Sep 01

It was 26 years ago today that my dog Pepper taught the firm to play

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly three decades since I borrowed $12,500 from my mother-in-law and older brother and decided to launch a PR firm in my Black Lab’s honor.

Peppercomm entered the business world on September 1, 1995, and, since then, has experienced more ups-and-downs than a yo-yo on steroids…

– O’Dwyer’s twice named us America’s fastest growing firm of the year in the late 1990’s
– PR Week named us Agency of the Year in 2006
– Crain’s New York Business named us best workplace in 2011
– PR Week named us best workplace of 2020 (an amazing achievement considering the mega societal and health woes that brought the entire world to a standstill)
– And we’re once again a finalist for Crain’s New York Business of the year.

We’ve thrived in spite of some serious setbacks:

– The dotcom crash
– The post 9/11 client halt on all PR/marketing spends
– The 2008 market correction
– A vicious Kramer v. Kramer business divorce in 2018.

The reasons we’ve thrived begin and end with great people, great people and, yes, great people.

Ann Barlow, Jackie Kolek and Maggie O’Neill all marked their 20th anniversaries this year. I do not exaggerate when I say that, without their superb client counseling (and having my back when I needed it most), there would be no Peppercomm today.

Then there’s Courtney Ellul, Matt Purdue, Melissa Vigue and Tara Lilien, four other formidable partners, who have made countless contributions over the years.

And I MUST pay homage to a superb middle management cadre, a very cool group of whip smart junior employees and an IT director who contributes more creative ideas on a daily basis than any IT executive anywhere.

Last, and certainly not least, is our humor-driven culture.

Unlike ANY other PR firm, we train employees in stand-up and improvisational humor, tie it into our annual charitable fundraising and now offer three distinct modules to meet the unprecedented needs of client organizations in every conceivable industry.

Peppercomm’s humor-driven culture is our key differentiator and the not-so-hidden secret to our winning so many workplace awards as well as countless best campaigns of the year citations for so many superb clients.

Success is a beautiful thing that grows increasingly beautiful when an organization occasionally stumbles and falls, but gets right back up each and every time and each and every time becomes a little bit stronger, a little bit nimbler and dare I say, a whole lot cooler than ever.

So let me introduce to you the one and only Peppercomm, 26 years young and growing younger (and stronger) every day.

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Aug 10

Sending the Wrong Signal

One of the keys to winning an interview or delivering a compelling speech is combining facts with authenticity and a genuine sense of enthusiasm. In regards to the latter, I’ve often told a client subject matter expert that if she isn’t enthusiastic about her product, service or organization why should any time-pressed reader, listener or viewer pay attention? 
Sadly, Luis Rojas the beleaguered, baffled and befuddled manager of the rapidly-fading New York Mets is a poster child for sending ALL of the wrong signals.
Check out his expressions, tonality and sense of frustration and resignation as he dissects the Mets loss to a truly miserable Miami Marlins team in a recent post game press conference. The word grim comes to mind. 
Ask yourself this after viewing the video: Would you follow this guy into battle (and that battle could be injecting a little more enthusiasm in the workplace, delighting a client with a totally unexpected creative idea or winning a new piece of business thanks to developing amazing rapport with the prospect).
I sure wouldn’t. 
Everything about Luis Rojas adds up to one word: defeat. 
It’s clearly not his fault that the team has fallen from first to third place in the incredibley weak National League East. But it IS his fault that the team has mirrored his hangdog expression and negative body language throughout their three successive losses to the Phillies this past weekend.
It doesn’t matter if you’re leading a baseball team, a Fortune 500 corporation or a self-proclaimed NextGen digital firm. Leaders must lead. And leaders MUST rise to the occasion no matter how grim the current prospects may be.
I’ve had to rally myself in the aftermath of 9/11, the 2008 economic downturn and, of course, during the ongoing pandemic. 
Through it all I’ve tried my best to project a positive, but realistic, demeanor. 
It’s easy to lead when one’s managing a first place team or is the CEO of health care agency that has more business than it can handle. 
But the true mark of leadership comes when the chips are down and the future looks bleak. That’s the time when great leaders are acutely aware of their words and actions, dig deep and find just the right physical and verbal messages to keep an organization’s hopes up and performance at its very best.
Sadly, Rojas was either poorly media trained, decided to skip the session entirely or believes his words and actions alone cannot right a sinking ship. 
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Jul 27

Charleston, Climate Change and The Calamity that’s upon us

How can otherwise intelligent people continue to believe that California’s rampant wildfires, the Midwest (and Northeast’s) tornadoes, excessive heat in places such as Seattle, Germany’s biblical-like floods and every other “worst climactic event ever recorded” is a natural thing that occurs every 10,000 years or so (See: Little Ice Age for more info).

Case in point. My daughter recently attended a wedding whose bride, groom, bridesmaids (save: Catharine) and groomsmen were united in their denial of global climate change.

With all due respect, that was one ignorant group of revelers.

To wit, please scan Maureen Dowd’s superb editorial “Apocalypse Right Now”.

And for those of you who, like me, list Charleston, SC, as among the most gorgeous cities in the country, check out the impact of coastal flooding CAUSED by global climate change.

The Charleston saga hits very close to home (so to speak) since I’ve been a proud member of the College of Charleston’s Communications Department Advisory Council for more than a decade.

Peppercomm and the CofC have had a superb, relationship of long-standing.

Many of today’s superstars (ie Trisha Bruynell and Caroline Mooney in particular) as well as the recently-hired Sierra Buck and Olivia Jebrine have played instrumental roles in our success. And Eternity Hunter, a CofC Summer intern is absolutely lighting it up (Check out her “Day in the Life of a Peppercomm intern” video she posted the other day on IG).

In the meantime, though, I hope and pray that climate deniers will wake up to the realities of what’s happening all around us and, for once, place their trust in science (as opposed to buying into yet another big lie).

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Jul 15

“I bet you didn’t know this”

At long last sports teams are waking up to the very real dangers of online sports gambling and gambling addiction.

According to a recent report by Caytoo, British sports teams are turning down the mega sponsorship dollars they’ve always received from gambling firms. They’ve also cut down on the amount of sponsorship money they’ll take from gambling’s evil cousin, alcohol.

I’m not sure how or why, but compulsive gambling has somehow flown under the media’s radar as society has awakened to the need for societal change at all levels.

But gambling’s pernicious impact should not be underestimated. The Caytoo report said one percent of adults identify as compulsive gamblers. That may not sound like much, but one percent of 300 million Americans amounts to three million souls. And, get this, SIX to NINE percent of children say they’re addicted.

Happily, gambling’s precipitous decline in the British sports establishment is akin to having a very bad night in a Vegas casino. In just two years, gambling’s sponsorship of rugby, soccer and cricket has been cut in half from 15.1 percent of all major sponsorship bucks to just over 8 percent this year.

And if it’s happening in the UK, you can bet the house that US sports teams will be pressured to follow suit. And Caytoo cites four reasons why…

  • 50 percent of compulsive gamblers commit crimes.
  • Families where a parent gambles compulsively are more likely to experience domestic violence, including child abuse.
  • Over 80 percent of problem gamblers were at risk for alcohol or drug use dependency.
  • More than 60 percent of compulsive gamblers said they wanted help, but only 25 percent actually sought assistance.

I take these statistics personally because I lost a beloved uncle to compulsive gambling. The guy was addicted to betting on baseball and the horses. And he’d gamble the full amount of each paycheck on one or both sports. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for him to lose his shirt, turn to drinking to ease the pain, ask his siblings for financial support and end up dying a lonely, penniless and broken man.

Sports gambling is evil. It killed my uncle. And while it may not kill a member of your family or circle of friends, it can trigger all sorts of other calamities.
So three cheers for the British sporting establishment in forcing gambling companies to spend their ill-gotten gains somewhere else. I just hope our country’s sports franchises do the same thing. And soon!

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Jun 15

¿Qué pasa?

I was in the midst of a much-needed Spring cleaning of my home office when I stumbled across a true relic: a book called, “F’d Companies: Spectacular dot-com flameouts.” The book was published in 2002 by someone named Philip J. Kaplan.

I wouldn’t waste your time (or mine) except the handbook included a particularly nasty review of a one-time Peppercomm client called Quepasa.com. It also triggered an of-the-moment cautionary tale I thought might be educational (stay tuned). In his magnus opus, Kaplan skewered QuePasa.com, which he described as “…a portal and community site for Spanish speakers.” And that it was.

And, as was the case with about 45 or so other dotcoms we represented, Que Pasa paid us northwards of $40k per month to issue a press release a day to incite market interest. And it worked.

Que Pasa raised a staggering $68 million in their IPO.

But as Kaplan pointed out, Que Pasa offered “…free e-mail, news feeds, even chat rooms!” and, as he added: “….just about everything you needed $15 and a free Geocities website to accomplish.”

Ouch! Needless to say, when the technology bubble burst in April of 2000, Que Pasa said adios amigos to the business world.

Fast forward to today: start-ups are back in a big way and popping up more often than yet another laughably absurd Qanon conspiracy theory.

And truth be told, I fell prey to the very same circa 1999 dot-com double talk that a travel insurance start-up recently laid upon me.

The 2021 “version” put us on a microscopic retainer, but “promised” they’d raise massive amounts of money in their second round of funding and immediately increase the fee to $20k per month.

Not.

They never raised the money.

Instead they sent one of those classic “Dear Agency” e-mails in which the CMO stated in an impassive, impersonal note that “…..moving forward, we’ll be handling social, media  and influencer relations in-house.”

I was tempted to respond by asking, “Que Pasa?”

Alas they would ‘t understand the inside joke and I was too busy kicking myself for believing the same faux hype I’d heard 20 years ago.

So, caveat PR agency owner: Many of today’s start-ups aren’t very different than their dotcom predecessors.

Kick the tires. Be sure they do indeed have funding and, whatever you do, don’t buy into the lie that “…once second-round funding comes in, we’ll dramatically increase your fee.”

Trust me, you will NOT enjoy reading a Philip Kaplan follow-up. The inaugural was chock full of truly offensive, misogynistic and F-bomb laced prose.

And if there’s anything I despise, it’s an individual (or a firm) using the F bomb for pure shock value.

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Mar 15

Good-Bye to You

I received my vaccine booster this past Saturday and, within 12 days, will be 99 and 44/100th percent immune from the ravages of COVID-19.😅

And while I’ve personally bid adieu to the scourge of our lifetime, I fear the ignorant, uniformed and belligerent will trigger a second wave of the deadly virus within the next 30 days (or sooner).

All one has to do is follow what’s happening in countries such as Brazil, Italy and France to see that the virus is absolutely delighted to perform an encore when safety precautions are ignored.

We can easily avoid what’s happening overseas but, as the ubiquitous Dr. Fauci warned Americans yesterday, we need to “mask-up” and continue to social distance. Good luck with that.

Thanks to our former president and his cultish followers, some 45 percent of Republicans say they will not wear masks.

To make matters worse, the “Immortals” (aka college kids on Spring Break) are partying hard sans masks and social distancing in what are obviously super spreader events.

Yesterday Fauci asked Trump to step up and ask The Base to wear masks.

That’s akin to asking New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to voluntarily step down in light of the ever-increasing number of sexual and workplace harassment suits he’s facing.

Neither Trump nor Cuomo will do the responsible thing.

So who will take the heat when, like Italy, Brazil and other parts of the world, we soon see wide swaths of Texas, Alabama and other bastions of The Base forced to shut down for a second time? The answer is obvious: Fox, et al, will concoct a number of ersatz reasons to blame Biden, the Democrats and the Left-Wing media.

I yearn for the day when I can say good-bye to COVID and ignorance alike but, alas, the latter’s become firmly ingrained (and enabled) by a Republican Party that has no moral compass whatsoever. And, like a rapidly spreading virus, it will only get worse.

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Feb 22

You can always tell how smart someone is by what they laugh at

I’d like to claim credit for those insightful words but they belong to Tina Fey. And they’re just one of countless astute observations made about the tremendous power of humor in business in a brand new book.

Fey, along with other comedians, as well as some of America’s best known CEOs and leadership gurus all contributed pithy comments to the book, “Humor, Seriously: Why Humor is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life.”

The authors are two Ph.D’s who teach a REQUIRED course about the importance of humor in the workplace at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

They’re doing so because, based on their extensive research as a behavioral scientist and leadership guru, respectively, the authors have proof positive that comedy not only differentiates an individual, it’s also a key attribute of the very best leaders of today and tomorrow.

I’ve known this stuff for years since, as a highly mediocre stand-up and improvisational comedian, I’ve seen laughter help me in business to build rapport, increase creativity and, yes, even help close deals.

It’s also why we’ve trained our employees in stand-up, tied it in to our charitable fundraising and, hold for shameless self-plug, provide comedy workshops for clients of all kinds.

In fact, self-deprecating humor has been proven to make ALL leaders who embrace it seem more empathetic, vulnerable and, get this, intelligent (I’m an obvious exception to that rule).

But don’t take my word for any of the above.

Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, the co-authors of Humor, Seriously say, “Humor charms and disarms (in a business setting). Even small gestures of levity are powerful in negotiations.” (note to self: Try your New Jersey Transit material the next time you negotiate with a procurement officer). “That’s in part because they (humorous words and phrases) spark human connection — and when we connect as people, we often get more of what we both want.”

I dare say we all want to spark more human connections as we battle our way through this horrible period in history.

But the words comedy, laughter and humor actually scare many uptight business executives who take themselves and their work far too seriously.

I can think of one head of internal communications at a global corporation who, in response to my suggesting we conduct comedy training for their fast trackers in order to combat anxiety, depression and poor morale, said, “I’m just too afraid that, in this cancel culture world of ours, someone will say something during the training that would trigger a lawsuit of some kind.”

Possibly, but not if the proper parameters are established in advance. When we comedy train everyone from rocket scientists and lawyers to bankers and oncologists, we take a deep dive into each organization’s culture to determine what is, and isn’t, appropriate before any training occurs. So, to borrow the vernacular du jour, we make the training a “safe place to be.”

The results can be game-changing, especially for Gen Z and Millennial employees who have either been sheltering alone in an 800-foot studio apartment or moved back into the same bedroom they had in high school (which HAS to be brutal).

I could go on, but must insert another pearl from the authors: “Research PROVES that humor can be one of the most powerful tools we have for accomplishing serious things. Humor makes us APPEAR more competent and confident, strengthens relationships, unlocks creativity and boosts our resiliency during difficult times.”

I will end with a most excellent application of humor that was used by President Obama during a State of the Union Address (btw, just try to imagine the off-the-charts anxiety you’d be feeling in the moments leading up to delivering a speech of that magnitude). Here’s what Obama said when explaining the need for heightened government efficiency:

“The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in saltwater. But the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in fresh water.” Obama took a long pause and then added: “I hear it gets even more complicated when they’re smoked.”

Republicans and Democrats alike laughed out loud (and when’s the last time that happened?).

 

 

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Feb 18

There’s nothing smart about this campaign

We live in a world of personalized, micro-target marketing that, thanks to artificial intelligence, has become equal parts amazing and appalling:

  • Amazing: Brand X knowing exactly what I buy and suddenly popping up on my IG feed with a way cool product I MUST purchase.
  • Appalling: God knows who else, besides Brand X, has my personal information and what they plan to do with it? 

I mention hyper targeting because I must admit to being left completely dumbfounded (a state of mind with which I’m very familiar, btw) by a new campaign from the fine folks at TD Ameritrade (TDA).

First, click on this link to see their TV spot.

Now riddle me this: To whom is TDA aiming its commercial?

It has to be Baby Boomers since, aside from Steve Carell’s horribly bad 2008 remake of “Get Smart”, absolutely no one under the age of 60 will possibly understand TDA’s lame attempt to leverage a TV show that ran from 1967-1970.

From Gen Z types to Younger Millennials and from older Millennials to Gen X’ers, no one will “get” the subtle comedy thread embedded in the pitch (especially TDA’s use of “Would you believe?” in the middle of the 30-second commercial). For the uniformed, Would you believe…. was Special Agent 86, Maxwell Smart’s, signature line.

Getting back to the introductory paragraph, how could marketers who are armed with mountains of data explaining exactly how to reach younger and middle-aged audiences choose, instead, to play a nostalgia card that no one in their target universe will get (as in Get Smart)?

In closing:

  • Would you believe smart investors will be befuddled by TDA’s tagline, “Where smart investors get smarter?
  • Would you believe egregious target marketing mistakes such as this happen all the time?
  • Channeling Maxwell Smart one last time, would you believe the TDA marketing types are anything BUT smart?

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Dec 20

How Bad Can it Be? BAD

I’ve always believed the very best publicity in the world won’t help if your product, service or organization provides a sub-par user experience.

As you’ll read in today’s guest blog, Peppercomm’s very own Jacko Kolek recently suffered through a text book example.

PLEASE share your customer experience(s) from hell tales. It sets the perfect tone for the holidays. 😎🚀

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I’m always up for a weekend getaway or a trip to the beach.  When booking a hotel, I religiously check the online reviews and as long as it’s clean and safe, its fine by me.  I never spend much time in a room anyway, so my mantra is “how bad can it be?”  Well, a recent stay at the Hotel Pennsylvania has made me rethink that motto. 

The online reviews of the Penn were fine. Nice staff, clean room and great location. Some recent reviewers even gave it five stars. Given it’s the holidays in NYC, the room was a pricey $500/night so it had to be decent, right? Wrong.

Let’s start with the check in, which was complete and utter chaos.  A line snaking around the lobby made security at JFK airport look like a walk in the park. The self-check-in kiosks didn’t work and there was no one around to ask questions or provide support.

Once we finally got our keys, things got worse.  The “Security Guard” was asleep at his post and the hallways were a disgrace.  Carpeting was worn and ripped, the walls were scuffed and paint was peeling from them.  The door to my room looked like it had been broken into and the handle was chipped and askew.  There is quaint old and there is gross old and this is just plain old gross.

And then the room.  Where do I start?  Dirty carpeting, stained and chipped furniture and smudges on the walls.  The towel bar was broken in the bathroom and there were no towels.  The bathroom floor was rusted and the shower was chipped and dented.  Oh, and the sheets were stained.

Where did these reviews come from?  They couldn’t possibly be from people who walked the halls of this hotel.  This experience has made me not only question my laissez faire approach to booking accommodations, but the value of online reviews.   Clearly in this case they were false and the owners of this fine establishment should be ashamed of themselves.  Sooner or late this will catch up with them.  Bottom line, you can fake an online review but you can’t fake an experience.

Have you had a hotel horror?  Share your stories with us.

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Sep 09

Purpose Goes Back to School

There’s been an overwhelming amount of coverage about the critical role of organizational purpose (especially in light of the recent Business Roundtable announcement. But how many high schools do you know who are in the midst of developing their reason for being?

Longtime Peppercomm Partner and New York General Manager Jackie Kolek has quite the tale to tell. Enjoy (and please share your thoughts, reactions, etc.)….

Last week I attended the annual back to school night at my kids’ high school. I typically skip the principal’s opening remarks, but since we have a new principal this year, I decided to check him out. I walked in expecting to hear the same spiel about academic excellence, building resiliency, helping our kids manage stress and what a wonderful school we have. What I wasn’t expecting was a 20-minute purpose workshop.

Taking over as principal of one of the top high schools in the state is no easy feat. Where does one go from there? Well, turns out that with our top SAT scores, high college acceptance rates and competitive athletic programs there was still one thing missing: a purpose.

Corporate purpose has been the buzzword of 2019, but I never thought about the need for a purpose at a public high school. In explaining how he is working with the teachers, staff, administrators and students at the school in creating their purpose, Principal Thomas walked the parents through an exercise to create our own purpose. He instructed us to ask ourselves five key questions:
1. Who are you?
2. What do you love to do?
3. Who do you do it for?
4. What do they want or need from you?
5. How are they changed or transformed by what you give them?

This is brilliant in its simplicity. Over the course of twenty minutes, he really got the whole audience thinking about why we show up every day. In my client work I often run into brands that are confusing their mission or values with their purpose. Purpose, our new principal explained, must be intentional and it must tap into your passion. It isn’t a tagline and it isn’t a goal for revenue or market share. Rather, its what moves us all forward and keeps us engaged and driven to succeed.

This month Peppercomm will mark its 25th anniversary. Due to a recent business transformation, we are in the unique position of having 25 years of experience and expertise, coupled with the hunger and drive of a start up with just one year under our belts. I’m looking forward to asking these five critical questions of myself and asking my colleagues to answer them as well.

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