Jun 02

The death of an agency

Modernista just died. Rip

For those of you unfamiliar with the firm, Modernista was founded in 1999 and within a very brief period of time, became a white hot advertising agency that, at its peak, boasted 130 employees and clients such as Gap, Hummer, TIAA-Cref, Converse and Cadillac.

I remember reading and hearing all about Modernista, their daring creative and sterling reputation from clients and prospects alike.

And, then something changed in 2006. That's the year Modernista's Gary Koepke said, "We felt like we arrived." But, for Koepke & Company, arrival signaled departure because they stopped doing all the little things that had made them successful in the first place. He says Modernista lost its mojo after 2006 and simply became too comfortable.

They tried to stay abreast of change, particularly social media, but nothing worked. Koepke says the 2008 recession and client bankruptcies made managing the business tougher and tougher. Tensions grew and, somehow, they found themselves being labeled as '…that old stuff.' (Read: a traditional advertising agency).

You can scan the rest of Koepke's sad tale in the attached article, but he does pass along eight warning signs that are worth reading whether you toil for an impersonal, global holding company or a hip, Modernista-type start-up:

1.) Nobody wants to admit things are bad.
2.) Staff begins to depart for other agencies.
3.) Your eight-year-old daughter asks, 'What's wrong?' every night.
4.) Projections aren't met and overhead is tipping greater than revenue.
5.) In pitches, other agencies tell the client you're going out of business (note: I couldn't imagine a sleazier thing to say or do to another firm).
6.) When you do win the business, it's often only the smaller fish, not the big ones.
7.) You start having conversations about M&A or bank loans.
8.) You have this nagging feeling things aren't getting better and it doesn't go away.

I feel really bad for Koepke and Modernista. I can't pinpoint exactly why they failed. But, I do know why we've survived and why we're on track to post our best results in at least five years. We keep changing. We keep asking what's new and what's next. And, if we don't have the core competency to meet client needs, we strike strategic partnerships, acquire other firms or hire non-traditional talent.

Business success is all about staying one step ahead of change. It's also about NOT sipping your own Kool-Aid, reading your own press clippings or, as Koepke admits, growing too comfortable.

Modernista: 1999-2011. R.I.P.

Jun 01

The boomerang kid

Marketers of all stripes are interested in boomerangs. IMG_6394

In this case, I'm not talking about the Australian weapon but, rather, a term marketers use for consumers who, at an early stage in their lives, are loyal buyers of a particular product or service. Then, for reason or reasons unknown, they abandon their first love and move on to a competitor's model. Finally, like the prodigal son, they return to the fold and once again become a loyal buyer.

Over the years, I've abandoned various brands that no longer resonated with who I was or what I wanted. Brooks Brothers is one example. BMW is another. But, I'm pleased to say I've re-discovered both after lengthy affairs with other suitors.

I bought my first BMW right after landing a real PR job at Hill & Knowlton. The 318i replaced an ugly, if dependable, Toyota Corolla and announced to the world that I'd arrived (at least in my self-absorbed mind).

Unfortunately, my 318i was a real lemon. I had to replace the clutch twice and the air conditioning unit at least three times. Something always seemed to go wrong and servicing costs were ridiculously high. So, after three years, I bid auf wiedersehen to my first love and moved on to other models (an Acura Legend, a Mercedes 300S, a little Red Miata and, finally a British racing car green Jaguar). I really liked the Jag, but I began taking note of the BMW M3 convertible.

It stopped me in my tracks. The M3 had all the dash and verve of the Jag, but the convertible made it look much cooler. And, so, when the Jag lease came due, I wandered over to Circle BMW and took a spin. It was like re-connecting with a long lost love. Everything clicked. I was hooked. I'd boomeranged back to BMW.

That was six years ago. When the lease on my first BMW came due, I didn't think twice. I went right back to Circle BMW, told them my story and took a test drive in the new and improved 2010 M3. It may have taken a nanosecond to make up my mind.  

Nowadays, I routinely get lots of cool comments about my fire engine red M3. Some dude at the Middletown train station stopped me the other day and said, 'That car has to put a smile on your face every time you slip behind the wheel.” I laughed and nodded, because he was right. It does. As does the purr of the engine as I slip effortlessly from gear to gear. It's a beautiful thing.

I've boomeranged back to BMW and Brooks because somehow, some way, they've once become relevant to my wants and needs. And, that dear reader, is manna from heaven for those respective brands.

We represent quite a few consumer brands, and each and every one is trying to figure out the best and smartest ways to re-connect with buyers who fell in and out of love with them. Boomerangs are a big deal.

So, how about you? Have you re-discovered a car, appliance or fashion accessory that you discarded long ago but now find intrinsic to the brand of you? If so, let me know. And, let me know what brought you back to your first love. We marketers positively KILL for that sort of intelligence.

May 18

We need the Navy Seals to take down the bin Laden of Burgers

Some 55Presentation10 leading health care professionals and organizations have signed their names to a  full-page advertisement running today in six national newspapers. It's a call to action pleading with McDonald's to stop its sleazy, subversive marketing to kids and to retire their damnable corporate icon, Ronald McDonald.

Fuggedaboutit! The ad won't work because McDonald's won't stop marketing to kids. They can't. The impact on future sales would be too horrible to contemplate. (Could you imagine life without plus-sized families wolfing down Big Macs five times a week? How positively un-American.)

Instead, America's health groups should get serious, mobilize their monies, marshal their troops, and declare war on McDonald's. And, public enemy number one of what I'm calling 'Operation: Waistline' should be Ronald McDonald himself.

In my mind, Ronald's the bin Laden of Burgers, the Pol Pot of Poor Diets and the Hitler of Healthy Living.

And, I'd engage the same elite Seal 6 team that took out bin Laden in his Abbottabad compound for this surgical strike. Why not? They've got a proven plan and are ready to roll.

I'd have the Seals initiate a midnight raid on Mickey D's Oakbrook, Illinois, headquarters. I'll bet they'd catch Ronald watching the tube (hopefully nothing worse than PG-13 content). I picture him lying in bed, wearing just his red overalls. He'll have an arm draped around one or more of his morbidly obese wives while puffing on a cigarette and scarfing down some fries and a chocolate shake.

As was the case with bin Laden, I'd tell the Seals to take him down ASAP. Who knows what a cornered corporate icon might do in a moment of desperation? Waste him. Plus, no one wants Ronald McDonald alive and put on trial. The guy's a real charmer and that red and yellow costume might just sway a jurist or two. No, I'd tell the Seals to put one bullet just above Ronald's eye.

Then, let's bury him in an undisclosed location in Lake Michigan. We don't want McDonald's fanatics making a shrine out of Ronald's final resting spot.

The Mob likes to say if you 'cut off the head, the body will die.' I think health care professionals need to adopt the same strategy with McDonald's. Whack Ronald and watch our nation's obesity epidemic (and waistlines) slowly, but surely, contract.

One caveat to the Seals, though. Do yourselves a public relations favor and don't adopt an American Indian code word such as Geronimo for Ronald. There's no need to undermine the results by alienating an important minority.

So, let's get to work. Let's infiltrate Ronald's inner circle, use some advanced terror techniques to determine his daily habits, get some spy satellites to focus their cameras on his compound and get this deed done. If Obama doesn't want to issue the final execute command, I will.

Ronald McDonald must die if America is to live. It's go time!!!!

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 28

Does anyone read in-flight magazines?

Do you read in-flight magazines? You know the ones I'm talking about, right? They're shoved into  an airplane's seat back right alongside the evacuation instructions and vomit bag.

Since I've been traveling relentlessly of late, I've decided to pass my time during the endless delays to observe my fellow passengers to see if any actually picked up and read the magazines. No one did. Not a soul. Not the morbidly obese man on my left or the pajama-clad, trailer park denizen on my right. And, I'm positive the toddler sitting directly behind me and repeatedly kicking my seatback wasn't flipping through the articles eitArticle-1200719-005E374800000258-743_468x330her.

This wouldn't matter if airlines weren't relentlessly cutting costs and adding a la carte pricing faster than you can say sleeping air traffic controllers. 

Just imagine how much money every airline could save (and pass along to passengers) if they did away with in-flight magazines. The publications serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever except to show me diagrams of various airports and maps of the world. (So, that's where Ceylon is, eh?)

Back in the mid-13th century when I plied my PR trade as an account executive, securing a placement in an in-flight magazine was a HUGE deal. In fact, most clients considered it an A-level hit, right alongside a Times article or GMA appearance. I guess that's because, in the days before iPads, iPods and laptops became ubiquitous, airline passengers actually read the damn magazines. Nowadays, though, I can't think of a single new business proposal or year-long plan that so much as even mentions gaining publicity in an in-flight magazine.

So, why do they still exist? You'd think one of the more progressive airlines such as JetBlue or Southwest would have banned them years ago, announced the move as a further reflection of their eco-friendly ways and made a big splash about passing along the cost savings in a massive advertising campaign. Nah, that would be too obvious.

Sometimes the easiest solutions are the ones staring you right in the face. So, here's hoping some airline executive wakes up and cancels his in-flight magazine order at the same time he gives air traffic controllers a little more vacation time. The flying public would thank him for both.

Apr 08

Ask not what your cable programmer can do for you; ask what you can do with your remote control

'The Kennedys', a new mini-series on ReelZChannel, is to cable programming what the Bay of Pigs  was to JFK's administration: an unmitigated disaster.Kennedy cigar bay of pigs

While it may provide a momentary ratings hiccup for the totally anonymous network, the series itself is abysmal. The plot's predictable, sophomoric and hackneyed. The acting is stilted and the sets are positively amateurish. Indeed, the fabled Hyannis Port Compound looks more like the dilapidated bungalow from 'Jersey Shore'. I half expected to see Snooki leap into Jack's arms.

ReelZChannel rolled the dice with The Kennedys after The History Channel exercised its pocket veto and wisely decided to pass on the poorly-told tale.

I understand the logic behind ReelZChannel's move. They hoped, like AMC did with 'Mad Men', to catch lightning in a bottle with The Kennedys and leapfrog into the A level of cable programmers. That decision may qualify as a profile in courage, but it makes as much sense as JFK's alleged dalliance with Mafia moll Judith Campbell in the early 1960s.

Mad Men was an original drama with a first class ensemble of actors who beautifully captured a bygone era. The Kennedys, on the other hand, is a hastily pulled together mish mash of well-known family stories mixed in with salacious gossip (and endless commercial interruptions).

Family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy is portrayed by the grossly over-exposed Tom Wilkinson (who seems to be Britain's answer to Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro; once distinguished actors who continue to prostitute their craft with highly-paid gigs in terribly scripted movies).

Greg Kinnear plays Mr. President and does, in fact, look a lot like Jack. But, he can't pull off JFK's gravitas or charisma. And, Katie Holmes is Jackie Kennedy. I think that speaks for itself.

The ReelZChannel took a major image and reputation risk that, I believe, will end badly. I think the me-too network will enjoy a temporary buzz and then sink permanently beneath the waves.

And, so my fellow Repman readers, ask not what your cable programmer can do for you. Ask what you can do with your remote control. And, if you happen to land on a ReelZChannel replay of The Kennedys anytime soon I suggest you, er, ah, channel surf faster than an ICBM headed for er, ah, Cuba.

UPDATE: Apparently, SNL shares my opinion.

Apr 05

Can you spot the ancient ad that’s more relevant than ever?

Pic19912Pic17035This blogger’s older brother constantly bombards me with videos, tunes and other memorabilia from the distant past. I’m not sure exactly why he sends me these things, but most end up in my virtual wastebasket. This one containing the ads pictured, however, struck a chord.

As you’ll see, it contains a number of print advertisements from a bygone era. It’s hard to say which is more politically incorrect. But, there’s one ad that, sadly, is as relevant today as it was when it first appeared a half century ago. Let me know if you agree about the ad in question, and we’ll go back-and-forth on why this particular ‘wrong’ is more ‘right’ than ever before.

One other observation: these print ads from yesteryear are amazingly patronizing and condescending towards women. I find it fascinating that today’s advertisements and commercials have come full circle with many, if not, most, equally demeaning to men (i.e. portraying us as dumb, helpless creatures always in need of a woman to show us how to Pic25667survive, etc.).Pic14771Pic01869Pic26299Pic21726Pic23811       Pic26299  Pic11538

Apr 01

When the franchise account walks

Wave_goodbye_to_the_boss_button-p145449526970885710t5sj_400Burger King just fired Crispin Porter Bogusky as its advertising agency of record after a seven-year run. This is seismic news for a number of reasons:

– Within advertising circles, Crispin is arguably still the hottest thing since sliced bread and remains, to the best of my knowledge, the only ad agency to ever grace the cover of BusinessWeek.
– Along with its Mini Cooper work, CPB's edgy BK creative helped put it on the map and become the envy of agencies near and far.
– BK's $300 million budget loss will be a significant hit to Crispin's bottom line and slow down, if not halt entirely, its plans for a rapid global expansion.

Losing a franchise account is a big, big deal in the advertising and PR world. And, despite the best spin from agency management, it does a real number on internal troop morale. I know. I've been there.

I was at Hill & Knowlton in the 1980s when its franchise account walked. And, I was with Earle Palmer Brown in the early 1990s when the cornerstone client there said, 'Sayonara, Sam.'

We've been fortunate in our 15-plus years at Peppercom. We've never really had a franchise account that totally dominated our billings. We've had a few instances where a single client accounted for more than 30 percent of our fees, but we've always been fortunate to have three or four large accounts and multiple 'midsized' clients. That's enabled us to suffer a significant loss without having to take immediate, Draconian measures.

I can only think of only a few PR firms that have bona fide franchise accounts. Waggoner Edstrom is certainly one. It grew to become a huge, independent agency based upon its long-standing relationship with Microsoft. I've no idea how large a percentage Microsoft is to overall W-E billings, but a sudden departure would have to register a 9.0 on the Crispin/BK scale. Golin Harris is another PR agency with a franchise account: McDonald's. G-H has been Mickey D's AOR from day one. And, I couldn't imagine one without the other. But, then, who could have predicted BK's deep-frying of Crispin?

Collecting too many dollars from a single client is akin to making a pact with the devil. The client knows they wield enormous power over the agency, and the latter knows its fate could depend on the health and longevity of the current direct client contact (note: according to Ad Age, CPB's demise was caused by poor sales and constant senior management turnover at BK).

Crispin is a superb agency that will undoubtedly bounce back from losing this whopper of an account. But, just the same, it's a cautionary tale for any small, medium or large-sized firm in any professional services field: don't rely on one client to make your image and reputation and never put too many eggs in one basket.

Mar 22

Let’s pick the one we dislike the least

Care-o-meter-1 Agency search consultant Robb High's behind-the-scenes video (insert link) tells a fascinating tale of how clients select their PR and advertising partners.

High claims to have watched more than 150 agency pitches (talk about brutal! That sounds worse than sitting through an entire cricket match). In those meetings, says High, client decision makers almost always chose the lesser of all evils when selecting a firm.

They begin the selection process by agreeing on which agency they absolutely, positively, couldn't stomach working with (why those firms were invited to pitch in the first place positively baffles this blogger). Next, clients will eliminate those firms that, for whatever reason, simply didn't resonate in their presentations.

When they finally do settle on a winner, says High, the client often doesn't 'love' the new agency partner at all. Rather, the decision makers have agreed on the one firm they dislike the least. Inspiring, no?

Factored into the decision-making is how the decision maker will look to the other decision makers in the room. Typically, he or she won't want to appear either too radical or too conservative. So, what ends up happening is 'more of the same.'

As the old saying goes, "No one ever got fired for hiring IBM". And, apparently the same holds true for hiring, say, Weber, Edelman, Y&R or Leo Burnett. They may not be the best agency for the job, but they've survived the elimination rounds. So, let's give them a call, pop open some champagne and celebrate!

High also confirms what I've known in my gut for years. The incumbent agency, if it decides to defend the business, is ALWAYS the first one voted off Survivor Island. He says he counsels incumbents to save their time and money and, instead, look for a competitor in the client's category to represent. Wise counsel indeed.

There's nothing radically new in what High says, but it is interesting. The fog of war (or new business) can blur one's sightline into exactly how a client selects a new firm. In many instances, it isn't what the agency says or does right but, rather what it doesn't say or do wrong. While that may seem like the wrong way to choose a strategic partner, one has to remember that client decision makers report to other, more senior client decision makers. And, if one is worried about one's job, it's easier (and safer) to use the process of elimination. No one was ever fired for hiring IBM. Or Burson, Golin, J. Walter Thompson or BBDO.

Mar 07

Boy, you’re going to carry that weight a (short) time

Article-0-0D776455000005DC-938_468x392It came as no surprise to me that Blair River, the 29-year-old, 575-pound spokesman for the  Heart Attack Grill died last week of '…complications caused by pneumonia.'

I first blogged about the Heart Attack Grill www.HeartAttackGrill.com a few years back. At that time, I was simultaneously appalled and attracted by their bald-faced campaign.

I was appalled for all the obvious reasons: The Heart Attack Grill featured dishes such as the Triple Bypass Burger that were served up by waitresses dressed as scantily-clad nurses. They also had multiple stretchers and gurneys on hand and an ambulance waiting in the parking should any patron actually suffer a heart attack. And, The Heart Attack Grill promised free meals to any patron who weighed more than 300 pounds.

Disgusting, yes? But, but it's also as transparent and authentic a marketing campaign as I've ever seen. Unlike so many other organizations, the Heart Attack Grill didn't serve up a set of false promises in its marketing only to disappoint customers with the actual experience. On the contrary, The Heart Attack Grill is THE poster child for properly aligning its brand and marketing messages with what we communications types call the 'end user experience.'

While I may detest everything the Heart Attack Grill stands for, and lament the loss of their 29-year-old spokesman, I applaud their honesty. The branding folks at BP, Toyota and The Catholic Church could learn a thing or two about transparency from the Arizona eatery's diabolically direct messaging. It's as simple and stark as, well, a heart attack.

Tip o' RepMan's hat (and a large order of fries) to Jimmy Moock for suggesting this post topic.