Aug 31

All the thought leadership in the world can’t overcome shoddy service

August 31 - wallst_full This business-to-business specialist cum blogger has long admired the thought leadership programs of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, Challenger, Gray is one of the world’s top outplacement firms. And, to me at least, it seems as if they’ve positively ‘owned’ the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Hardly a month seems to pass without some Challenger, Gray workplace survey being trumpeted on the Journal’s front page. If there was a B-to-B firm that ‘got’ thought leadership from the get go, it was Challenger, Gray.

So, imagine my surprise when Challenger, Gray and a few of its outplacement firm peers were absolutely skewered in a recent Journal front-page articleThe Journal’s Phred Dvorak and Joann S. Lublin absolutely pummeled the outplacement firms for not keeping pace with, well, outplacement. The Journal charged Challenger and its ilk with providing bogus, off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all ‘solutions’ for the  victims of the current recession. Rather than working closely with a downsized client, Challenger, Gray would, instead, send out mass form letters. They’d also provide such bizarre mock interview advice as telling one job seeker to ‘….not order diet soda because it suggested immaturity.’ Another was scolded for ‘….not following his coach to the restroom to continue a conversation.’ Puh-leese!

Challenger, Gray and other outplacement firms were painted as having placed quantity over quality. In effect, said the Journal, they’d become little more than telemarketing call centers, whose representatives were instructed to field as many calls as possible and to keep advice to a bare minimum. The Journal summed it up by saying, ‘With so many people looking for work, services increasingly have become standardized.’

Surprisingly, Challenger, Gray didn’t handle the Journal article very well. John Challenger, its CEO, responded to the paper with a written statement (I would have advised a sit-down with one or both reporters). In his note, Mr. Challenger admitted that ‘clients will get angry’ at poor service. No, really? Do tell. And, in defending his firm’s use of mass form letters for job-seeking clients, Mr. Challenger wrote ‘While the introductory and closing paragraphs are similar across many cover letters, the meat of the cover letter is individualized by the client.’ For me, that’s a smoking gun. Any marketer worth his or her salt knows the first sentence of any letter, be it to a prospective employer, reporter or would-be paramour is absolutely critical. I can spot a form letter a mile away and, when I do, I hit the delete button.

The Journal article is the first real blemish I’ve seen on an otherwise spotless Challenger, Gray thought leadership campaign. But, it strikes me that John Challenger & Co., better improve their service in a hurry. All the thought leadership equity in the world won’t overcome shoddy service.”

Aug 27

One marketer’s dream is another’s nightmare

August 27 The newly installed chief marketing officer of a one-time client was recently quoted as saying his organization was a ‘marketer’s dream.' I found the quote more than a tad perplexing since, for us, the client had actually been a marketer’s nightmare.

The firm in question is one of hundreds that provide an identical service. So, as is the case when publicizing a commodity, it was critical that we uncover some point of differentiation. Failing to find anything at all, we chose instead to attempt telling the client’s story through its customers’ eyes, undertaking industry surveys, drafting opinion pieces and arranging interviews at which the chief executive officer could provide thought-provoking commentary. We were able to do a little of each of these in the years we represented the client, but were forever hampered by the CEO who was either unable or unwilling to say or do anything of any substance.

We’d meet with the CEO and suggest a potpourri of cutting-edge ways in which she could break herself and her firm away from the pack. Like many CEOs, this one aspired to be included in major articles in BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal and leading trade publications. But, unlike other CEOs, this one simply didn’t have much to add to the conversation. We’d set one-on-one interviews and follow-up with the reporter only to be told that the client was a nice woman, but had said nothing at all that was newsworthy. Making matters worse, the CEO would often cancel interviews at the last second for what she perceived to be a more important business meeting (not caring that such behavior undermined our relationships with the media).

Needless to say, it was a difficult relationship that we thought about ending on more than one occasion. But, with the recession still in full bloom when the new CMO took over, we decided to try and defend the business. As is so often the case, though, the new CMO had already made up his mind and chose a firm with whom he’d partnered in the past. And, we quickly replaced the billings with larger and more substantive accounts.

It wasn’t until I saw the new CMO’s quote that I was reminded of the dysfunctional relationship, and the meek and mild CEO who yearned to see her face on the cover of Fortune. In retrospect, I should have had the guts to stand up to her when she first broached the subject. Ideally, I should have borrowed what a legendary PR luminary once told me he’d do whenever a prospective client expressed the same unrealistic goal. ‘I’d reach into my desk drawer, pull out a water pistol and say, ‘Here, you want to be on the cover of every leading business publication? Go shoot someone famous.’’’

I wish the new CMO well. But, my gut tells me his ‘marketer’s dream’ will cause lots of insomnia. Unless, of course, the CEO becomes a crack shot.

Aug 25

Imagine what Roseann Phillips’s original investment would be worth today

Grandma Roseann Phillips died this morning at the age of 89. She was my mother-in-law. She was also a very special lady in lots of ways. And, along with my older brother, Russ, she was one of the two original investors in Peppercom.

To jump-start our nascent firm, Ed and I had asked various people for seed money. The only two who stepped forward to pony up cash were Roseann Phillips and Russ. Mrs. Phillips gave us $7,500. Russ forked over $5,000. We offered both equity in exchange, but both declined (a seemingly wise move at the time, since conventional wisdom holds that 90 percent of all small business fail within the first three years. And who wants to become ensnared in bankruptcy proceedings?).

Anyway, armed with the $12,500 cash infusion, we set out to conquer the world. Ed created the business infrastructure while I tried to generate some semblance of marketplace awareness. After 60 days of deafening silence, we signed our first client. And then another. Soon, we were in a position to pay back our investors. But, Roseann Phillips refused our money. I remember her saying our early success was the only return on investment that mattered to her.

Roseann Phillips did many things for many people. To an upstart start-up named Peppercom, her money was like manna from heaven. And, it’s not too far a stretch to say that, without Roseann and Russ, there would be no Peppercom today.

Considering the fact that we posted some $14 million in 2008 revenues and were willing to give Mrs. Phillips three percent equity in exchange, her original investment in ‘The Ed and Steve Company’ would be worth a pretty penny today. But, then again, that wouldn’t have mattered to Roseann Phillips. Seeing us racking up success after success was the only reward she sought.

Aug 24

Icon of an era

Adweek_logo250x80 Thinking it was junk mail, I very nearly tossed the most recent issue of Adweek in the circular file. The publication was breathtakingly thin: only 22 pages.

It contained the usual news items and creative reviews, but this puny remnant of a once robust media property struck me as being emblematic of the advertising industry as a whole.

Of all the marketing disciplines, advertising has taken the biggest hit in the recent recession. Cost-conscious clients finally woke up to the excesses and wastes inherent in general advertising and reallocated their dollars to social media, public relations and direct mail. Faced with the reality of clients who were no longer willing to pay 15 percent commissions on media buys, ad agencies were forced to take Draconian measures. And, the media that covers them has had to follow suit.

Adweek isn't alone, though. Advertising Age has taken a hit as well. And, in my industry, we've seen PR Week go from a weekly to a monthly (but, strangely, preserve its original moniker. Which makes me wonder: If the Daily News went weekly, would it still call itself by its former name?).

I'm sure Adweek will survive in some mode, perhaps going entirely online. I do hope the physical publication sticks around for a while, though. I can't imagine a Monday morning without reading Barbara Lippert's scalding take on the latest mediocre advertising campaign or glancing at Adweek's 'By the numbers' snapshot (how else will I ever know which geographic market spends the most on auto maintenance? It's San Francisco, btw).

Aug 21

Can I get you a drink?

Guest post from Alyson Buck

August 21 - obama beer We’re a few weeks out from the beer summit between President Obama, Professor Henry Gates and Sgt. James Crowley. The meeting was an attempt to smooth over the subsequent PR aftermath of the racial firestorm that ensued from the Cambridge arrest. Admittedly, the meeting was a pretty significant maneuver by the president to take it upon himself to address such a major issue head on. However, the significance of the meeting was overshadowed in the media by the beer choices of the participating parties. Yes, our president decided to solve a major social issue over a cold brewski.

Begs the question — has #44 made himself too accessible?

During his run for presidency, Obama embraced Twitter and Facebook, making himself more accessible to a younger generation. He stood toe-to-toe to Stephen Colbert and did the late night circuit in an effort to show that he’s a likeable guy in touch with reality and eager to address middle-class average Americans’ needs. And in a time when the current president couldn't have been more out of touch, it was just what the country ordered. Like Bill Clinton's MTV sax solo before him, this approachable demeanor is arguably one of the main reasons Obama was able to secure a seat in the Oval Office.

I dig a president that's in touch with his country. I can get behind a guy that understood the value of social media (Full disclosure: He embraced Twitter long before this Millennial). But the role of president comes with serious responsibility and serious cache. The man is CEO, head honcho, top dog — yet he's settling what's turned into a major race dispute over a Bud Light. I've known many a dispute to be solved over a drink (probably more were started but who's counting) but is this the way we want our country’s leader to solve complex social issues that stretch back centuries?

I'm torn. On one hand I want Obama to be in touch with Americans and bring a fresher perspective to the White House. On the other, there are complicated issues — socially, economically — that need serious attention. Unfortunately I'm not sure they can be solved over the King of Beers.

Aug 19

Loose lips can indeed sink ships

I was minding my own business at breakfast recently when a team of salespeople sidled into the booth next to me.

August 19 - orig They were dressed to the nines and clearly prepping for a major presentation. But, they were also projecting a distinct air of frustration and resignation. They then began a conversation loud enough for the entire room to overhear:

'We need to dial down the net prices on the dials or The Widget Company simply won't buy from us,' stated the apparent group leader.

'If we do that, say good-bye to any profit for the home office and any commissions for us,' lamented a second.

'We have no choice,' chimed in a third. 'I get the feeling that if we don't come back with a sale to Widget, we better not come back at all.'

'Damn recession!' said the leader. The others nodded dejectedly and tore into their waffles.

I found the conversation fascinating on a number of fronts. First, it vaguely reminded me of Glengarry Glen Ross, my all-time favorite movie about the business world. Second, it reinforced how brutally difficult it must be to sell a commodity such as a dial. I'm sure it's difficult in the best of times. But, try selling it when there are no value adds beyond price, quality, and service, and the prospective customer is gouging prices across the board. Talk about grim.

The conversation also got me thinking about the dangers of a public discourse. Suppose I'd been a member of the Widget Company team that the breakfast club would be pitching later on? Odds are good I would have tipped off my bosses about their complaints and suggested we select a competitor instead.

Just such a scenario happened to me long ago and far away. I was the junior person on a team that had just pitched and won a consumer product from one of the largest companies in the world. We were celebrating on the flight home and reminiscing about the presentation. One thing led to another, and we soon started mimicking some of the client-side characters and criticizing the way they spoke, the way they acted, the clothes they wore, etc. It got ugly.

Fast forward to the next morning. The pitch team was summoned to the New York general manager's office. He lit into us and said we'd just been fired by the brand-new client. We were shocked. What could have happened? Then, our boss began reciting verbatim some of our in-air mocking of the client team. Apparently, another employee had been sitting nearby, overheard our remarks and fed them back to the soon-to-be-former clients.

We were stunned, to say the least. It was a great, if painful, learning lesson as well. I now always make a point to withhold any comments, pro or con, until I'm positive I'm out of ear shot.

I wish the breakfast club guys well in their dial sales pitch, but they need to learn to dial down the bitching and moaning in public settings. The account they save may be their own.

*Thanks to Michael Dresner for the idea behind this post.

Aug 18

Honey, let’s scratch the Rancho Bernardo Inn off next Summer’s vacation list

There's clever marketing in a downtime and then there's pure desperation. The San Diego-based Rancho Bernardo Inn's recent pricing strategy would fit neatly into the latter category.

That's because the allegedly upscale resort is now offering a $19 per night 'survivor' package aimed at victims of the current recession.

August 18 - tents According to Reuters, down-on-their-luck consumers can still enjoy the resort's amenities as long at they bring along their own tent, flashlight, sleeping bags, toilet paper and insect repellent. For the $19, vacationers get to set up camp at one of the resort's lovely pools and enjoy all the usual frills sans the warmth and comfort of an actual room. One would also assume room (or tent) service wouldn't be included.

This is a terrible idea for any number of reasons. First, and most importantly, it undermines whatever image and reputation the Rancho Bernardo Inn has built up until now. Second, the $19 per night offer will attract, shall we say, a slightly less exclusive clientele. Third, the latter will scare off middle and upper-scale patrons who have either patronized the inn in the past or might consider doing so in the future. Like Mercedes, Cadillac and other luxury brands that have eroded their up-market brand image by slashing prices, the Rancho Bernardo will pay a heavy price down the road.

Moving forward, the Rancho Bernardo Inn will be forever known as 'tent city,’ the 'homeless hotel' or some other horrific moniker.

The four-star inn's assistant general manager calls it '…clever marketing in a downtime.' I call it brand suicide.

*Thanks to Greg Schmalz for the idea for this post.

Aug 17


– Vow ‘scorched earth’ policy against eagles of all sorts – 

Lincroft, NJ, August 17, 2009 – Mick  and Rooney Cody, leaders of the militant  Dirty  Dog Underground movement headquartered here, expressed outrage at the recent signing of Michael Vick by the Philadelphia Eagles. Mick rooney cody

Speaking at a hastily called press  conference  at a local dog park, Mick Cody, the older and more vicious of the two Cody canines, said, “Birds everywhere, and eagles in particular, should be ashamed of themselves. The latter have just paid millions of dollars to Michael Vick, a man who has led a virtual ethnic cleansing of pooches (not that some us couldn't use a good grooming, mind you.) My brother and I are incensed and won't rest until the Eagles change their minds. Well, we may take a nap or two, but we won't rest.”

Rooney Cody echoed his older sibling's emotions, and added, “We've declared a jihad against eagles of all types until this horrific decision has been overturned. Up until now, my brother and I have limited our barking and overall harassment to cats, ground hogs, squirrels and an occasional mole. Guess what Eagles? You're now looking at a scorched earth policy and the mother of all wars!”

Other canine leaders from liberal and conservative camps alike have issued statements condemning the NFL team's decision to hire the convicted dog abuser. “We howled all night,” said Benny Barker, president of the NAAC (The National Association for the Advancement of Canines). Penny Pooch, chairdog of the AARD (American Association of Retired Dogs) echoed a similar sentiment, “Many of us in the senior dog community rolled over in delight when Mr. Vick was put behind bars. Now, we're whimpering in sorrow and many chapters report members literally walking with their tails between their legs after hearing the Vick news.”

All three dog communities have vowed to boycott (or caninecott, if you prefer) home and away games of the Eagles. “We're also planning a 'Lift Your Hind Leg' Day at the Eagles home opener,” noted Mick Cody. “Imagine thousands of area canines lifting their legs in protest in the Eagles parking lot before kickoff. That'll put a damper on any tailgating.”

Vick, his agent, and the Philadelphia Eagles organization were unavailable for comment. A spokesman for the Eagles did, however, offer to forward a year's supply of 'Beggin Strips' to the Cody canines.

“Bite me!” snapped Rooney, when told of the offer.

Aug 13

Striking the right balance

August 13 - pencil According to The Wall Street Journal, President Barack Obama has become quite the micromanager. He sets daily Oval Office meetings with his various direct reports and wades through minutia that surprised more than one source quoted in the text. That worrisome to me.

I'm not a big fan of micro-managing. Many historians say micromanagement cost Jimmy Carter the presidency way back when. The man was so caught up in the details of a failing economy and the Iranian hostage crisis that he lost sight of the wants and needs of the average American. And that, in turn, enabled erstwhile and ersatz Hollywood actor Ronald Wilson Reagan to sweep into office.

I've worked for micro-managers. They drove me nuts. One, in particular, was so anal that he actually decided in advance who would sit where at client and new business meetings. He'd also insist we 'scope' out a prospect's conference room the night before a pitch so that we knew every angle and nuance of the facility. And, he once famously rejected an order of agency-branded pencils because the office manager had ordered 'number one' instead of 'number two' models. 'We've always been a number two pencil firm. Send these back!' he barked.

I've also worked for totally detached managers. One, in fact, was so out of touch with the day-to-day operations of his New York office that the place resembled a Felini movie, featuring everything from very public and very torrid affairs to brazen rifling of client products ('Ok, who took all the Tumi luggage from the product room last night?').

The office would also shut down early every Friday, with most of us trooping over to PJ Charlton's for an afternoon of Bahama Mamas and god knows what else.

In management, as in life, striking a balance is key. People need to feel empowered to make their own decisions. But, accountability has to be enforced as well. We like to believe we've built a meritocracy that encourages risk taking, rewards success and enables people to fail without serious consequence. That said, fail often enough or in a particularly egregious way and you're gone.

Ed and I have totally different management styles, but we'll both swoop into an account if, and when, our instincts (or our people) suggest we do. As a result, we don't get bogged down in minutia, nor do we allow the inmates to run the asylum (although some would suggest that Ed and I are recovering inmates).

I hope Obama doesn't become so obsessed with details that he loses touch with what really matters. We need him to succeed. And, by 'we,' I mean the entire world. I, for one, will really start to sweat if I read a follow-up Journal piece reporting the President is setting aside time to review White House stationery, logo designs and, god forbid, number two pencils.

Aug 12

The vagaries of business: 1995-2009

August 12 - business-101 I had the opportunity to join a day-long meeting
of PR agency executives last week. While a few were excelling, most were
struggling in the current economy. Many, in fact, had taken Draconian cuts
to assure their firms remained profitable. Others had re-assigned formerly
billable staff to nearly full-time marketing and business development
activities. It was grim, to say the least.

I hope these firms succeed in their prospecting, but making changes after the
fact is akin to trying to run down the proverbial horse that's already bolted
from the barn.

But, I digress. At the meeting, participants agreed that clients were not only
inviting more firms than ever to pitch their business, but taking an inordinate
time to make a decision. One statement in particular took me aback. An agency
principal reported that his firm had won no fewer than three recent pieces of
business only to be told the client budget no longer existed. Ouch! It's tough
enough to chase down some of these leads. But, imagine receiving a call that
begins with the prospect/client saying, 'Herbert, I have some good news and
some bad news. Which would you like first?'

I went through the 'now you see it, now you don't' experience once before. It
was back in those lazy, hazy, crazy days of dotcom-mania. We'd pitched a
company, been awarded the business in the morning and then fired in the
afternoon. Apparently, the CMO had neither the authority nor the budget to hire
a firm. Nice.

Last week's therapy session also reminded me of Peppercom's first big setback.
We'd been in business for about three months when I received a call from a guy
with whom I'd once worked. He was now head of human resources at a global
chemical company and had a mega budget for employee communications. 'Steve,' he
said. 'I want you guys to overhaul everything. Soup to nuts. You give me the
budget and I'll authorize the purchase orders. Oh, and we need to start

Talk about manna from heaven! We had one or two other small clients at the time
but, in one fell swoop, this chemical company client was about to transform the
fledgling Peppercom into a multi-million dollar agency.

Ed and I quickly crafted the program (with Ed gleefully whipping together
massive budgets, btw). The two of us then barreled up Rt. 95 to Connecticut to present the plans and budget, and begin the work.

When we arrived at the reception desk and asked for the contact, however, we
received a puzzled look. 'Why don't you take a seat?' suggested the

About 20 minutes later, a woman came strolling out. She introduced herself as
the new head of human resources and corporate communications, and sighed, 'Did
no one contact you about John?' We shook our heads. 'Well,' she continued,
'John was fired last week. I saw your proposal and budgets and, frankly, have
no interest in working with you. I'm sorry you had to come all this way.'

Boom. Easy come, easy go. Talk about a long, brutal ride back to Manhattan. The word 'funeral' came to mind. 

I was never able to track John down to find out what had happened. And, he
never bothered calling me.

Ed and I overcame our shock and disbelief (as well as our intention to hire 10
people and move into new office space) and went back to cold calling new
business prospects. (Footnote: a variation of this anecdote occurred many years
later when a global CMO promised us a $10 million budget only to disappear a
few months later).

Business always has its ups and downs, in good times and bad. While
commiserating over one's bad luck can be cathartic, I've found the single
biggest 'secret' to success is resiliency. When an ITT, Panasonic or a Unisys
fires you, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off,  paste a smile on your
face and charge ahead.

There will always be clients who spin your wheels and dangle assignments and
budgets they have authority to award. And, every once in a while, there will be
a prospect who disappears completely after promising a wealth of riches. The
best remedy is to simply chalk it up to the vagaries of business: yesterday,
today and tomorrow.