Feb 28

Islamabad. Next station stop is Islamabad.

dustbowlQatar Airlines has decided to invest millions of dollars to heighten awareness among the traveling public. That’s all well and good. But, guess where they’re investing a huge chunk of those dollars? New York’s Penn Station!

Yes, an airline that bills itself as a ‘Five-Star Airways’ is promoting itself in a one-star dive of a rail station.

The ads are literally everywhere:

- Wrapped around poles
- On staircases
- On the ceiling of the venerable hellhole

The copy features the names of such exotic travel destinations as Mumbai, Marrakesh and the Maldives. That’s nice, but harried Penn Station commuters are praying their trains to Matawan, Middletown and Massapequa are still running on time (or running at all).

Plus, why would one advertise an elite travel experience in the American transportation system’s answer to the Black Hole of Calcutta?

Were I managing Qatar Air’s considerable marketing budget, I’d run ads where well-heeled travelers will actually take note of them:

- Middle Eastern restaurants
- Fifth Avenue jewelry stores
- outside a Rolls Royce or Mercedes-Benz car dealership.

Qatar’s marketing decision tells me one of three things:

- They’re completely clueless.
- They’re not correctly interpreting market research findings.
- They have more money than god, and can afford to completely waste some of it.

This is yet another example of top down, inside out marketing think. No one working for Qatar’s in-house marketing department even bothered to put themselves in the Prada shoes of an upscale, global traveler to figure out where and when she wants to engage with travel providers. If they had, they’d most certainly know it is NOT in some dark, dank rat-infested alcove of Penn Station.

I’d go on, but I need to hop on the 3:48 to Kenilworth, where I’ll be connecting to the 5:15 to Lisbon which will continue on to Kuwait City. Or, maybe I’ll just decide to hop on the Marrakesh Express.

Feb 27

Mind the gap

Boy with Broken Toy TrainNew Jersey Transit rail commuters are constantly warned to “mind the gap” as they step in, and out, of the monopoly’s woefully unkempt carriages.

The same phrase could be used to warn passengers of the yawning gap that exists between the happy talk on NJT’s website (www.NJTransit.com) and the actual rider experience.

For example, take today. Please!

This morning, NJT (@njtransit) had 30-45 minute delays as the result of a “…prior derailment of a Conrail freight train.” Nice.

A quick check of the rail cartel’s home page, however, spotlighted an exciting, new rider opportunity: In exchange for completing a customer service survey, one lucky rider could win a free monthly pass! That’s like telling a well-behaved prisoner his exemplary conduct might earn him an extra year in the big house.

NJT’s slogan is ‘Getting you there.’ I’ve previously suggested they add the word eventually in order to mind the gap between what they say and what we riders experience.

I’ve also suggested they drop the existing tagline and opt instead for ‘Reliably unreliable.’ There’d be no gap whatsoever between that message and each, and every, NJT commuter’s daily experience.

One other mind the gap observation: NJT conductors and station managers rarely explain the cause of a delay, and never offer an apology.

Compare that conduct with the actions of Michael Shaw, a conductor on the Metro-North rail line that serves southern Connecticut and New York City. After telling riders on his stop to wait 30 minutes on their station platforms for an express train that would be following his slow-as-molasses local one, Shaw found out the latter one had been cancelled.

Shaw was appalled. So, he composed a hand-written letter of apology, made 500 copies and deposited one on the seats of those very same trains the next day. How cool is that?

And, how predictable was Metro-North’s reaction? In an e-mail to the media who covered Shaw’s gallantry, M-N spokesperson Marjorie Anders, said that, while the transit system shared Shaw’s concerns, they (do) not condone his method of communicating them.

Nice. It would seem that Metro-North also needs to mind the gap between what they promise in their marketing and what riders experience.

And, what about Michael Shaw’s fate? Beats me. But, if I were running NJT’s PR program, I’d poach Shaw, and name him chief communications officer. I like his old school approach to civility and communications. Shaw closes the gaps.

Feb 26

Getting out of Your Cultural Comfort Zone

Watching a NASCAR event on TV would never hold the pole position on my list of weekend hobbies. And, I’d rather tour Gitmo than actually attend a live NASCAR event. Peppercommer Matt Conroy had many of the same feelings before experiencing the recent Daytona 500. He’s seen the NASCAR light, though (or, at the very least, inhaled their fumes).  Here’s his entertaining guest blog on what I’d personally describe as a Lost Weekend…

One of the things we talk a lot about in the communications business, and at Peppercomm in particular, is the importance of listening – listening to our clients, our clients’ clients, media, other stakeholders. But how much of that openness do we apply to our daily lives and our cultural experiences? It’s all too easy to get trapped in a cultural rut, either because our preconceived notions are too powerful or because we have closed our eyes and ears to anything that falls outside of our comfort zone. Same music, same TV shows, same books, same old same old…

These thoughts came to me as I was flying back from this weekend’s Daytona 500 – won in exhilarating style by Dale Earnhardt Jr. after a six-hour rain delay. My good friend Brian had invited me and my buddy Miguel down to Florida for a guys weekend.”The offer sounded appealing – a few days of sun with friends, lots of cheap American lager, a house near the beach, and a chance to attend the Great American Race.

I have never really been a NASCAR guy. In fact, I’m probably more comfortable listening to Puccini than I am anywhere near a racetrack. But something just clicked for me at Daytona. Snobby Northerner that I am, I had come in expecting to be awash in a sea of Confederate flags and “IMPEACH OBAMA” bumper stickers. What I saw instead was a welcoming crowd that was very passionate about the sport, good natured and open to newbies like me. Moreover, there is simply nothing to compare with the rumble of stock cars racing two or three deep around a turn, inches from each other. It hits you right in the gut and is simply unforgettable.

We are already making plans to attend a race or two later in the season, when the scene shifts to Pocono and New Hampshire. Miguel, a soccer-mad Colombian, is probably the last guy on Earth you would expect to enjoy NASCAR, but he has become a big Junior fan as a result of Saturday’s race, while I’ve adopted Connecticut boy Joey Logano as my racer. Brian’s boy Brad Keselowski finished third, while his dad’s fave, Danica Patrick, crashed after a valiant effort.

The race has encouraged me to be more open to new experiences and to listen to what people are saying and experiencing rather than falling back on my preconceived notions. It doesn’t have to be NASCAR – I’m sure that wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea – but there is a lot of good that comes from getting outside your own skin for a while and putting your cultural biases behind you.

Now I just need to get Brian and Miguel out to the Metropolitan Opera.

Feb 25

Where have all the healthy health care workers gone?

fat vurses pptxI’ve been battling a particularly nasty upper respiratory infection the past few days. As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to visit health care facilities in both the granite and garden states, respectively. In each instance, the numerous health care workers I’ve encountered were either:

- Morbidly obese
- Huddled together outside in the cold, chain smoking cigarettes
- Stuffing their faces with Big Macs.

I know health care is up to the individual, but what sort of quality health care can markedly unhealthy health care providers provide (and, try saying that last line three times fast)?

Shouldn’t walk-in clinics, doctors’ offices, hospitals and medical centers be held to a higher standard? Shouldn’t the senior practitioners and administrators who run these institutions encourage wellness instead of empowering habits that lead to diabetes, cancer and god knows what else?

My Manhattan primary care provider recently told me 90 percent of the nurses at the hospital where she’s affiliated smoke cigarettes all day long. “And,” she added, “they always have.”

It’s no wonder the rest of the world thinks Americans have become fat, dumb and lazy. If you disagree, just stop by your local health care provider and you’ll see what other nations see: yet another example of our nation’s slow, steady decline towards mediocrity.

(Oh and you can find the health care workers at McDonalds.)

Feb 20

Bryan and me

steve and cranston.I found myself wandering around Broadway the other day, noted that Bryan Cranston was headlining a new show called ‘All the Way,’ and figured I’d stop by to say hello to a good friend.

And, so I did.

Here’s a pic of Bryan and me chillin’ in his backstage dressing room after his exhausting, virtuoso performance as President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Truth be told, my brother-in-law is also starring in the play, and arranged for the après show tete-a-tete with Mr. Cranston.

I must tell you Bryan is one of the meekest, mildest and unassuming stars I’ve ever met. He couldn’t have been more gracious, and happily answered all of my Breaking Bad-related questions, including:

- Is your dressing room equipped with a meth lab?
- Are Hank and Gomey casing the joint, and about to arrest us?
- Is Walter, Jr., your understudy?

While Cranston was all-too-happy to field questions about his nonpareil cable series, it was clear he was still very much in LBJ-mode.

In fact, he’d decorated his dressing room to resemble a mini LBJ ranch, replete with a set of longhorns and a Texas state flag.

It’s nice to know that, in an entertainment industry dominated by boorish, sleazy asses such as Justin Bieber, Lindsay Lohan and Miley Cyrus, there’s still someone like Bryan Cranston. Here’s a guy who is white hot at the moment, and at the absolute peak of his career. Yet, he seemed genuinely flattered to know I was so familiar with his work.

I guess in some, rare cases, the bigger they are, the nicer they are. Operative phrase: in some, rare cases.

Feb 18

Time’sAwasting.com

menage a troisHave you noticed the endless number of TV commercials promoting age and lifestyle-specific online dating services?

Forget about Match.com and eHarmony.com. They’re, well, too generic. Discerning singles now have such faith-based options as ChristianMingle.com.

I like the ChristianMingle.com commercials a lot. You can almost envision a smiling Jesus looking down from the heavens as the happy couple regales us with their tale. That said, could you imagine if Jesus ever registered on ChristianMingle.com? The other guys wouldn’t stand a chance. Who can compete with someone who walks on water?

Knowing of ChristianMingle.com’s existence, I wonder if there’s also a competitive site for atheists? Perhaps, CarpeDiem.com? What about NoTomorrow.com? YouCan’tTakeItWithYou.com?

And, then there’s Ourtime.com. That’s the online dating service for men and women ‘…of a certain age.’ That age would be 50-plus, BTW. And the ‘happy couples’ who meet on ourtime underscore their relief at having found a soul mate who “…doesn’t, like, um, text, and um, use words like selfie or, um, awesome, all the time.”

It seems to me there’s room in the marketplace for another online dating service. I’d like to see one aimed at my dad’s cohort: the geriatric set.
I’ve already thought of a number of memorable names:

- TheLastHurrah.com
- OneMoTime.com
- WalkerIntoTheSunset.com

And, my personal favorite:

- Time’sAwasting.com.

The Time’sAwasting.com commercial would depict two frustrated, scooter-riding octogenarians parked alongside one another at an early bird special.

The first would bemoan the absolute dearth of eligible men. The other would crack a knowing smile, and sigh:

Tess: “Oh, Mildred. You don’t know about Time’sAwasting.com, do you?”

Mildred: “Who’s wasting away, Tess? Did you say Blanche? I know. So sad.”

Tess: “No, not Blanche. Time’sAwasting.com is THE new online dating service for people like us. People in their golden years. That’s how I met Jerry. Of course, he passed after our second date. But, now Fred’s stepped up to the plate.”

Mildred: “Good god! He lost his plate? That happened to me the other night. The steak was too damn tough.”

And, so it goes.

Do you have any ideas for other, age group or religion-specific sites? If so, let me know. And, if you happen to know of an eligible bachelor for Mildred, you’ll find her on Time’sAwasting.com.

Feb 14

When we was fab

Picture3I just finished reading a fascinating article about Crispin, Porter & Bogusky, the legendary firm that Ad Age named its agency of the decade in 2010.

In their heyday, CPB was white hot. So white hot in fact that they never, ever, pitched clients. As Ad Age put it, ‘…the agency famously refused to pitch business; it didn’t need to. Clients stormed CPB.’

I can relate. I actually worked at two firms that refused to pitch business.

The first was Hill and Knowlton. I’m speaking of THE Hill and Knowlton of legend (pre-JWT, pre-WPP and pre-revolving door at the CEO level).

I was fortunate enough to join H&K right after college graduation when the firm reigned supreme, and was run by one of John W. Hill’s right-hand men, Bill Durbin.

I distinctly remember my oh-so-brief interview with Durbin. After about 30 seconds, Durbin rose from behind his chair, extended his hand and said, “I wish you luck, Mr. Cody. Should you embark on a career with our firm, just remember one thing: clients solicit our business. Not vice versa.”

Durbin was right. I attended countless meetings in which senior agency executives debated whether they’d deign to even meet with a Fortune 500 prospect that had asked for representation. Hill and Knowlton was that good.

The second firm was, drum roll please, Peppercomm. Now, before you choke on your morning bagel, allow me to provide a frame of reference:

The years were 1998 and ’99. We doubled our billings in each year. In fact, in 1999, we grew by more than 100 percent, and were named the fastest growing PR firm in the country by O’Dwyer’s. Those were heady days indeed.

Truth be told, though, we didn’t grow because of our abilities, although we weren’t bad. We grew because of our name. Every VC-funded, cash-rich dotcom simply assumed a PR firm named Peppercom would automatically know how to handle their business. And, so they called. And called. And called.

At the peak, we actually had three people allocating one-third of their time to field, and pre-qualify, new business calls. We averaged 40 new business leads a week! And, maybe, we’d deign to meet with four or five of them.

The insanity came to a screeching halt in April of 2000 when the tech sector bubble burst and 35 percent of our clients declared bankruptcy overnight. Those were not heady days.

We were forced to reinvent ourselves and, while it took some time, we emerged a much healthier, and saner, business.

I’d never suggest we were the equal of either CPB or the old H&K, but we WERE something special.

That’s why, after reading the Ad Age piece about CPB, I immediately thought of George Harrison’s ode to his Beatlemania days: “When we was fab.” Peppercom was fab in the late 1990s.

And, reflecting on that time period, I feel the same way Harrison did of Beatlemania, “I enjoyed the ride,” he said, “but I sure don’t miss it.”

Feb 13

RepMan: We have a problem.

Hi folks, it’s The Danderoo  with some chilly news.

jack-nicholson-the-shiningNo RepMan post today. No RepMan today.  Rep was last seen disappearing under a snow drift at an undisclosed New Jersey Transit  location. My concern is that the NJT brass took this opportunity to silence him. You know how people just disappear in Jersey. But if you come across a snowman cursing NJT let us know.

Feb 12

Why CVS’ Healthy Rebrand Is All About the Cabbage

This guest post is by WALEKpeppercommer Stefan Prelog.

Bizarre Tobacco Advertising (29)You’ve probably heard by now— CVS is looking to get healthy.  The largest pharmacy chain in the U.S. will stop chain smoking and ditch all of its tobacco products by October 1st (hey, even a large company can’t go cold turkey) in favor of a healthy lifestyle.    If you haven’t heard, you probably don’t own a T.V. or read the newspaper.

The announcement that CVS was getting out of the tobacco trade was splashed on the front page of every newspaper and news site.  A recent Google search of the terms “CVS quits tobacco” netted 18,400 results.

Not only did the news generate a glut of headlines, but it also generated praise and support from health professionals and politicians.  Everyone from  Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, to President Obama and the First Lady is showering the company with accolades.  Pretty much every person who doesn’t work for a tobacco company loves the move.

But what was the real motive behind the company’s move?  Was the company feeling fat after the holidays?  Did it get a bad physical from its doctor?  Or is it because it was suffering from a mental illness?  What else could explain dumping a product line that amounts to $2 billion a year?

It turns out CVS is crazy – crazy like a fox.   The move was brilliant.  Not only did CVS receive an immense amount of positive coverage, but it also took control of the healthcare conversation.

CVS looks like an industry leader.  It’s abandoning a flailing, maligned industry in the name of health and as a result has put tremendous pressure on its competitors.

But while CVS looks like it’s thinking about your waistline it’s really thinking about its bottom line.

CVS has said it doesn’t want to be hypocritical by supporting health care practitioners and promoting healthcare products while selling things like chewing tobacco and menthol cigarettes.

But get the stethoscope and listen to what CVS is really saying.  The company said it had identified ways of offsetting the impact on profits.  One way it identified was a smoking cessation program that it started.  CVS is looking at the big picture, and positioning itself as a company that cares about its customer’s health so it can get a piece of the trillion-dollar healthcare pie (don’t worry trillion-dollar pies are good for you).

This is a case where their marketing executives analyzed a number of factors including the expanding healthcare industry, the Affordable Healthcare Act and an aging population.  Then they walked over to accounting and crunched some numbers.  You can bet the profit potential from the booming healthcare industry dwarfed the short-term profits of a dwindling tobacco industry.

CVS’ rebrand is simply an example of good business intersecting with public relations.

It’s a brilliant public relations move.  In one stroke CVS rebranded themselves as a company that takes health seriously.  Now it just has to wait for the money to start rolling in.

Bravo CVS, bravo.  Now, can I get a piece of that pie?

Feb 10

Please don’t use the V-word

quartersIt seems like every time our industry takes one giant stride forward in defining ourselves as strategic partners, someone or some entity, will remind the business world that many still see us as little more than vendors.

It really hurts, though, when the industry’s ‘top’ journal, PR Week, uses the word to describe us.

The incident in question occurred in a column entitled, ‘Gloves Off.’

PR Week asked two industry veterans to answer the following question, ‘Is it necessary for major brands to have a retained PR agency on board?’

Sherry Pudloski, VP, eternal communications at Pfizer, argued for the affirmative while Paula Keve, CCO of Dow Jones & Company, said, “Hell no!”

Both executives raised familiar issues:

- Pudloski emphasized the objectivity and wide breadth of experience that only an external PR firm can provide.

- Keve rightly pointed out that clients are paying for a whole lot more than an AOR’s strategy and tactics. She suggested that many agency fixed costs are included in their monthly fees (which is certainly true of holding companies). And, she was especially appalled to be billed an hour-and-a-half just for an agency staffer to compile her invoice.

This is all very, very old turf. But, what struck a nerve was ‘PR Week’s View’ of the debate:

“The PR agency world is more competitive than ever – to the benefit of clients. Firms often bring valuable expertise and perspective, but it is up to the client to ensure he or she is getting the most out of their company’s vendors.”

VENDORS? Why thank you, PR Week. By using the dreaded V-word, you’ve once again perpetuated the myth that PR is little different than office supplies, telephone lines or office equipment. By using the dreaded V-word, you’ve once again told purchasing agents that PR firms are suppliers, and should be treated as such from a cost standpoint.

It’s challenging enough for an agency to gain a seat at the coveted C-suite table. We most surely do NOT need our leading trade journal referring to us as vendors. I, for one, would like to see the publication print a correction.