Aug 29

A fuzzy future at 40

Xlarge_2010-11-17_145448Ken Makovsky's superb 'If you've never failed, you've never lived' blog made me think of my own  fear of failure and the fear of failure I see in far too many Millennials today.

First, me. Back in 1995, after 15 months of pure hell serving as president of Brouillard Communications, a division of JWT that, mercifully, no longer exists, I was asked to leave. I was devastated. I had just turned 40, was married with two kids, carried two mortgages, leased two cars and provided for two dogs (one of whom happened to be named Pepper).

Despite my previous successes, I was lost at sea as to my next move. I couldn't contemplate another holding company experience and I feared going it alone. Enter Edward Aloysisus Moed from stage left. Equally disgusted by the politics, bureaucracy and parochial culture of the large agency world, Ed had left Brouillard a few weeks before me. He suggested we give it a go on our own. We did. And, I've never looked back.

But, I wouldn't be a success today if I hadn't failed so badly in the past.

Which is why Ken's blog is a MUST READ for those Millennials who have been raised to believe they'll always win. (Note: if you have a chance, also read Ron Alsop's most excellent book, “The Trophy Kids Grow Up”. It nails the sense of entitlement and fear of failure endemic in most Millennials).

I see the fear of failure in my own kids. They're both doing extraordinarily well, but they struggle with adversity. That's because, like most other Boomer parents, we coddled them and, as Alsop's book title suggests, gave them trophies even when they finished dead last.

Failure is important. It paves the way for success, especially for those who are resilient and have the wherewithal to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and say, “OK. I just failed. What did I learn to ensure that I won't fail again?”

Oh, and if you have a chance, doubleclick on the video embedded in Makovsky's blog. I think you'll be surprised to see how many famous people were complete failures before they finally figured out that failure was a pathway to success.

Aug 02

Peace in our time

BratI'm glad to see more marketers responding to the righteous indignation of folks like me who  despise the offspring of others for ruining an otherwise great meal, trip or experience.

I speak, of course, of brash, bratty and ill-mannered kids; the kind who will race up and down a restaurant or airplane; the kind who will scream and cry at the top of their lungs because daddy refuses to take them out of their high chairs; the kind who throw their stuffed animals at each other and repeatedly pummel the back of your plane seat for, say, three hours in a row.

Recognizing that repeat customers such as I are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, Ryanair has launched child-free flights. Malaysia Air announced it would institute a baby ban in first class (Sigh. It makes me want to book a flight to Kuala Lumpur just to enjoy the solitude). And, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways are also reportedly considering no kids policies.

And, it's not just airlines that dislike other people's kids as much as I. The Borgata Hotel in Atlantic City has been kid free since '03. And, Celebrity Cruises has declared sections of their cities on the sea strictly off-limits to anyone under 16. As Larry David would say, "It's a good thing! It's a good thing!"

There's a reason marketers are finally waking up to the havoc caused by poor parenting and their run-away freight train-like offspring. There are more and more empty nesters every day. What's more, 20 percent of American women NEVER bear children (that's a 50 percent increase since 1970). And, the cost of raising a kid now averages $230k. That's simply too much for many cash-strapped couples in this never-ending recession of ours.

There's even a website solely devoted to helping people like me find kid-free destinations. It's called I love it! Another site called NoChildrenByChoice says more and more brands are getting past their fear of alienating America's long-standing love affair with baseball, apple pie and kids and, instead, promoting child-free vacations.

No matter what your fear or phobia, it helps to know you're not alone. And, baby (pun intended), I'm not alone by a long shot when it comes to disliking someone else's snot-nosed child ruining my experience.

I may even reconsider my future retirement plans (which had called for hanging onto my New Jersey home for weekends and buying a pied-a-terre in the Apple). It turns out there's a city in Scotland that has a village rule preventing households from having even one child! Dogs, however, are welcomed. It's called Firhall. I'd call it Nirvana.

Jul 25

Big brother bursts onto the blogosphere

InternetSpyRemember that Drew University frat party photo you posted on your wall in 2007? 

How about the steamy text exchange with the woman you met at Del Frisco’s three years ago?

Or, what about the e-mail rants against affirmative action you posted on back in 2009?

Well, it's all fair game to prospective employers now that a year-old company called Social Intelligence is on the case. A new software solution that would make Sherlock Holmes green with envy and George Orwell recoil in disgust is being used by organizations near and far to pry into your innermost Internet intercourse (as in the conversation, not the deed).

Social Intelligence “…scrapes the Internet for everything prospective employees have said or done online in the past seven years.” That's right. It unearths EVERYTHING you've said or done on the web. EVERYTHING.

To make matters even worse, the Federal Trade Commission says this seeming invasion of privacy is perfectly legal and “…in compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act,” whatever that is.

Max Drucker, the CEO of Social Intelligence, says his employees “…aren't detectives (at all). All (they) assemble is what is publicly available on the Internet today.” Right. And, the Gestapo was just a bunch of good-natured pencil pushers looking to find out whose Nazi party membership fees had lapsed. Gimme a break. 

I don't like this at all. And, I'm an EMPLOYER!

I definitely want to know if someone has broken the law or done something amazingly tawdry in his or her personal life. But, seven years is one helluva long time. I have to believe there isn't a single reader of this blog who hasn't done something in the last seven years that they'd rather not have a prospective employer see.

And, trust me. If you did it, Social Intelligence will find it. They go far beyond Facebook, Twitter and MySpace to conduct searches that unearth comments on blogs and smaller sites such as Tumblr, Yahoo user groups, e-commerce sites, bulletin boards and, yes, even Craig's List. Good Lord!

Big Brother has clearly arrived on the blogosphere, and it got me thinking.
Will we now lose otherwise stellar candidates because they once wore a toga to a party? And, how would some of history's greatest figures have fared if Social Intelligence had existed way back when:

– Would St. Peter have been recruited to the original group of Apostles if Christ had access to S.I.? Maybe. Christ was into forgiveness, not casting the first stone and all that. But, if Jesus had had a human resources manager on staff, Peter (nee Saul) never would have made it to a first interview.
– Would Thomas Jefferson, who sired numerous children with his slave, Sally Hemmings, been elected to two terms as president? Ditto for JFK, FDR, W, Slick Willy and other presidents who misbehaved long before they entered the Oval Office.

On the other hand, S.I. might have prevented the likes of Hitler, Pol Pot and Stalin from rising to power.

So, color me very concerned, but open to arguments as to why corporate America needs Social Intelligence. What about you? Would you be cool with someone digging deep into your entire online world while you were job searching? And, for you corporate types, do you think S.I. steps over the line and is, in fact, an invasion of privacy? Would you be able to support it from an ethical standpoint?

I'd ask more questions, but Ed and I need to do a deep Internet dive right now on a prospective account supervisor's personal life. Seems she once dated a member of Hamas. Does that disqualify her, or make her even more attractive since she understands how a different culture acts and thinks?

Jul 08

Ignorance is gender neutral

Dumb-and-DumberEver take note of the steady drumbeat of male bashing in print ads, TV commercials, sitcoms and  movies? It's not overt but, like death and taxes, it's something you can count on.

Here's a quick case in point. Doubleclick on this current State Farm commercial and tell me what you see. What I see are three separate examples of absurdly stupid men who spend the savings from their low-cost State Farm policies on such idiotic items as falcons. Note how the clever, level-headed wife uncovers the mystery of the missing money, who spent it (her hubby) and on what (the bird).

I wouldn't be writing this blog if the State Farm spot had included even one dopey woman. But, it doesn't. All three morons are men. In fact, if Madison Avenue creative directors and Hollywood screenwriters were asked to describe the average American male, they'd use adjectives such as: clueless, idiotic, helpless, befuddled and overwhelmed. Ask the same influencers to describe the average American female and you'd hear such superlatives as: bright, engaged, sensitive and multi-tasking (re: the latter, journeyman comic Darryl Salerno likes to ask, “If women are such great multi-taskers, how come they can't have sex and a headache at the same time?” His words. Not mine).

Want another insurance sector example of subliminal male bashing? Look no further than Geico's brilliant caveman campaign. How come the tagline doesn't state, “Insurance made so simple even a cavewoman could understand it”? The answer is obvious: we've been programmed to just accept the fact that men are stupid. So, ipso facto, cavewomen were smarter than cavemen.

I've been around long enough to know there are just as many ignorant women as men. But, our entertainment gurus have decided otherwise.

It doesn't bother me. But, it SHOULD bother you if you're a mom or dad of impressionable boys and young men because it's reinforcing a negative stereotype in their minds. And, conversely, girls and young women are being told they're superior to boys and, aside from procreation, really don't need them for much of anything.

Feminists might argue that men have no one to blame but themselves for the negative stereotyping. But, for every Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer and Tiger Woods, there's a Casey Anthony, Tonya Harding and the former governor of Alaska. Ignorance is gender neutral. But, the perceptions of our nation's future leaders are being shaped to believe otherwise.

Too much of anything is bad. It's high time for some responsible (and balanced) marketing and entertainment content from what Ad Age used to refer to as the 'intersection of Madison and Vine.' Let's call for a cease-fire on male-bashing.

Jul 06

Corporate Social Irresponsibility: PR’s next BIG thing

What do brands such as 7-11, Armour and Hooters have in common? They all sponsor competitive binge-eating contests. Slide1 In case you've somehow missed it, competitive binge eating is the next new thing. Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs pioneered the caloriefest and now lots of other brands are following suit (and setting a horrific example for a nation already beset by obesity and weight-related illnesses).

All of which spells opportunity for some enterprising public relations entrepreneur. In fact, I'll bet a quarter pounder with cheese that there's some latter-day, bizarro world version of Carol Cone just salivating over the revenue potential. (Note: Carol Cone is widely recognized in PR circles for pioneering cause marketing and corporate social responsibility programs. Today, nearly every organization purports to 'do good' and some actually do.)

But, back to the business development opportunity. This past July 4th weekend, Joey 'The Jaws' Chestnut won his fifth consecutive Nathan's hot dog eating contest at Coney Island by consuming 62 dogs in 10 minutes (@ 397 calories per frank, Jaws inhaled some 24,614 calories in 600 seconds. I gag just looking at those numbers).

I'm also thrilled to report that Sonya Thomas won Nathan's first-ever women's competition by scarfing down 40 dogs in the same 10 minutes. I say thrilled because now women can't point to this obscenity as yet another example of 'stupid guy things.'

By winning their respective competitions, Chestnut and Thomas automatically become members of the Major League Eating Hall of Fame. For you non-foodies, MLE is the official governing body of binge eating and includes such other superstar athletes as:

– Don Lerman, who holds a world's record for consuming SIX POUNDS of baked beans in one minute and 48 seconds (note to self: do NOT stand downwind of Big Don).

– Cookie Jarvis, who shoveled down six and two-thirds pounds of linguini at one sitting (and, I'll bet she remained seated for some time afterwards. I wouldn't be able to move for a week).

– Takeru Kobayoshi, who sucked down 57 cow brains in 15 minutes (something tells me Kobayoshi-san didn't have much category competition, though. "The cow brain-eating contest? Hell no. I'm here to throw back some bratwurst.").

A cursory glance at the World Eating League's website reveals such major sponsors as Heinz and Pepto-Bismol. Heinz ketchup and mustard has to be the K-Y Jelly of binge-eating. I can't believe anyone can taste anything after, say, the 41st dog has inched its way past the trachea. It's all about lubrication at that point.

Pepto's marketing spend is a no-brainer. But where are Tums, Immodium and, of course, Scott Tissue?

And, how, exactly do the makers of Heinz and Pepto explain their sponsorships in annual reports? "In another area of cause marketing, Your Company once again contributed $1 million to sponsor the World Eating League. Management and directors alike believe obesity is not a problem but, rather, an opportunity that will provide immediate shareholder growth (and girth)."

I jest of course. These companies should be ashamed of themselves. So, too, should the competitors, who actually believe they're athletes. I always thought athletes burned calories, not consumed them.

The real losers though, as always, are our nation's kids. I can just picture 12-year-old, 200-pound Johnny or Sally Ann  giving up on their fitness program and opting instead to pursue a career as a World Eating Champion. "Hey mom and dad! I finally know what I want to be when I grow up. The king of the hot dog eating universe!"

But, enough already with French Fries finger pointing and Buffalo wing bashing, I have a business plan to write and some misbehaving brands to pitch. I think Corporate Social Irresponsibility is PR's next BIG thing (and, what a great double entendre the service offering's initials will make. "CSI? You betcha! In fact, we have an entire division devoted to it.").

And a tip o' the toque to Valerie "the Foodie" Di Maria for this suggestion.

Jun 29

Golden Years

174857103v1_225x225_FrontI'm 57 today. That's old. It sounds old and it looks old. As a matter of fact, 57 only looks good on  the label of a Heinz's ketchup bottle.

Turning 57 is an actuarial wake-up call. There's no denying that, statistically speaking, I'm much closer to the end than the beginning. But, to add insult to injury, there are lots of other signs that Father Time is breathing down my neck. To wit:

– An attractive young lady in a bar smiles at me, walks up and whispers in my ear, 'Excuse me sir. But is anyone using that stool next to you? We'd like to borrow it." (Note: sir = elderly).
– A friend shows my photo to her friend who responds by saying, “My, he's rather distinguished looking, isn't he?” (Note: distinguished looking = dissipated. Sean Connery is distinguished looking. I do NOT want to be called distinguished looking.).
– An otherwise intelligent intern tells me she's never heard of a DeLorean or the 'Back to the Future' movies. (Note: it's no fun to be surrounded by a whole new generation of employees who are clueless about ANYTHING that occurred before 1990).

That carnage aside, I'm absolutely loving 57. In fact, I think I've crammed more living in the past five years than I had in the previous 52.

'They' say experience is one advantage that comes with aging. But, they rarely mention another less obvious, but more important, value-add: freedom.

I'm now totally free to take risks and try things that would have been unthinkable 10, 20 or even 30 years earlier. They include performing improvisation and stand-up comedy, as well as rock, ice and mountain climbing. Toss in some long-distance cycling, gyrotonic ( and devising brand new Peppercom service offerings and you'll have an inkling of just how free I feel at such an advanced age.

I've been blessed. But, I've also embraced risk.

In fact, I now understand what David Bowie meant when he sang in 'Golden Years': 'Don't let me hear you say life's taking you nowhere.'

There are two ways to go through life: you take life or life takes you. You're either a driver who take risks and isn't afraid to fail or you're a passenger who blames others when your dreams don't come true.

Whether you're 27, 37, 47 or 57, do yourself a favor and get behind the wheel as soon as possible. You never know. It might just end up being a mint condition DeLorean and you might just end up having the time of your life.

Make the most of your golden years. They'll be over before you know it.

Jun 13

Despite BP Disaster, Tourism No Longer “Slip Slidin’ Away” for Gulf Shores

Today's guest post is by Peppercomer Sam Ford.

Would last summer’s daily dose of tragedy from BP and a gulf full of grade A “black gold…Texas  223226_652727826048_709098_34420278_5301955_n tea” keep you from vacationing on the Gulf of Mexico? We didn’t let it, and I couldn’t be happier about our experience.

Not too long ago, my family and I decided to take a trip to the beach. My wife and I were married on the beach, a little over 10 years ago, to be exact, in Charleston, SC. But, in all honesty, we hadn't been on much of a vacation since. (Even that wasn't a vacation, since my best man ended up bumming around in our beach house for the first part of the honeymoon, before we could get rid of him.)

So, to say our next beach vacation was a bit overdue is an understatement. Amanda and I are both notoriously bad about having trouble unplugging from work, but we decided to make our trip as device-free as possible, especially to give our 2-year-old daughter (Emma Belle Ford, pictured) some dedicated attention before her little sister arrives in a few months.

The only question was, "Where?" We talked about heading back to South Carolina. But, as we shopped around, we found that the "steal of a deal" was Gulf Shores, Alabama.

I've never been to Gulf Shores. I'd been close by for a basketball team trip to Ft. Walton Beach, Fla., in high school. (My physique might reveal I was a staff member, not a player…) Plenty of family and friends had piled down in years past, including my wife in her youth of summer "extended family vacations." But, given my requirements were really just peace and quiet, it seemed a good fit.

What I wasn't sure of is what the state of Gulf Shores would be. After being hit hard in tourism by the BP oil spill of last season, they'd put some significant effort in convincing people their food was still fresh, their beaches still viable and their town still a destination for your vacation dollars.

And our trip was no disappointment. The people were friendly. Business seemed back up. And there was no shortage of outlet mall shopping, seafood restaurants, and kitschy family activities. We spent most of our time at the pool. (And enjoyed some fine dining at Lambert's Cafe– any place that brings sorghum and fried potatoes by your table for free during dining and aims rolls at your head during the meal is fine by me.)

I ran into a fellow former Kentuckian who helped manage the local donut shop, and she predicted that business would only be down by about a third from two years ago, something to celebrate by standards of the previous summer.

But one sign ensured me that Gulf Shores was "back": when I picked up The Mullet Wrapper, Gulf Shores' local publication of what's happening (and I'm sure the source of much derision from snarky tourists along the way…), staring back at me was Paul Simon.

Now, caveat: I am an ardent Paul Simon fan. His music is the soundtrack of my life. And his latest album was the soundtrack of my vacation, played through I'm sure several dozen times throughout the week. But, according to The Mullet Wrapper, Paul was a sign that the tourist drought had ended for this beach destination. As part of the release of Paul's new album, So Beautiful or So What?, he was headlining their Hangout Music Festival on the beach. (The Foo Fighters were also on the roster of performers, among others.)

Unfortunately, my vacation ended right as the 35,000 people swarmed the beach to see Paul prove he's "still crazy after all these years." But, as I drove back to Kentucky with his new song "Rewrite" playing in the background, I couldn't help but think that Gulf Shores might have just found a rewrite of its own.

Jun 07

Another day, another summit

P60204mmmm80 Some people prefer to lounge on a Caribbean beach. Others play the tables in Vegas. Me? I climb mountains. And, I do it with my best friend, Chris, who doubles as my son.

This past week, we joined a few other good friends to attempt Colorado's formidable, 14,197 ft. Mt. Princeton.

We were dubious of success because, aside from the acclimatization challenges, all of Colorado's 60 something 14k'ers were buried in snow. In fact, locals told us this past winter was the worst in memory, with three times the average amount of snowfall.

So, when we arrived, we heard lots of conflicting reports, such as:

– “There's at least eight feet of snow on top of every 14k'er.”
– “The small stream you see on your way up will be a raging river on your way down.” (Note: as a notoriously weak swimmer, I envisioned myself being dragged under a class five rapid as I struggled for air.)
– “Everything north of Buena Vista (our base) is buried, but you just might find something passable due south.”

It wasn't until we happened on a seasoned local guide by the name of Mike Mays that things began to look up. Mays, who knows Vern Tejas, the legendary guide who took us up Russia's Mt. Elbrus, said there were two or three 14k'ers that could be summited. His words were echoed the very next day by a clerk at the local climbing, biking and kayaking outfitter.

And so, throwing caution to the wind, we decided to give it a go. It turned out to be a brutal slog, replete with few trails, lots of huge boulders and, of course, the requisite snow. At some points, we went in right to our hips. But, the snow was stable and there weren't huge mounds of it directly above, so we continued.

In all, it took 10 hours and 30 minutes to make it to the top and back. But, it was well worth it. In fact, I highly recommend a week of climbing, cycling and running at high altitude as a superb remedy to the stresses of everyday life.

I understand why most people prefer sucking down margaritas in Cancun or playing the roulette wheel at the Mandalay Bay. Me? I'll just keep climbing and smiling.

May 09

A little something for the al Qaeda operative in all of us

Article-0-0BF14C4E00000578-929_634x387 A little less than a week after the death of Osama bin Laden, New York-based Kuma Games has  introduced an Internet-based game called ‘Episode 107: The Death of Osama bin Laden.’ That’s nice.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about the free enterprise system, being first to market and all that, but check out this feature: game players can not only pretend to be members of the elite Navy Seals Team 6 that took down bin Laden, they can also choose to defend bin Laden. Yes, that’s right. Little Johnny can don a virtual robe and turban, pick up his AK-47 replica and begin wasting some of the storming Navy Seals operatives. That’s just so wrong in so many ways that it defies logic.

If I had lost a loved one on 9/11, or in one of the two wars that followed on its heels, I’d be planning to launch a personal Jihad against these bozos. And, I wouldn’t build-in an option for players to defend Kuma Games either.

Can you imagine your 11-year-old son, double-clicking on episode 107 link and yelling, “Hey mom, I’ll be down for dinner in a half hour or so. My al Qaeda mates and I have to disrupt this Navy Seals operation. It’s imperative we get bin Laden and his family safely away.”

Episode 107 is billed as the latest in a franchise of video games that recreate military missions, including the capture of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. There’s no indication if the Kuma Klan also provided an option for game players to defend Hussein and secret him away to another, new hiding place. But, they probably did. Nor is there any indication whether Kuma has created similarly-themed video games that enable players to say, whisk Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun away from their Berlin bunker in early May of 1945, or find an escape route from Elba that would provide Napoleon one last shot at conquering Europe and killing millions.

I’m not a child psychologist, but enabling an impressionable youngster to defend bin Laden might tend to soften the youngster’s views towards the mass murderer, no? And, in my mind, that could lead to any number of unintended, and very serious, real world consequences.

So, let me borrow a page out of the Ronald Reagan speech book and demand of Mr. Kuma (or whatever nut job runs the company) to: Take down that game!

Tip o' RepMan's Green Beret to Catharine "Goose" Cody for the idea for this post.

Apr 25

Dear Prudence

A recently published book entitled, The Longevity Project puts the lie to conventional wisdom  about the keys to a long and healthy life. Authors Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin, picked up on an original study that began in 1921 with 1,528 San Francisco 11-year-olds and analyzed what personality traits and lifestyle choices made some members of the original cohort far outlive their peers.

Happy-old-folksGuess what? Things such as optimism, happiness, a good marriage and the ability to handle stress didn’t rate very highly. Instead, the “…best childhood personality predictor of longevity was conscientiousness. The qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person wins out every time.” And, that has to be very bad news for those of you who double and triple book meetings and/or maintain sloppy cubicles.

he exhaustive study also confirmed what I’d always read and believed: “Genes constitute about one-third of the factors leading to a long life. The other two-thirds have to do with lifestyle and chance.”

When one looks beneath the surface, it’s easy to see why prudence and persistence are so important to longevity say the authors. Conscientious people are more likely to live healthy lifestyles, to not smoke or drink to excess, wear seat belts and follow doctors’ orders. Prudent and persistent people also tend to find themselves in healthier, happier workplaces and personal relationships. They also understand the importance of stress. “There’s a misconception about stress,” says Dr., Friedman. “People think everyone should take it easy. Rather, he says, “a hard job that is also stressful, but which enables people to eventually succeed, leads to a longer life.” So much for retiring to Del Boca Vista and playing golf every day.

One finding really struck home with me. Optimism has a huge downside. “If you’re cheerful, very optimistic, especially in the face of illness and recovery, if you don’t consider the possibility that you might have setbacks, than those setbacks are harder to deal with.” says Dr. Martin. “If you’re one of those people who think everything’s fine–the stress of failure, because you haven’t been more careful, is harmful. You almost set yourself up for more problems.”

I may die tomorrow, but I have to say The longevity Project made me smile for a number of reasons. First, because by recognizing that I was working in a toxic environment in the mid-1990s, I walked away from it and, along with Ed, created a workplace I knew I’d enjoy. Second, and this sentence is aimed directly at our firm’s management committee, I have always considered myself a ‘realist’ when it comes to such things as new business presentations, employee issues, economic downturns or other fundamental challenges.  As a result, I never expect to win a big, new piece of business, retain an important employee who’s being wooed away by a competitor or change the mindset of a clique within Peppercom who take exception to a particular management decision. My peers call me a pessimist. Rather, I’m doing exactly what the authors suggest is a key ingredient to longevity: I’m not setting myself up for more problems by being overly optimistic.

Anyway, that’s my take on The Longevity Project. What’s yours? Sorry, but I’ve got to run. I have another 40 years to live.