Oct 06

Image Repair 101

Class, today we’re going to examine how and why our country’s image and reputation is so poor in most countries around the world. We’ll also be discussing how we might begin to turn our negative image around, perhaps by drawing on case study examples from the private sector. As you know, these are key discussion points in our Image Repair 101 syllabus.

Before we examine the root causes of our country’s poor image, however, let’s discuss yesterday’s Senate vote to begin regulating the detention, interrogation and treatment of prisoners held by the American military.

Despite vehement White House opposition, 90 of 99 senators passed the new measure, which is great. It’s a smart, first step in what will surely be a very long road toward restoring our country’s image abroad. With these new guidelines in place, we should see much less abuse of the type inflicted by Lynndie England  and her cohorts at Abu Ghraib prison, and much more of the caring and compassion our country had hitherto been known for.

And, class, looking at the private sector for a second, how long do you think the average CEO would hold onto her/his job by totally ignoring the organization’s image in key markets? Does anyone believe that alienating potential partners and customers is a smart way to transact business or to create positive goodwill for your institution? Hmmm, no hands are being raised. 

Now that the Senate has brought clarity to how our military should be treating prisoners of war, let’s hope that the House of Representatives follows suit so we can put this measure into effect. Then, maybe, we can move on and explore other ways to improve our country’s image abroad. One smart step might be to appoint a senior public relations executive to a post specifically designed to accomplish that goal. White House crony Karen Hughes was recently appointed to do something akin to that task, but seems to be stumbling badly in her efforts to connect with the Arab world.  That’s probably because she doesn’t possess decades of relevant experience undertaking similar image repair assignments for corporate clients.

So, does anyone have additional thoughts? What else can we do? Ah, there’s the bell. Tomorrow, let’s discuss the image and reputation implications of a CEO’s appointing senior-ranking executives with no relevant experience to highly visible posts.

Oct 03

A Parable of Corporate Loyalty

Long ago and far away, we once represented a very big corporate client. As a small, start-up agency, we were overjoyed to have bested those big, bad competitors from the galactic agencies. This win, we reasoned, would really put us on the map. And indeed it did. And indeed, life was good. But not for long.

For at the very outset of the relationship, we were warned by the client CMO that, like most marriages, client-agency relationships only lasted five years. We chuckled to ourselves and proceeded to do great work, year-after-year. But, with the passing of each year came the same "five-year" warning. And with the warning came such comments as, "it just doesn’t seem as fresh and new as it once did." And "it seems like we’re starting to take each other for granted." Duly concerned, we would brainstorm and come up with ever-more creative program ideas, winning big industry awards in the process and, more importantly, dramatically improving our results from the previous year.

Then, one day, a call came in to tell us this client was "spinning off" from its parent and would be putting the account up for review. We were told not to worry, but we were also told that "we’d had a good five-year run."

And sure enough, as our client contact introduced us to his CEO at the final presentation, he said, "Well, it’s been five good years and nothing can last forever." And, sure enough, we lost the account (only to win it back a few months later when the client realized he’d been "…seduced by a flashier, sexier model that couldn’t match our performance levels.").

All of this came to mind the other day as I was reading what had happened to poor Arnold Communications, which was just summarily dumped by Vollkswagen after doing years of award-winning work. Why were they dumped? Because the new CMO, who had come over from Mini Cooper, wanted the same agency she’d worked with in the past, to represent her at VW. So, is that reverse loyalty? Loyalty in a bizarro world? I’m not sure. But what I am sure of is today. And only today. Because the era of decades-long client-agency relationships is long dead. And with it, the concept of corporate loyalty.

Sep 30

Cuts Like a Knife

Am I the only one who’s noticed the return of regular, stainless steel knives to airplanes and airport lounges? At first, it didn’t register, then I began thinking, "What’s up? Have we officially won the war on terrorism? Are we no longer worried about terrorists using these potential weapons in nefarious ways?" And we can now tote scissors, as long as they are of the plastic handled sewing variety.

So, who is responsible for this particular stroke of genius? TSA? The individual airlines? Homeland Security? Each of these entities already has enough image and reputation problems to fill one of those new Airbus 380s many times over.

So, can someone please wake-up and bring back those plastic knives and reinstate the no-scissors ban. Scissors are scissors and plastic knives may not cut as well but, hey, that means they may not cut as well. Get it?

Sep 29

Good Morning Advertising Industry. This is Your 7am Wake-up Call.

I’m in the midst of reading former BBDO Chairman Phil Dusenberry’s entertaining new book entitled, "Then We Set His Hair on Fire." The book chronicles Dusenberry’s various exploits and uber Dusenberry successful campaigns for the likes of Campbell’s Soup, Pepsi-Cola and the 1984 presidential campaign to re-elect Ronald Reagan.

As might be expected, the book has been receiving favorable reviews in the ad trades as well as the Wall Street Journal. While it is a fun read, Dusenberry’s book reflects the still-prevalent mindset among advertising types that their craft is the be-all and end-all when it comes to reaching consumers and "moving the needle" as Phil describes it.

While that may have been the case when Dusenberry was in his heyday, it simply is no longer true. The rise of technology such as Tivo, the internet, video games, and 500-plus cable channels has totally disintermediated advertising’s once unchallenged supremacy.

Consumers are completely overloaded with information and choices. Gone are the days when a 30-second spot would reach a vast majority of a prospective customer audience and induce them to buy a product or service. Instead, we’ve seen the rise of word of mouth marketing, street-level events, and public relations as the best, most effective ways to reach consumers in a one-to-one, personalized way.

And, yet, Stuart Elliot still writes about massive advertising expenditures in his New York Times column. And, we still see mindless and totally indistinguishable car commercials on TV featuring soundtracks from Rock’s dinosaurs (I defy anyone to watch five or six of these commercials in a row and then correctly name each car). As a matter of fact, except for the Geico and Mastercard commercials, I’d be hard-pressed to name any TV spots that actually break through and register in my personally overloaded mind.

So, all I’m asking is that advertisers wake up and start spending their money in smarter, more direct ways. Dusenberry and his ad agency buddies had a great run. But, the times they are a changing.

Sep 21

On Being Boorish in Business

Most of us in the business world attempt to sell our products or services to others. In doing so, we try to present the best possible plan, ideas, etc. In exchange, we hope to be hired, or not. In either case, though, we expect the courtesy of a response or explanation if our services aren’t desired.

I’ve noticed a truly alarming rise in plain, old bad manners when it comes to this aspect of business decorum. For example, we’ll spend countless hours researching a proposal, developing creative ideas, pulling together a massive document and shipping it off to the prospective client in advance of an agreed-upon deadline. Then we’ll wait. And wait.

In one recent instance, I received an e-mail saying nothing more than "Thanks for your ideas. We’re going with another firm." In another impersonal e-mail, the CMO of a large professional services firm wrote a cursory note informing us we hadn’t advanced to the next round but offered himself for follow-up questions. I e-mailed asking for a date and time to speak. No response. Still others don’t even bother returning phone calls. My favorite example of business boorishness occurred a year or so ago when we were in the midst of a three agency pitch and were anxiously awaiting a decision. Leafing through one of our industry rags, I noticed an article announcing that a competitor had been selected. Needless to say, I wrote that particular erstwhile prospect a real "come to Jesus" note.

So, what’s become of common decency in business? Don’t these people realize that their poor behavior reflects badly on their firm and its reputation? In the final analysis, we’re all only one or two degrees of separation away from being customers or consumers of one another’s products and services. I like to think that if the roles were reversed, I’d treat fellow businesspeople with a little more respect.

Sep 19

Why Mission Statements are Bogus

I’m in Napa Valley at a PR industry conference and just attended an interesting presentation by Jason Jennings, author of "Think Big. Act Small."

Jenning’s book examines the traits of those companies that have produced 10 percent increases in growth and profits every year for the past decade. Incredibly, fewer than 20 companies can lay claim to such an accomplishment.

Those that can share similar traits (i.e. casusal dress codes, a CEO who gets his/her hands dirty by staying close to the customer and pursuing a long-term cause as opposed to short-term quarterly earnings). They also share one other trait: none of the great companies had a mission statement.

That finding really hit home with me. I’ve always thought mission statements were totally bogus and were nothing more than warm and fuzzy statements with lots of feel good words. Just because an organization says it does something doesn’t make it so. Rather, it’s the actions of an organization that define its success, its points of differentiation and ultimately, its brand and reputation.

The best mission statement in the world will fall flat if its products, people and performance are mediocre or less. I once worked for a $500 million integrated marketing agency whose mission statement was "we build brands over time and sales over night." I remember the snickering when the CEO read it out loud to us and had it posted along all the hallways. It was purely aspirational, had no basis in reality and, in point of fact, actually alienated clients, prospects and employees. The company went out of business about five years ago.

Not that we’re remotely close to the organizations profiled in Jennings’ book, but you won’t see any mission statements in our hallways. That’s because we believe actions speak louder than words. Especially the words of mission statements.

Sep 15

The Power of Third Party Endorsement

I was recently scanning BusinessWeek when I saw an advertisement for Grant Thornton, a top accounting firm.  The ad depicts Kim Nunley, Grant Thornton’s office managing partner, biting down on a single red rose.  The caption reads, "when you have a passion for accounting…it shows!"Grant_thorton_1

Well, with apologies to Ms. Nunley who I’m sure is quite passionate, an advertisement by a firm telling me their people are passionate carries about as much credibility as some guy at a bar boasting about his high school football heroics.

And that’s the problem with advertising.  It suffers from a lack of credibility because it’s all about a company paying money to tell you how good it is.  Or how passionate its people are.

To their credit, Grant Thornton did include a JD Power award citation in the ad, listing them as having the "highest audit firm performance."  That’s a step in the right direction.  If Grant Thornton (and other advertisers) want me to believe their firm has passionate people, don’t run photos of them cavorting with roses. Instead, print quotes of clients who have worked with Ms. Nunley and her peers and will provide third-party credibility to back up the claim.  And, by the way, supplement the advertising campaign with a public relations initiative that by its very nature imparts instant credibility. In fact, surveys show that, next to word-of-mouth, public relations is the single most effective means of introducing a product or service.

So, memo to Grant Thornton: please stop telling me how passionate your people are and, instead, get your clients to convey the same message.  It will have an exponentially greater impact.

Sep 13

The Decline and Fall of Accountability

For the last few months, Guidant Corporation has been justifiably pilloried in the media for continuing to market a model of heart defibrillator three years after discovering a potential defect in it.  Only in May, when the New York Times broke the story of a 21-year-old Minnesota man whose Guidant Ventak Prism 2 short-circuited and caused a fatal cardiac arrest, did the company Guidant reluctantly issue a recall of the devices.  Subsequently, another death and at least 45 non-fatal failures of the devices have been reported.

Now comes the news that the Food and Drug Administration knew about the defective defibrillators months before issuing its recall notice.  At least one person has died and thousands more are at risk on account of an unrepentant company, aided and abetted by an irrational federal agency whose ostensible mission is to protect the public.  While the FDA received a report from Guidant disclosing the potential flaw in February, the agency did not make it public because such information is treated as confidential.  The FDA’s spokesman told the Times that it would consume too many resources for the agency to review which filings should be released and which should not.

If there is a monument to irresponsibility that rivals FEMA, this is it. Twenty four thousand of these devices, any one of which could short circuit at any moment, have belatedly been recalled.  This is inexcusable to the point of criminality.  We cannot trust the government to do the right thing when it comes to protecting our basic health, welfare and security in the face of a natural disaster, and now we discover that it withholds vital information because it’s too busy.

"That’s our policy" has been policy for too long.  It’s no excuse when people die.  Have government bureaucrats become so insulated and callous that accountability is a foreign concept to them?

Sep 12

Tulane Flunks its Image Test

A Saturday NY Times article reported that Tulane University is refusing to refund Fall semester tuition payments saying they need the money to pay faculty salaries and help with hurricane recovery.

As a result, the parents of Tulane students may be stuck paying two tuitions: one for the out-of-the-state school their kid is now attending and one for good ol’ T.U.  I’ve seen some bad executive decisions over the years, but Tulane’s move is right up there.  I cannot believe the university doesn’t have enough money set aside to cover a short-term financial crisis.  If they don’t, then there’s some financial chicanery going on.  If they do, then they should think about the reputation and goodwill damage they’re wreaking by making parents fork over $20k for education their kids won’t be receiving.  I think this calls for a failing grade in RepMan’s Image 101 class and at least a week’s worth of detention for the university president.

Sep 08

Is Hollywood Totally Brain Dead?

As I was working out this morning, my attention was diverted to a commercial on NBC promoting a new Tim Burton movie called "Corpse Bride." The trailer included scenes of an animated female corpse dancing around in a graveyard. The promotion ended with a note that the movie would be premiering in selected theatres nationwide on September 26th. Right after the commerical ended, Katie Couric returned on-screen to report live on the loss of life in Biloxi. Below her, across the bottom the screen, a note appeared indicating that FEMA officials had ordered 25,000 body bags for New Orleans alone. Photo_3

So, I ask: what in god’s name must the Hollywood marketers be thinking of? Could there be a worse time to be promoting a movie with corpses than right now? Have we become so immune to this sort of egregious, over-the-top marketing that it no longer matters? Paraphrasing one of the more memorable quotes from the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, "Mr. Burton, have you no shame? Have you no compassion?