I had the opportunity to join a day-long meeting
of PR agency executives last week. While a few were excelling, most were
struggling in the current economy. Many, in fact, had taken Draconian cuts
to assure their firms remained profitable. Others had re-assigned formerly
billable staff to nearly full-time marketing and business development
activities. It was grim, to say the least.
I hope these firms succeed in their prospecting, but making changes after the
fact is akin to trying to run down the proverbial horse that's already bolted
from the barn.
But, I digress. At the meeting, participants agreed that clients were not only
inviting more firms than ever to pitch their business, but taking an inordinate
time to make a decision. One statement in particular took me aback. An agency
principal reported that his firm had won no fewer than three recent pieces of
business only to be told the client budget no longer existed. Ouch! It's tough
enough to chase down some of these leads. But, imagine receiving a call that
begins with the prospect/client saying, 'Herbert, I have some good news and
some bad news. Which would you like first?'
I went through the 'now you see it, now you don't' experience once before. It
was back in those lazy, hazy, crazy days of dotcom-mania. We'd pitched a
company, been awarded the business in the morning and then fired in the
afternoon. Apparently, the CMO had neither the authority nor the budget to hire
a firm. Nice.
Last week's therapy session also reminded me of Peppercom's first big setback.
We'd been in business for about three months when I received a call from a guy
with whom I'd once worked. He was now head of human resources at a global
chemical company and had a mega budget for employee communications. 'Steve,' he
said. 'I want you guys to overhaul everything. Soup to nuts. You give me the
budget and I'll authorize the purchase orders. Oh, and we need to start
Talk about manna from heaven! We had one or two other small clients at the time
but, in one fell swoop, this chemical company client was about to transform the
fledgling Peppercom into a multi-million dollar agency.
Ed and I quickly crafted the program (with Ed gleefully whipping together
massive budgets, btw). The two of us then barreled up Rt. 95 to Connecticut to present the plans and budget, and begin the work.
When we arrived at the reception desk and asked for the contact, however, we
received a puzzled look. 'Why don't you take a seat?' suggested the
About 20 minutes later, a woman came strolling out. She introduced herself as
the new head of human resources and corporate communications, and sighed, 'Did
no one contact you about John?' We shook our heads. 'Well,' she continued,
'John was fired last week. I saw your proposal and budgets and, frankly, have
no interest in working with you. I'm sorry you had to come all this way.'
Boom. Easy come, easy go. Talk about a long, brutal ride back to Manhattan. The word 'funeral' came to mind.
I was never able to track John down to find out what had happened. And, he
never bothered calling me.
Ed and I overcame our shock and disbelief (as well as our intention to hire 10
people and move into new office space) and went back to cold calling new
business prospects. (Footnote: a variation of this anecdote occurred many years
later when a global CMO promised us a $10 million budget only to disappear a
few months later).
Business always has its ups and downs, in good times and bad. While
commiserating over one's bad luck can be cathartic, I've found the single
biggest 'secret' to success is resiliency. When an ITT, Panasonic or a Unisys
fires you, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, paste a smile on your
face and charge ahead.
There will always be clients who spin your wheels and dangle assignments and
budgets they have authority to award. And, every once in a while, there will be
a prospect who disappears completely after promising a wealth of riches. The
best remedy is to simply chalk it up to the vagaries of business: yesterday,
today and tomorrow.