Jun 22

Are Silicon Valley VC’s Exhibiting Signs of Early-Onset Alzheimer’s?

I ask the question in response to a headline in today’s New York Times business section, headlined: “Uber’s Lesson: Silicon Valley’s Start-Up Machine Needs Fixing.”The article pertains to wild child par excellence, Travis Kalanick’s ouster as Uber’s CEO this past Tuesday.

Farhad Manjoo’s analysis rightly points out that Uber’s problems were systemic and “a failure of Silicon Valley’s start-up machine.”

While not excusing Kalanick’s behavior, Manjoo places the blame for his frat house, take-no-prisoners culture on “…investors, boards of directors and anyone else who could have altered Uber’s course and clearly failed to do so.”

No argument from me. My question is this: Where were these VC’s, directors and others during the halcyon days of the dotcom era?

I can personally attest to having represented dotcom CEO’s (and their fawning staffs) who made Kalanick’s actions pale in comparison.

The dotcom CEO’s ranted and raved, openly dissed direct reports and agency partners alike and fostered truly toxic environments. And, no one said a word.

I recall an Israeli tech start-up CEO who commandeered our office space until his own was ready. He’d walk up-and-down our hallways screaming at whoever was on the other end of the phone and completely disrupting our productivity.

But, hey, he was paying us $40,000 a month and had given us stock options that would be worth millions once the start-up went public. So, what was a fledgling PR firm to do other than to suck it up and endure the abuse?

Another dotcom client employed a 22-year-old CMO who swore like a longshoreman and routinely screamed and yelled at our team (and her own hapless direct reports) in weekly meetings.

The CEO loved the young woman’s chutzpah and egged her on (and on). But, hey, they were paying us $35,000 per month and had also handed over options worth millions. (Note: PR Week proceeded to name this young hellion one of “PR’s up-and-coming stars”. Talk about not doing one due diligence. Ouch!).

Many of the meetings described above were attended by a lead investor, a partner from the VC that had provided an ungodly amount of seed money for a business model that made no sense whatsoever and would laugh out loud as their prototype Kalanick spat venom and expletive-laced epithets that would embarrass today’s hate mongers.

So, why is Uber a sudden wake-up call to Valley investors? Were they on lengthy sabbaticals during the 1990s? Or, did they conveniently “forget” the horrific behavior of the Travis Kalanick’s of yesteryear in search of the next big kill? It’s truly baffling.

Afterword: It should come as no surprise that the two dotcom CEOs described above went bust, along with their “game-changing”, profitless start-ups when the tech sector tanked.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of those once-upon-a-time masters of the universe cum Neanderthals are now Uber drivers who insult passengers in the exact same way they did employees and agency partners 20 years ago.

 

 

Jun 20

The Progress on Purpose

Arthur W. Page Member Marcia DiStaso recently authored a Page Turner blog that provides a deep dive into 70 organizations, revealing the progress they have, or haven’t, made in determining their Purpose, Corporate Character, Mission, Values, Principles and Beliefs.

I purposely provided that laundry list since, as DiStaso’s research pointed out, different organizations use any, or all, of the above terms to more or less describe the same thing. (Note: I found the very same lack of consensus when I recently interviewed 23 CCOs and CMOs on behalf of The Institute For Public Relations. If memory serves, not one respondent described digital in the same way.)

But, back to DiStaso’s work. She found that:

– 73 percent of respondents had examined or redefined their mission/vision/purpose in the past three years, and 43 percent had done so in the past year;

– 67 percent had examined or redefined their values/principles/beliefs in the past three years; and 36 percent has done so in the past year; and

– More than one-quarter indicated their organization needs to examine or redefine corporate character (which, in my opinion,  means they haven’t done a thing).

I found the report fascinating since we’re knee-deep in defining an updated Purpose that will align with our re-positioning and branding. While we’ll remain a public relations firm at heart we will, in fact, be digitally-driven. Indeed, we’ve hired scores of researchers, designers, digital strategists, data analytics specialists and an HVAC repairman named Harry. I’m still trying to figure out his role in the grand scheme of things.

For those organizations that have succeeded in defining their “new” corporate character, CEO buy-in was a MUST. So, too, were “getting the semantics right”; “ensuring buy-in at all levels”; “aligning with business strategy”; and “keeping it simple”. I’ve found the latter is usually a deal breaker whenever decisions are made by consensus.

A few other interesting tidbits:

– More B2C companies have a defined corporate character that do their B2B counterparts (I’m not sure if the first cohort did, or didn’t, include Uber. Regardless, the company needs yet another new Purpose).

– More non-US companies have a defined corporate character than those in the good, old U.S. of A. That was a bit of stunner for me.

– And larger organizations were far more likely to have a Purpose than small businesses. That seems obvious since the latter can’t invest the same level of time or resources to examine all of the elements that comprise corporate character.

One last point: ALL respondents from the consumer packaged goods and telecommunications industries had a defined Purpose.

Many in the technology, food & beverage, healthcare/pharmaceutical, financial services and energy fields were laggards, pure and simple. That’s puzzling, if not downright troubling.

It strikes me that, in an era marked by fake news, hate crimes, intense divisiveness and god knows what else, a carefully-defined corporate character has never been more important. It does far more than address why you exist and what higher purpose you serve; it provides something of a safe harbor for every organization’s constituent audience in the tsunami-like seas of 2017. And, lord knows, we need as many safe harbors as we can find.

Jun 14

Why am I not surprised?

As loyal Repman readers are well aware, the two bete noirs of my professional life are “traveling” on New Jersey Transit and United Airlines, respectively.

Not too long ago, NJT was named the nation’s worst commuter mass transit system. In my mind, the recognition was well-deserved and long overdue.

Now, Jenna Seter, a content marketing and business analyst with Clutch, has published a survey of 1,000 consumers that showed 53 percent will NOT purchase tickets from United Airlines. Seter linked the airline’s abysmal ratings to the highly publicized “mugging” of a passenger who refused to surrender his seat to a deadheading United pilot.

While I don’t disagree, I think the most recent fiasco is just the latest in a long line of miscues mixed in with system-wide incompetence and the negative attitudes of so many United gate agents and flight attendants with whom I’ve parried about excessive delays and/or a complete lack of communications as to why a flight had been delayed or, worse, canceled.

United’s problems began when they merged with Continental and proudly announced, “It’s not who’s merging that counts. It’s what’s about to emerge.” Had they only added the words “complete chaos”, the airline would at least have been authentic in its brand promise.

And, that’s what leads me to my central point. United may be at the bottom of every list when it comes to service  and quality, but they top my list of disingenuous corporations that guarantee one experience in their marketing (i.e. “Fly the friendly skies”) but provide the polar opposite in the real world.

The first step to overcoming alcoholism is to admit one is an alcoholic. I’d like to suggest United stop it’s “feel good” marketing and admit that theirs is a badly broken system.

Americans are quick to forgive a major transgression if the transgressor admits fault and vows to make things right. Seter’s research is yet another confirmation that America’s not buying what United’s selling. And we won’t until they yank down their phony brand promises, own their dysfunctional ways and promise to make things right.

Jun 08

Stimulus: Response

I used to work for an ad agency who loved to use the expression ‘stimulus: response.’

He especially loved to trot it out in new business meetings. He’d set it up by showing a clip depicting a sweaty, shifty-eyed Richard M. Nixon saying, “I am not a crook.”

The CEO would painstakingly explain that, while Nixon was trying to reassure Americans that he hadn’t laundered $1 million in hush money to keep E. Howard Hunt & Co., quiet about the White House’s direct involvement in the Watergate break-in, the word crook had, instead, elicited the exact opposite response in peoples’ minds.

The CEO would conclude by saying stimulus: response was key to any effective advertising and was carefully considered when we crafted the brilliant creative about to be unveiled.

I raise this rather ancient positioning & branding anecdote because White House Spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, committed nearly the exact same stimulus: response mistake as Nixon did when, in answering reporters’ questions in today’s post-Comey hearing “gaggle”, she said, “President Trump is not a liar.”

Bad. Sad. Pathetic.

A spokesperson, any spokesperson, is trained to never, ever, repeat a reporter’s negative question. Why? Because it’s almost guaranteed to become a headline or “call out” in any subsequent coverage.

Huckabee Sanders should have been mindful of the time-worn journalistic expression, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

I’m not qualified to rate the performance of the current administration, but I am more than a tad credentialed to critique the verbals and non-verbals of White House Spokespeople such as Huckabee Sanders and Sean “Where is he now?” Spicer. In my opinion each has set new lows in terms of transparency and common decency in their dealings with the Fourth Estate.

And, now, with her regrettable words, Huckabee Sanders has armed my long-retired CEO with an update for his stimulus: response lectures (which I can almost guarantee he is still serving up to some poor, unsuspecting soul in the wilds of Durango, Colorado).

Today, Huckabee Sanders learned what so many seem to forget: Those who ignore the mistakes of the past are bound to repeat them.

 

Jun 06

Number please

As a little boy, I always dreamt of one day becoming a telephone operator. Sure, other kids thought it far cooler to be cops, firemen and underwriters, but I was entranced by the romantic life of a telephone operator.

I’d lie awake nights imagining myself manning a switchboard in some godforsaken backwater, but dressed like James Bond, sipping a vodka martini (shaken, not stirred) and nonchalantly helping a complete stranger track down the phone number of a long lost lover, estranged family member or maybe even Money Penny herself.

Alas, I jest. I actually aspired to play centerfield for the Mets and bat lead-off just like my childhood hero, Tommie Lee Agee. Sadly, I was caught up in an early steroids scandal and my dream quickly turned to ashes (heavily-muscled ashes, but ashes nonetheless).

I dialed-up the “young Steve Cody as telephone operator wanna-be” tall tale for a short and not so sweet reason: a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics survey says telephone operators rank third on a list of the top 10 occupations most likely to disappear within a decade. The cause isn’t the hoax otherwise known as global climate change but, rather, robotics and artificial intelligence (A.I.).

Getting back to the dead pool and which career is most vulnerable, you’d be correct if you guessed locomotive firers.

In case you didn’t know (and shame on you for not being more aware of the world around you), locomotive firers are responsible for monitoring instruments on trains as well as watching for signals and dragging equipment. Dragging equipment? I can’t speak for you, but dragging locomotives doesn’t strike me as a fun way of spending the next 40 years of one’s life.

The firers edged out your friends and mine, motor vehicle electronic equipment installers and repairers (a career I briefly considered pursuing after graduating from high school).

As you already know, your friendly local telephone operators finished third. They were followed by postal service sorters (a real bummer for Newman fans everywhere) and shoe machine operators and tenders (one wonders if shoe machine tenders are as gentle as their job titles would suggest?).

You can check the article for the five other occupations that will soon join their horse-and-buggy maker colleagues in the special section of Elysian Fields set aside for those who don’t anticipate what’s next.

But, fear not. All is not lost.

In fact, one university in particular, Northeastern, has thought long and hard about the plight of everyone from locomotive fixers and motor vehicle electronic equipment installers to toll booth and telephone operators alike.

My alma mater’s visionary president, Joseph Aoun, began putting in place a revolutionary curriculum years ago that, he says, will graduate “robot-proof students.” This WashPo piece spells it out in far more eloquent prose than I ever could.

NU, which was one of the first universities to offer the cooperative education (AKA Co-Op) model, has extended and expanded the novel program globally while at the same time doubling down in such white hot emerging sectors as nanoscience, marine biology and computer design.

Co-Op is the school’s special sauce. It’s a five-year program that perfectly balances classroom theory with real world business experiences directly related to one’s major. Mix-in decades-long partnerships with mega corporations and more recent hook-ups with tech hub hot shots and you’ve got yourself all the ingredients needed to produce robot-free graduates.

And Northeastern is helping the individual who is already in the workforce stay relevant or change a career. For example, ALIGN allows individuals to combine their current background with new knowledge in tech and computer science and CAMD helps busy executives and current students update skills in the arts, media and design.

Traditional liberal arts schools are desperately trying to play catch-up, but how can students with little more than a sheepskin and a summer internship at TGI Fridays possibly compete with those who boast 24 months of on-the-job experience in robot-proof fields? It’s like asking the lowly New York Jets to blow away the world champion New England Patriots at Foxboro.

I could go on, but I’m handling the midnight shift at the Middletown, NJ, train station and need to call the operator for the number of the nearest locomotive dragging service. Those babies are heavy!