Sep 12

The Babe Ruth of the Back Office

Some things bear repeating. This blog ran one year ago and is more appropriate than ever…

The Babe Ruth of the Back Office

leeWhat do Weber-Shandwick, F-H, Makovsky, M. Booth and, yes, Peppercomm, have in common?

They’re hugely successful strategic communications firms whose prowess is directly connected to the strength and performance of their back office functions.

Show me a PR firm with a weak CFO, office manager or personnel director, and I’ll show you an agency that isn’t winning new clients, growing profits or attracting and retaining great people.

 

Caste System

Alas, back office workers are often treated in much the same way as the Untouchables in India’s Caste System. They’re literally invisible, are rarely mentioned in internal memos and NEVER included in those already suspect best workplace tales that PR Week likes to spin.

But, that’s not the case at my firm.

If an office manager hall of fame were to be created, I’d make sure Peppercomm’s Lee Stechmann would be among the first class to be elected (He’s the Babe Ruth of the Back Office).

Making the case for Lee

To begin with, Lee is arguably our best writer. His daily, and weekly, updates are equal parts Dostoyevsky and Louis CK.

Case in point: Every Friday, Lee reminds employees on our two floors in the New York office to remove their food from the fridge, place empty plates in the dishwasher and dispose of any refuse in the general kitchen area.

On one particular Friday, he added a note to help those who might be in need of extra grease to clean their silverware. It read, “You’ll find Dawn underneath the fifth floor kitchen sink.”

Good lord! I was aghast and immediately responded with an agency- wide memo asking why Lee had put poor Dawn under the sink, and how long he intended to keep her there.

To his credit, Stechmann issued an immediate clarification that read like  a police bulletin and assured employees that Dawn was NOT an underachieving employee being punished for her transgressions but, rather, a dish washing detergent.

That said, Dawn’s plight is still considered an unsolved mystery at Peppercomm and the fifth floor sink is still roped off with yellow crime scene tape.

Above and beyond

But, it isn’t Lee’s flair with the pen that elevates him to Greek god status on the Mount Olympus of clean-up.

Rather, it’s his random acts of love and kindness that truly set the man apart. To wit:

Our building (like every Manhattan office) plays host to occasional visits from small, furry creatures. Rather than declare war on them, though, Lee extends an olive branch. Peppercomm’s Sarah Sanzari recalls spotting Lee on a Saturday morning carefully plucking tiny mice from the glue traps in which they’d been snared, cleaning them up, rehabilitating them, and freeing them outside the building. Holy Saint Francis of Assisi, Batman!

Adam Giambattista, another Peppercommer, says Lee never bothers to ask when he spies AG lugging two heavy boxes up the staircase connecting our fifth and sixth floors. He’ll simply grab one and carry it himself.

And, Nicole Newby says she’ll often discuss her love of cats with Lee, who provides shelter in his garage during the winter for homeless felines.  Now, you tell me: How many office managers in this world will shower cats and mice alike with equal amounts of affection?

Lee’s true piece d’resistance, though,  occurred about five years ago when one of his beloved little fellow’s passed away of natural causes (a fact later confirmed by a coroner’s report).

As you’ll see in the accompanying photograph, Lee built a tiny coffin for his deceased office mate and adorned it with laurel wreaths (or, reasonable facsimiles thereof).

In honor of our fallen comrpepper-mouse.ade (and Lee’s quick/thinking craftsmanship), we observed an agency-wide moment of silence before Stechmann tossed the carcass down the garbage chute.

Great people make for great workplaces. And, those great people aren’t limited to the ones with fancy titles and high-profile digital footprints. They include top professionals such as Lee Stechmann without whom, I think it’s safe to say, Peppercomm wouldn’t be Peppercomm.

And, what higher honor can a business bestow on a single individual than to annually name him their unofficial Most Valuable Player year-in and year-out? Lee is given that honor at every year’s offsite retreat (I don’t give him anything. I just tell Lee he’s our most important employee. Maybe I should give him something, huh?).

I also have no doubt that Lee’s quiet excellence has played a key part in our having won virtually every Fortune Magazine award for great cultures.

I’m sure Burson, Mitchell, Marina Maher and other top firms have their back office heroes but, trust me, none shine brighter than our very own Lee Stechmann.

Sep 11

It’s so nice to have The New York Times verify what I’ve been saying all along

As loyal Repman readers know all too well, I despise the unnecessary theatrics weather reporters employ to heighten the drama, pathos and, of course, ratings of any natural disaster ranging from blizzards and hurricanes to earthquakes and wildfires.

In the case of Hurricane Irma, I find it despicable for thesemeteorologists to prey on people’s fears by purposely standing in waist-deep water, finding the windiest spot on a beach or allowing themselves to be nearly blown off the roof of a high-rise apartment building.

It’s unprofessional and irresponsible. But, enough from me. Read what The New York Times has to say…

As Irma’s Winds Rise, So Does a Debate Over TV Storm Reporting
Television correspondents are standing out in the storm as Hurricane Irma lashes Florida. Is that necessary? Reporters say better them than you. Read the full story.

Sep 06

Jerry Lewis and Me

I was saddened to recently read about the passing of entertainment legend, Jerry Lewis.

While I was never a fan of his, I did have the unique opportunity to spend three solid hours with him in his dressing room prior to Jerry’s performance one night at the legendary Las Vegas Hilton (Think: Elvis, Howard Hughes, etc.). I believe the year was 1983.

Regardless, I found my way into Lewis’s sanctum sanctorum courtesy of a barter deal my client, Sony Audio, had cut with him and a number of other stars of the day, including: Willie Mays, Phil Collins, Rod Stewart, Mick & The Boys and John “The SuperBrat” McEnroe.

The deal was simple and straightforward: Sony would provide the stars with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of top-of-the-line professional audio, video and car stereo equipment and, in exchange, the star(s) would grant exclusive interviews with the top audiophile trades of the day (extolling the many virtues of Sony over Panasonic, etc.).

I was there to “staff” the interview between Jerry and David Hajdu, the editor of Stereo Review, and a rising superstar in his own right.

I sat down and listened as David asked his first question. Having never seen Lewis anywhere but in movies or TV, I was positively dazzled by his calm, controlled manner, delightful personality (I’d heard rumors to the contrary) and his incredible intellect. Yes, I used the word intellect in describing Jerry Lewis.

It turned out Lewis was a consummate student of anything and everything pertaining to audio and video. He loved trying the latest, experimental equipment and knew more about Sony’s models and their features and benefits that Hajdu and me combined (not a good thing to realize by a then-aspiring young account supervisor).

Anyway, the conversation finally ended and David’s photographer asked if Jerry would mind posing for a few photographs. He was very gracious and immediately agreed (even though we were less than 15 minutes before showtime).

So, he stood alongside David and the two shook hands. Then Hajdu, to his everlasting credit said, “Hey, Jerry, mind posing with the PR flack?”

Lewis nodded, walked up alongside me and, boom, instantly reverted to his nuttiest nutty professor character. It was so cool and so unexpected that I completely lost it and burst out laughing (see the accompanying photo for evidence).

And, that was that. We shook hands, left to take our seats in the restaurant lounge to sit alongside 25 other Sony executives who had flown to Vegas just to see Jerry, and watched Lewis do his thing on stage. Sure enough, he found four or five ways to include the name Sony in his various bits.

Afterword: As you may know, Jerry Lewis is revered in France, where he had been awarded that nation’s highest honors and worshiped by critics who saw him as the “Second Chaplin.” Sadly, very few other critics around the world agreed.

I mention this because Peppercomm’s very own Chief Comedy Officer, Clayton Fletcher, is a beloved star in Stockholm and the paparazzi there (I think there are three in total) routinely describe him as, “The Jerry Lewis of Sweden.”

Now, there’s something to one day tell the grandchildren.

Sep 05

Day One

It’s nice to step off the fast track every now and then to pause and reflect, however briefly, on a seminal moment in one’s life.

Today is one of those seminal moments. It’s the date in time Ed and I took the first step on a long and winding road that would take us to the highest highs and lowest lows. It’s the day we began Peppercomm. And, today we begin our 23rd year in business.

I have to say the first year was, far and away, my favorite. We started in a ramshackle one-bedroom apartment, paid our bills with $12,500 borrowed from my family, had no preconceived notions and figured, what the heck, let’s give this six months and see what happens.

And, I can tell not much happened at all the first three months. But, then, we landed two blue chip accounts that provided us with the credibility needed to open other doors and, boom, just like that we were off to the races.

But the first year wasn’t just about the business. It was really all about the small, loyal group of employees we’d hired, the tremendous esprit d’corps that existed and the single mindedness to succeed we possessed. Oh, and it was also all about the laughs. Lots and lots of laughs.

I remember year one as a time of total exhilaration chock full of priceless moments in which we laughed out loud together, celebrated together and simply chilled together. We were like a small, but elite (at least we thought we were elite) squad of Navy Seals who were kicking ass and taking names.

There was no time for politicking, turf building or agenda-setting. Instead, it really was all-for-one and one-for-all. And, prospects sensed the energy and enthusiasm and wanted to be part of it.

We ended our first full year with just under $1 million in billings. And, thanks to naming our firm after my late black lab, Pepper, we unwittingly attracted scores and scores of newly-launched, deep-pocketed dotcoms that had just arrived on the scene as well.

Calls flooded in from prospects who mistakenly thought any PR firm named Peppercomm could get the job done. And we did, once we began hiring professionals who understood the new technology and possessed media contacts in the new publications that sprung up from nowhere to cover the phenomenon (Think Business 2.0, Red Herring, etc.).

The only downside to reflecting on what, for me, was the single best year of my life, is realizing it can’t possibly be duplicated. It was what it was and passed in the blink of an eye.

And, while I couldn’t fully appreciate it then, I do thank my lucky stars every day up that I said good-bye to big agency life and rolled the dice with a guy named Ed.