Sep 17

When to say when

pail110460Eli Manning of the New York Giants and David Wright of the New York Mets have many things in common:
- Each is captain of his respective team.
- Each enjoyed amazing success earlier in his career.
- Each is an All-American boy next door, feel good kind of guy.
- Each has fallen on hard times.
- Each is a spokesperson for multiple sponsors.
And, the last point is the one in question.

How long should a brand stick with a spokesperson who is no longer synonymous with excellence? When does a consumer ignore a product hawked by a has-been? In other words, when should a marketer say when?

David Wright is a mere shadow of his former self. And, Eli Manning is more inconsistent than President Obama’s foreign policy. Yet, both still seem to have more endorsements than the average prescription medication has side effects.

In Eli’s case, one sees him plugging Toyota SUV’s (and other marketers’ wares) every nanosecond on the nanosecond.

All of which would make me think long and hard about Eli’s future as a spokesperson were I calling the shots at Toyota. When does a nice guy who’s fallen on hard times need to be jettisoned? When does a player’s mediocrity transfer over to that of the product or service he endorses?

I admire loyalty as much as the next person, but I suggest any brand associated with Messrs. Wright and Manning place them on waivers.

All’s fair in love, war and marketing. And I, for one, think it’s high time advertisers cut the cord with these particular low-level performers.
What do you think?

Sep 15

Commercials That Connect with Millennials

The following guest blog comes from one of my two favorite Millennials in the world, Catharine Cody. Comments welcomed from Millennials and non-Millennials alike.

While relaxing on my couch this past weekend watching “Parks and Recreation”, a commercial for Miller light came on the tube. I usually just fast-forward my way through commercials but, for some reason, I let this one play. It immediately grabbed me and held me tight. And, I can honestly say, the Miller Light spot is now one of my favorite commercials – along with the ones from Mentos and State Farm.

The ad resonated with me because it made clear the brand understood Millennials in general, and me in particular.

It informed viewers that Miller was the very first beer company to offer light beer options. (Commercial from 1978 with George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin below.) Light beer, in turn, led to thinner men, which led to more relationships which, eventually, led to you and me (assuming you’re a Millennial like me).

The Miller commercial not only tugs at the heartstrings by reminding youngish beer-drinking consumers about their parents’ lives, it also speaks directly to us.  And, that’s what makes it so appealing. In fact, at the end of the spot, when a voiceover says, “…which led to you,” the actors look directly into the camera and, essentially, talk to us (and not at us).  And, trust me, Millennials are tired of being spoken at by marketers.

So, let’s lift a glass to Miller Light for truly understanding their customers’ hearts and minds. As a Millennial, I can tell you, we love retro commercials almost as much as we love a cool glass of beer.

Sep 15

Man up!

MMI was very pleased to read about the extensive male mentorship program Esquire magazine has just created in partnership with three agencies (link). Its mantra? To encourage more adult men to mentor boys and young men.

This may show a little gender bias on my part, but it’s nice to finally read a positive piece in the press of, by and for men.

I’m a big believer in mentorship (with no bias towards race, creed, culture or gender, btw). It really does make a difference in life. I, for example, would never have achieved whatever success I have without the mentorship of three gentlemen:

- Don Levin, my very first boss at Hill and Knowlton.

- Howard Geltzer, who really schooled me on media relations strategies (and the cold, hard realities of running one’s own firm)

- Mitch Kozikowski, who forced me to open my mind and accept a new force sweeping the country at the time known as the WorldWideWeb.

I, in turn, have mentored dozens of students over the years.

My proteges have come mainly from Northeastern University, my alma mater, and the College of Charleston, a great school I’ve helped advise over the years.

As is the case everywhere, some proteges were outstanding, some merely went through the motions and others qualified as just plain bogus.

Three young people in particular, though, really stood out:

- Chris Piedmont of the CofC, who is now a full-time employee at Peppercomm.

- Krystal Grube of N.U., who is chasing her dream at a Boston-based sports marketing firm.

- Nina Rose, another CofC grad, who is head of PR at a Charleston-based non-profit.

I cannot tell how proud I am of these three mentees. I also cannot tell you how satisfying it is to mentor a young, developing professional.

What surprises me most about mentorship, though, is the dearth of mentors among my peer group (hence the need for the Esquire program).

One exception to that rule is Peppercomm’s president, Ted Birkhahn. Ted’s been mentoring disadvantaged high schools kids from around the country through a program known as Youth About Business (

YAB connects successful business executives like Ted with 15 and 16-year-old over achievers. Sometimes the partnership is merely a mentorship. Other times, groups of YAB students are placed in week-long boot camps in which they learn to create, and present, a sophisticated business plan for a fictitious merger-and-acquisition. That’s pretty heady stuff for an adolescent.

So, here’s a shoutout to those executives who DO mentor as well as to Esquire for its novel program.

And, here’s a call to action to any business executive reading this blog. If you really want to make a difference in this world, forget about the bottom-line for just one minute and think about helping a young high school or college kid make his or her way through this crazy world of ours. If you do get involved, you’ll find it to be one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do.

Sep 11


If you have a chance, read Rance Crain’s stirring tribute to the late Mike Hughes, the former chairman of The Martin Agency.


In case you’re unfamiliar with the Richmond-based firm’s work, The Martin Agency represents many familiar brands, and has been GEICO’s AOR for years.

In his column, Crain probes Joe Alexander, the agency’s chief creative officer, to find out how the Martin types keep the GEICO campaign so funny and original.

‘The first secret to any good work is a fantastic, courageous client that says approved!’ explained Alexander. To which I respond, amen!

We’ve been blessed to have many clients who’ve allowed us to do our thing.

One current client sees us as an extension of the senior management team.

Another client credits us with helping him elevate his stature within the senior management structure of his organization. And a third entrusts us with full creative license to create demand for his chain of upscale fitness centers. These are the relationships agencies crave.

One of my favorite clients of the past consistently challenged us to bring her ideas that would get us fired. By that she meant she wanted us to keep pushing the envelope with new, and potentially risky, ideas. I love that type of client.

Unfortunately, there’s also a dark side to the client who says ‘approved’.

Some are too timid to try anything new. Others are biding their time until they can cash-in their stock options. One client actually told us to cease and desist from sending her new ideas since she saw Peppercomm ‘strictly as an extra set of arms and legs.’ Needless to say, one does not do one’s best work when one is seen as an appendage of any type. And, employees hate working on a purely tactical piece of business.

I love the GEICO work (and, in particular, the current Pinocchio commercial). I’m also happy to see such a flourishing relationship like the one that exists between GEICO and The Martin Agency. Having been in this game a long time, I know the ‘approved mentality’ is one to be cherished. As for the late Mr. Hughes, it seems he left behind quite a legacy. RIP.

Sep 09

Listening is the new black

Peppercomm_Fashion_12x18[2]As Repman readers know, I’m not wild about most advertising, especially the generic kind.
I also do my best not to trumpet Peppercomm’s successes in my blog.

But, I’m making an exception with today’s column. That’s because Matt Lester, and his creative team, have captured the essence of our 19-year-old business in a smart, strategic new print advertising campaign I feel compelled to share.

Here are some reasons why I like ‘Listening is the new black’:
-    It’s completely different than what the majority of our competitors would say or do.
-    It reinforces our core competency of listening to clients and their various audiences first, last and always.
-    It’s clever and memorable. (I think.)

FYI, we’re placing this particular ad in the fashion section of one of our industry’s leading trade publications (so, we’re assured we’re reaching the right audience in the right way). That, to me, is smart advertising.

But, I’m curious to know what you, the reader, think of the print ad. Does it break through in your mind? Does it convey what differentiates us from competitors? And, if you were a prospective client, would it make you pick up the phone and call us?

I’m all ears because, just like my late dog Pepper, I’m a pretty good listener.

Sep 08

The death that keeps on giving

indejoanxLet me begin by saying I was a fan of Joan Rivers. Let me add that I’m fully aware we live in a celebrity-obsessed media environment. Let me also tack on my knowledge that Ms. Rivers was a role model for women.

But, c’mon people. The media circus that began when the late comedian was first placed on life support continued right into this morning’s major newscasts.

I was watching CBS This Morning, and I can tell you the funeral coverage received more air time than:

- The ongoing ISIS debacle (and I, for one, wouldn’t want to do anything to upset those nut jobs)
- Obama’s latest problems with Congress
- The rapidly-spreading Ebola crisis
-  And, even the new Royal embryo.

I know a bit about comedy, and I honestly don’t believe Ms. Rivers will be remembered as one of the all-time greats. Those spots are reserved for such true pioneers as Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Bill Cosby.

I believe our obsession with celebrities also reveals one of America’s biggest weaknesses: We have no clue what’s going on in the rest of the world.

ISIS beheadings of U.S. journalists aside, the average American has no interest in overseas events (i.e. the Ebola plague in Africa, Europe’s continuing economic woes, Putin’s hijinks in Ukraine, etc.).

Our myopia has already caught up to us as far more nimble global economies steal market share from American companies here, and abroad.

And, alas, I don’t see any quick fix either. Sure, our best colleges and universities are becoming more and more international, but will that be enough to offset our national self-absorption with Hollywood and Vine? I doubt it.

And, now, wait, Repman is receiving a breaking news report: Tonight’s NFL Monday Night Football Game will be postponed for a special retrospective ON all of the previous retrospectives on Joan Rivers. Be sure to tune into ESPN at 7:10pm!

Joan’s demise is indeed the death that keeps on giving (a line I believe Ms. Rivers would appreciate).

Sep 04

Comedy’s considerable clout

AOUNnnI see proof each and every new day that more and more organizations are using the power of comedy to engage and connect with their audiences in meaningful ways.

Two recent cases in point:

- A new campaign from Holiday Inn Express features comedian Jim Gaffigan and includes digital ads, radio spots and videos (insert link). A hotel chain executive says they chose comedy (and digital) as their strategies because, “The typical Holiday Inn Express customer is a frequent business traveler between the ages of 25 and 44 who is smart, witty and independent, likes to keep moving, and pays for what he needs and nothing for what he doesn’t.” Sounds a little like my business partner, Ed.

Holiday Inn’s spots all contain funny Gaffiganism’s highlighting the chain’s free breakfast offering.

And, check this out, Holiday Inn Express is also sponsoring this month’s Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival. How smart is that?

Holiday Inn first listened to their customers’ wants and needs and determined what channel on which they preferred to communicate. Next they identified target customers as witty and smart so they partnered with a recognizably smart, witty comedian to launch a highly-focused campaign. So simple. Yet, so smart.

- Now, check out this video from my alma mater, Northeastern University. You’ll see University president, Joseph Aoun, actually checking into the freshman dormitory, meeting his stunned roommate, playing foosball with the other frosh and bantering with them about anything and everything under the sun.

I know Joseph; in fact Northeastern is a Peppercomm client. He’s extremely serious about the University, its performance and the student experience. But, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. And, that’s a critical ingredient when using comedy to communicate.

Joseph also knows that comedy and video resonate beautifully with incoming freshmen. So, unlike virtually any other college or university present you can name, Aoun is engaging and connecting with current and future students (and their parents) in a smart, funny and memorable manner (and on the right channel).

Ad agencies and digital shops GET the critical role that comedy can play in connecting with audiences. Alas, the vast majority of my senior-level peers in PR do not (because most believe they’re either solving world hunger, finding a cure for cancer, or both).

That’s ok with me, though, because we continue to win assignments from other serious-minded clients who think like Holiday Inn and Northeastern, and ask us to help them leverage comedy’s considerable clout to connect.

Sep 03

What happens when the trophies stop coming?

poster,375x360,ffffffI don’t know about your school, but my alma mater is unafraid to discuss failure.

In fact, Northeastern University’s current alumni issue’s cover story is titled, ‘Dare to fail: Why success requires taking that leap.’

The cover story abounds with one harrowing anecdote after another…of failure. Like me, the powers that be at NU (that would be President Joseph Aoun, @presidentaoun) believe many students can only learn from failure. As a result, @northeastern encourages risk in a major way.

That’s tough love in light of reporter John Ombelets question, “What happens when the most talented members of a whole generation are unable to manage failure or manage risk as learning opportunities?” In other words, what happens if the trophy kids can’t cope with their first setback?

Happily, NU’s experiential learning program (known as co-op) prepares students to fail. In fact, three or four different co-op students share their failure stories in the cover feature. Each learned from his or her mistakes and either switched majors or doubled down on their efforts.

Learning from failure is key because, according to a Northeastern-sponsored survey of senior executives across the US, one-third feel most recent college grads LACK vital workplace skills, including adaptability and the ability to take a career punch. That’s what happens when one’s never failed in the past.

My co-ops enabled me to take a career punch or two. In fact, my gigs at the NY Times, WGCH Radio and CBS Radio, respectively, showed me a different side of failure. I actually excelled at my chosen major, journalism, but hated the culture of the newsroom. So, while I received full-time job offers, I turned them down, knowing I wouldn’t be happy.

Instead, I turned to my co-op advisor who suggested something called public relations instead.

And, check this out: Some NU professors actually create curricula for their doctoral students that requires them to take on at least one research project that carries a high probability of failure.  “Failure is inevitable,” says psychology professor Adam Reeves, one of NU’s ‘cruel to be kind’ faculty. “Without experiencing it in the relatively protected environment of the university, students who have only succeeded in their Ph.D. years will not be prepared for failure when it happens in real-world research positions.” Amen, professor. Amen.

I’m so glad I found out about failure during my Northeastern years. While they didn’t prevent me from failing several times throughout my subsequent career, my NU experiences did harden me for the falls and enabled me to dare to fail again and again in order to succeed.

Trophy kids need to learn that same painful lesson. And soon.

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.