Long ago and far away, I toiled for a large agency on a very large account. So large, in fact, that it was the third biggest billing account on the global agency’s impressive roster. And I, at the tender age of 27, had been entrusted to manage it. The client in question was a major management consulting firm whose chief claim to fame was its ability to lop off 20 or 30 percent of a client’s workforce. They billed themselves as ‘productivity experts’ but, were, in fact, head choppers.
The client organization was ruthless in every sense of the word, including its management of my agency. They paid us a ton of money, but demanded quantifiable bottom-line results. We were charged with two missions: softening their image and delivering qualified sales leads. The first was difficult since, whenever a reporter would ask for a client reference, we’d have to say “no” since few, if any, CEOs would go on record saying they’d hired the consultants to do their dirty work. The second task was just as daunting since the sales force didn’t like sharing information with a publicity hack like me. But, after being told to do so in no uncertain terms by the client’s Attila the Hun-like CEO, they complied.
And, so I started receiving weekly spreadsheets detailing the sales force’s cold calls. As is almost always the case with consulting organizations, the wording in these spreadsheets was rife with code words and acronyms. Next to an organization’s name such as, say Procter & Gamble, would be three or four letters indicating the prospect’s status. I was able to break most codes. One, though, stumped me week after week. This was becoming increasingly problematic since I was expected to report to my bosses and the clients if, and how, the publicity was positively impacting the salesmen’s success rate. I went to agency management to show them the puzzling acronym: NINTT. They had no clue what it meant and told me to ask someone on the sales force. But, typically, they avoided my calls like the plague.
So, with a big presentation looming large and being at a complete loss as to what NINTT meant, I gambled. I called the client CEO who had hired my firm in the first place. Amazingly, his secretary put me right through. The big guy had liked me up until then. He answered the phone by putting me on speaker and shouting, “So, kid, you calling to tell me you got my f***ing mug on Fortune?” I chuckled and said, “Not yet, Tom. But, we’re working on it.” Knowing his no nonsense manner, I quickly went to the purpose of the call and told him my dilemma. He paused and then asked me another question, “How f***ing old are you, kid?” I’d heard him use this expletive-laced line with others and knew it wasn’t a good sign. “Twenty-seven, Tom,” I replied. “And, in those 27 f***ing years you’ve never seen or heard of the expression NINTT?” I replied in the negative. He chuckled and said, “I’ll bet you heard it all the f***ing time when you were dating. It means now is not the time. Any other female problems you need help with, kid?” I assured him my social life was fine and not in need of his expert counsel and hung up.
I tell my NINTT story for two reasons:
- I find it interesting that the vast majority of prospective clients nowadays are never honest enough to tell an agency that now is not the time. Instead, they’ll string you along indefinitely and refuse to respond to your repeated e-mails or voice mail messages. It’s a great example of the never-ending erosion of civility in business.
- I find it equally fascinating that, in this social media obsessed, acronym littered landscape (think: BFF, OMG, WTF, IMO, ASAP, etc.), NINTT has gone the way of the passenger pigeon, dodo and dinosaur.
A quick epilogue: The other day, I happened to be in a meeting with a prospect we’d been pitching for quite some time. In fact, so much time had passed since our last conversation that I figured he’d either forgotten about our proposal or was too embarrassed to tell me it was dead. Imagine my surprise when, at the very end of this particular industry get together, he walked over to me, put his arm on my shoulder and said, “Steve, about that proposal of yours, now is not the time.” How about that?
I’m think I’m going to type NINTT next to the prospects’ name on what we call our war room chart. I want to see how long it takes for one of my fellow managers to ask, “What the heck does NINTT mean? I want to test my theory that the abbreviation (and the courteous response for which it stands) are as foreign to my fellow managers as it was to me way back when.