Sep 02

Anniversaries: the gift that keeps on giving (to PR people)

20140902101935aa769_0001Any PR professional worth her salt will tell you she absolutely adores publicizing a client anniversary. In fact, give us a shot, and any PR pro will quickly devise 100 ways for any client organization to mark its anniversary (with a sizable budget to go along, thank you very much).

I’m not stretching the truth when I say a client anniversary is to PR types what unclaimed former Soviet territory is to Vladimir Putin. We just can’t get enough.

My all-time favorite event was the Hostess Twinkies’ 75th anniversary.

I was a young account executive still very much learning the ropes at Geltzer & Co., a firm that was eventually sold to one of those evil holding companies.  At Geltzer, I had the good fortune to work alongside one of the most creative publicists I’ve ever known, Marv Gellman.

When the Hostess folks told us about the anniversary, and asked us for a Good Morning America-type big idea, Marv went into high gear.  He came up with all sorts of crazy ideas and one brilliant one. He suggested Hostess bakers create the world’s largest Twinkie (it turned out to be a full 75 pounds of mouth-watering, artery clogging goo). Marv’s idea was pure genius, though, and the remaining program elements flowed (melted?) from there.

I distinctly remember Marv traveling to Hostess company headquarters in New England to ensure the Twinkie 75th anniversary event was as big as a success as possible (and that the bakers baked what was requested of them). When it was completed, the Mt. Everest-sized Twinkie looked more like a tan version of the Hindenburg.

But, sure enough, Marv scored a GMA hit for the unveiling. He also secured an Associated Press wire photograph and god knows how many other print, TV and radio placements. If memory serves, Geltzer won a Silver Anvil for the special event and Marv launched a career that later saw him plan special events for his own firm and, eventually, for Ketchum clients.

I tell you my anniversary tale because Peppercomm began its fabled (star-crossed?) Journey 19 years ago today. Yes, Virginia, it was just under two decades ago that I washed up on the shores of Ed’s squalid, one bedroom apartment and we began the smiling-and-dialing that would lead to our eventual success.

Our plans
Because, we’re PR people celebrating a PR firm’s anniversary, Jackie Kolek and our crack agency marketing team have decided that today marks the beginning of a lengthy 20th anniversary celebration (god knows when it will finally end).

Jacko & Co. have all sorts of ideas on the drawing board, including:

- A video series spotlighting my late black lab Pepper, the smartest dog in the room
- A client/prospect dinner
- A specially commissioned survey on our core differentiator: listening
- Any number of celebratory parties
- SWAG, SWAG and more SWAG

I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished at Peppercomm. And, I’m dying to see what Jacko and her agency marketing types devise to mark the occasion.

I just wonder what Marv Gellman would conjure up for our event:

- The world’s largest dog?
- The world’s longest anniversary party, entitled, ‘They shoot dogs, don’t they?’
- The world biggest branded hoodie (large enough to squeeze all 100 or so Peppercomm employees)?

Ah anniversaries. For PR types like me, they’re the stuff of dreams. Or, if you prefer, the cream-filled cupcake of dreams.

Aug 28

The world’s least interesting beer

dosss eyyyyquisI’m tooling by lovely White Plains as we speak after a superb, week-long climbing adventure in New Hampshire.

I can’t drive by White Plains without thinking of one of the most ill-fated new business pitches in Peppercomm’s soon-to-be 20-year-long legacy.

Looking back, I can state with assurance that we were set-up for a fall by the marketing staff then working at Dos Equis beer (HQ’d in White Plains).

They contacted us to say they’d been following Peppercomm for years. (Yeah, sure. And, White Plains is the world’s most romantic city.)

The Dos Equis types told us they were holding an agency review, had already narrowed the field to a few, select firms and decided Peppercomm needed to be included since we were “…just as quirky and unconventional as their beer brand.” (which had just launched its ‘world’s most interesting man’ campaign).

We saw immediate red flags. We told the Dos Equis people we had little, if any, prior beverage experience (which is no longer the case, BTW). They pooh-poohed our lack of credentials, said they were tired of hiring the same, old firms with the same tired ideas and really loved our irreverent edge. They almost begged us to compete.

And, so we did.

I led a team to White Plains on one especially grim and grimy rainy morning. We entered the Dos Equis headquarters building and, naturally, were asked to wait while another agency wrapped up its dog-and-pony show.

Finally, we entered the conference room (which was littered with the leave-behinds from various competitors) and began our pitch.

It didn’t take long for one of the senior marketing types to begin probing for our relevant beverage experience. We glanced at the woman who’d originally told us beverage category expertise was a non-issue, but she was happily multi-tasking on her mobile device.

We shared what little experience we had at the time, but it was clear we were dead in the water (in the hops?). The world’s most interesting man would be represented by some other PR firm.

We were thanked for our presentation, told we’d be hearing from Dos Equis shortly and, sure as the world’s most interesting man doubles as the world’s most creepy one as well, we bumped into a third agency as we skulked out of the prospect’s conference room.

I’ll bet Dos Equis met with seven or eight agencies that day. A few days later, we received the dreaded ‘Dear Agency…’ letter and that was that. In the text, though, the senior marketing leader noted that our lack of beverage experience was problematic.

Of course it was. When prospects say prior category experience isn’t that big a deal, they don’t mean it. And, when they say they want big creative ideas, they don’t mean that either. What they want (with some notable exceptions) is a safe, big-name firm that’s handled scores of similar assignments in their field.

Prospects bring in wild cards such as Peppercomm to satisfy purchasing managers and other senior executives who want to be assured the in-house types are conducting a thorough round of due diligence. But, they’d clearly made up their minds before they even issued the RFP.

I haven’t touched a drop of Dos Equis since that ill-fated meeting. But, I can’t help thinking about it every time I pass the world’s least interesting city. In some ways, Dos Equis and White Plains were made for each other.

Aug 25

The Third Partner

my_cold_feet_by_jotunkid-d37l7urI recently heard of a two-person start-up firm that came undone at the last-minute.

How? It seems one of the two founding partners got cold feet at the 11th hour, and stayed put with his existing employer.

I can relate to the remaining partner’s emotional state of mind. The exact same thing happened to Ed and me in September of 1995.

As RepMan readers know, Ed and I had had our fill of big agency life at J. Walter Thomson, and were champing at the bit to launch our own shop.

What RepMan readers DON’T know about is the existence of a third partner.

This woman also worked for a large agency, managed a $20 million fully integrated, pharmaceutical account and was prepared to bring the anchor account, several of the creative and management types along with her and be our third partner.

She also played a key role in our selection of the name Peppercomm. Yes, my black lab was named Pepper. But, ironically, this lady’s family nickname also happened to be Pepper. The stars seemed fully aligned from a naming standpoint.

And, then, she developed a terminal case of cold feet. It seemed her employer made a serious counter-offer and, since she had small children to worry about, partner number three gave Ed and me a call and bowed out the NIGHT before we were set to announce a formidable new agency with some $20 million in initial client billings. All of a sudden, we had nothing.

I called Ed. After a few minutes discussion, we agreed I’d show up the next morning at his squalid, one bedroom apartment and sort things out. The rest, as they say, is history.

I often wonder what if. What if the third partner HAD brought her business along, had become the third partner and Peppercomm had been a force from day one. And, then I remember that whatever happens happens for the best.

Ed and I went on to build a fairly successful firm that’s about to mark its 20th anniversary. As for the third partner? She dropped out of the agency world entirely, had some more kids and now works in her family business.

Fast forward to the present: I’d counsel the cuckhold agency entrepreneur from paragraph one to stay the course. Stay true to your vision. The first year or two will be wicked tough (as New Englanders like to say), but the rewards will be well worth it.

As for the partner who developed cold feet, I just hope you don’t wake up one day far in the future and think to yourself, “What if?”

Aug 20

Head for the hills…

steve climbing 1  jpgThat’s what RepMan’s done. He’s back in the wilds of New Hampshire climbing up and down every mountain in the state. He’ll be back after Labor Day- assuming he comes down the mountains on two feet and not head first.

He may file a report or two, and we might have a guest blogger, but no promises. Enjoy the last bits of summer, y’all.

Aug 19

Clear your desk off by noon

lionnnnaaaaEdelman’s heavy-handed termination of their North American president, Mark Hass, and their pinning the blame for their recent social media gaffes on his shoulders struck a chord with this blogger.

Give or take a day, it was 19 years ago that my employment with J. Walter Thompson’s now defunct Brouillard Communications was terminated ‘without cause’ as they like to say.

Like Hass, I became the fall guy for the firm’s horrific performance (only Brouillard’s mistakes were financial in nature).

I’d been hired 15 months earlier as the CEO’s hand-picked successor. He told me he was 65, tired and ready to ride off into the sunset. He convinced me he wanted a change agent to come into the fully integrated agency and shake things up.

It didn’t take long for me to find out he’d lied to me. On my first day, for example, I suggested we launch an awareness campaign on Brouillard’s behalf since the firm personified the word stealth. Few industry professionals, much less prospects, had ever heard of it.

“We tried that once. Didn’t work. Won’t do it again,” the CEO sniffed.

Then, I mentioned something called the information superhighway, suggesting Brouillard begin construction of its own website. “That’s nothing more than a fad,” he proclaimed. “Print advertising (his pride and joy) will always be the currency of the realm in marketing.”

Even though we were an integrated marketing firm, the CEO openly despised PR, since he was anal retentive and PR, by its very nature is uncontrollable. He was also disdainful of our PR group and referred to the ghetto in which they were sequestered as a “rat’s nest.”

Last, but not least, he’d drop off biographies of various ‘underperforming’ staff members on my desk, chuckle, and say, “Fire them. They’re your problem now.” Nice guy, no?

Our showdown came when I began espousing the virtues of technology, digital and other then-emerging strategies in client and prospect meetings. I distinctly remember the time he openly scowled at me as I told a group of Deloitte prospects they needed to update their embryonic website.

After learning from others that I kept advocating for next generation marketing, the CEO simply erased my name from client and prospect meeting lists. I became Trotsky to his Stalin.

My secretary would come rushing into my office, panting and tell me “…the old bastard’s just removed you from another meeting!”

I demanded a show-down. I prepared a four-page document with my plan for moving Brouillard into the 20th century. The CEO came prepared with my two-page letter of termination. And, he was accompanied by his CFO henchwoman who, I was told, would help me fill out the paperwork.

I was told to clear off my desk by noon.

As we parted, the CEO unleashed one, last sneer and said, “Don’t worry, Cody. You’re the type who lands on his feet.”

And, I did. I washed up at the front door of Ed Moed’s squalid, one bedroom apartment 10 days later and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, don’t cry for Mark Hass. Something tells me that he’ll do very well in his next gig. Like me, Hass has to realize that victory has many parents while failure is an orphan. And when an agency fails, someone has to take a bullet for it. Hass’ execution differed from mine only in the sense it was covered by Stuart Elliott. And, for that, I feel very bad for Mark. At least, I could lick my wounds in virtual anonymity.

Aug 18

Half Empty?

Friday’s RepMan blog was entitled “Do you watch TV commercials?” I don’t.  Matt Lester, Peppercomm’s creative director, penned today’s guest blog which is, in part, a rebuttal. In the blog, Matt explains why so much advertising misses its mark and why brilliantly executed ads are more important than ever. Over to you Matt…

FullGlassThere’s an old adage that CMO’s know they’re wasting half their advertising dollars – they just don’t know which half. Well, it seems this is less true today. Not only do we know more about that wasted half, we know it seems to have morphed into five eighths. OK, three quarters. Or, is it seven eighths? Hmm… more?

Well, the question is no longer how much is wasted. If you believe Adweek, we know the statistical answer to that for a TiVo user. It’s near zero. I’m a creative director, not a media planner, but it seems to me that it’s in large part a media buying issue. The question is whether your chosen audience wants to see what you’re putting in front of them.

As far as commercials are concerned, that is obviously not a TiVo user. So, assuming a commercial is the best medium for the message, find the vehicle that will deliver that audience. I can tell you that when people ask me what I do, an obsession in NYC, they inevitably regale me with their favorite ads and usually add a few “original” ideas they think I can instantly sell to a client I don’t have nor want to pitch with their understandably amateur ideas. Which, of course usually include their mega adorable child or pet in the starring role, and are followed by an instant iPhone casting session.

My conclusion? It’s not that commercials are dead. It’s the lack of ingenuity on the part of some creatives and their media planners that’s died. We live in a fully integrated world where creatives and media planners need to work together. Ideas need to be brilliantly tailored to your client’s story and in a way that’s relevant to your audience’s needs and desires and appropriate for the venue in which it’s consumed. Where media planners are part of the creative process and not just given something to push onto a media outlet just to fulfill a media buyer’s checklist.

Let’s push for alternative thinking that’s brilliant because it’s relevant to the audience experience and the media outlet. Let’s not create ideas in a creative vacuum but within the real world of our client needs and their consumers wants and desires. Mad Men of yesterday need to embrace the facts of today and partner with new media knowing that just because they asked for a commercial doesn’t mean they need a commercial. If it is the right vehicle, make it informative and interesting enough that people will want to watch it and innovative enough that people will want to engage with it.

The same applies to print. Take the Microsoft, Your Office in the Cloud print ad for Forbes magazine. You ever try to impress an IT professional with your tech knowledge? May as well try to out-pitch Clayton Kershaw. To illustrate the idea of “anytime access”, Deutsch NY designed print ads embedded with wireless hotspots capable of feeding up to five devices from anywhere you were reading the magazine and active for about fifteen days. That’s innovative thinking. That’s a home run.

Aug 15

Do you watch TV commercials?

tvDo you watch TV commercials? I sure don’t. And, according to Adweek, I’m not alone.
Check this out:

- According to a survey of 350,000 TiVo users, a shocking 73 percent skipped EVERY single ad while watching Mad Men live or on DVR. What would Don, Roger and Peggy think of that?

- According to the very same survey, viewers of ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Justified’ also skipped EVERY single TV commercial in the same, record numbers. Holy afterlife, Batman!

All of which begs the question: why are marketers spending mega bucks when three out of four members of their target audience skip the ads completely? That makes advertising spending sound like Madison Avenue’s answer to a drunken sailor on leave. They’ll spend money on anything.

As RepMan readers know, I feel the same way about the money being spent on print advertisements. It, too, is an egregious waste.

I’m at a loss to understanding why marketers continue to pour money down the drain when there are so many better, smarter options (Think: PR, social media, experiential marketing, product placement, etc.).

Don’t get me wrong: I am ALL FOR highly targeted, personalized advertising, and think it’s highly effective.

Matt Lester, our creative director, launched a brilliant, highly-focused campaign that employed outdoor kiosks and TaxiTV spots to reach affluent targets of a high-end spa and fitness center. That’s smart. And, it worked like a charm. The client reported a record number of one-percenters responding to the ads and signing-up for a free evaluation.

But, how does one justify the hundreds of millions of dollars of spent on prime-time advertising such as the ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Walking Dead’ and ‘Justified’ campaigns?

Were I running the PRSA, Council of PR Firms, Arthur W. Page Society and other trade groups representing our industry, I think I’d launch an attack advertising campaign against wasteful ad spending. And I know exactly where I’d place the ads: Adweek and Advertising Age.

Someone needs to send a wake-up call to chief marketing offices and the ad agencies they employ who spend billions of dollars annually and end up reaching only a tiny fraction of their audience.

So, who can suggest the ideal headline for my campaign? I promise not to fast forward my Blackberry when I see your comment.

Aug 14

Edelman to Clients: “Sleaze the Day”

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer Lauren Parker.

sleazyguyRobin Williams passing this week caught all of us off-guard. Oddly enough, I was in line to see a comedy show in New York when I heard the news. Enjoying improv actually seems like the most fitting thing to do while dealing with the fact that we lost one of the world’s greatest funnymen.

While thousands of tweets and tributes swept the net, Lisa Kovitz, an executive vice president from Edelman, took the opportunity to triumphantly “seize the day.” Her blog post, “Carpe Diem” offered advice to brands on how they could “engage in a national conversation” about suicide and depression. In her words, “There’s a very careful line [brands] need to walk so as to not seem exploitive of a terrible situation but at the same time, it is a national teachable moment that shouldn’t be ignored.”

This is so off-base, she’s not even in Yankee Stadium.

There is just no place for a brand to capitalize from this scenario or any other like it in the future. Depression is an incredibly real epidemic that warrants national attention, thoughtful discourse and dedicated resources – not pandering commentary from a corporate executive looking for publicity.

Sadly, it sometimes does take a high-profile tragedy to spark discussion about challenging and uncomfortable topics like this. Though we’ve had several recent celebrity-driven instances that have brought the issue to the forefront, the thought of a brand latching on to such a news cycle for promotional purposes is sleazy, despicable, and wrong.

It’s bad enough that, in the digital age of 24/7 news, we have to deal with news outlets broadcasting aerial shots of the Williams’ home while simultaneously reading excerpts from his wife asking for privacy during this difficult time. Kovitz’ advice is not only bad news for the clients she advises, it’s damaging to Edelman’s reputation and the PR industry as a whole.

The fact that it’s even possible for me to report on this dose of bad PR advice is both baffling and saddening. Fortunately, I think there’s more humanity and compassion among those PR professionals I know. I hope Kovitz’ perspective is an anomaly.

 

Aug 13

Listening Saves Lives

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer Catharine Cody.

i_heard_youIn today’s digital age where our actions are dissected 24/7 and no deed goes unnoticed, it’s disheartening when brands fail to recognize their customer’s feelings and experiences- especially when they’re negative.

This weekend, I went to Dorney Park in Pennsylvania with my coworker, Nicole.  While waiting on line for a wooden rollercoaster, the Thunderhawk, we saw the staff attendants give the ‘thumbs up’ to allow the ride to proceed.  There was one problem though, one cart’s safety bars didn’t go down.
Completely unaware of the impending danger, we screamed at the attendants: “STOP! THE BAR HASN’T GONE DOWN! DON’T GO!”  The 15-year-old blonde flipped her long locks over her shoulder, glanced over at me and responded, “Yeah, we heard you…”

Finally, the safety bars clicked into place, and the ride proceeded.  Nicole and I looked at each other, shook our heads, and walked off the ride.

As PR professionals, we decided on a two-pronged approach to ensure this never happens again: tweet at the amusement park’s PR department, and go to guest services to inform them of their inept staff.

After tweeting (text at left) cat111we walked over to the guest services department.  The girl who manned that  booth, also around 15 years old, seemed shocked that this happened, and invited us to fill out a guest comment card to ensure management was alerted.

We tried to fill out the comment card online, but were kicked off the site many times before finally giving up.  Although we tweeted on the weekend, we didn’t receive a response from the account, and after a few more re-tweets and modified tweets, they’ve yet to address the problem.  And, in case you’re wondering, the Twitter account, @DorneyParkPR, is pretty active- they tweet a few times a day.

Were I in charge of the PR for Dorney Park, I would fire the ride attendants in question, do a thorough ride and attendant assessment of ALL rides at ALL locations to ensure this will never happen again and apologize profusely for the potential harm caused.

So, brands beware: Listen to what your customers have to say, because Nicole and I are back in the office now and unable to scream “help” on others’ behalf.

Aug 12

Life is like a box of trite and world-weary expressions

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer Dandy Stevenson.

life_is_like_a_baaaox_of_lemonsIt probably all started with Plato, damn him, when he wrote “the beginning is the most important part of the work.” That spawned “a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” which begat “success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration” and before you knew it we’re being told to “make lemonade out of lemons.”

There are thousands of these vapid and stale quotes and each time one is used, it becomes more pedestrian. What really concerns me, though, is when someone uses one and acts as if it’s the first time anyone has ever done so and receives credit for doing so in a major business publication: “75 Inspiring Motivational Quotes on Leadership.”

And in this case, maybe the author googled “famous quotes” and then did a big copy and paste, because I hate to think he really believes number seven: “Only one man in a thousand is a leader of men- the other 999 follow women.” (Groucho Marx.) OUCH! This is a motivational leadership quote? No, THIS is a discrimination lawsuit.

And, finding contradictions is like shooting fish in a barrel. Consider these “motivational quotes on leadership”:
-    Reagan said, “Surround yourself with great people; delegate authority; get out of the way.” Got it: leaders should just let those under them have at it.
-    But Steve Jobs said, “My job is to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better.”  Oh, OK; push them and don’t leave them on their own.
-    And Roslyn Carter said “A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” So they really need to be led?
-    Uh-oh. Patton said “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”  So underlings should be ordered to do what you want.

Pretty messy, right?  The point is, anything you want to prove, direct or inspire can be handled with one nifty quote.

But no article about meaningless quotes is complete without that treacle infested line from Forrest Gump: “Life is like a box of chocolates…” Really Forrest? It’s also like a radial tire: you have to go thru rough patches to see all the strong layers. It’s like a Grand Marnier soufflé: if you slide a spoon through it gently, you can savor it but if you stab it with a knife, it dies. I could go on and on.

I believe life is like anything you want it to be, and have pretty much been able to fill in the “life is like a ____” in short order. I love a challenge, so send me your idea of what life is like (a birthday…car…frozen rib roast) whatever… and I’ll reply with your own personalized quote: Dstevenson@peppercomm.com .

Which reminds me, life is like an email address…