Mar 13

Employees from hell

The current issue of Fortune Small Business contains a fascinating cover story of ’employees from hell’ who’ve wreaked havoc on their employers. There’s everything from a drunk forklift driver who smashes walls and parties with hookers to a Benedict Arnold-like sales manager who tries to steal every one of the firm’s clients and employees away from the owner.

The article got me thinking about some of the real gems we’ve hired over the years, including:

– one disenchanted employee who conducted her job interviews right over the phone in her cube

– a senior executive who, after negotiating a partnership package with us for months, turned around and quit right after we made the announcement.

– a middle manager who allegedly ‘lost’ her laptop in Port Authority right after we’d fired her

– a management supervisor who went postal in a new business pitch and screamed at the prospect, ‘Look this is war and if you have to carve out the guts of your competitors, you carve out their guts!’

– an account executive who, after less than three months in the job, came into my office and told me it was ‘time to renegotiate his compensation package.’

Truth be told, most of these ’employees from hell’ worked for us during the dotcom heydays. That said, with the significant uptick in the economy, I have noticed a new sense of entitlement and boorish behavior just starting to once again rear its ugly head.

Prospective employees know the marketplace is red hot again and more than one has reneged on an offer at the last second to accept a more lucrative package from someone else. Others have been last-second no-shows for scheduled interviews. Not good.

There will always be employees from hell. And, while we all do our best to weed them out in advance, some do get hired. And those who are unhappy, divisive or disinegenuous eventually leave or are asked to leave. In each and every case, though, it’s their image and reputation that’s been damaged. Not the employer’s.

So a word to the wise, but angry, employee: leave before you do damage that will only end up hurting you in the long run. Meanwhile ‘caveat emptor’ should remain the watchword of small business owners everywhere.

Jan 17

And another one bites the dust

The firing of Kerri Martin, Volkswagen’s Director of Brand Innovation (aka CMO) after less than two years at the helm comes as no real surprise. If memory serves, the average chief marketing officer only lasts an average of 23 months, which seems like the blink of an eye when compared to the average CEO tenure of 54 months. Yourefired_1 

Most CMOs are in an untenable position: because of Wall Street’s relentless pressure on the chief executive to satisfy shareholders, the CMO’s impact on sales is always being scrutinized by the harried CEO. There is no real time for the CMO to measure attitudes, conduct deep competitive analyses or test a couple of different approaches. Nor is there any leeway to learn from mistakes (which reminds me of the time we were hired by a mega Fortune 500 corporation and told by the number two communications person that we had ‘one and only one chance to fail.’

Needless to say, such stress doesn’t produce the most creative thinking). Anyway, hot shot CMOs such as Martin are brought in like the hired guns of the Old West to turn things around. Their sole job is to shoot the bad guys and drive sales. In her previous job, Martin had done just that when, along with uber hot ad agency Crispin Porter Bogusky, she introduced the Mini to the U.S. The campaign became legendary in marketing circles and Martin was lured to VW, where she immediately fired the incumbent agency, Arnold, and brought in Crispin. Now, advertising pundits are waiting for the other shoe to fall at VW and to see if Crispin ends up in the same ditch as their client. In situations like this everyone’s image takes a hit. The high-flying Martin and her bizarro campaigns for VW (i.e. "Unpimp my ride") didn’t drive sales. Crispin’s Superman-like invincibility that saw them featured on the cover of BusinessWeek has taken a hit and VW management looks like it spins agencies around faster than a Beetle on black ice.

As long as the Street keeps squeezing CEOs and the corner office keeps pressuring CMOs to work overnight miracles, we’ll continue to see Mayfly-like lifespans from the Kerri Martin types. The only saving grace is the occasional enlightened CEO who understands the need for a long-term marketing strategy. Here’s hoping Ms. Martin finds such an anomaly in her next position.

Jan 04

Sorry, but I only return voice and e-mails during peak business hours

Wal-Mart, that bastion of progressive, worker-friendly policies and procedures (not), just took its innovative ways to a new level by announcing that in-store staffing will now be based on actual store traffic.

So, all those happy-go-lucky Wal-Mart employees who have suffered for years because of low Walmart_logo wages,  little or no health benefits and abusive management, now have to re-structure their personal lives around the ebb and flow of local store traffic.

So, instead of knowing that, say, I have to work 9am-5pm from Monday through Friday (and structure my personal schedule accordingly), I now have to realize that, if store traffic ebbs, I may be sent home at 11am and not asked to return until 5pm. Or, I may not be called in at all. Or, I may have to work extra shifts and extra hours because of increased store traffic. What a way to live!

This new approach is right in line with Wal-Mart’s maniacal focus on maximizing profits each and every quarter in each and every store. They are a textbook example of the big business that will do whatever it takes to grow the top and bottom lines. Their abuse and bullying of employees, steamrolling local mom-and-pop competitors out of business and squeezing every last penny from vendors and suppliers is legendary.

Say what you will about Wal-Mart but their new in-store staffing strategy is perfectly consistent from an image and reputation standpoint. As a certain U.S. President once said, "You can love me or hate me. But, you know where I stand." The same can be said for Wal-Mart. Love them or hate them, those guys sure know how to maximize profits and will do whatever it takes.

Will Wal-Mart’s new bizarro flex-time work program become a model for others? Will we drive up to a McDonald’s at an off-peak hour and have to wait because there’s only one employee working at the time? What about checking in at an airport terminal at, say, 5am? That’s an off-peak hour. Will Southwest ticket agents still be at home, waiting for the big morning rush hour crush? And, what about me? Should I only return voice and e-mails during peak business hours? Would that maximize my productivity?

While Wal-Mart’s productivity program is a big winner for the organization, it has to be a nightmare for employees and their families. Will little Johnny have to get used to mom not showing up after school because, oops, that’s when the store traffic picks up? And will Little Mary’s starring role in the grammar school play be seen by everyone but dad, because his Wal-Mart store has increased traffic flow at 5pm?

I hope the in-store staffing program fails. But, knowing how many people are out of work and willing to do almost anything for a job, I’m sure Wal-Mart will find replacements for any workers who find this latest insult way over the line.

Nov 20

Change for the sake of change

The totally bogus decision by the Florida Marlins to fire manager Joe Girardi after he engineered one5gg830  of the most striking turnarounds in recent MLB history was underscored by Girardi’s being named National League manager of the year. How sad, and how ironic, that he’s no longer around to enjoy his award.

The Marlins’ management decided that, regardless of Girardi’s accomplishments, it was time for a change. This sort of ‘change for change’s sake’ is certainly not unique to baseball. In fact, it runs rampant in the wonderful world of marketing as well.

How many times has an outstanding agency been dumped just because a new client marketing guru comes on board? How many times has an agency that’s been producing great results been told the account was being put up for review because the client wanted "fresh thinking" or a "different perspective"?

I remember one huge accounting firm letting us go despite breakthrough results on our part. Later on, it was bittersweet to be sure when, a la Joe Girardi, the program in question was submitted, and selected, as "best b-to-b" effort of the year.

Nothing against Girardi’s successor, but I’m kinda hoping he fails. Managements who change for the sake of change, sometimes need to be reminded of the absurdity of their decisions.

Thanks to Pete Harris for this idea.

Nov 01

So, what’s McDonald’s excuse?

You know the artery-clogging, trans fat issue is heating up when a major fast food chain like KFCB89340  says it will switching to soybean oils by April, thereby eliminating trans fat from the stuff they sell.

KFC’s move comes in the wake of Wendy’s yanking trans fat out of its french fries and Walt Disney agreeing to remove trans fat from food sold in its theme parks.

But, McDonald’s, the 800-pound gorilla (and, how appropriate that phrase is in this instance) of the fast food sector, is sitting tight. While a spokesperson says Mickey D’s is "researching and testing alternatives," patrons continue to belly up to the counter and order super sized food portions loaded with trans fat oils.

Unless it’s weighed down by ingesting its own product, McDonald’s should be a little faster on its feet. As the industry icon, it should be leading the debate and setting an example with swift, decisive action.

Ted "Ludacris" Birkhahn, my podcast partner, and I recently discussed the obesity epidemic in America and agree that "frequency" is the real issue with fast food. Too many people visit fast food chains too many times in the average week. As a result, they’re loading up on empty calories and bulging in all the wrong places. If more fast food chains don’t follow KFC’s example soon, waistlines won’t be the only thing bursting at the seams. Our nation’s hospitals will be overloaded with supersized, artery-clogged fast food patrons who’ve stuffed one too many burgers or french fries down their throats. C’mon McDonald’s’, let’s make trans fat a "to go"…permanently.

Thanks to Moon Kim for sending me the KFC story.

Oct 26

Desperate times call for desperate measures (sometimes)

In the wake of the housing downturn that has severely impacted their store sales, The Home Depot is pouring millions of dollars into dramatic line extensions. So, in addition to picking up some grout, two-by-fours and a brand new electric drill, shoppers can now browse for new washers and dryers, buy gasoline and sip on a caffe latte.

CEO Bob Nardelli’s move underscores the Catch-22 that virtually every chief executive of a publicly-508932 traded company finds him/herself in today: balancing the short-terms needs of the Street with doing the right thing for the long-term, best interests of the organization.

In my mind, Nardelli blinked. By diversifying in such a bizarre, generic way, The Home Depot runs the risk of alienating its core constituency. Think about it: The Home Depot appeals to the guy’s guy. The dude who loves nothing more than to putter around in the garage all weekend long, gets off on re-grouting the bathroom tiles and is only too happy to put in a new dropped ceiling in the basement (note: I am the antithesis of the home fix-it guy). So, when these guys saunter into the local Depot and start running into all sorts of non guy’s guy stuff, I think it’s going to be a real turn-off.

I know that when I look for a guy’s guy experience, I chill with some buds at an ESPN Zone where I kick back with some wings, burgers and brews (ok, some chicken sandwiches and chards). But, the point is, I don’t want to see upscale, stylish and trendy things and people when I go to an ESPN Zone. I want to hang with my fellow Mets and Jets fans and watch either, or both, teams blow a late-game lead.

So, Mr. Nardelli, I think your short-term line extensions may prop up sales for the time being but, when the housing market improves, I think you’ll find a significant percentage of your core constituency finding somewhere else to buy their hammer and nails.

Oct 12

Exercise gets the creative juices flowing

Researchers have long known about the benefits of exercise in terms of weight and stress reduction, cardiovascular improvements and other positive side effects. Now comes news that should warm the heart of any business owner: a team of Rhode Island College researchers has demonstrated the positive effect of exercise on creative thinking.

The researchers asked 60 adults, aged 18 to 27, to take something called the Torrance Tests of  Creative Thinking. The test group did so once after being sedentary, once after 30 minutes of exercise and once after 30 minutes of exercise followed by two hours of rest. The result: exercise resulted in dramatically higher creativity scores.

This is a real no brainer to me. I’ve always believed exercise opened my mind to new ideas while05122514_1   refreshing my entire body from the stresses of the day. In fact, I love to workout at lunch, since it cuts the day in two, helps me unwind after the morning’s frivolities and come back refreshed and ready for the afternoon. The long-distance running I do on weekends almost always prompts a rash of new, creative (and usually useless) ideas for my firm. In fact, I’ll often sit down and write an e-mail to our management right after I’ve finished my run.

Now that exercise has been proven to improve creativity, I wonder if we’ll see some ad and PR firms start equipping their conference rooms with elliptical trainers, stationary bikes and treadmills? When you stop to think about it, doing so would really project positively on the image of any business.

Mostly every executive I know believes in investing in exercise and health club memberships, believing each to be a smart corporate health initiative. Now that there’s proof exercise helps with creativity, I could see more than a few of my agency principal buddies humming away, "Gotta go to Mo’s…" as they head off to buy gym equipment for the office.

Sep 28

The Scissor Sisters should stick to their knitting

Scissor Sisters, the NYC-based band that is currently red-hot in the UK, has shot itself in the collective foot (feet?) as a result of lead singer Jack Shears’ accusations that U.S. record stores0926  charge exorbitant fees for CDs.

Regardless of whether one agrees with the statement, communications 101 teaches us to think about the impact of our statements before making them. Sadly, Shears didn’t think before he riffed about a particular retail outlet’s high CD prices. Now, he and his band, who have the UK’s best selling album, find themselves with limited U.S. Distribution. Why? Because a huge music retail conglomerate, Trans World Entertainment, took umbrage at Shears’ charges and has simply refused to stock the album in over 1,100 of its stores, which include Sam Goody, For Your Entertainment, Wherehouse, and others. Ouch. Talk about retribution.

Sad to say, it seems like neither side is willing to back down and smoke a peace pipe (or whatever kind of pipe rock stars smoke these days). Instead, both sides are escalating the self-destructive drumbeat.

If I were advising Scissor Sisters, I’d tell them to back off, issue some sort of apology and move on. Why alienate a major source of your revenue unless you have an alternative source of incoming pounds sterling lined up backstage? Picking fights with an 800-pound gorilla simply isn’t a smart career move. And, the entertainment industry graveyard is littered with the tombstones of artists who got a little too big for their britches too soon (Lenny Bruce and the Monkees come to mind. Comedian Bruce insisted on using expletives in a still puritanical society while the Monkees, believing they were bigger and better than the Beatles, managed to piss off nearly every TV and record company executive of import).

Humble pie (another classic Rock group, btw) can be tough to swallow for a rock group. But, in the case of Scissor Sisters, I suggest they break out the carving knife ASAP and make amends.

Sep 15

Too many people place too much importance on titles

Stuart Elliott’s column in yesterday’s Times reported a resurgence in bizarre job titles at ad agencies and web design shops. According to the column, titles like "chief experience officer, " "marketing evangelist" and "chief consumer officer" are all the rage now at such hot shops as Strawberry Frog, Walrus and Naked Nitro.

Unlike their wacko "dotcom days" job title counterparts, Elliott says current ad sector job titles are more "outward facing" and reflect the type of experience an executive brings to the plate. So, a chief experience officer, for example, supposedly has deep insight into consumer wants and needs. Whatever.

In my mind, creative job titles are just about irrelevant. It’s the person and what she brings to the equation in solving client problems that counts, not her cool-sounding job title.

I can remember some real beauts from the dotcom days. We represented one crazy firm, for example, whose CEO’s job title was "Mr. Big." And, the PR director’s title was "minister of propaganda." I kid you not (one wonders if he had ever taken the time to study the history of World War II?). I also recall a "duke of partnership data" job title at another failed dotcom.

Clients care about strategy, creativity, counsel and, of course, results. Creative job titles are about as important as yesterday’s newspaper. That said, if you have any great job title examples to share, please do so. I’m all ears. In fact, maybe I’ll change my title to "chief listening officer.

Aug 21

The danger of putting too many eggs in one basket

A 32-year-old relationship between Wal-Mart and Missouri advertising agency Berstein-Rein officially came to an end a few weeks ago (the account had been up for review since May). According to Ad Age (subscription required), the partnership that had begun with a handshake between Sam Walton and Steve Bernstein, ended with a phone call from Wal-Mart’s corporate communications department.

The catalyst for the change was John Fleming, Wal-Mart’s new chief marketing officer. As is the case so often nowadays, the new guy wanted his own agency, and had no real regard for the legacy or heritage of what had gone before.

So, now, Bernstein-Rein is left holding the bag, and will have to scramble to figure out ways to replace more than 30 percent of its total billings. Beyond the financial challenges, the KC shop also has a significant image problem to overcome since, according to industry observers, it’s always been seen as "Wal-Mart’s agency." Now that that "halo" is gone, the firm must quickly figure out how to re-position itself in a brutally tough competitive environment.

To its credit, Bernstein-Rein is saying all the right things about its now being unencumbered and unfettered, and able to pursue new clients in a wide range of categories previously restricted by the Wal-Mart relationship. But, how long can it go without dramatic cutbacks and downsizing? And, will prospective clients see it as a smart, strategic solution or as just "Wal-Mart’s old agency?" Time will tell.

Bernstein-Rein made a pact with the devil when it agreed to place so many eggs in one basket. While an 800-pound client can be a great thing to help build the image and reputation of a nascent firm, it can also inhibit growth, creativity and morale.

We’ve been down the "too many eggs" road on more than one occasion (and paid dearly each time the 800-pound gorilla moved on):

1) In our very early days, we represented Alexander & Alexander, a large business insurance firm that accounted for a sizable chunk of our billings. I’ll never forget the client call telling us they were about to be acquired by Aon. Happily, we found another large client, Ernst & Young, to fill the void.

2) E&Y was the client who first put us on the national PR scene. We began with a small project and, soon, they were accounting for 40 percent or more of our billings. As people came and went on the client side, however, our situation became more and more precarious, and finally ended. The simultaneous dotcom explosion, however, enabled us to replace the billings almost immediately.

3) Next came GE and the "imagination at work" campaign. Once again, a single client accounted for more than a third of our billings. And, once again, the client’s needs and wants changed, and we were out the door.

4) More recently, Tyco brought us on board, promising to not only be our biggest client, but to also provide billings in excess of $10 million annually (pretty heady stuff for an $8 million agency). The account started well and soon represented a third or more of our billings. But the CMO left, and so did the billings.

Today, we have a much more balanced account structure and can more easily absorb the loss of a large client. But, I have to admit feeling a chill going up and down my spine as I read the Wal-Mart/Bernstein-Rein reports. Here’s hoping "Wal-Mart’s agency" can quickly re-position itself and attract significant billings. It would be a shame to see the actions of one man, the new Wal-Mart CMO, cause the demise of a long-standing Midwestern advertising tradition.