising expert will bemoan the industry's plight
while another guru pushes back and says, 'No, these are great times for
advertising.'

And, it's set
against articles announcing yet another major marketer's decision to decouple
its ad budgets and spend the dollars in other, more cost-effective, one-to-one
ways.

The ad industry is
in a state of turmoil akin to the 1917 Russian Revolution. And, social media is
this revolution's Lenin. Long-standing traditions, icons and business practices
are being swept aside as marketers take a deep pause and ask, 'Why am I
advertising in the first place?'

The big holding
companies are desperately retrofitting their broken models as they're being
squeezed by their owners to make Draconian cuts, freeze all salary raises and
bonuses and bill, bill, bill. It must make for great workplace environments.

Ad Age reflects
this angst and uncertainty. And, you can tell that marketers aren't sure what's
appropriate in this chaotic, cataclysmic era either. Nationwide Insurance, for
example, is shelling out $178 million for a traditional campaign that revives
its old 'Nationwide is on your side' theme. They think it will 'comfort'
current and prospective policyholders. Yeah, sure. Give me $178 million and
I'll show you 178 million better ways to engage in a dialogue with your
audience.

Then there's
Brink's Home Security, which is playing on people's fears and, in the process,
increasing alarm system sales by 10 percent. Their spots show a scared woman
all alone in a house that's about to be broken into until, bam, the Brink’s
alarm system screams out with the same deafening sounds of a 747 's engines and
the scoundrel scampers off into the darkness. Talk about taking advantage of
people's deepest, darkest fears. 

Ad Age's editorial
pages are ground zero for the meltdown. A newspaper publisher penned a letter
to the editor likening himself to one of the musicians on the Titanic and
vowing, as they did, to go down with his ship. An op-ed warns big agencies that
smarter, swifter and smaller shops are gaining in popularity with clients. Then
there's a cool profile of a magazine called Vice that, perhaps not so
surprisingly considering its name and content, is thriving as other media
properties go belly up.

Advertising is
engaged in a great civil war. Traditionalists still believe the old model works
(and companies like Nationwide reinforce such antiquated thinking with their
new campaign). At the same time, the digital/social media types are gaining
more and more business. And, smaller shops are springing up faster than dandelions
in May. Most in the industry seem shell-shocked, unsure of their fate and
uncertain what, exactly, they should do.

It all makes for
great reading and is akin to watching a train wreck in slow motion. It's also
very cool to be a PR guy reading all this stuff. Along with digital and
word-of-mouth firms, we're beautifully positioned to fill the massive gaps that
are now appearing.

To close the loop
on the Civil War analogy, I'm afraid Appomatox Court House is on the horizon
for the many advertising types who can't adapt fast enough.