One marketer’s dream is another’s nightmare

August 27 The newly installed chief marketing officer of a one-time client was recently quoted as saying his organization was a ‘marketer’s dream.' I found the quote more than a tad perplexing since, for us, the client had actually been a marketer’s nightmare.

The firm in question is one of hundreds that provide an identical service. So, as is the case when publicizing a commodity, it was critical that we uncover some point of differentiation. Failing to find anything at all, we chose instead to attempt telling the client’s story through its customers’ eyes, undertaking industry surveys, drafting opinion pieces and arranging interviews at which the chief executive officer could provide thought-provoking commentary. We were able to do a little of each of these in the years we represented the client, but were forever hampered by the CEO who was either unable or unwilling to say or do anything of any substance.

We’d meet with the CEO and suggest a potpourri of cutting-edge ways in which she could break herself and her firm away from the pack. Like many CEOs, this one aspired to be included in major articles in BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal and leading trade publications. But, unlike other CEOs, this one simply didn’t have much to add to the conversation. We’d set one-on-one interviews and follow-up with the reporter only to be told that the client was a nice woman, but had said nothing at all that was newsworthy. Making matters worse, the CEO would often cancel interviews at the last second for what she perceived to be a more important business meeting (not caring that such behavior undermined our relationships with the media).

Needless to say, it was a difficult relationship that we thought about ending on more than one occasion. But, with the recession still in full bloom when the new CMO took over, we decided to try and defend the business. As is so often the case, though, the new CMO had already made up his mind and chose a firm with whom he’d partnered in the past. And, we quickly replaced the billings with larger and more substantive accounts.

It wasn’t until I saw the new CMO’s quote that I was reminded of the dysfunctional relationship, and the meek and mild CEO who yearned to see her face on the cover of Fortune. In retrospect, I should have had the guts to stand up to her when she first broached the subject. Ideally, I should have borrowed what a legendary PR luminary once told me he’d do whenever a prospective client expressed the same unrealistic goal. ‘I’d reach into my desk drawer, pull out a water pistol and say, ‘Here, you want to be on the cover of every leading business publication? Go shoot someone famous.’’’

I wish the new CMO well. But, my gut tells me his ‘marketer’s dream’ will cause lots of insomnia. Unless, of course, the CEO becomes a crack shot.

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