Jan 04

“Success has a thousand fathers while failure is an orphan.”

While it’s a day late and a dollar short, I’m pleased to share this infographic with you.

Created in partnership with BrandFoundations, our longtime strategic marketing partner, the list below analyzed the best and worst managed societal crises of the past year

Note: We define a societal crisis as anything ranging from a mass school shooting and the Southern border chaos to trade wars and environmental rollouts. We’ve also included #MeToo crises and self-inflicted wounds. Traditional crises such as product recalls, financial malfeasance and price fixing were not included in the analysis.

As you will see from the infographic, we chose to grade the organizations based on three criteria:

– Speed: How quickly did the organization take a stand on a societal crisis that either aligned with, or was the polar opposite of, their values?

– Strength: Was the stand taken by the organization unequivocal, or could it be interpreted in different ways by different stakeholders?

– Purpose: Did the statement double down on the organization’s stated higher purpose?

Hope you enjoy the graphic. Would love to hear your POV on our POV.


Feb 14

Commoditizing a commodity with comedy


Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it's a poor substitute for strategy. Take the insurance industry, please!

Geico broke out from the pack long ago with a hip and irreverent campaign that alternated between the gecko and the sad sack caveman. Aflac followed suit with its duck and Progressive wasn't far behind with Flo. Next came State Farm and Allstate.

All of a sudden, a commoditized industry was commoditizing itself again with lookalike, soundalike commercials.

To test my theory that, when everyone says the same thing no one says anything, I asked 10 friends to name their favorite insurance commercial. Nine selected 'mayhem', but only four could correctly identify the advertiser: Allstate.

The pack mentality works well in the wild, when strength in numbers is needed for defense. But, it fails miserably in marketing where a distinct positioning and point of view is critical.

I experienced the pack mentality first-hand, back in the dotcom days. We were being paid $35,000 per month to launch an interactive web designer. When we presented a suggested positioning, the CEO hit the roof. "I don't want to be different. I want the market to see us, and price us, just like Sapient and Scient (two white hot IPOs of the day)." We disagreed, and we're soon shown the door.

Needless to say, the 'me too' dotcom failed. And, while these major insurance companies won't fail, their campaigns will. And the CMOs will soon be looking for new jobs.

Talk about mayhem!

Nov 29

A holding company by any other name would still be a holding company

I chuckle whenever I see, hear or read the latest double talk from one of the advertising world's Puppet2.s600x600 holding companies.

On the one hand, they try to convince anyone who will listen that size trumps all. They'll pontificate at length about the importance of breadth and depth, and the need for 35 offices around the world to service global clients.

But, because their traditional advertising models are relics of the past, they'll also try to convince you they're as lean and mean as any independent midsized firm in the world. Ha! Baloney.

Monday's advertising column in the New York Times is a classic example of holding company double talk. BBDO, one of the true monolithic, mega agencies of the advertising world, just created a small, 20 employee consulting unit called Batten & Company.

It's named after George Batten, one of the 'B's' in BBDO. BBDO said it chose Batten, as opposed to Barton, Durstine or Osborne (the other 'B,' 'D' and 'O' in BBDO, respectively) because Mr. Batten was more entrepreneurial. Double ha! As if a holding company (or a unit thereof) could ever be truly entrepreneurial.

The dirty little secret about holding companies (and their units) is that they serve two clients: the holding company and the client (and woebetide the holding company employee who doesn't recognize the holding company is the more important of those two clients).

Clients are billed twice. There's one invoice for the work provided and, as I can personally attest, a management fee that's added for the holding company in London, Paris or wherever.

When one serves in a senior management position at a holding company, one is consumed with meeting the financial and administrative needs of the holding company (and, oh yeah, also providing occasional counsel to the largest client).

Holding companies try to lure our people away by using lines such as this: “Hey kid. You've done well. But, now it's time to play in the big leagues.” Triple ha!

What they don't tell you about the big leagues is how totally devoid they are of true George Batten-like entrepreneurship. A BBDO may carve out a small, nimble, client-focused consultancy. But, trust me, that little consultancy has to play by the same rules, and tack-on the same overhead fees, as any other member of the holding company. It would be akin to the old Soviet Union spinning off a small republic, saying it had the same freedoms as any democracy, but still had to toe the line with the Kremlin.

I wish Batten & Company well. But, I also wish the holding companies would stop trying to be all things to all people. They should embrace their worldwide footprints and be done with it.

I'd like to think George Batten would agree that, suggesting a holding company's new unit will be as entrepreneurial as, say a certain blogger's PR firm, qualifies as false and misleading advertising.

Sep 13

Hyperbole, superlatives and all that marcom jazz

Lost in the various trade journal hysterics about the rise of public relations and our unique  Grammar_crackers_large ability to play lead dog in the social media explosion is the simultaneous decline in the quality of the average PR practitioner's writing.

Poor writing has been the subject of numerous articles and surveys over the years. It's been blamed on everything from an underfunded primary and secondary education system to the inherent informality in blogging, texting and Tweeting. I'd agree that both have contributed to the mediocre copy many senior corporate and agency executives review nowadays. I'd also add that the word 'copy' itself is part of the problem.

As the traditional lines separating advertising, direct mail, sales promotion, digital and PR have blurred, I've noticed an alarming increase in the use of superlatives and hyperbole once reserved solely for the copy in a full-page print ad.

PR and journalism graduates from the very best schools have somehow forgotten that our press materials need to be written in an objective, factual manner. Instead, I routinely hear industry leaders lament the plethora of poor prose from juniors. They shake their heads and speak of receiving press releases and opinion pieces with endless, run-on sentences that include adjectives ranging from “thrilling” and “remarkable” to “game-changing” and “awe-inspiring.”

It's fine for the advertising and marcom types to use such hype. But, as I wrote in a recent blog ('A Wigotsky in every agency'), the generation of PR editors that included Victor Wigotsky of H&K and John Artopeous of Burson, wouldn't have permitted such an atrocity.

Today's industry leaders are not only allowing poor writing to take hold, we're enabling it. Heck, PR Week actually asked two professionals to debate whether good writing EVEN MATTERED anymore. If our leading trades aren't endorsing the need for a “back to basics, just the facts, ma'am” approach to PR writing, what hope do we have?

It's our responsibility to counsel clients on what is, and isn't, newsworthy. It's also our responsibility to write a release, a bylined article or other communications piece in a classic, objective journalistic style.

The more our product looks and reads like advertising copy, the more likely an organization is to cede control of its overall marketing communications to a digital or direct marketing shop. And, trust me, there's nothing thrilling or remarkable about that possibility. That said, it will be an awe-inspiring, NEGATIVE game-changer if our industry leaders and journalists don't step up and address the issue more seriously. Oh, and there was no hyperbole in that last paragraph. Just facts.

May 06

Traditional print advertising is nothing more than white noise

May 6  
I engaged in my daily mental exercise of flipping through the pages of
The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, it occurred to
me that I never, ever stop to read the print ads. In fact, I ignore them
completely. They're physical versions of white noise.

the average full-page ad in each paper runs about $100k per and that each
contains 40 or so full-page ads, I realized that marketers are probably burning
upwards of $4 million a day on this shotgun approach.

the exception of affinity publications (mine would include climbing, fitness,
running and outdoor trade press), I never read ads. And, I know I'm not alone.

ads are increasingly irrelevant because we live in a society suffering from
what Richard Edelman calls 'trust deficit' (See Richard's interview with new
PR Week Editor-in-chief Steve Barrett at
www.prweek.com). Edelman's 100 percent
correct. Thanks to the shoddy behavior of such brands as BP, Tylenol (the
once-fabled gold standard), Toyota, Tiger, Goldman, the Catholic Church and
countless others, we simply don't trust what organizations tell us.

that's why PR is so beautifully positioned to fill the trust gap. We're all
about engaging in conversations with trusted sources
such as reporters and
influential bloggers who vet our messages first before putting them in motion

back to the utter irrelevance of mainstream print advertising. To test my
theory, I scanned the ponderous, premiere issue of
Bloomberg Business Week (now, there's a catchy name) and selected
three print ads at random. I wanted to see if they caught my attention,
communicated a clear and credible message and, critically, contained a call to
action. Here are the results:

May 6 - fish  
Headline: 'Is your business in shape to compete'? Visual: a school of fish
aligned in what appears to be the outline of a shark. The advertiser? Accenture.
My reaction? Ugh. Talk about bad timing. Who wants to see a school of fish when
we know millions are dying in the Gulf of Mexico as we speak? Plus, the message
is mundane, trite and overused. I'd grade it F.

Headline: 'NEC gives the Peninsula Shanghai what it needs – seamless service.'
The visual depicts a smiling Peninsula Hotel IT manager with some
happy-go-lucky bellhop in the background talking into his cell phone. My
reaction: I want a clean room, good service and palatable food from my hotel of
choice. But, since I'm not a hotel IT manager, I'm not interested in NEC's
I'd grade this one a C+.

'In my world, not connected means not in business.' This one's from Panasonic
and depicts a pretty angry-looking
businessman who, it would seem, can't get
his wireless connection. I sure hope he's not using Pa
nasonic's new Toughbook
computer. The problem with this ad is its total lack of credibility. I should
buy this Toughbook because Panasonic says so? Sorry. Not happening. I'd give
this print ad a

sure the marketing powers-that-be justify shotgun advertising in an age of
one-to-one marketing by arguing that it only takes one or two sales to offset
the wasted spend. I disagree. And, I think you'll see less and less print
advertising as social media, mobile, digital and other means with which to put
one's messages in motion become more mainstream.

for me? I'm buying that new pair of Sauconys I just saw advertised in
Men's Fitness

Feb 02

Everyday products to everyday people in not so everyday ways

February 2 I’m always fascinated to see how organizations, large and small, attempt to differentiate themselves while delivering on a brand promise. As I mentioned in a previous blog entry, I once worked for an integrated agency whose tagline was: ‘Sales overnight and image over time.’ Sadly, the firm couldn’t deliver on either and has subsequently gone the way of all flesh. Richmond, Va. based Martin Agency, however, is the polar opposite of my erstwhile alma mater.

Adweek just named Martin its U.S. agency of the year. In addition to growing by 12 percent and winning such big accounts such as Pizza Hut and Microsoft, Martin won an amazing 14 of the 18 competitive reviews in which it competed. Wow.

Martin does an extraordinarily good job of differentiating itself and delivering on its brand promise in simple, direct words. Mike Hughes, the agency’s creative director, says his firm fosters work that, ‘sells everyday products to everyday people in not so everyday ways.’ Is that sweet, or what?

I hate it when businesspeople use the word ‘elegant’ to describe their product or service, but that line is, quite simply, elegant. And simple. It tells me exactly who the agency targets (brands such as Pizza Hut). It tells me which target audience they know best (the everyday people who buy products from Wal-Mart and Expedia). And, critically, it tells me that Martin executes in unexpected ways (and that’s the brand promise).

Too many professional services sector firms try too hard to say too much in their taglines and positioning statements. Most end up saying exactly the same thing in more or less the same unintelligible mishmash of words. So, when a Martin comes along with a crisp, compelling statement that it actually delivers on, well, that calls for an old-fashioned shout out.

Dec 09

And the walls come crumbling down

Birds do it. Bees do it. Trade publications most certainly do it. In this case, 'it' is blurring the lines between editorial and advertising.

December 9 - the_dallas_morning_news_logo_2 Recently, the Dallas Morning News announced that some editors have started reporting directly to executives outside the newsroom who control advertising sales. Ouch. So much for the separation of church and state.

The initial reassignments are limited to sports and entertainment. But, the handwriting is clearly on the wall. And, the implications are grave to the Fourth Estate.

Bob Mong, the editor of the Morning News, said reporters had been urged to '….fight back if they were told to do anything unethical.' Good luck with that one. The paper's management has clearly opened a veritable Pandora's Box that will never again close.

In today's brutal economy, it's all about the almighty dollar. With traditional journalism imploding on all fronts, it was only a matter of time before a major news organization put advertising/sales in charge of editorial. And, once that happens, any semblance of true, unbiased objectivity disappears.

Trade magazines have routinely blurred the lines between advertising and editorial. I can remember countless calls from a certain monthly publication's editor who told me Peppercom would be featured in an upcoming issue and a full-page ad would only further enhance its impact. I laughed, and said, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'

These are sad and worrying times for society in general, and journalism in particular. I'm frankly surprised the Dallas Morning News went virtually unreported in the PR trades. It's a seminal event that, if it becomes a trend, will have a cataclysmic impact on how we, as communicators, function.

Dec 07

Does breaking news sponsorship put steak’s image at stake?

I receive an RSS feed from CNN Breaking News. So, throughout the day, I'm peppered with incoming news items that range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

December 7 Lately, I've noticed that Omaha Steaks has been running a special 66 percent promotion along the bottom of each news feed.

I let it pass once or twice but, then, after reading a CNN Breaking News about 40 people being killed in Pakistan, I came to a complete standstill.

What 23-year-old media-buying genius decided to sponsor a breaking news feed on Omaha Steak's behalf? What's the logic? How does one equate whatever the news of the moment is to ordering steaks? '…..Hey honey, check it out! At least 40 people were just killed by an explosion in Pakistan! Let's buy some steak online.'

It got me wondering: Did CNN Breaking News coverage of the balloon boy's epic non-adventure produce a sudden spike in orders of petite filet mignon? Or, maybe Tiger's recent mishaps prompted readers to order some extra rare New York strip steak.

This is one media buy that totally belies logic. If I were Omaha Steak's chief marketing officer, I'd think twice about running a special promotion alongside a newsfeed that broadcasts bulletins about mass murders, natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

I've heard of 'feeding the media beast,' but this is one brand that should find a better location for its online ad spend. Having said that, I must admit that last week's RSS feed announcing Obama's 30,000 Afghanistan troop surge made me pine for a juicy prime rib.

Nov 06


November 6 - desmocracy Imagine how bad life must be right now within the walls of a traditional advertising agency. Now imagine what it must be like inside the walls of a traditional advertising agency owned by a holding company. It has to be just brutal.

Not only is the basic advertising model broken, but holding companies are reporting record third quarter profit losses as well. I have to believe pay raises and bonuses have been postponed until at least the 23rd century.

Ad Age contains two stories that illustrate the industry's plight. The first reports on the closing of the legendary Cliff Freeman & Partners. This was the firm that launched Little Caesar's 'Pizza, Pizza' campaign and fired a gerbil out of a cannon for Outpost.com (I still remember the animal rights activists going nuts over that one). Freeman failed, says Ad Age, because it didn't keep up with the digital revolution. Very sad.

Even more alarming is the news that PepsiCo will allow consumers to select their new agency. Ponder the lunacy of that for a moment.

Not content to let consumers vote on their favorite campaigns, Pepsi is now allowing the inmates to literally run the asylum. Ad Age reports that, 'In a contest beginning this month, Pepsi's Mtn Dew will hand off marketing duties for a $100 million-plus business to several potentially unknown players selected by consumers.' It's part of something the brand calls 'Dewmocracy.' Dewmockery is more like it.

How'd you like to be part of the creative team at PepsiCo's incumbent agency, BBDO?

'Sorry guys, but the results are in and consumers have chosen that talking soda can commercial the beautician from Butte created. We'll have to take the $100 million we'd allocated to you and give it to Betty & Partners. That's what she's calling her hybrid beauty salon/creative shop, btw.'

Traditional advertising agencies and the creative directors who run them like to think they control the brand messaging. Bill Bernbach, David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett and their staffs once did. Now, though, the battered bastards of Madison Avenue have to compete with every Tom, Dick and Harry (or Betty) who think they can create advertising. Talk about living a nightmare.

I am sooooo happy to be in public relations.

Oct 14

So much for the separation of church and state

October 14 Journalists love to rake publicists over the coals when given the opportunity, so it’s nice to be able to return the favor every now and then. Phillip Reed, publisher of the Weatherford, Ok., Daily News deserves a special dressing down for his intentional blurring of the lines between the advertising and editorial in his paper.

Reed is insisting that public relations firms include a product along with any press release they forward to him or his news staff. No product, no coverage. Period.

So, he’s been receiving all sorts of alcohol, coffeemakers, cell phones, etc. And, Reed justifies this ‘pay-for-play’ scam because of the recession. How totally sleazy. Oh, and by the way, he keeps all the free alcohol for himself. It’s good to be the king.

I grew up believing journalism’s role in society was to provide objective news and analysis of people, places and things. How objective can a newspaper be about, say, T-Mobile, when the entire editorial staff has just received new blackberries courtesy of the corporation’s PR firm?

Even worse than the paper’s decision is the comment by Mark Thomas, director of the Oklahoma Press Association, who sees nothing wrong with the publication’s ‘grease my palm’ scheme. It’s nice to see a governing body performing its watchdog role so well.

Demanding that PR firms provide product samples is ethically and morally wrong. And, it extends to newspapers’ image and reputation everywhere. How long before other desperate publishers decide to follow suit and open their greedy hands to such largesse?

I’m sorry, Mr. Reed, but this particular PR guy isn’t going to play by your warped rules. No long-sleeve RepMan-branded t-shirts for you.