May 29

The client from hell

Every agency has had its fair share of truly horrific clients. 

You know the ones I mean: the screamers, gropers, the ones who keep losing the invoice that’s already 180-days old.

And then there are those who poach your talent but never ask permission or compensate you for the loss (despite contractural wording to the contrary).

My two favorites were a retail chain that told us they were reallocating our money to expand their internal IT infrastructure, and an industry group that replaced our budget to sponsor a rock group’s tour (FYI: Our program for the concert lovers has been named a finalist for three separate major awards).

But I digress.

I have to say that after reading John Carreyrou’s spellbinding book about Theranos and founder Elizabeth Holmes, “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start-Up,” I am equal parts empathetic and appalled by the actions of the lead Theranos agencies: Chiat/Day and DKC, respectively.

The legendary Chiat/Day was contacted directly by Holmes because they had represented Steve Jobs and Apple (and to say that Holmes was positively obsessed with all things Jobs-related is to say that Donald Trump occasionally compliments dictators).

Holmes hired Chiat on the spot and did her very best to lure the legendary Lee Clow (the creative genius behind Apple’s iconic 1984 campaign) out of retirement). Clow wisely demurred, but Holmes nonetheless insisted on following the exact same schedule Jobs had put in place with her Chiat team up to, and including, weekly Wednesday afternoon meetings.

Holmes retained the public relations firm DKC just prior to the oft-delayed launch of the Theranos website (whose bold claims had to be constantly dialed back as the white-hot corporation’s lawyers came to realize the start-up’s promise to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood testing significantly faster and easier was a complete ruse).

Indeed it’s not a stretch to say that Holmes is easily the most diabolical and disingenuous liar this side of Jeff Skilling, Dennis Kozkowski and Bernie Madoff.

I’m not an ad agency expert, so I can’t address why so many super smart Chiat/Day account team members didn’t smell a rat sooner than they did. But I MUST address the behavior of DKC and their lead account manager, Matthew Traub, as described by WSJ reporter Carreyou in his spellbinding book.

DKC had been successful in pulling the wool over fawning reporters from such mainstream publications as Fortune, Forbes, CNBC and others. But the Carreyrou was a different breed entirely. Various Theranos insiders had confided in the investigative reporter, and he was asking questions that Holmes, her pit bull-like law firm and DKC assiduously avoided.

Traub asked Carryrou to submit a list of questions, which the latter did. Carryrou also asked for an in-person meeting with Holmes at their posh, Fort Knox-like Silicon Valley headquarters.

Traub said Elizabeth’s schedule wouldn’t permit an in-person meeting, and provided brief, legal-approved responses to Carryrou’s questions.

At the same time, DKC was perfectly content to keep disseminating feel good press releases about Theranos and arranging countless other interviews. But not with Carryrou. They knew that he knew what was going on, Carryou writes.

I urge any advertising or PR professional, academic or student to read the book for further details because the various documentaries omit the Theranos/agency relationships.

Afterword: I must admit to feeling some empathy for Traub and DKC because they (and every PR firm) depend upon clients to tell the truth. But after reading this book, I’m convinced there were countless warnings that DKC (and Chiat/Day, for that matter) should have spotted and resigned the business ASAP.

It’s easy to look the other way, especially when an incredibly well-funded start-up is tossing hundreds of thousands of dollars your way.

But when does an agency say, “Enough is enough?” Because DKC didn’t until it was too late, they now find themselves forever painted as having played a small, but critical, role in perpetrating a complete hoax.

Final question: How did the PR trades miss this one?

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May 21

“You can pay me now or pay me later”

To mix metaphors, a brand’s reputation is only as strong as its weakest link. Case in point is the recent donnybrook surrounding the backlash from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s accepting donations from the infamous Sackler family

The Sackler Family owns Purdue Pharmaceuticals which manufacturers OxyContin. Just recently, the family had to pay the state of Oklahoma $270 million as part of a settlement in which they were accused of aggressively marketing the highly addictive painkiller that has laid waste to generations ranging from pre-teens to Octogenarians.

Last week’s backlash against the Met and the museum’s decision to no longer take donations from “members of the Sackler family presently associated with Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin,” is indicative of the mega exposure that for-profit corporations and non-profits institutions alike now face: Have they invested in questionable business concerns or, as was the case with the Met, has an organization willingly accepted funny money from very bad people?

The only way to ensure an organization doesn’t appear on the nightly news and become the focal point of an op-ed in The New York Times is to perform an honest assessment of stakeholder relationships and business practices in the context of the values and purpose the organization claims to hold.

This is especially critical in the “Age of Purpose” which is seeing every corporation, charity, marketing agency and entity under the sun determine its higher purpose for existing. It’s one thing to announce that your organization exists to end world hunger or cure the common cold. But, it’s another issue altogether when activist employees or, in the case of the Met, loyal patrons, call you out for hypocritical business practices or a disgraceful partnership. Espousing a noble purpose that is not consistently upheld in all aspects of your organization is what is now popularly considered to be “Purpose Washing.”

It’s incumbent upon every organization, large, small or otherwise, to stress test their corporate purpose to ensure it isn’t undermined by questionable sponsorships or partnerships, board composition, or marketing programs. And I happen to know a few PR firms who excel at providing exactly that sort of service.

To delay doing so is to invite trouble. I’d equate a Purpose stress test to the slogan of the old Midas Muffler advertising campaign: “You can pay me now or pay me later.” In other words, a quick stress test today could avoid a massive crisis containment program down the road.

The choice is yours, Ms. CCO or CMO.

 

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May 16

Actions speak louder than words

Philip Morris International (PMI), which has earned a well-deserved reputation for saying one thing and doing another, is at it again. 

Close on the heels of PMI’s launch of a global marketing effort for its heated tobacco vaporizer called IQOS (or, I Quit Ordinary Smoking), the Big Tobacco brand was caught marketing its killer weed to unsuspecting young people.

Happily, an alert Reuters reporter spotted the social media transgression and called out the nefarious nicotine maker for violating its own marketing policy.

Allegedly intent on helping smokers ease their way off the killer weed through IQOS AND not marketing to younger, impressionable teens who see vaping as the cool, new thing, PMI featured 21-year-old Alina Tapilina, a Russian model/influencer, endorsing IQOS on Instagram.

Caught red-handed (or black lunged, if you prefer) PMI chose to suspend the marketing campaign and yank the IG post VERY LATE on a Friday night (hoping against hope no one would notice).

A PMI spokesperson Tweeted, “We were deeply disappointed to discover this breach and are grateful that it was brought to our attention.” Yeah, sure they were.

Make no mistake that, despite hollow promises to provide “smoke-free alternatives”, PMI delivers shareholder value by continuing to addict people worldwide.

To make matters even worse, PMI had the unmitigated gall to declare 2019 the “Year of Unsmoke” (while continuing to pay young, attractive social influencers to peddle their vape).

PMI remains a slippery, sleazy brand intent on devising new and ever more insidious ways to addict a whole new generation of smokers with its youth-oriented influencer and social media campaigns.

This most recent transgression belies PMI’s stated intent to remake a battered image and be seen as a highly moral company. In reality, it’s just the latest example of PMI saying one thing and doing another. Shame on them.

Late-breaking news: North Carolina just became the first state in the nation to sue Juul. Fingers and tobacco leaves crossed that many others will follow suit.

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May 09

Big Tobacco is Baaaaaack!

Not content with having tempted and trapped countless generations of unsuspecting high schoolers to become nicotine addicts, Big Tobacco is back in a new and insidious way.

As detailed in this superb opinion piece by legendary ad man, Alex Bogusky, Big Tobacco has jumped on the coolness of a new delivery mechanism, vaping, as a way to tempt today’s middle and high school kids.

Marketed as a tasty, fruity and fun way to enjoy tobacco, vapes have immediately became fashion statements for Kool Kids, who also see them as a new way in which to rebel against their parents and teachers.

Some schools have stepped up and “banned” vaping in classrooms. But, naturally, the kids have found a way around that rule.

They blow a day’s worth of the vaped cigarette smoke into water bottles and “sip” it down as they tread innocently from classroom to classroom.

So where were the various surgeon generals and the FDA when Big Tobacco started to badly bend the rules again? Taking a smoking break, perhaps?

Someone needs to stamp out this latest, insidious assault on our nation’s young people. And it needs to be done now, before another entire generation is addicted and skyrocketing health care costs further cripple our global competitiveness.

With Washington lawmakers deadlocked on everything under the sun, who’s left to shine the spotlight on the new scourge?

I nominate The Ad Council and suggest they dust off some of the legendary anti-smoking TV spots and print ads of the 1980’s and launch a massive education program aimed at pre-teens and teens. Make no mistake: the future health of an entire generation is at stake.

In the meantime, those of us with scruples who also happen to own marketing communications firms should just say NO if Big Tobacco comes knocking with millions of dollars for a cigarette vaping campaign. How could you possibly justify making a pact with the devil weed?”

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