Jan 17

Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.



Small and medium-sized public relations firms aren't permitted to represent conflicting brands. We never have been. And, we never will be.

In fact, I'll bet Peppercom alone has turned away millions of dollars of potential billings because an existing or prospective client simply can't abide the thought of our firm representing both her, and her rival. And, I respect that.

But, when it comes to larger agencies, the conflict fog settles in faster than an unexpected ice and wind storm on an exposed summit in the Andes.

Take Kellogg's. Please.

The recent firing of Weber in favor of Edelman because one agency's so-called conflict brand was more acceptable would be funny if it weren't so sad. As a result, Edelman's hastily created conflict brand is now representing Kellogg's while Weber's conflict brand watches from the sidelines. It's all such nonsense.

Because, as the attached article explains, Edelman has MORE direct conflicts with Kellogg's than Quito, Ecuador, has carbon monoxide.

The whole client conflict issue is an embarrassment to our industry. There should be one hard and fast rule that applies equally to small and medium firms as well as the Houdini-like, quick change artists otherwise known as large agencies. The latter are allowed to suddenly create a conflict agency out of whole cloth and claim it's a completely separate firm in a separate space with a separate P&L. Yeah, sure. And, there are still hidden weapons of mass destruction hidden somewhere in Iraq.

One final bone of contention on the conflict agency front. I think it's a total travesty for the PR awards' programs to name conflict agencies as winners in the agency of the year competitions. Talk about an uneven playing field!

Conflict agencies are created with tender, loving care by their parent company owners, nurtured with parent company resources, staffed by parent company personnel, provided parent company infrastructure support AND reap the ongoing bounty of pass-along conflict clients and prospects from the parent company.

How, in god's name, is it fair to name a conflict agency as being better than, say, a Coyne, Padilla Spear, CRT/Tanaka or any other truly independent firm that was created by REAL entrepreneurs who sought no quarter and gave none?

Entrepreneurs are the true heroes in this crazy quilt, Wild West PR world of ours in which large agencies play by one set of rules and the rest of us are bound by the vestiges of some hazy, unwritten codas that cost us dearly.

Postscript: this blogger knows for a fact that one top 10 PR firm represents two of the Big Four accounting firms. And, there are no conflict brands involved either. So, riddle me this: why do the PR trades trumpet the Kellogg's win while conveniently overlooking a breach of conduct as serious as this one?

Repman is now issuing the same advisory to readers and industry leaders alike. The conflict rules and regulations (as well as the awards' programs that favor big agencies) need to be changed in order to assure truth, justice and a level playing field. I'd like to be involved in suggesting, if not shaping, those changes (and welcome others industry leaders to step forward as well).

I'll end with a quote made famous by the Bette Davis character in 'All About Eve'.  At the beginning of what was sure to be a contentious dinner party, she warns the partygoers, "Fasten  your seat belts. We're in for a bumpy night."

And a tip o' Rep's cap to Ken Jacobs for this idea.

Also, Rep extends great thanks to Deb Brown and her traveling troupe of guest bloggers for filling in while I pursued the physical, emotional and spiritual highs and lows found in the Ecuadorean Andes.

Jan 13

When It’s Good to Be Less Popular

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Ann Barlow.

If you’re a cow or a heifer, a steer or a bull, you are quite a bit less popular with the American people than you were five years ago.  Same for pigs.  We don’t even feel the same way about chickens as we did in the first decade of the 21st century.  An animal could develop a complex.


But not in this case.  As New York Times magazine food columnist Mark Bittman writes in this week’s blog, Americans are eating less meat than we used to.  Down 12 percent in the past five years. 

There are plenty of posits on the reason behind the decline.  Rising food costs.  Less money in the checking account.  And the occasional common sense that we the people sometimes show.  We may actually be realizing that an 8-ounce portion of steak or pasta Bolognese, while delicious, just isn’t all that good for us.

Full disclosure:  I am not a vegetarian.  I do try to get my protein from sources like nuts, beans, eggs and cheese.  I do, however, tuck into some grilled chicken or sliced pork tenderloin at least a couple of times per week.  But I don’t feel the need to have meat every night the way I used to.

I know I’m healthier as a result, as are all of us who have changed our consumption habits for one reason or another.  And if the trend continues, animals won’t be the only ones breathing easier.  Less methane equals better air quality, too. 

Of course, industry associations are shall we say, having a cow?  Mad as a wet hen?  They aren’t as happy as a pig in you-know-what, that’s for sure.  I can understand that, since they represent people who pay them whose livelihoods could be threatened by such a trend.  But how often do you have eggs and bacon for breakfast.  It’s not like it’s the first time our eating habits have changed and it won’t be the last.   

So, Bessie, Wilbur.   Don’t take our staying away personally.  Sometimes it really is good to be less popular.


Jan 12

CES: Optimism Amidst the Chaos

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Maggie O'Neill.

What do Justin Timberlake, Snooki and 140,000 people have in common this week? Ces-2012They all descended on the Consumer Electronics Show for four days of technology’s best and its predictions for 2012.  As this is my 15th year here- give or take a year or two- I have to report that while it’s chaotic and loud as ever, it does have a slightly different feel to it. 

First, it feels like the year of the entrepreneur.  While players like LG, Samsung and Panasonic bicker in their football field sized booths over whose flat screen is larger and more 3D, the tech entrepreneur is quietly– and not so quietly- showcasing true innovations from robots to flying cars to medical monitoring apps.  And the attendees were taking notice.  

The second observation, despite the onslaught of celebrities, was the show reverted back to its core benefit– building relationships.  The show– as chaotic as it is- reminded me of the power and value of the face-to-face meeting.  Gone are the days of avatar presenters and back are the small couches and intimate meeting spaces.  It seemed that exhibitors are making an effort to talk with, listen to and build something with their customers.

From the perspective of an event marketer, this is a welcome approach.  Yes, the bells and whistles of an exciting and over-the-top product launch are all still there.  I mean Justin Timberlake at a Panasonic event, come on.  But the rumors of the demise of the face-to-face event, the virtual tradeshow- only predictions and all meetings online, seem to be premature.

All good news for business and for marketers, now if only my black jack dealer could get on board with this optimism.

Jan 11

Should national college football championship play another game?

Guest blog by Greg Schmalz, president, Schmalz Communications.

Deathbcs2So the question of whether Alabama deserved the right to play for college football’s national championship has been answered.

You’ll recall that Alabama lost to Louisiana State University, 9-6, on November 5, 2011. The Crimson Tide seemed to have the upper hand in that regular season game, but came up empty on four of six field goals attempts.  Yet, many thought they were the best team in the country and deserved a rematch with LSU.

One by one teams fell by the wayside.  Oregon, Stanford and then finally Oklahoma State.  LSU remained the only unbeaten team in major college football.

Well, Alabama got the rematch it wanted and the Crimson Tide went out Monday night and showed why they deserved to be in the BCS title game as they easily won, 21-0.

On one hand, you had a motivated team in Alabama. Heck, they lost the first game and wanted to redeem themselves.  Nobody likes to be a loser and they wanted to prove they were the better team.

On the other hand, how could LSU get motivated for such a game?  After all, the Bayou Bengals went into Tuscaloosa and beat Alabama on its home field.  You mean, we have to do it again?

Yes, Alabama featured a smothering defense, holding LSU to just 92 yards in total offense and allowed the Tigers just once to cross midfield.

Playing 44 days after their last game was not conducive to being sharp, either.  Why the powers-to-be drag these games out is beyond me other than to maximize the income they can generate from television revenue.

And while Alabama can now claim to be No. 1, are they really?  What happened to the regular season game?  Doesn’t that mean anything?  So it’s one game apiece, should they play another one?

Is the current system acceptable?  Or should there be a more formal playoff such as Divisions II and III?  After all, Alabama becomes the first national champion since the BCS championship game was implemented not to have won its own conference.  The rematch really hasn't solved anything.

Jan 10

I’m so nice… as long as I’m getting paid for it

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Sara Whitman.

I am all for authenticity. In this business, you can’t put a high enough premium on straight talk, honesty and the real deal. Sometimes, though, you can be a little too open, thereby jeopardizing your reputation and the reputation of your company.

Designall.dllTake for example my return home last week from an international trip with my family. Like most Americans, I was dreading the airplane travel. It’s not a fear of flying or security lines or even traveling with my three kids (who were very well behaved for 12+ hours, for those of you think children are better off in isolation than in the main cabin).

Nope, for me, the constant delays, lack of reasoning and utter disregard for human beings on the plane kills me. This time, we were flying Continental. I’ve been impressed with the United merger so far. It hasn’t impacted me all that much beyond being able to consolidate my miles and a few gate changes. So when my family of five faced a flight delay on our last of a three-leg trip home, I was disappointed, but I know it’s not the airline.

We were delayed, not delayed, leaving right now, last call, and then sat on the tarmac before taking off 90 minutes later. Annoying. Still, it’s the reality of flying today. And it doesn’t change my opinion of Continental or any other airline for that matter.
Then the kicker. Our flight attendant gave us the option to either stay on the plane or to get off. Some passengers opted to stay and others tried to get off. That’s when she said, “Oh no. It’s either all of you or none of you. I’m not going to stand here and be nice to you if I’m not getting paid.”

What? Did I hear that right? You’re happy to be nice to us if we’re all trapped on the plane, but if anyone gets off the plane, you’re no longer paid and we have a fat chance of any common courtesy. Amazing. Authentic? Yes, though not in the way Continental would hope, I’m sure.
We all stayed. The attendant was very pleasant the rest of the trip. But there was no doubt every passenger on that flight knew her real deal.

Jan 09

Why I don’t have cable TV

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Carl Foster.

(Below, Apple computer ad, Time Magazine, November 1985.)

Xlg_apple_IIC_0 Xlg_apple_IIC_1Some monthly bills are a fact of life: Electricity, gas, water. Many people include cable TV in that list. I don’t. Instead I have internet TV – here’s why.

1 – Cable TV is expensive
There are a lot of differences between living in the UK and America, as this expat can testify. One big difference is the cost of TV. I was staggered when I arrived in America and looked at cable TV options. $60 for a basic package!? Per month!? In the UK most people have a TV aerial in their loft (attic) with which they receive free-to-air channels. True, for much of my life there were only four channels to choose from, but since the introduction of digital broadcasts and “Freeview” set-top boxes, most people receive approximately 30 channels, including cable staples such as history, food and news channels. You can buy a “Freeview” box for about £50 ($70). Here the cable companies charge $8.99 a month to rent a set-top box, and that is before the $60 for the content. $800 per year when I am used to a one off $70? No thank you. Instead I bought a smart Blu-ray player for $150 and I pay a combined $20 per month for Hulu+ and Netflix.

2 – I don’t do appointment viewing
Life’s busy, traffic happens and babies poop at inconvenient times. This, and a whole load of other reasons, is why DVRs were invented. The next logical step from DVRs though is total on demand viewing. This is what internet TV is. There is no such thing  as “putting the box on.” Having Netflix, Hulu or Amazon means you have to make an active choice in what you watch, not passively watch whatever happens to be on. I find I am now more selective and I watch less TV as a result.

3 – I want to watch a world of content
Growing up in southern Britain, I always wished the French would crank up the wattage on their TV transmitters. Not only is French TV saucier, but if I could have watched French channels, I would have earned better grades in French class. With internet TV, I can get French programming, German, Indian and much more. True, Bollywood movies aren’t really my cup of tea, but watching international events through the lens of an Indian news channel is fascinating. Moreover, I can watch British TV channels and my daughter can stay connected with the characters from her favorite BBC shows.

There are downsides to internet TV. There are delays before some shows become available, watching lives sports is practically impossible and there are quality and occasional buffering issues. But, for me, those are minor compared to the advantages.

The internet has shaken up many industries (music) and almost destroyed others (newspapers). However, it seems the TV industry of the 2000s has learnt a lesson from the music industry of the 1990s. Instead of using a big stick to confront the revolutionary change the internet has brought about (catching the pennies by shutting down Napster and missing the pounds by letting Apple own digital music),  the major networks got ahead of the game by setting up Hulu.com, the go-to destination for internet TV. The Hulu experience is still spotty, but with the backing of the networks it is sure to improve. I just hope the price doesn’t go up with the quality.

Jan 06

Simply Botched Service

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer and RepChatter co-host Deb Brown.

In 2010, the New York City Department of Transportation and the MTA New York City Transit decided to put a new type of bus service into action on First and Second Avenues: the Select Bus Service (the bus with the blue lights), which is supposed to speed up the buses by 20 percent. Two months ago, the City decided to expand the program up and down 34th Street. Instead of paying on the bus, you need to insert your MetroCard into one of two free-standing kiosks by the bus stop and get a receipt. You can then enter through any door. This is similar as to how you would get on a subway car – you pay first and then get on any car.

In theory, this seems like a good idea. I’m sure the City believes it’s demonstrating that it’s innovative in finding new solutions to move people faster and having riders feel more positive about the transit system. However, as a daily rider of the 34th Street bus, the slogan “Select Bus Service: Simply Better Service” doesn’t ring true. Here’s why:

First, since November, from my experience, at least 30-40 percent of the time one or both kiosks are either out of service and/or the paper receipt doesn’t come out. The kiosk is happy to take the $2.25 from your MetroCard, it just decides not to give you a receipt. This poses a problem if the transit police decide to check.

Second, if the transit police decide to randomly check a bus, and you explain that the paper receipt didn’t come out, they will still issue you a $115 fine. Why they don’t have mobile readers that can check your MetroCard to see if you paid is beyond me. I still don’t have a clear answer as to how you fight the ticket and prove that you paid.

Third, if both kiosks are out of service at one of the stops, EVERYONE who got on at that stop must get off at the next stop and pay and get a receipt. Talk about defeating the purpose of this bus! It’s supposed to speed up the ride, yet imagine 20 or more riders at a stop getting off to get a receipt and then get back on.

Fourth, if you’re running for a bus, you may make it if you just pay on the bus. But, if you’re running for a Select Bus, you now have to take several more seconds to hit start, put in your MetroCard, and wait for the receipt (if it comes out). I have witnessed some kind bus drivers who patiently wait for the rushed riders, and I have seen others who leave just as the person receives his/her receipt, leaving the poor rider to wait for the next bus.

Fifth, one objective of the MetroCard was to eliminate paper receipts for transfers. Now, we have paper receipts just to get on the bus.

Sixth, two stops were eliminated from 34th Street: Lexington Avenue and Madison Avenue. This speeds up the ride, of course, but also makes for some unhappy passengers who used to get on or off at those stops.

Seventh, one of the two M34 buses turns on 34th Street and Second Avenue and proceeds to 23rd Street and First Avenue. At that First Avenue stop, there’s no kiosk. The City apparently didn’t realize that you can’t put kiosks there for some reason (probably because there isn’t enough room). So, anyone who gets on that stop gets on for free.

Eighth, I’m sure there are some who are skipping the kiosk altogether and simply getting on for free, which is frustrating to all of us who pay. It’s like jumping the turnstiles in the subway, only a lot easier.

The City should consider changing its slogan to “Select Bus Service: Simply Botched Service.”

Jan 05

Press # now to purchase a decent call center system

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Carl Foster.

Telephone-Head-Costumes-1“Customer service can’t be turned on or off like a tap, it’s either part of the culture of an organization or it isn’t.” I heard that line from an executive at John Lewis, the quality British department store so famed for its customer service.

What never fails to amaze me though is that even if money can’t buy an improvement in customer service from your human employees, money certainly can buy a decent call center system. Why is it that some companies make it so easy while others seem to be intent on confusing and frustrating the customer? Some examples:

The Phone Company – I had been overcharged for some international calls. Mistakes happen. The important thing is how they are dealt with. I called the 1-800 number. “Hi, thanks for calling, this is Sam in Boise, Idaho, how can I help?” I explained the situation. Sam pulled out his calculator, worked out what I was charged and what I should have been charged and said the difference would be refunded on my next bill. Problem solved in less than five minutes.

Insurance (Vision) – I lost my insurance card so I called to get a new one. I gave some details, they gave me some numbers and within five minutes I was downloading a new card from the website. A call center agent and a website saying the same thing? That doesn’t happen often.

The Bank – My bank has perhaps the best automated telephone system I have come across. In fact, most of the time everything you need can be done automatically. One of the best things about my bank’s system is that it isn’t patronizing. It doesn’t t-a-l-k  s-o  s-l-o-w-l-y  y-o-u  t-h-i-n-k  y-o-u  m-i-g-h-t SCREAM! It talks at a decent pace with the minimum garble necessary. Also, if you do need to speak to a real person you get passed to one of their delightful and helpful people, who I believe are located in India.  Jolly nice people those Indians.

BCIS – Formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Bureau for Citizenship and Immigration Services should be a vast monster of government incompetence and rudeness. However, I kid you not when I say it is a case study in efficiency, politeness and helpfulness. Considering the bureaucratic nightmare that immigrating to the ‘Land of the Free’ is I am amazed that they can do anything useful. But whenever I have dealt with an official from the BCIS I have walked away in wonderment at why private sector companies with paying customers can’t do better.

Speaking of which, here are some other examples:

Insurance (Car) – I called to cancel my policy. First mistake. I called the main number and was told “We don’t handle that here, you need to call the St Louis office.” Could they just transfer me? No. I needed to hang up and call a non-free phone number. I called St Louis. “Yes” was the greeting when they picked up the phone. They couldn’t deal with my request on the phone. Only take my details and promise that it would be dealt with and I would get a cancellation notice in the mail. To be fair, that is exactly what happened, but the process didn’t instill me with confidence in the organization or the people I was dealing with.

Appliance Company – I ordered a new filter for my fridge. Two weeks later it had not arrived. I called the main number on the website. Unbeknown to me I was transferred to a parts supplier. I gave my details but there was no record of my order. This was because they were just the supplier and didn’t have access to the customer service information. I needed to call back between 8.00 am and 5.00 pm ET so I could speak to customer service. Seriously? 8-5 ET? So, you don’t give a hoot about customers on the west coast? Next day, short on time and at work, I try the online chat function. I gave all my info but they have no record of my info and suggest I call customer service. I call. I was told my filters shipped 10 days after placing the order and they should be here in 7-10 days. Thanks for keeping me updated about that. I gave you my email address for what exactly?

DVLA – It’s not a private sector company but the British Drivers and Vehicle Licensing Agency has the most infuriating phone system known to man, or at least this man. It has more options than a Japanese buffet but I can tell you now, after going through almost a dozen layers of “press one for X” then “press five for Y” you will hear this: Information regarding X can be found on our website www.dvla.gov.uk” It once took me 30 minutes to figure out how to speak to a human.

According to Emily Yellin, author of “Your Call Is (Not That) Important To Us” and consultant to Peppercom, an American-based customer service agent costs approximately $7.50 per phone call, outsourcing the agent to another country brings the average cost down to about $2.35 per call and having customers take care of the problem themselves reduces the cost to 32 cents per call, or contact. Well, I don’t think I am the only one to think my phone company’s  $7.50 investment in Sam’s phone call with me has made me a $100+ per month customer for life.

But, as I said at the start, it is not just about putting a human on the phone. Much can be accomplished with automated phone systems, just make sure you buy the right one and invest in the right consultant to help you install and run it.

Jan 04

We Can Hear You Now

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Maggie O'Neill.

As we all come back to our desks and start to think about business in 2012, it’s the 2011 whiplash from large company about-faces that has me thinking.  In 2011, the power of the consumer went from “consumer as king” to consumer as the king, CEO, We-hear-youprime minister and more.  From Verizon’s most recent U-turn on online charges to Bank of America’s drop of a $5 debit card fee to Netflix’s new company, ha just kidding emails, this has been the year consumers fought back…and won.

Verizon, the most recent example, was the quickest turn-around of all of them in late December.  The company decided to charge customers $2 for phone and online payments, hoping to push for more auto payments.  It didn’t work and customers walked…and walked loudly.  And Verizon changed their minds almost immediately. 

So what does this say about companies trying to make smart business decisions in 2012.  Looking at what seems like short-minded decisions by these large companies in 2011, it’s obvious that there was a business goal behind them.  Some more obvious than others.  But who was looking out for the customer?  Did they all really think that their service or product was not a commodity in today’s over-commoditized world?  A place where a loyal consumer can just sign-off with one click and be lost forever to a competitor?

Also, with all of the listening tools out there, all of the open consumer platforms and all of the noise consumers made with each of the prior company decisions, didn’t someone think about the backlash?  Couldn’t each of these decisions have been based more on what consumers were clamoring for – and what they would tolerate – rather than just what the company decided? 

So what have we learned from 2011?  Well the customer learned that they have more power to make change than they knew, and they will continue to do so unless companies pay more attention to customer service and what their base is saying.  As for brand decision makers, we need to listen more, continue to respond quickly, and build business and campaigns with customers in mind first.  As for the Verizons of the world, and the rest of us, consumers we can “hear you now.”

Jan 03

Are you bowled over?

Today's Guest blog by Greg Schmalz, president, Schmalz Communications.  (RepMan is off climbing mountains again and I have been offered an opportunity to contribute to this spot while he’s continuing his higher education.- Greg)

BowlgamesEvery year football is synonymous with the holiday season. And while I have been around sports for more than four decades, the college gridiron season continues to get longer and longer.  And this is what’s known as the bowl season. It’s comparable to professional sports playoffs. Yet, it seems to drag on.

I can remember where the major college bowl games were limited to four – the Cotton, the Orange, the Sugar and, of course, the granddaddy of them all – the Rose Bowl.

But through the years, the list continues to grow.  Would you believe there are 35 bowl games this season?  The bowl season kicked off on December 17, 2011 and will not end until Jan. 9 when Louisiana State plays Alabama for the national championship.

Are all of these games necessary?  Are they truly meaningful?

There are five BCS (Bowl Championship Series) bowl games – Orange, Sugar, Rose and Fiesta Bowls, plus the national championship game.  But, my, have times changed.  Naturally, corporate sponsorship is tied to these games and they often change.  I can remember the FedEx Orange Bowl.  Well, the game is no longer played in the Orange Bowl in Miami as that stadium has been torn down and now Discover Card is the title sponsor.

The Sugar Bowl, which originally was played in Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, is now played in the Mercedes-Benz (formerly Louisiana) Superdome.

But back to my original question.  Are all of these games necessary?  Through Christmas Day, seven bowl games were played from St. Petersburg, Florida to Honolulu, Hawaii.  On average, these games drew less than 30,000 fans.

Some conferences are locked into certain bowls games.  To become bowl eligible, a team only needs to win six games against Division 1 FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) schools.

Consider this.  Of the 35 games (70 teams), 13 teams with a 6-6 record are playing in bowl games.  And another 15 teams are just 7-5.  And UCLA, which finished 6-7 for the season, qualified because USC – which won the Pac-12s South Division – was ruled ineligible to compete in a bowl game this season.  So, 29 teams or 41.4 percent of the bowl teams have a record of 7-5 or worse.

For some of these schools, their regular season ended in November. For others who played in conference championships, they played into the first week of December.  But students had exam week and may have had been on break.  Now, they come back to practice again to get ready for a bowl game.  To some, who had aspirations of playing in one of those major bowls game and came up short, playing in a bowl game is meaningless.  But to others, they would be a little more motivated as it may be their first time to play in a bowl game or may be matched against a better team.

But is it worth all that travel and expense to play in front of half-filled stadiums?  Are sponsors getting their bang for their buck?  Do the layoffs the players have between the end of the regular season and the bowl games have a dramatic effect on the quality of play in the games?

For me, the New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day games were most meaningful.  But even that has changed now.  With New Year’s Day falling on a Sunday this year, football’s big boys (the National Football League) took center stage on the final week of the regular season while the college bowls were pushed back a day to yesterday.

So, what do you think?  Have you had enough football or do you think they’ll eventually get to 50 bowls or something along college basketball’s tournament with a field of 65?

I think they are diluting the product.  The quality of the game is suffering. In most cases, they become shootouts.  But if the fan base is not supporting the games, then why play them?

Hope all RepMan readers have had a nice holiday season and best wishes for a healthy and prosperous new year.