Dick Harte passed away this past weekend. He was Peppercomm’s first, and best, strategic consultant.
We hired Dr. Harte as soon as we began growing (note: I’d worked with Dick at a previous agency, and knew he would bring the rigor and process a small, insanely crazy start-up would need).
As it turns out, Dick began his long stint with us at exactly the same time first generation dotcoms discovered Peppercomm.
These nut jobs assumed that, because our firm’s name ended with the letters C, O and M, it meant we were technology PR experts who could generate the type of publicity that would enable these arrogant, egomaniacal 24-year-olds to go public and become overnight millionaires. (Note: We added a second M to our name when we added fully integrated marketing services).
In truth, we knew as much about technology PR as we did about the mating habits of squids, but we quickly hired people who did. And, boy did we grow!
Soon, the phones were ringing off the hook with dotcom types offering us $35,000, $50,000 or even $80,000 a month to handle their business. We had three full-time people whose sole responsibility was pre-qualifying the 50 or so new business calls we received each, and every, week.
To handle the deluge, we pretty much hired anyone who could walk and chew gum at the same time. O’Dwyer’s named us America’s fastest-growing PR firm two straight years. (Note: We grew top-line billings by 100 percent or more- each year).
But, we were also in desperate need of adult supervision, and Dr. Harte provided it in spades.
Dr. Harte also helped us manage client expectations (each of whom demanded they be featured in the Wall Street Journal’s front-page right-hand column). And, he’s the one who first suggested we organize our agency into three divisions and install accountability.
Accountability was Dick’s strength, and I can remember many a senior management meeting in which Dick would ask the lead executive why we were over servicing a particular client by a cool 125 percent. Dick would interrupt the individual’s stammering, half-assed response by saying, “You have 30 days to make it profitable, or else. Got it?”
Dick met weekly with Ed and me, and helped us separate the wheat from the chaff, be they client or employee.
He was also totally bizarre and unpredictable.
In our second year of business, the representative of a Fortune 500 manufacturer met with us and, in the midst of the discussion, asked Ed and me if we could place the company’s brand new product on the cover of Time magazine!
“Absolutely!” shouted Dr. Harte. That comment was immediately followed by an ungodly scream as Dick reacted to a swift kick in the shin from Ed. But, Dick turned out to be right, and we still represent that manufacturer today.
On another occasion, we invited The Good Doctor, as well as one of Ed’s Beltway insider buddies (“who knew ALL the key players on both sides of the aisle”) to a major pitch with the Society of Human Resource Management.
SHRM (or, shroom, as we preferred to call them) were prepared to pay big bucks to elevate the stature of the HR manager within the C-Suite. That journey eventually proved about as successful as King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail.
Anyway, the meeting started poorly and quickly went off the rails when Ed’s Beltway expert engaged in a screaming match with SHRM’s CEO. It was mean-spirited, angry and epithet-laced (Pre-millennials: Think, “The War of the Roses.”).
With the rest of us looking on in horrified shock, Dick stood up and shouted “Stop!” He then ordered prospect and agency personnel alike to step away from the table, take a deep breath, reach over, touch their toes and expel all of their hostile thoughts, feelings and actions. (T, F and A was another big Dick Harte expression).
It worked. An immediate calm came over the room and both sides completed the meeting in a more professional manner.
But, the damage had been done. SHRM chose the other finalist, we never again engaged the Beltway insider and HR remains the most vulnerable and least respected discipline in the C-Suite.
Dick was all about “tough love” and “taking people out of their comfort zones.” And, boy did he ever. Our management off-sites resembled rematches of Ali-Frazier heavyweight title fights. Case in point: I’ll never forget Dick and our future agency president going toe-to-toe, screaming in each other’s face, “You’re full of shit!” To which the other would reply at the top of his lungs, “No. You’re the one who’s full of shit!” It was great entertainment.
Dick saw us through our first 10 years or so, stuck around long enough to co-author a McGraw-Hill business book, (What’s Keeping Your Customer’s Up at Night?,) I couldn’t even get my family to read and eventually retired to Boca Raton. Where else?
I’m devastated by Dick’s loss, but feel beyond blessed to have had him in my life. He was the big brother or Dutch Uncle every successful entrepreneur needs to prop him up when things look their bleakest or pats you on the back when you’re soaring, and whispers, “Don’t let the success go to your head.”
Richard Harte, Ph. D. was an American original the likes of whom I know I’ll never see again in my lifetime.
R.I.P., Dick and, if anyone ever asks you if you can guarantee the cover of Time Magazine, just say no. The shinbone you save in the afterlife may be your own.