Jun 20

The bigger they are, the harder they fall

Did you ever think you’d live to see the day that General Electric, one of the icons of American business and industry, was dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average?

And to add insult to injury the corporation, founded by Thomas Edison, has been replaced by something called Walgreens Boots Alliance. Holy embarrassment, Batman!

I’m especially flabbergasted by this since my firm and I once had quite the relationship with GE.

It all began when Valerie Di Maria, the current owner of the 10 Company and, way back when, the CCO of GE Capital, called me to ask if an itsy, bitsy start-up PR firm called Peppercomm would be interested in pitching what was then known as GE Financial (it was later spun-off as Genworth).

Needless to say, I was thrilled by the opportunity. That’s when Peter Harris, then a Peppercomm partner and, today, the CEO of The Harris Agency and I went to work.

We spent countless hours coming up with a campaign theme to launch what GE Financial hoped would become an agnostic website that would provide oodles of financial and insurance information to the average consumer.

We nailed it by inventing the slogan, “Liberation through education.”

The tagline positioned the soon-to-be-site as a hub of knowledge that would enable educated consumers to make wiser financial investments.

Pete and I (and a few other Peppercommers) hosted the pitch at our offices, transforming the conference room into a classroom.

We won it.

That’s when Jackie Kolek, then a rising star and now president of our Financial Services group, took over the account and engineered the wildly successful, award-winning launch of the Center for Financial Learning.

Our success with GE Financial led us to Beth Comstock, then CMO of GE, who asked us to pitch the corporation’s new “Imagination at work” campaign.

I won’t bore you with all of the details, but I had one of our minions dress up as Thomas Edison, interrupt the new business presentation we were delivering and announce that he, Edison, would be running for president on the new Imagination Party ticket (we had an entire program to support the ersatz Edison’s run for the White House).

Beth hired us on the spot.

And, we spent many years publicizing GE CEO Jeff Immelt’s efforts to reinvent the multinational powerhouse from the old, but wildly successful, conglomerate to a lean, mean innovator.

Immelt failed.

And, as the BBC article states, his successor has been unable to rally the company. As a result, the stock price has plunged to new lows and GE has been dropped from the Dow Index. It’s truly epoch-making (as my old Sony client loved to say).

Looking back, I am proud to say I was right in the midst of the fray as Immelt did his best (and we did ours as well) to steer what would eventually become the RMS Titanic of Corporate America away from the iceberg that was dead ahead.

Jun 18

Grand Theft: Ideas

I’m involved in a rather heated exchange right now on a LinkedIn discussion group.

The donnybrook began when the CMO of a company that already had agency representation, and was about to do a “brand refresh,” asked for any, and all, creative ideas.

The responses were VERY telling:

  • Two people immediately pitched the woman’s business.
  • Several asked for additional information in order to provide more informed ideas.
  • I was one of several people to push back and say, “Sorry, I’ve had more than enough negative experiences with ‘prospective clients’ who pick your brain, pay you zilch and then later either fall off the radar screen completely or send a vague note informing participants in the dog & pony show that the search has been put on hold.”

The CMO in question is indicative of the rapidly increasing number of prospects who see nothing wrong with asking for ideas to launch an entire creative campaign and then taking the ideas and implementing them themselves. It’s the type of story that responsible PR trade publications should be telling, but aren’t.

We do our very best to avoid fishing expeditions but, sometimes, the prospect’s assurances to the contrary seduce us into investing time and money in creating a speculative campaign.

The most egregious recent example occurred when a prospect who said she “absolutely wanted to work with Peppercomm,” insisted two of our employees give up their weekend to attend an industry conference. The prospect insisted it would enable us to write a far more strategic plan.

I was beyond skeptical and asked the prospect to cover one-half of the out-of-pocket expenses. Rejected. That should have told me right then and there that these people were playing us like a fiddle.

Instead, I allowed our executives to attend the event, ate the OOPs, submitted a proposal and, guess what? Everything was put on hold. We’ll receive a response to our inquiries for an update with something like this, “You are still top of mind. We hope to make a decision soon.”

Right. And, Donald Trump will begin treating our allies as friends and authoritarian regimes as enemies.

Since the trade publications conveniently overlook these ongoing assaults on agencies (hey, the serial prospect might buy ads, send in pricey awards submissions and buy tables at their events, so why rock the boat?), I think we should press the PR Council and other trade organizations to strongly advocate against what I would call “Grand Theft: Ideas.”

There ought to be a law.

Jun 04

When did being single become a crime?

Today’s guest blog is written by a young lady who absolutely tore it up during her five-year stint at Peppercomm and is now doing the same at a top 10 global firm.

Her column, however, has nothing whatsoever to do with public relations and everything to do with the increasing insensitivity of people and in every walk of life….

At a Memorial Day barbeque last weekend, a family friend asked me, “So, have you met any special guys yet?” I responded with humor to deflect the hurt: “I meet lots of guys – none of them are special, though.”

I’m used to this question. As an almost 30-year-old woman who is – GASP – still single, I hear it a lot. I expect it from family and friends. I DON’T expect it from Adweek. (In case you missed it, Adweek’s Patrick Coffee wrote an article in April detailing Grey Group’s new 4-day work week policy.) Seemingly innocuous, right? WRONG.

After detailing the new policy (staffers who choose to opt in can work four day weeks in exchange for a 15 percent pay cut), Coffee goes on to say, “Before you all freak out, we’re told that this shift came about due to employee demand. Even those who don’t have kids know how tough it can be working in advertising as a parent … and then there’s whatever single people do when they’re not in the office. (Check Fishbowl incessantly?)”

I didn’t realize that single people are less deserving of work-life balance than their married counterparts. So let me shed some light on what single people do: we do what people in relationships do…with less fighting J. We work out, we spend time with family, we hang out with our friends. You know – NORMAL stuff. We’re not tethered to Fishbowl (because, that app is so ten years ago, Coffee). We may use Hinge, Happ’n, Tinder or other apps to meet people, but that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve basic human respect.

So the next time you happen upon a single person, please don’t belittle him or her. Please don’t think that just because we’re single, we have ample free time to work weekends, we check dating apps incessantly, or that we live a less fulfilling life.

May 30

Lowering the Barr

Today’s guest post is brought to you by Deb Brown, Partner and Managing Director at Peppercomm.  

Kudos to ABC and Disney for taking a courageous stand against the star and executive producer of its highest rated show “Roseanne,” canceling the series due to an outrageous racist tweet from Roseanne Barr yesterday. The highly insensitive tweet was an attack on Valerie Jarrett, a former senior advisor to President Barack Obama.

Although Barr apologized, others involved in the show and ABC still did the right thing and distanced themselves from Barr, underscoring that apologies are just not enough. Some words have serious consequences and hollow apologies just don’t cut it. ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungy was quoted as saying, “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.”

Inconsistent with our values. Four powerful words that speak volumes.

Recently, Peppercomm and the Institute for Public Relations interviewed 50 different CCOs/CMOs to ask them about the new normal we now live in, the frequent societal crises they now face, and whether or not they have a purpose that guides them in making tough decisions, such as taking a stand for or against an issue. The study, which is the third in the series, is called Taking a Stand: How CMOs and CCOs are Redefining Their Roles in Today’s Highly Charged Social, Cultural and Political Climate,” and is being released today. And born from the study is a new service offering from Peppercomm that helps corporations prepare for and handle a societal crisis as well as develop its purpose, if needed.

Roseanne became her own societal crisis, lowering the Barr even further on horrific tweets. ABC and Disney, on the other hand, are the latest corporations that continue to raise the bar on doing the right thing, speaking up and taking a stand.

May 24

Are You Ready for Some Football (Controversy)?

 

Today’s guest blog is authored by Steve Goodwin, a principal at Brand Foundations, a strategic branding & purpose partner of Peppercomm’s. As you’ll read, the National Football League once again finds itself knee deep in controversy. Enjoy…..

The NBA and NHL playoffs are nearing their final rounds. The MLB All-Star break is within view. Yet even though team training camps won’t open for another couple of months, the National Football League is grabbing headlines. And one of the league’s fiercest rivalries promises to make the upcoming season anything but predictable… for corporate America.

Redskins/Cowboys? Raiders/Chiefs? Packers/Bears? Nope. Fiercer than those legendary matchups. We’re talking owners vs. players.

This week, NFL owners unanimously approved a new policy that requires players and team personnel to stand for the national anthem if they’re on the field while it’s being played. Players will have the right to remain in the locker room. Significant fines can be levied against teams for noncompliance.

Within nanoseconds of that announcement, the NFL Players Association took a contrary stand, promising to fight the ruling – on which they maintain they weren’t consulted – “to the end.”

And moments after that, NY Jets owner Chris Johnson issued a statement saying that he would pay for any fines incurred by his team’s players… a thumb in the eye of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (and of a certain inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue).

So the stage – perhaps “trap” is a better word – is set for mega-controversy. Two obvious questions loom:

  1. Will companies with NFL players under endorsement contracts face collateral brand damage if those players opt to defy league rules and take a knee?
  1. Given the copious racial overtones as this issue has played out very publicly over the past two years, will companies who count “diversity” and “inclusiveness” among their deeply held values still feel comfortable with their NFL sponserships the first time a player or team is penalized?

Those are among the sort of questions and potentially incendiary issues that are increasingly forcing big businesses to assess their sponsorship, partnership and other corporate relationships. How thin is the line some companies will need to tread this NFL season? Think about your favorite running back tip-toeing the sideline to stay inbounds.

Mar 13

Fear Sells (Or Does It?)

As someone whose firm has represented countless insurance companies over the years, I’ve noticed a cyclical nature to the marketing themes and lemmings-like mentality of the field.

In recent times, for example, it’s been hard to find a single insurer that hasn’t employed comedy, a humorous situation or an actual character a la Allstate’s Mayhem to depict how truly dangerous, and fleeting, our lives are (but, in a laugh out loud funny kind of way).

Recently, though, Principal Insurance decided to change the rules and began playing the doom-and-gloom card. This one-minute video is a typical example.

There’s no question that fear is a powerful motivator. But, there’s a fine line to tread between scaring someone half to death and providing sound financial planning advice.

I think Principal stepped over the line in this particular spot. I’d be hard pressed to suggest any additional optics, music or non-verbals to convey a more depressing family crisis.

I wonder if playing on fear in a world ruled by fear is a smart and sound strategy?

During the Depression, for example, the downtrodden poured into movie theatres to escape the grim reality of their lives. And Hollywood provided them with a respite, however brief.

I’d argue that marketers of all stripes have the same responsibility today. I’m not suggesting they market their wares by employing slapstick comedy, but I do think the entire country needs a healthy dose of fun and entertaining content. And Principal’s medicine is the wrong tonic for the wrong audience at the wrong point in time.

Jan 23

Nice to see NBC Won’t be Taking a Knee

One story that was completely overlooked during the recently completed round of NFL playoff games was NBC’s staunch decision to spotlight kneeling by Super Bowl players of color during the playing of the national anthem.

That’s a pretty gutsy move considering any number of conservative, America First, deep-pocketed advertisers are probably deciding right now whether to yank their advertising or let it ride (or, if they don’t pull their spend, Tweet an immediate corporate response distancing themselves from NBC and the kneeling players).

Many organizations would see the kneeling question as a real conundrum:

1.) If we don’t cover kneeling players, we won’t lose millions of sponsor dollars. But will we be doing the right thing?

2.) If we do cover the kneeling, we’ll undoubtedly lose millions of dollars. But, we’ll be staying true to our values.

NBC didn’t flinch. Their Super Bowl Executive Producer, Fred Gaudelli, said, “The Super Bowl is a live event….and when you’re covering a live event, you’re covering what’s happening. So, if there are players that choose to kneel, they will be shown live.”

Holy Trump Tweet in the making, Batman!

NBC’s decision tells me two things:

1.) The organization will not be cowed by politically conservative sponsors (and, god knows what the ripple effect might be. There’s a very real possibility that some neo-conservative advertisers will threaten to yank ALL of their NBC sponsor dollars).

2.) The Matt Lauer disaster notwithstanding, it’s obvious that Gaudelli’s decision was supported by the C-Suite and driven by the organization’s corporate purpose.

In my mind, corporate purpose has evolved from a warm-and-fuzzy “nice to have” statement to becoming an organization’s North Star guiding top executives to make the right decision, double down on their core beliefs and convey clear, consistent messaging.

Afterword: Considering the fact the Super Bowl will be played in February (which also happens to be black history month), I have to believe we’ll see quite a few Super Bowl players take a knee. It’ll be interesting to see how many corporate advertisers stand tall or take a different type of knee and yank their ads.

Nov 07

The clock is ticking

Check out this fascinating Advertising Age interview of Facebook marketing guru Andrew Keller. While Keller expounds on any number of topics in the piece, he hones in specifically on the rise of the term “six seconds” in advertising.

While the Facebook executive, and his fellow advertisers, are fixated on six seconds, research shows the average human actually has an attention span of eight whole seconds. That’s one second less than a goldfish.

But, the six (or eight) second discussion should extend far beyond Keller’s focus on digital advertising and videos.

Split second responses are table stakes in ALL forms of communications today.

In the new normal of Trump Tweets, fake news and Kevin Spacey/Harvey Weinstein-type transgressions, individuals and organizations have about eight seconds to gather their thoughts and determine:

  • What will they say?
  • Will they say anything at all?
  • What criteria determine whether a response is warranted?
  • Who should make the statement?
  • What channel would make the most sense?

Here are two very quick cases in point. One is a worst practice; the other a best:

  • UnderArmour completely blew the NFL player-kneeling controversy by first Tweeting the firm’s commitment to diversity & inclusiveness. Then, when right-wing customers expressed their disapproval, UnderArmour Tweeted a revised comment that included “..and show respect for our flag.” In doing so, UnderArmour created a whole new news cycle that, ironically, unified outraged right and left-wing followers who agreed on one thing: the brand was speaking out of both sides of its mouth.
  • @POTUS recently attacked General Motors in one of his 3am Tweets. Rather than respond with a Tweet correcting the president’s erroneous charges, Ray Dey, GM’s CCO decided, instead, to share the facts with trusted beat reporters who routinely covered the car company. Once their articles were published, Trump didn’t have a leg to stand on and quickly moved on to attack someone else.

The point is this: While no brand should be expected to respond in eight seconds or less, every organization should prepare now for what cannot be anticipated, and create new protocols for the new normal.

Getting back to digital advertising and marketing content of all types and forms, I completely agree with Keller. Organizations have six (or eight, depending upon the target audience’s attention span) seconds to engage, connect and begin the process of consideration. The day of long-form storytelling is dead.

Split second communications is the currency of the realm, now and for the future.

Feb 14

Commoditizing a commodity with comedy

Sheep_herd

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it's a poor substitute for strategy. Take the insurance industry, please!

Geico broke out from the pack long ago with a hip and irreverent campaign that alternated between the gecko and the sad sack caveman. Aflac followed suit with its duck and Progressive wasn't far behind with Flo. Next came State Farm and Allstate.

All of a sudden, a commoditized industry was commoditizing itself again with lookalike, soundalike commercials.

To test my theory that, when everyone says the same thing no one says anything, I asked 10 friends to name their favorite insurance commercial. Nine selected 'mayhem', but only four could correctly identify the advertiser: Allstate.

The pack mentality works well in the wild, when strength in numbers is needed for defense. But, it fails miserably in marketing where a distinct positioning and point of view is critical.

I experienced the pack mentality first-hand, back in the dotcom days. We were being paid $35,000 per month to launch an interactive web designer. When we presented a suggested positioning, the CEO hit the roof. "I don't want to be different. I want the market to see us, and price us, just like Sapient and Scient (two white hot IPOs of the day)." We disagreed, and we're soon shown the door.

Needless to say, the 'me too' dotcom failed. And, while these major insurance companies won't fail, their campaigns will. And the CMOs will soon be looking for new jobs.

Talk about mayhem!

Feb 03

Agencies look for rising stars, not waning ones

Repman

Advertising Age's cover story about 55-year-old creative director Dave Shea's trials and tribulations in finding full-time employment should be a cautionary tale to any reader of any age.

Shea was a successful copywriter and creative director at such blue-chip advertising agencies as the legendary Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, the equally legendary (and the original) Saatchi & Saatchi, Campbell-Mithun and, most recently, Geppetto, a small agency within the vast WPP network (where Ed and I once toiled).

Geppetto canned Shea (and refused to tell Ad Age why) about 15 months ago. He's been high and dry ever since.

Shea's epic odyssey to find full-time employment is a positively spell-binding story. According to Ad Age, no matter how hard he networked or how many cold calls he pursued, Shea simply couldn't get to first base. Every agency ignored him because, at the age of 55, Shea was untouchable. His gray hair was a red light.

Source after source told Ad Age that firms turned a blind eye to the eminently qualified Shea. One summed it up beautifully by saying, 'Agencies look for rising stars, not waning ones.' (Ouch. I hope you have a nice day as well).

The Ad Age article confirmed what I'd already suspected: advertising agencies are positively spellbound by the digital revolution, Mark Zuckerberg and the next, bright shiny object. As a result, they mistakenly believe Millennials are the ONLY ones who get the hottest trends, technologies and talk. As a result, experienced veterans like Shea have no chance whatsoever of landing a decent job.

The article was a show-stopper for me for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Ad agencies STILL don't get that social media, digital, Web 2.0, or whatever one chooses to call it, is nothing more than a communications channel. Guys: Hello! It's not about the technology. It's about the conversation and how best to engage in it. Happily, that's what PR firms do best. It's also why we're winning more and more of the client's overall marketing spend.
  • However gifted and uber cool they may be, Millennials lack the broad perspective and innate understanding that's fundamental to deciding what to say, when to say it and to whom. Sorry kids, but you don't get it. Not yet anyway.
  • Age discrimination is not limited to advertising agencies. There's no doubt in my mind that PR has just as many 55-year-old Dave Shea-types who have been shown the door by WPP, Interpublic, Omnicom or Publicis, and find themselves permanently unemployed. PR trade publications simply choose to ignore it:

Reporter: 'We really should do a Dave Shea-type story.'

Editor: 'Age discrimination in PR? No way, Jose.  So, how many new accounts did Edelman win this week?

Reporter: 'The usual. One every 13 seconds.'

Editor: 'Great. There's our headline!'

I count my blessings that, unlike Dave Shea, I decided to bid adieu to my holding company mother ship in 1995 and, along with Ed, build my own thing. If I hadn't, the odds are good I'd be just like Mr. Shea; mailing my resume, placing phone calls and sending e-mails to headhunters and holding company recruiters alike. And, there's no doubt I'd receive the same response as Shea: deafening silence.

A quick after word for my Millennial readers: you'll be dealing with your very own age-related issues faster than you can say Father Time. So, enjoy your time in the sun while you can.

As Sir Mick & The Boys once sang, 'Time waits for no one, and it won't wait for me.' Or, you either.