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.”

4 thoughts on “When we was fab

  1. 1. You are still fab !

    2. Wasn’t 5W the fastest growing firm, then ?

    3. Wait till you’re 64. . . .

    Are we due to ge together ? It has been awhile. Need to catch up.

  2. Thanks for the note, G.S. 5W wasn’t the self-proclaimed fastest growing firm in America until 2002 or ’03. We topped Jack’s list way before then. As for drinks, say when.

  3. Wow, I remember those days. As one of those doing lots of new business development, it reached the point where we’d put all the potential client names on a board, blindfold ourselves and play a version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

    Half those entrepreneurs were full of it when we asked probing questions about what their real reason for existence was. It didn’t matter — they had the seed money to charge $25K a month, so we’d get the cash, go after the B2B press, get some buzz and wait to see what they really had. By winter 2001, it was all over.

  4. Spot on, Peter. one of my all-time favorite dotcom clients was a Razorfish wanna-be that paid us $35k per month. When we told them we needed to conduct a positioning audit in order to determine exactly what them apart from Scient, Viant, Sapient, and the rest, the CEO screamed at us: “We DON’T want to be different. We want to be seen just like our competitors so we can go public and pocket just as much money as they did!” The client went belly-up owing us money….