Feb 28

PR girls gone wild

I recently attended a board meeting of the Council of PR Firms (www.prfirms.org).  Pict_20090305PHT50992

As one of the original members of the now 10-year-old trade association, I'm one of its biggest supporters. I've often urged owners of midsized and smaller firms to join, since the Council not only represents the creme de la creme, but provides invaluable guidance and input to members. And, unlike its more staid siblings, the Council isn't afraid to tackle some of the industry's biggest issues.

Case in point: Kathy Cripps, the council's president, is one of the few industry leaders to address the diversity issue. But, unlike her peers, Kathy doesn't limit her definition of diversity to the color of one's skin. Like me, she recognizes the inordinate gender imbalance that threatens our industry's future.

Kathy recently wrote about this imbalance in The Firm Voice, the association's blog. Sadly, though, when she raised the 'G' word at the recent board meeting, it was given amazingly short shrift. That's probably because it's a bit of a political football (after all, PR was rightly seen as an old boys' club for many decades and the women who have risen to positions of power aren't about to undo what's been accomplished to date).

That's a shame, because gender imbalance is becoming a big, big problem in PR. I see it every time I lecture on college campuses. Almost without fail, the PR and communications classes are 85 to 90 percent female.

The end result is to simultaneously alienate an entire generation of young men while attracting a plethora of star struck Hollywood wanna-bes.

I was recently interviewed about the gender gap and asked how I'd solve it. “Easy,” I said. “Raise millions of dollars and begin an awareness campaign aimed at young men in high school.” My tongue-in-cheek response was half serious. We'll never raise the monies necessary to change kids' perception of our field, but the battle needs to be fought in high schools. By the time they've reached a college campus, young women have already decided the lifestyles portrayed on ‘The Hills,' Kell on Earth' and 'Sex in the City' are way cool. At the same time, most 'guys' have washed their hands of what they see as a 'girls-only' profession.

We haven't experienced the full repercussions yet, but we will. Any industry that doesn't reflect the rapidly-changing demographics of 21st century America will soon find itself behind the proverbial eight ball.

PR is doing all the right things in terms of recruiting at historically black colleges & universities, as well as reaching out to Asian and Latino communities. But, we've done absolutely NOTHING to connect with young men.

The time will come in the not-too-distant future when marketers seeking to reach a young male audience will look across the conference room table as team after team of female-only PR agency team pitch their business. They'll shake their heads and say, “Sorry, ladies, but we need to engage with firms who 'live' our target audience's lives. Advertising and digital firms are doing a much better job of gender balance, so we'll just partner with them. Thanks for the time and effort, though. And, good luck with tonight's red carpet movie premier. Let us know if Johnny Depp shows up.”

Feb 25

You aren’t what you say you are (unless the customer agrees)

Shout out to Emily Yellin for suggesting this idea.

image from farm4.static.flickr.com It’s interesting to think about brands that have touted their strengths or points of differentiation in taglines only to have the customer experience turn out to be the polar opposite. Consider just a few examples:

  • BP’s ‘Beyond petroleum.’ There’s no need to recount how many journalists, pundits and comedians lambasted the initials and tagline in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill.
  • Merrill Lynch’s ‘thundering herd’ of financial advisors were a breed apart. They sure were, especially after the firm experienced a massive meltdown as the real estate bubble burst and the markets collapsed. Today, what’s left of the thundering herd is corralled inside parent company, BOA. 
  • Toyota’s ‘Moving forward’ which, after a series of highly-publicized accidents caused by acceleration pedal problems, became a nasty, daily reminder of the automaker’s crisis.
  • And then there’s the perpetual bad boy of branding: Comcast. Thanks to its horrific customer service, Comcast’s ‘Comcastic’  boast may be the gold standard for never living up to a brand promise.  

There’s an amazingly simple way to avoid these disconnects: put yourself in customer’s shoes before ever attempting to frame marketing messages. 

Ian Wylie, a Forrester analyst, tracks customer service and blogged about a rare, best practice in Fast Company. In the text, Wylie profiled David McQuillen of Credit Suisse, who continually places himself and his C-suite bosses in the shoes of the customer (note: McQuillen has moved on since the 2007 blog was written and is now with OCBC Bank in Singapore). For example, he’s made the top brass visit local branch banks, stand in line, exchange foreign currency and ask customers questions. He’ll then take them back to the office, have them surf the company’s web site and attempt to check interest rates and fill out application forms. He brought a meeting of the bank’s 200 top managers to a complete standstill when he pulled out a speaker phone and dialed the customer service line. McQuillen said he saw ‘…fear in their faces, because they didn’t know what the experience was going to be.’ McQuillen said the bank has five million customer interactions a month and questioned how many, if any, managers had any clue about the quality of those interactions. 

McQuillen is one of the few visionaries in an emerging field that recognizes inside-out marketing no longer works. Time Magazine may have declared you and me (the consumer) as ‘person of the year’ a while back, but the vast majority of marketers don’t get it (we recently surveyed 75 CMOs and found that 75 percent had never experienced their brand as a customer). For the most part, marketers still craft campaigns that tout their best-in-class product or service without ever experiencing said product or service from the customer’s point of view.  

We’re digging deep into this yawning gap and are slipping into the shoes of CFOs, moms and other ‘consumers’ to experience a brand online, on the phone and in person. We’re also determining exactly where a purchase consideration is being made. 

We’re not nearly as street smart as McQuillen who, in an attempt to make his bank do more to help customers with disabilities use its branches, offices, web site and call centers, made each member of his team spend a day in wheelchair. They also wore weighted suits to re-create what it’s like to be 70-years-old and had them eat lunch in the dark, courtesy of local Zurich restaurant called the Blind Cow (where all the waiting staff are visually impaired). What a superb way to understand the customer before making the necessary tweaks to better connect with them! McQuillen’s even gone on the speaking circuit to explain what it was like to be wheelchair-bound for a day. 

I’m no McQuillen, but it’s pretty easy to see what he’s seen: You aren’t what you say you are unless the customer agrees. So, paraphrasing the Hippocratic Oath, ‘marketer, heal thyself.’”

Feb 24

Don’t toy with us

Today's guest post is co-authored by Peppercommers Sara Whitman Ramos (pictured) and Brendan Mullin.

PhotoPeppercom’s motto has always been to work hard, play hard. So, what better way to live that  motto than to hang out at last week’s Toy Fair? Brendan Mullin and Sara Whitman (that’s us) took on the show, meeting with influencers and manufacturers, and of course stopping a bit to goof around with some of the latest and greatest in playthings.

Organized by the Toy Industry Association, Toy Fair 2011 hosted 300 exhibitors, making this a very good year. Association leadership was quoted as saying, “This kind of positive news reaffirms Toy Fair’s reputation as the epicentre of toy and youth product creativity, originality and excellence in the Western Hemisphere.”

To get some perspective on that, we had the chance to speak with industry veterans, Claire Green and Wendy Smolen, co-founders of The Sandbox Summit. In addition to providing much-needed advice for tackling Toy Fair – Hydrate! Snack! – they also shared their thoughts about the state of Toy Fair, and whether or not the show is living up to its reputation:
What are your thoughts about the quality of exhibitors you saw this year in comparison to previous years?

There was a much more upbeat quality to this year's Toy Fair than in the past two years. The quality of exhibitors was basically the same. You have the classic big guys, the mid-size companies who are always trying to muscle their way in, and the innovative new guys. It's an interesting mix.
We agree. Everyone was happy. We weren’t sure if it was the promise of better economic times, the toys or just something in the air. At one point, that “something” in the air was flying marshmallows from The Marshmallow Fun Company.
What trends are you seeing that are particularly exciting?  Technology always grabs headline. Here are a few themes:
1. This year we saw the reverse trend of apps transforming into product. Classic online games like Angry Birds and Tetris both moved off the screen and onto the table.
2. 3-D. Hasbro, Mattel, Spinmaster, and others all brought out products that can be viewed in 3-D.
3. iPads/iPods as toys. More and more companies are creating apps to play on the iPad. Discovery Bay introduced Yoomi, using a device that turns an iPad into a game. VTech introduced a kid-friendly alternative to the iPad. Hasbro had My3D, which lets a player play 3-D games on an iphone; Fisher Price introduced a kid-tough case for a parent's iPhone. 
4. New technology. We saw a laser printer that colors Barbie's hair (Fisher Price) and a voice-activated car (Bandai).
5. Great thinking games. ThinkFun, Gamewright, FatBrain, BriarPatch, WorkForge, Blue Orange all had imaginative, creative ways to play.
There’s no doubt that technology and toys will continue merging in fun and unusual ways. One of Sara’s favorites was a ping-pong playing robot from Tosy, a Vietnamese company. B tried to take him on, but the robot was scared silly by his paddle-wielding skills.
Anything that toy manufacturers are not addressing effectively or as well as you’d like to see?
We’re always surprised to see traditional packaging geared towards “girls” and “boys.” It’s the 21st century and time to grow beyond the pink and blue.
And to close, what catches your eye when you’re walking the floor?
Having been immersed in toys for so many years, what catches our eye is what has not been done before or is now being done in a smarter, more fun way. It's the "slap your forehead" moment. It always makes you smile. And that's really what toys should do.
To our ears, sounds like Toy Fair nailed it on all three counts – creativity, originality and excellence.

But, we’d like to hear from Repman readers. Do you think the current state-of-the-art in toys is better than previous generations? Are toys safer?

In the meantime, stay tuned for more from our day of play at Toy Fair 2011…coming soon. Now, give me that toy!

Feb 23

Wretched excess

I sometimes shake my head in wonder at how utterly detached from everyday reality our role Article-0-0D4F3118000005DC-11_634x381 models have become.

Take the New York Yankees’ Derek Jeter. Please. I think the Yankees would like another team to take the aging superstar off their hands. In addition to his eroding, on-the-field skill set, Jeter just brought himself and the Yankees some very unnecessary publicity with the construction of a 30,875-ft palatial estate in Tampa which neighbors are calling “St. Jetersburg”. Yankees fans may be struggling to make ends meet, but their captain has built himself a Vatican City-sized enclave that serves to only further illustrate the increasing gap between the ‘haves and have nots’ in the America of 2011.

At the same time, at least one Major League Baseball general manager is finally stepping up to the plate and drawing a line in the sand (infield dirt?). Kenny Williams of the Chicago White Sox described talk of $30 million-a-year ballplayers as “asinine” and said he'd support a work stoppage to bring fiscal sanity back to baseball. Good. Someone has to stop the ever-escalating madness. Compensation for major league sports stars is way out of line, especially in the midst of a continued weak economy and nine percent unemployment.

Then again, why should Derek Jeter care what the great, unwashed masses think? And why should St. Louis Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols think twice about demanding the equivalent of the gross national product of a small Caribbean nation when negotiating his next contract?

I once worked for a semi-delusional CEO who kept predicting a secular crisis between the haves and have nots. I don't think we'll be seeing an Egyptian or Libyan-type insurrection anytime soon in America. But, I do think what we're seeing in Wisconsin and other states is an indirect backlash at the wretched excess of detached, uncaring and pampered superstars like Derek Jeter who think they deserve to live in mansions that would make King Louis XIV of France green with envy.

Where will it all end?

Feb 22

When an irresistible force meets an immovable object

Jack Griffin's breathtakingly brief stint as CEO of Time Inc. is yet another example of the wrong Empty-office person being in charge of the wrong place at the wrong time.

Griffin was cherry-picked from Meredith Publishing's magazine division to be a change agent and was the very first CEO in Time's storied history to come from outside the company. He lasted all of six months.

The reasons why are obvious in hindsight. According to reports, Griffin's brusque management style rubbed the establishment the wrong way. Several high-ranking executives bolted almost immediately. Others resented some of Griffin's seemingly insensitive words and actions. To wit:

– He retained strategy consultants to help identify what was broken. Old-timers saw that as an indication Griffin wasn't up to the job.

– He insisted his name appear at the top of every Time publication's masthead. (Even this egocentric blogger would never contemplate such hubris.)

– A devout Catholic, he likened Time Inc. to the Vatican as a way of illustrating its prestige and might. (That analogy might have worked well during the Spanish Inquisition, but certainly not now.)

– In his first town hall meeting, he joked that he “…finally worked at a company where he could read the magazines,” a remark that offended many women since his erstwhile employers publishes such titles as Better Homes & Gardens and Ladies' Home Journal.

As someone once said, success has many fathers and failure is an orphan. Griffin is taking the fall for a mistake that should be pinned squarely on the shoulders of the board of directors. They hired him. They misread his talents and management style as well as the culture of the organization. But, the board stays put while Griffin licks his wounds and decides how best to invest his handsome severance.

The real loser in this charade is Time's already-battered image. In an era when magazines are struggling mightily to stay afloat, it's critical to find a leader who listens and learns before acting. That said, desperate times call for desperate measures. So, if any readers know of a CEO who can turn around a set of floundering magazines while not offending the firmly-entrenched establishment, please alert the Time Warner board of directors. Something tells me they can use all the help they can get.

Feb 18

Civility? We don’t need no stinking civility

Mr. Lemonade.Have the unfortunate shootings in Tucson and President Obama’s state of the union speech changed the vitriolic state of political discourse in our country? Steve Cohen (Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Director of the Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs) thinks they have. He also believes we’ll see a kinder, gentler discourse in the future. Color Co-host Brendan ‘Muggs’ Mullin and me yellow for cautious. Click on the link below to listen to our discussion with Professor Cohen.


Feb 17

Start me up

Today's post is dedicated to Ann Barlow and Edward M. "Ted" Birkhahn.

Representing VC-backed start-ups is a slippery slope at best. On the plus side, many of these AX034090 nascent businesses are pioneers in new, and robust, sectors that are sure to grow in the future (think: clean tech, nanoscience, Manhattan fruit stand vending, etc.).

As a result, they're extremely attractive for two reasons:

– Their business model might actually succeed and you may find yourself in the role of a latter-day Waggoner-Edstrom (a West Coast powerhouse PR firm that, in the early 1980s, partnered with a tiny start-up called Microsoft).
– You'll be able to build your sector credentials and, when the timing is right, trade up to a serious, established player in the space for a far larger budget.

But, the dark side of start-ups is bleak indeed. To wit:

– They're chaotic and almost impossible to keep on track in terms of program strategy and implementation.
– The in-house marketing or PR contact (if one exists) is typically 12-years old and has no clue whatsoever how to manage an agency or a national publicity campaign.
– Despite being founded by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg wanna-bes, most start-ups tend to follow the Japanese consensus management style. Decision making is often glacial, always muddled and often reversed multiple times after the green light has been given to the agency. We had one start-up change from being a BtoC player to a BtoB, and back again (all within six months).
– Start-ups believe they're making the world a much better place. So, even though they may be bringing a next generation circuit board to market, the CEO and his team believe they should be simultaneously delivering a keynote speech at Davos and appearing on the cover of Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
– Every press announcement has to be crammed full of tech speak, industry jargon and laughable hyperbole. One start-up wanted the words 'funky culture' included in the boilerplate description of the firm believing it would catch editor's eyes and help separate them from the competition. Not.
– Last, but not least, start-ups say they want strategic counseling. But they don't. They want order-takers who are willing to work insane hours, make endless changes on press releases and endure the oral and written abuse when the end results don't meet the client's expectations.

We've fired quite a few start-ups over the years. We ended one relationship because the client violated the letter of agreement and stole away our account executive. We ended another relationship when friends at other agencies told us the client was shopping the account around after only a few weeks of working together.

I guess agencies will continue to represent these high maintenance clients because of the 'Zuckerberg effect' and the chance to build credentials in a high growth sector. Then, of course, some agency CEOs may actually believe the abuse heaped on an account team by a start-up is akin to basic training in the Army. It toughens one up for the bigger battles down the road.

I'd like to say we'll avoid all start-ups in the future. But, we won't. Hey, there's a guy holding on the phone right now who says he's the next Steve Jobs. Gotta run.

Feb 16

Your time is gonna come

The Carmichael Lynch/Harley-Davidson relationship recently went belly up after 31 years. Dr. Lets-break-up Pepper Snapple Group just snapped its four-decade long ties with Y&R. And, after a century of partnering with McCann (yes, that's 100 years,) ExxonMobil has put its account up for review.

Client-agency loyalty is a vestige of the past. For some agencies, particularly the large ad firms that are struggling mightily to change their business models, the sea change can spell doom. But, for fleet of foot, forward-looking consultancies, change signals unprecedented opportunity as well.

In addition to large agency bureaucracy, a Rupal Parekh piece in Ad Age cites several other reasons for the dissolution of long-standing relationships, including: procurement's increased presence in agency selection, CMO turnover (and the desire of the new sheriff to quickly make her mark with a new team of her choosing) and client legacy structures that retard the swift adoption of change.

For the most part, though, change is occurring because the monolithic holding companies are clinging to outmoded business models (think: 30-second TV spots, 15 percent commission and the NIH phenomenon). NIH stands for 'not invented here' and describes the insular mindset within many holding companies to embrace new, outside ideas.

We've held onto nearly all of our long-standing accounts by constantly trying to provide a value add with new and different thinking. That thinking has also enabled us to crack Fortune 500 clients (who still maintain their long-standing relationships with holding company PR firms while we're working with them on new, out-of-the-box assignments. And, how cool is that?).

One reason we're able to bring radically new offerings to market so quickly is because we're unencumbered by holding company red tape. We don't have multiple, internal review boards. And, we don't need to have a numbers-cruncher in London bless our efforts in writing before we can go to market.

Another key reason independent firms do so well is the hands-on involvement from every member of our senior management team. In the same Ad Age article mentioned above, Phil Geier, former Interpublic chairman and CEO says “…top management in the (big) agencies have lost the concept of being involved with the top management of their clients. Part of it is they don't have the time they used to have… and part of it is a lack of desire.”

Holy red tape, Batman! I get the lack of time. But, a lack of desire? That's shameful. But, that's also the beauty of the classic Led Zeppelin song, 'Your Time Is Gonna Come.'  It's an unintended double entendre for what's happening right now in marketing communications circles. The aircraft carrier-sized holding companies are watching like deer in the headlights as demanding clients and nimble, P.T. boat-sized, independent competitors agree on new, outside-the-box solutions to meet the needs of a rapidly-changing consumer landscape.

It's a great time to be unfettered by holding company chains and free to think about what's next. It's a win-win for us and the client who needs to demonstrate a serious value add to his senior management team as well.

Feb 15

It’s the ‘tude, dude

LeadershipIQ, a training company that specializes in management development, says 46 percent Bad_attitude-20659 of all new hires fail within their first 18 months of employment (insert link). The reason why? Poor attitude.

I can relate. I've had countless encounters over the years with poor  'tudes, including these gems:

– A Drew University intern who, when I asked where my research project was, shrugged her shoulders and sighed, “Sorry, dude. Guess I flaked.”- A recently-hired account executive who strolled into my office and told me he needed an immediate raise since he was “…working on two of the hottest B2B dotcoms in the country.”- A pre-Danderoo executive assistant who, when I asked her if she'd made my travel reservations, snarled, “I'll get to it, ok? I'll get to it.”

In an attempt to determine how my firm tries to prevent hiring employees with poor 'tudes, I turned to Debbie Salerno, our CFO (who also has responsibility for human resources) and Sara Jane Whitman Ramos, who leads our management development program and wields tremendous power at Peppercom.

Both agreed we have a much more stringent hiring process nowadays. Applicants will often meet with six or seven separate employees and we'll compare notes on everything from relevant experience to, yes, attitude.

Debbie and SJWR agree one of the best ways to uncover a poor 'tude is to get an applicant speaking about her previous work experiences. If she relates positive stories and is complimentary of the firm and its principals, we feel good about the applicant. But, if he starts trashing his previous employer and likens him to a combination of Charlie Sheen and Pee Wee Herman, we run away. We run away very, very fast.

SJWR related a recent tale of a woman who came in for an interview from a firm with a notoriously toxic culture. Her credentials were impressive to say the least and, says SJWR, she answered the initial interview questions quite well. But, then, we asked about her previous employer. One would think she'd just escaped from an insane asylum. There was lots of name calling and an increasingly hostile tone in the applicant's voice. We quickly ended the interview and thanked her for her time.

Once someone has been hired, dealing with a poor attitude becomes more problematic, say Salerno and Whitman Ramos. We'll conduct a 360 on each and every employee and, if poor attitude resonates as a concern, let the individual know future advancement and, indeed, employment depends on an attitude adjustment. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. We ended one relationship with an executive because he kept bashing clients to their faces. After being asked off a few accounts, we asked him off the good ship Peppercom.

Salerno says our attrition rate for new employees within the first 18 months is closer to 10 to 15 percent. And, she credits pre-hiring screening and post-employment interventions as the reasons why. SJWR adds that our mentorship and 'buddy' systems also help with attitude adjustments when needed.

All that said, I'm still trying to fix Ed's attitude after 18 years of working alongside the guy. Sometimes one has to overlook a poor 'tude when the dude in question does so many other things well.

Feb 14

Holy App!

Leave it to the Catholic Church to totally muck up its first foray into the wonderful world of 968131-dtevent-pope-apps1 iPhone applications.

In a desperate attempt to look cool and “with it,” the Church circumvented its usual backward, bureaucratic ways to launch an iPhone application that provides Catholics with best practices for confessing one’s sins. (Note: For the unenlightened, one must first confess one’s sins and be absolved by a priest before receiving Holy Communion).

The App not only contains a section for one to log previous sins (a neat feature, BTW), but also provides questions one should ask before entering the ‘confessional’ (a dark, scary little room inside a church where one kneels, recites one’s sins and is then given a list of prayers to recite to cleanse the soul).

Among the iPhone App questions are:

1.)  Do I not give God time every day in prayer?

2.)  Do I not seek to love Him with my whole heart?

3.)  Have I been involved with superstitious practices or have I been involved with the occult? (Note to Repman reader Peter Engel: only you can answer that question.)

For reasons known only to them, the Church then felt compelled to add one other question to its App; a question that was sure to enrage a key constituent audience: gays and lesbians. To wit: ‘Have I been guilty of any homosexual activity?’  Needless to say, the response from gays and lesbians was immediate and understandably negative (insert link of story from Burlington, VT.).

Here’s my question about the iPhone App question: As it was preparing to launch the App in an effort to appear cutting-edge, what genius decided to add the ‘homosexual activity’ question? It immediately undermines the App’s 21st century, forward-looking credibility while unnecessarily alienating a key audience (and, I won’t comment on the obvious hypocrisy of the question in question).

The Catholic Church iPhone App provides a textbook example of how not to engage in social media. An organization must first listen to what’s being said in the blogosphere. Then, it should carefully engage in conversations when, and where, they’re happening on the web to see if their content is being accepted and passed along to others. Only then should an organization begin creating a platform such as an App.

The Church was either in a rush to bring its App to market or purposely decided to offend gays and lesbians with its pointed question. Either way, the Church is once again the big loser. In fact, they remind me of a religious version of the famous mob book authored by Jimmy Breslin and entitled, “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”