Sep 09

A Wigotsky in every agency

I must commend PR Week's 2010 career guide. It's chock full of information that's as useful to an  undergrad as it is to an agency principal.

Careerguidecover_117145_117858_117859 Stories include a roundtable discussion on the importance of a master's degree in PR (color me skeptical) and a fascinating profile of Harold Burson and his legacy to the agency that bears his name.

Burson produced a plethora of industry leaders over the years, including Ketchum's Rob Flaherty, CA's Bill Hughes and PulsePoint Group's Bob Feldman. The latter said his training at Burson began the day he joined the firm from Utica College in 1978. Feldman recalls a training program that mandated ALL writing done for clients was to be first reviewed by a former newspaper editor on staff. Feldman says the procedure made a great statement about the firm's commitment to quality.

I agree. I had the exact same experience as a young junior account executive at Hill & Knowlton. We, too, had a former editor check each and every piece of copy before it went to a client. My editor's name was Victor Wigotsky and he made a big impression on me.

Victor was a very demanding editor. Before he'd even give you his edits, he'd ask you what the story angle was and why it mattered. He'd then ask you what primary or secondary research supported the angle. Only when you'd provided the correct answers would Vic deign to review your copy. And, boy oh boy, was he ever meticulous in his edits. I cannot tell you how many times he'd send me scurrying back to my office because I'd buried a lead, hadn't nailed the 5Ws in the lead graph or neglected to correctly attribute a quote.

Victor was never mean, but he was strict. And we learned as a result. I'll never forget how happy I was when one of my initial press releases finally earned a 'VWW.' Those were Victor's initials and secretaries (yes, we all had secretaries back then) were under orders not to mail (yes, snail mail only) releases or bylined articles unless they saw the VWW stamp of approval.

I wish today's PR agency model had the time and financial wherewithal to mandate at least one Wigotsky in every firm. Unfortunately, between the 24×7 demand for constant content and the worst economic downturn in memory, there are few, if any, firms who insist ALL copy be reviewed by a Wigotsky-type first. As a result, I continually hear or read about poor writing when I attend events or scan our trades.

It's too bad that Wigotsky (and his Burson counterpart) are gone with the wind. I think everyone's writing would benefit from a VWW every now and then. Mine included.

Jun 29

Success is what we can make of the mess we have made of things


June 29
Those
aren't my comments. They were spoken by T.S. Eliot, author of the some of the
most memorable poems in the 20th century.

Eliot's
quote appeared in the Boston Globe in honor of his graduation from Harvard 100
years ago. Despite his later success, Eliot was anything but a
model student. In fact, he racked up only three As to go along with eight Bs,
six Cs and one D. Those low marks, coupled with a spotty attendance record,
bought Eliot academic probation in 1906. Nice, T.S.

Eliot's
story doesn't surprise me one bit. For every overnight success story a la the
founders of Google and YouTube, there are exponentially more 'failures' such as
Alexander Graham Bell (who accidentally invented the telephone as he tried
building a more effective hearing aid), Edison (who said it took him 10,000
tries to invent electricity) and Buckminster Fuller who, at the age of 32, had
had enough of failure and was contemplating suicide. He decided to give life
one more shot, and went on to author 28 books, receive 25 patents and collect
47 honorary doctorates. Talk about comeback player of the year!

Failure
gets a bum rap in today's society. And, I see far too many people, young,
middle-aged and old, who are afraid to fail. So, instead, they choose the path
of least resistance, accept mediocrity and end up being miserable.

The
beautiful thing about entrepreneurship is that it forces one to confront
failure on a daily basis. Ed and I have failed countless times since starting
our company. Some have been minor. Some, as the Japanese executives at Sony
used to say, were 'epoch-making.'

Each
and every failure is a tremendous learning experience if you're able to pick
yourself up, shake off the dust and try something just a little bit differently
the next time. Edison failed 9,999 times in his search for electricity. Talk
about OCD! And Fuller figured he'd hit a literal dead-end at mid-life. Look at
Harry S. Truman. He was a complete failure and destitute at the age of 40.

As
the Globe's editor put it, 'Life is messy and unpredictable.' The individuals
who recognize that and see failure as an opportunity are the ones who
eventually succeed. Sadly, we never hear about the vast majority of others who
give up.

So,
here's a homage from one mediocre student to another. T.S.: I was never a fan
of your poems or your genre, but I sure respect your perseverance.

Jun 08

My old school


June 8
My
old school just died. To be more precise, St. Francis Grammar School in
Ridgefield Park, NJ, just closed due to financial reasons.

Losing
one’s grammar school is a pretty big deal. Talk about memory lane. My mom and
my older brother, Russ, both graduated from St. Francis. So did several of my
closest buddies.

To
paraphrase Charles Dickens, SFS was the best of schools and the worst of
schools. The education was far superior to that provided by the public grammar
schools in our village. But, the brutal and badly misnamed Sisters of Charity
gave the school a very poor image and reputation. For whatever reason, the nuns
didn’t like boys. Period. And, they really didn’t like some boys.

I
still have vivid memories of Sisters Julia Michael, Catherine Imelda and
Catherine Winifred beating the bejesus out of my classmates. They’d pull ears,
yank ties and rap knuckles until they saw blood. And, that was when they were
in a good mood. The priests were also scary dudes and at least one was
implicated in a pedophilia scandal decades later.

But,
for me, SFS’s positives always outweighed the negatives. So, knowing that most
of you could care less, I nonetheless thought I’d pay one final homage to St.
Francis Grammar School by listing my top 10 memories:

10.)
Bobby Gandolfo knocking out the late Gregory Alberque at Kenny Molta’s fourth
grade party. I’d never seen a one-two combination like the one Bobby threw that
day (FYI: Bobby was positively all-world in sports and academics at SFS).

9.)
Being suspended with my fellow altar boys for misbehaving at a seventh grade
funeral mass. It was terribly wrong, but terribly funny at the time (laughs
courtesy of the late Greg Alberque).

8.)
The Kenny Molta/Mike Nardone book bag incident. Kenny threw Mike’s book bag
down the Park Street sewer drain, completely ruining its contents and Mike’s
day. Great stuff.

7.)
Playing ‘steal the bacon’ in Mr. Hale’s gym class. It was a bizarre game that
takes far too much time to explain. And, it was run by a total Martinet of a
gym coach named Mr. Hale, who punished misbehaving or underperforming gym
participants by making us hoist folding chairs over our heads until our arms
gave way. Nice, Mr. Hale. Very nice.

6.)
Patty Perrotta’s seventh grade party and the introduction of spin the bottle.
Nice, Patty. Very nice.

5.)
Seventh grade ‘lay teacher’ Mr. Carroll, whose idea of fun was walking behind
us as we took a test and chalking up our ears. God knows how he ended up.

4.)
Father Stauffer, who ended up leaving the priesthood and marrying one of the
nuns. Sure beats pedophilia. Nice, Fr. Stauffer. Nice.

3.)
Getting caught by Sister Noreen for forging my mom’s signature on a
less-than-satisfactory fourth grade report card and then making me go home and
tell my parents what I’d just done. A painful, but necessary lesson, Sr.
Noreen. No hard feelings.

2.)
Slap-boxing matches in the schoolyard at lunchtime with each of us emulating a
heavyweight contender of the era (I was Ali).

1.)
Sally Ann Pappan for introducing me (and quite a few others) to the wonders of
French kissing. I know, TMI. But, it’s a world-class memory of those days.

Au
revoir, SFS. I’ll miss you. Sort of.

Jun 03

Listening matters


June 3
My
friend Mike Armini is vice president of external affairs at Northeastern
University. I mention this because Mike’s just penned a cautionary tale that’s
as applicable to college marketers as it is to communicators in
general. In it, Mike laments the sorry state of college and
university branding. He says there’s far too much chest thumping and far too
little fact-based marketing. I agree.

We’ve
worked with many colleges and universities over the years. I’ve found that,
just like every ‘service’ organization I can think of, each believes its
faculty, programs and students are the best. Period. The problem with such an
admonition is that when everyone says the same thing, no one says anything.
Management consultants are notorious for their use of meaningless superlatives,
hyperbole and ‘ConsultantSpeak.’ The words ‘unique,’ ‘innovative’ and
best-in-class’ seem to permeate and pervade every consulting firm’s messaging.
As a result, no one can truly break out from the pack. People, programs and
services are mere table stakes in the branding game.

In
order to arrive at a true differentiator, colleges and universities (and every
sort of organization for that matter) needs to first listen. Listen to what
your internal constituents believe sets you apart. Then, audit your external
audiences to see if they agree that that particular nugget is, in fact, what
makes the dear, old alma mater singular. Last, but not least, listen to what
key competitors are saying is their unique point of differentiation. If they’ve
already claimed your stake, it’s time to move on to Plan B.

We
faced a classic branding challenge with Duke University’s Fuqua School of
business about 10 years ago. At that point, they wanted to enter the global MBA
market with a brand-new offering they called the Global Executive MBA (or,
GEMBA, for short). They were hungry to begin branding the program and filling
the inaugural class. We cautioned them to listen first. We did our due
diligence, examined what schools such as Harvard, Wharton and Kellogg were
saying about themselves and arrived at a unique and sustainable positioning:
‘Global campus on the Internet.’ Duke, and Duke alone, could own that moniker
because they were the first to link their various global sites via the web and
to complement on-site learning with online tutorials after ‘students’ had
returned to their jobs.

Global
campus on the Internet was a winner. In fact, in covering the Duke program,
BusinessWeek used our positioning as the
headline of their article on the program (and, it simply doesn’t get any better
than that). Media ‘got’ the distinction. Significant coverage ensured.
Duke filled its classrooms. We won a Silver Anvil. And, GEMBA became a generic
term within the business school world.

Mike’s
spot on when he says colleges and universities want quick fixes for their
branding and marketing campaigns. Sadly, though, there are no quick fixes.
Successful campaigns, be they online or off, in the private sector or on
university campuses, must
always begin with a listening phase.

Nov 12

What has become clear to you since we last met?

November 12 - emerson Ralph Waldo Emerson was noted for greeting friends with the question, 'What has become clear to you since we last met?' His intent, say historians, was an invitation and a challenge to guests to assess the progress of their thinking.

I find the question profound in its simplicity and thought I'd share what's become clear to me of late:

1) Management by fear is alive and well. Despite countless studies, articles and books extolling the benefits of a great corporate culture, I continue to see our teams take a beating from misbehaving client managers. I also continue to see refugees from other agencies wash up on our shores with tales of shouting and screaming bosses. That said, I remain unclear how or why bullies survive.

2) President Obama is nearly as clueless as W. A great communicator prior to his election, the president has become hopelessly caught up in hundreds of issues that have clearly distracted him from accomplishing one or two truly important and critical goals: creating jobs, ending foreign wars and solving the healthcare mess. And, I don't see him rising above the abyss anytime soon.

3) Far too many businesspeople are jumping on the social media bandwagon without knowing why. The same holds true for 'consumers' who feel compelled to post each and every detail of their mundane daily lives on Facebook, Plaxo and LinkedIn. The latter two, in particular, have become the bane of my existence.

4) The quality of writing continues to devolve with each passing year. I'm now routinely receiving missives from people holding fairly senior positions that are rife with spelling and grammatical mistakes.

5) There's nothing quite as satisfying as the insights gleaned from a work of non-fiction. I've been on a Malcolm Gladwell tear of late and find many of his observations incredibly relevant to work and life in general.

6) My TV viewing is now limited to two comedies and one drama series. That's it. I no longer go to see movies, since the first-run flicks are absolutely pathetic.

I'd be interested in reading what's become clear to you since we last met. Feel free to post away.

Sep 25

The misery never ends

September 25 - newspaper

I just visited the College of Charleston Thursday and Friday, attending board meetings, delivering lectures and participating in panels. I love the C of C. It's a beautiful campus with bright, alert students. 

As might be expected, most of the students said finding a good job was their number one pain point.

I shared my job search/interviewing strategies, but also heard some smart tips from fellow advisory board members I thought worth sharing, including:

  • Think global. Relocate to the hot markets that have jobs, such as China. Spend a few years there gaining experience and leverage it to come back home to your ideal job.
  • Demonstrate a basic knowledge of how business works. (Note: this doesn't seem to be an age-specific problem since the Council of PR Firms routinely reports the 'lack' of such knowledge is the number one criticism of agencies by their clients).
  • Learn a second language. With American's rapidly-changing demographics, fluency in an Asian or Spanish language or dialect can be a huge plus.
  • Master writing and, in particular, writing on deadline. PR demands multitasking and PR pros must be able to write quickly, clearly and consistently.
  • Be willing to do whatever it takes. If assigned grunt work, be the best possible grunt.

That last point prompted one young lady to raise her hand. She'd just finished an internship and, frankly, didn't care for the grunt work. "When will the misery end?” she asked. “Never,” I responded. “The misery changes as one moves up the food chain, but it never goes away. It just becomes more intense.” I don't think she cared for my answer.

Another student disagreed with my advice on job interview preparation. “Do you have any idea how busy we are? We don't have the time to do all the research on a company that you suggest we do. Besides,” she said, “That's what the internships are for. You learn about the company when you get the job.” I wished her well and suggested she had a real Catch-22 situation on her hands since a company won't hire a person who hasn't demonstrated the time or energy to learn about them in advance.

The students were fully engaged in the lectures, grateful for the advice and will, I'm sure, do very well once they hit the real world. I just hope they come prepared and accept the fact that the misery never ends.

Sep 09

Hey Teach, better keep a close eye on Little Jack Moed

September 9 - Dunce_Cap A just-released survey of 3,000 grade school teachers by parenting group Bounty.com shows that instructors do, in fact, judge a book by its cover. The survey asked teachers if they can identify naughty, nice, popular or bright students in advance simply by reading their names on the classroom register. The answer is a resounding, ‘Yes!’

Researchers discovered that teachers keep an eye out for boys with names like Jack, Callum or Connor and girls named Chelsea, Courtney and Chardonnay (Who would name their kid after a type of wine? ‘Oh, Pinot Noir? Time for dinner, hon.’).

Conversely, teachers say they look forward to meeting boys named Alexander, Adam and Christopher and girls named Elisabeth, Charlotte and Emma. Those six names topped the list for ‘brightest’ school kids.

Life is tough enough without being pre-judged based upon one’s name. But, the survey shows that, like the rest of us, teachers tend to react with their hearts rather than their heads when it comes to anticipating a child’s performance.

All of which bodes ill for Little Jack Moed as he moves through the Montclair, NJ, school system. That said, his old man is a tough, smart dude so I’m sure Jack will do just fine. I do have my doubts, though, about some of the other kids named on the top 10 ‘naughtiest’ list. Jake and Liam sound like they’re already spoiling for a fistfight and Demi has ‘drama queen’ written all over her. I wonder how Dick and Jane or John and Mary would fare in these lists?

Jul 24

Useless. Useless.

APR Logo bw I've just received an e-mail from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) encouraging me to sign up for an intensive, four-day APR preparation boot camp.

For the unenlightened, APR is an ersatz credential that has been bandied about for decades as proof positive that one is, indeed, accredited in public relations. I've been reluctant to comment publicly about APR because, frankly, I didn't want to offend some industry leaders who actually believe the APR is meaningful.

But, the time has come to take off the gloves and enter the fray. An APR is worthless. It's never meant anything to any client organization I've ever encountered. Nor has it ever made one iota of difference in considering a prospective employee's strengths and weaknesses.

Created long ago and far away, the APR has always lacked any real teeth and is based on a false assumption: that a PR pro should master rules and regulations in the same way a doctor or lawyer must. But, because PR is an art and not a science, there are no hard and fast rules, regulations, practices, policies or procedures that a public relations professional must study and then prove competence in some sort of 'bar exam.' One earns his or her stripes in PR in one way, and one way only: through the School of Hard Knocks.

The APR is even more irrelevant in today's social media environment in which black has become white, and vice versa. Controlled, top-down, inside-out communication has gone the way of the carrier pigeon. And, no four-day boot camp or three-day written exam is going to help me learn to listen or react any better to the quicksilver changes being made by consumers who now decide with whom they wish to speak, as well as when and where.

I wish Dr. Kevorkian could euthanize this bogus test (and credential) once and for all. In the meantime, I'll continue to associate the APR with the immortal final words of John Wilkes Booth who, having been mortally wounded by pursuing Union soldiers, looked at his hands and uttered, “Useless. Useless.”

Jun 29

Reelin’ in the years

June 29 - cupcake It’s my birthday. No big deal in the grand scheme of things but, as Pink Floyd once wrote, ‘Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.’ Maudlin to be sure, but since we’re all mortal, it’s tough not to reflect on what’s been accomplished and what’s still to be done.

In that spirit, I’ve given some thought to what I’m most proud of and what I’d like to do between now and the inevitable appearance of the Grim Reaper. Here goes:

Accomplishments:

  • Chris and Catharine
  • Peppercom
  • McGraw-Hill published book, ‘What’s keeping your customer up at night?’ (continues to fly off the bookshelves in Third World countries while gathering dust here)
  • 75 or so stand-up comedy performances
  • One ‘improv’ performance at the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre in NYC (easily the toughest mental challenge I’ve yet faced)
  • Mountain climbing, ice climbing, three half marathons and two 18-mile marathons
  • PR industry awards, bylined articles, speeches, panels, agency of the year, yada, yada
  • Mentoring more than one dazed and confused college student

Goals:

  • Learning a second language
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Climbing at least three more of the Seven Summits
  • Rock climbing
  • Antarctica and the Galapagos
  • Acting
  • Completing my swimming lessons and finishing a sprint triathalon

Reflecting on my mortality, I’m reminded of the classic William Saroyan quip, ‘Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.’ If only……

Mar 23

“The Grapes of Wrath” 2.0

A College of Charleston student asked me yesterday what books she should be reading. I GrapesOfWrath
immediately suggested anything by Malcolm Gladwell, Christopher Buckley, Colin Dexter, Bill Bryson and David McCullough.

Then, it occurred to me that more and more marketers are taking a look back at their predecessors in the Great Depression in order to glean how brands succeeded in that particularly heinous period. I know, for example, that Jazz at Lincoln Center is positioning jazz as THE ideal antidote to the fears and anxieties of today's 'new normal'. Interestingly, jazz, and its fraternal twin, swing music, became a mainstream medium as a direct result of The Great Depression. Americans turned to jazz, along with movies and radio programming, to take their minds off their collective misery.

So, it makes sense for marketers to examine what worked then and juxtapose it against the realities of today's social media, global interconnectedness and ravenous 24×7 news cycle. They might discover some very interesting, and highly relevant, solutions.

That said, as soon as I finished answering the student's question, I quickly added John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" to my recommended reading list. It has to be the quintessential Depression-era book. And what job seeker wouldn't totally impress in any interview by noting, “By the way, I'm reading “The Grapes of Wrath” because I want to learn what lessons from the 1930s might be applicable to your company's marketing efforts.” Talk about differentiating oneself from the crowd.