Dec 13

Great pick-up lines

William-steig-hello-cutie-pie--ccccnew-yorker-cartoonJust the other day, we were wrapping up a new business presentation when the prospect looked me in the eyes and said, “So, tell me why we should hire your firm.”

Now, in the early days when Peppercom was chasing anything that wasn't nailed down, I might have responded with any one of the following retorts:

– “Well, I believe we've demonstrated the right mix of strategy, creativity, responsiveness and results needed to take you to the next level.”

or…

– “Well, I think we've shown a real passion for your business today and presented a team that has been through the wars together. I know we'd hit the ground running on day one.”

or…

– “Well, I don't think you'll find another firm with the depth of category expertise reflected by the team you're meeting with today. I'll bet that, collectively, we have more than 150 years of experience in helping brands looking to attract toe fungus sufferers.”

But, that was then and this is now.

The older I get, the more I've grasped the amazing similarities between courtship and new business development. And, that goes for both prospective and existing clients (I'll address the latter in a nanosecond).

So, getting back to the most recent prospect's query, I sighed and said, “I'm not sure you SHOULD hire us. Asking us a question like that after we've demonstrated our experience, thinking and passion tells me you're looking for a vendor and not a partner. If I'm wrong, we'd be delighted to continue the conversation.”

That line always stops a prospect in her tracks (by either pissing her off completely or impressing her in ways no other firm has). I've found it's also a great way to pre-qualify a prospect and see if they really ARE looking for a relationship as opposed to just another order-taker.

Getting back to using what I'd call a great pick-up line with clients, I've found over the years that clients HATE being fired. They hate hearing the 'It's not you, it's us' line and immediately promise to behave better, pay their bills faster and lighten up on the over-servicing demands.

In today's economy, it's a dicey proposition to suggest PR firms play hard to get with prospects and clients.

But, trust me, it works just as well in business as it does in dating.

'So, I have to tell you I love your eyes. Do you come here often?'

Aug 05

A journalism degree is far superior

News-Reporter This may upset more than one PR professional, academic or student, but I believe a journalism degree trumps one in PR when it comes to succeeding in my industry.

The thought occurred to me after reading a blog by Debra Caruso, a former journalist who now runs her own PR firm.

Caruso lists the following reasons why journalism majors and former journalists make the best PR pros:

  • They have a nose for news.
  • They craft press releases and other copy that is more clear, compelling and accurate.
  • They understand a journalist's life, know when to pitch or not pitch and will score more placements as a result.
  • Former journalists know how to follow a reporter, understand her needs and can help her put together a piece to sell to the editor.

That's good stuff. But, there's far more to it than that. I majored in journalism and had the good fortune to work as a newsclerk at The New York Times, a reporter at WGCH in Greenwich, Ct., and as a newswriter at CBS Radio in Boston. The jobs were part of my five-year co-op curriculum at Northeastern University.

So, at the tender age of 19, I rubbed shoulders with some of the greatest journalists of their generation at the Times. At 20 years of age, I was a sports and news personality who was on-the-air five times a day and hosted an hour-long monthly talk show. And, at the relatively advanced age of 21, I was writing copy for breaking news stories that was then read live by top CBS anchors.

I lived, ate and breathed journalism 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I understood what made news and what didn't. I mastered the art of meeting constant deadlines. And I was provided an invaluable sneak peek into a newsroom's quirks, eccentricities and demands.

So, when I washed up on the shores of Hill & Knowlton as a 22-year-old junior account executive, I knew exactly how to pitch stories and deliver results.

Today's PR graduates do just fine when they hit the agency or corporate worlds. But, there's no substitute for majoring in journalism or working in a newsroom. Both provide an intrinsic understanding of news and newspeople that no PR undergraduate or graduate degree can match.

A journalism pedigree also assures fewer typos, better writing and less reliance on mass e-mails to pitch a story. And, trust me, that's something every senior manager in a PR firm can appreciate.

Aug 04

I wouldn’t pitch ‘The Pitch’ either

Looking to cash in on its breakout hit, 'Mad Men', AMC is scrambling to create a new reality show called 'The Pitch'. It's intended to be a behind-the-scenes look at real ad agencies pitching real   pieces of new business.

No pitch There's only one problem: AMC can't find ANY agencies to participate in the reality show. Securing marketers hasn't been a problem though. Two tarnished brands, Yahoo! and Kodak are champing at the bit to get some positive exposure.

But, Madison Avenue's top players have shown no interest in becoming a real life Don Draper. To date, BBDO, TBWA, DDB, GSD&M, Mullen, DraftFCB, Carmichael Lynch, Gotham and Hill Holiday among others have all turned thumbs down.

Agencies say they're worried about having their creative ideas stolen or an existing client catching them pitching a larger, conflict brand (yes, Virginia, these things do happen).  Then, of course, there's the issue of allowing the entire business world to witness the utter chaos that is a new business pitch.

The latter would be my greatest concern. While most advertising and PR firms would like clients to think they have a definitive, proprietary, state-of-the-art new business creative process, the facts are quite the opposite.

New business presentations are almost always an 11th hour, all hands on deck fire drill that sometimes come together beautifully at the last second, or completely crash and burn. We've had classic examples of each:

– For a large technology company, we were scrambling right up until the last moment, changing creative strategies, arguing with one another about approaches and even disagreeing about who should be on the presentation team. I still recall Ed saying, “This is going to be a disaster.” But, it wasn't. We rallied, came up with a great idea, made a superb presentation and won the huge account.

– For a leading retail brokerage company, we were heading to the Midwest for the final presentation knowing we'd totally impressed the prospect through the early stages (a fact later confirmed by the CMO, who said we were “the firm to beat”). But, we were beaten because the final presentation was completely overhauled during the flight and was so jumbled that we ran out of time during the pitch. We lost.

I love the thrill of the chase. And, there's nothing more satisfying than beating an Edelman or Weber for a significant piece of new business. But, there's no way I'd ever open Peppercom's doors to a behind-the-scenes reality TV show. I know I speak for most PR firms (and ad agencies) when I say the process for arriving at a final presentation is a steaming pile of sh*t that is best kept under the covers.

May 23

Judgment Day is every marketer’s dream

HeaderI don't know about you, but I had a blast in the minutes, hours, days and weeks leading up to  6pm, Saturday May 21, 2011 (AKA Judgment Day). Sure, nothing happened. But, so what? There were so many great tweets, blogs, status updates, videos and new comedy bits that it made the whole non-event a mega happening.

That's why I think President Obama should declare May 21st Judgment Day. And, it should be treated as an annual national holiday. I know marketers would absolutely love it. Retailers, for example, could own Judgment Day Eve. Just imagine the TV commercials:

– “Special end of the world prices like you've never seen! You'll agree Best Buy is positively otherworldly!”

– “You want some rapture? Check out our Judgment Day Eve prices at The Gap!”

– “Radio Shack's prices are the absolute lowest you'll find in this life.” 

Sales on Judgment Day Eve would totally eclipse Thanksgiving's Black Friday (and, give a whole new meaning to the color black as well, thank you very much). As a matter of fact, Valspar, Dutch Boy or some other paint brand should create a special 'Grim Reaper Black' shade for the occasion).

Turning to sporting events, I envision:

– Judgment Day doubleheaders at baseball stadiums (the Anaheim Angels would, of course, be featured on the national game of the week)
– 'End of the world' World Cup soccer matches (India vs. Pakistan would make for a neat opening match)
– And, how about a special pre-season college football game pitting the University of Notre Dame against Brigham Young University? I'll bet even He would tune in for that contest. And, I guarantee a mega sponsor would snap up the rights faster than you could say Adam and Eve. I can see it now: 'Ladies and gentlemen, and viewers around the world, welcome to the 2012 Quiznos Judgment Day Bowl.' And, just imagine if the Fighting Irish and Cougars end up tied at the end of regulation? Talk about sudden death overtime. Wow. The Batesville Casket Company should think about that particular branding opportunity.

But, wait, there's so much more marketers could do on Judgment Day. K-Mart, Wal-Mart or one of the other big box chains should copy Macy's and sponsor a parade. Harold Camping could be named honorary marshall in perpetuity. Cities could compete for hosting honors (a la the Olympics). And the winning city would earn the right to rename itself Sodom or Gomorrah for the day. The sponsor could hold an online contest to select Lot and his wife (and, wouldn't the latter search be a superb branding opportunity for Morton's Salt?).

Judgment Day could be the new crystal meth for marketers. Like eternity itself, it has limitless possibilities.

It's the mother of all days, and deserves to be repeated year after year after year until, god forbid, it actually becomes the REAL Judgment Day. Until then, I'd like to hear from each and every member of my flock. What branding opportunities am I missing?

Apr 18

Stealing my heart

The current issue of PR Week carries a totally irrelevant 'gloves off' discussion as to whether  “…clients have become more vigilant in the pitch process since the recession.” More vigilant? Try more vigilant, more demanding and more demeaning as well.

Kidtantrum2Ever since the 2008 economic meltdown, there's been a seismic shift in the ways in which prospects select (or, in many cases don't select, a new firm). I won't elaborate further since Jen Prosek's take on the rather sophomoric debate nails it on the head.

We had a recent experience that exemplifies just how much the agency search process has changed of late (as well as the low regard for a PR firm's time and professionalism that exists within some corporations).

The CMO of a Midwestern technology firm e-mailed us in a panic. Her business was rapidly ramping up its market spend and needed to hire a “top, midsized, BtoB firm” ASAP. She provided the budget range ($15k-$20k per month) and said we were one of only three firms she was contacting.

Since our growth has been robust of late (and, we were reluctant to further strain our resources), we responded cautiously. One of our managers left the prospect a voice mail asking for more details, but never heard back.

Now, fast forward several weeks. My business partner, Ed, received an e-mail from the woman complaining that:
A) I had never responded to her original note, and
B) She had never heard from anyone at Peppercom.

While it's true I didn't acknowledge her original note, one of our executives did, in fact, call. Regardless, she implored Ed to respond and said that we'd already been shortlisted.

And so, I called her. We had an amiable conversation and discussed her needs. That's when she told me she needed a plan within 48 hours. I should have balked. Instead, feeling a little Catholic guilt, I asked one of our managers to drop everything and submit the materials within the deadline.

Then, predictably, our rapid response was followed by prolonged silence. More than a little angry, I shot the woman a note. “Stay tuned,” she replied. “We're making decisions this week.” The note was followed by yet another extended period of radio silence. I e-mailed again, asking for an explanation. This was her response:

“Your timing couldn't be better. We've just made our decision and, sadly, Peppercom isn't one of our two finalists. Thanks and good luck.” Damn. Suckered again.

I felt just like Mick Jagger, who sang in 'Stealing My Heart', “I thought you were dinner, but you were the shark.” In fact, Stealing my heart could serve as an anthem for any agency that's been raked through the coals in today's murky world of new business pitches.

If PR Week wanted to host an authentic gloves off discussion, they would invite two VP's of corporate communications to address a far more relevant question: “Should PR firms be treated shabbily in new business searches?” I could connect them with one woman who answer with a resounding “You betcha!”

This post is dedicated to Peppercommers Sara Jane Whitman Ramos and Courtney Chauvin Ellul.

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

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 16

The tiger in your mind is more ferocious than the tiger in the jungle

When asked, most humans will admit to being more scared of public speaking than dying. (According to a study conducted by National Public Radio, 43% of Americans say their greatest fear in life is public speaking.  In fact people who responded to the survey said they fear public speaking more than death. )
StepupIt's the fear of the unknown that scares most of us, and the anticipation of speaking in front of a group triggers our age-old fight or flight response (a fact I think the Buddhist expression in the headline captures beautifully).

I saw this very basic human emotion demonstrated yet again Monday night when I led a 'Humor in the Workplace' seminar at the Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University. At first, the 17 students were petrified to hear that, after some coaching, they'd be expected to stand in front of the class and 'be funny.' But, each did. And, each student was, in fact, funny.

Recognizing that overcoming the fear of public speaking is a key component in our employees' professional development, we've incorporated stand-up comedy workshops in our training and have seen remarkable results. In addition to making our employees feel more secure about addressing a large group, stand-up comedy training has produced a host of intangible side benefits: enhanced morale, team building and a subtle, but very real reinforcement of our workplace culture: We take our work seriously, but we don't take ourselves seriously at all.

I'm amazed that more organizations haven't embraced humor as a recruiting and retention tool. With the economy improving and headhunters once again cold-calling employees with offers, one would think more firms would wake up to the importance of humor to culture (and, in turn, the importance of an open and fun environment in recruiting talent). Yet, as this PR Week feature indicates, most firms are, instead, relying on technology, contests and other gimmicky tactics to woo talent.

I'm not suggesting that humor in the workplace is a be-all and end-all. Money matters. So do perks and an opportunity to work in many different areas of an organization.

But, with everything else being equal, employees will choose a warm and engaging employer. Why? Because people want to work with other people who make them laugh.

So here's a note to all the headhunters and in-house recruiters at the large organizations: think about incorporating humor workshops alongside matching 401k programs, massages, meditation rooms, contests, Twitter feeds and other ploys. Every human being needs help dealing with the tiger of the mind. And, every organization can play a role in helping employees tame the beast. Those that do will find themselves further up the food chain in the never-ending quest to be king of the workplace jungle.

Feb 24

Don’t toy with us

Today's guest post is co-authored by Peppercommers Sara Whitman Ramos (pictured) and Brendan Mullin.

PhotoPeppercom’s motto has always been to work hard, play hard. So, what better way to live that  motto than to hang out at last week’s Toy Fair? Brendan Mullin and Sara Whitman (that’s us) took on the show, meeting with influencers and manufacturers, and of course stopping a bit to goof around with some of the latest and greatest in playthings.

Organized by the Toy Industry Association, Toy Fair 2011 hosted 300 exhibitors, making this a very good year. Association leadership was quoted as saying, “This kind of positive news reaffirms Toy Fair’s reputation as the epicentre of toy and youth product creativity, originality and excellence in the Western Hemisphere.”

To get some perspective on that, we had the chance to speak with industry veterans, Claire Green and Wendy Smolen, co-founders of The Sandbox Summit. In addition to providing much-needed advice for tackling Toy Fair – Hydrate! Snack! – they also shared their thoughts about the state of Toy Fair, and whether or not the show is living up to its reputation:
What are your thoughts about the quality of exhibitors you saw this year in comparison to previous years?

There was a much more upbeat quality to this year's Toy Fair than in the past two years. The quality of exhibitors was basically the same. You have the classic big guys, the mid-size companies who are always trying to muscle their way in, and the innovative new guys. It's an interesting mix.
 
We agree. Everyone was happy. We weren’t sure if it was the promise of better economic times, the toys or just something in the air. At one point, that “something” in the air was flying marshmallows from The Marshmallow Fun Company.
 
What trends are you seeing that are particularly exciting?  Technology always grabs headline. Here are a few themes:
 
1. This year we saw the reverse trend of apps transforming into product. Classic online games like Angry Birds and Tetris both moved off the screen and onto the table.
 
2. 3-D. Hasbro, Mattel, Spinmaster, and others all brought out products that can be viewed in 3-D.
 
3. iPads/iPods as toys. More and more companies are creating apps to play on the iPad. Discovery Bay introduced Yoomi, using a device that turns an iPad into a game. VTech introduced a kid-friendly alternative to the iPad. Hasbro had My3D, which lets a player play 3-D games on an iphone; Fisher Price introduced a kid-tough case for a parent's iPhone. 
 
4. New technology. We saw a laser printer that colors Barbie's hair (Fisher Price) and a voice-activated car (Bandai).
 
5. Great thinking games. ThinkFun, Gamewright, FatBrain, BriarPatch, WorkForge, Blue Orange all had imaginative, creative ways to play.
 
There’s no doubt that technology and toys will continue merging in fun and unusual ways. One of Sara’s favorites was a ping-pong playing robot from Tosy, a Vietnamese company. B tried to take him on, but the robot was scared silly by his paddle-wielding skills.
 
Anything that toy manufacturers are not addressing effectively or as well as you’d like to see?
We’re always surprised to see traditional packaging geared towards “girls” and “boys.” It’s the 21st century and time to grow beyond the pink and blue.
 
And to close, what catches your eye when you’re walking the floor?
Having been immersed in toys for so many years, what catches our eye is what has not been done before or is now being done in a smarter, more fun way. It's the "slap your forehead" moment. It always makes you smile. And that's really what toys should do.
 
To our ears, sounds like Toy Fair nailed it on all three counts – creativity, originality and excellence.

But, we’d like to hear from Repman readers. Do you think the current state-of-the-art in toys is better than previous generations? Are toys safer?

In the meantime, stay tuned for more from our day of play at Toy Fair 2011…coming soon. Now, give me that toy!

Feb 08

The Maritel bucket

This blog is dedicated to Peppercommers Deb Schleuter-Brown-Schleuter and Jackie Kolek.

Ever find yourself at the bottom of the Maritel bucket? I'll bet you have; you just use another  Old_bucket phrase to describe the experience.

We find ourselves at the bottom of the Maritel bucket every few years. It's just happened in fact. We were awarded a nice piece of business in December, finalized the plan over the holidays and were about to kick things off when, hold onto your hats, we were told we had to pitch the business all over again. It was a classic Maritel bucket scenario: You win an account only to be told a few minutes, days or weeks later that, no, in fact, you didn't win the account after all.
 
The Maritel bucket phrase originated in those hallowed, halcyon, shoot-from-the-hip dotcom days. A firm by the name of Maritel contacted us one morning, requested a meeting early that same afternoon and called to award us a sizable piece of business before 5 pm. They then called back to say someone had made a terrible mistake and, that Maritel had no interest whatsoever in public relations. The absurdity of the whole experience was so extreme that it became memorialized as the Maritel bucket.
 
 We've had other bucket experiences:
 
– A huge chemical company's SVP of human resources adored us and was in the process of handing us all of the corporation's internal communications and collateral work. The plans and budgets were approved and we were set to go. But, suddenly, 'John' stopped returning our calls. A week later, we called the main line to discover he'd been terminated. Bye-bye million dollar program.
 
– A technology company that provided software for Wall Street was poised to spend lots of money to overtake SunGuard, the market leader. And, the new marketing guru had chosen us. We got off to a strong start, attended several meetings and then, poof, our contact was gone. A day or two later, an executive called to say 'Randy' had had no authority to hire us, had  been terminated and oh, by the way, they'd like their money back. With a signed LOA, time sheets and status reports to prove we'd done the work, they backed off.

– The SVP of marketing for a Scient, Sapient, Razorfish wanna-be hired us to the tune of $35k per month. Their marketing goal: to do and say exactly what the front runners did so that they, too, could go the IPO route and retire as multimillionaires. They not only never paid us for our three months of work, but demanded their money returned with interest. They then went belly up.
 
I'd love to create some sort of industry-wide Maritel bucket hall of shame (and would welcome your case studies, BTW).
 
In fact, the Maritel bucket could become a catch-all phrase for a new category in all the PR industry awards programs (“And, this year's Maritel bucket winner for the worst abuse of a PR firm goes to …”).
 
Ask not for whom the Maritel bucket waits. It waits for thee.