Apr 10

Truth In Advertising (A rebuttal)

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer Matt Lester.

matt TVSince 1912, the credo of McCann Erickson has been, ‘Truth Well Told.’ I believed in it when I started there as a young art director working on the Coca-Cola account, and I still believe in it today, years after leaving the company. As far as I’m concerned, it’s what every advertising writer, art director and creative director should strive for: Tell the story of a brand in an intelligent, engaging, emotionally bonding and, yes, truthful way.

Modern history can be told in a series of impactful, truthful tag lines, alongside the advertising that goes with them. The most perceptive lines are a reflection of their time, mirroring the societal comportment of the moment in a way no one had heard before, yet everyone can instantly relate to. Some speak directly to the zeitgeist, emphatically echoing the defining social spirit of the time, and some go so far as to change it and the collective dialogue for generations to come.

The feminist movement of the ‘70s was given a calling card with L’Oreal’s ‘Because I’m Worth It.’ To this day it instills self-confidence, pride and moxie in women around the globe.

Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ splashed every shoe box they sold with inspiration and, along the way, brought out that little bit of big-time-athlete in us all.

In 1984, Apple computer was launched by the most famous Super Bowl spot in history with the claim: ‘On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984.”’ That seminal spot ran just once, and the brand that ‘Thinks Different’ went on to change the world.

For nearly 20 years, who hasn’t reacted to MasterCard’s ‘Priceless’ campaign, with its narratives centered around one of our universal truths: meaningful experiences with family and friends trump money.

Of course, nothing ruins great creative more quickly and thoroughly than a bad product. There are those times when, after creative is developed and executed, quality control drops the ball or service just generally declines. Unfortunately, “truth well told” can quickly become “lies well sold,” and those once lauded products just as quickly become part of a standup bit in the blink and twinkle of an ad agency’s eye. The solution? Come up with a solution. The offending agency should have been the first to honestly admit the problem, then go about fixing it.

And, needless to say, public relations campaigns aren’t immune to this phenomenon. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re dishonest. That’s just too simple. When good advertising goes bad, you can’t always blame the creative. That’s just too simple.

Now, that’s truth in advertising.


Apr 08

A germ of truth in a Petri dish full of lies

youre-on-diet-coke-realisticI’m an entrepreneur who plies his craft in the wonderful world of public relations. I’m paid to generate factual and accurate information either directly to the consumer or through an intermediary, AKA the media. People often confuse PR with advertising, but they are two different animals.

Advertising continues to make totally bogus and unrealistic claims in its messaging, while we end users experience something far less desirable.

The most recent instance of such a transgression occurred when Diet Coke decided to connect with my fellow entrepreneurs through a campaign, titled: ‘You’re on Diet Coke.’.

You can peruse the details, but the gist of Diet Coke’s ad strategy was to position their product as THE ideal solution for the time-starved, information-overloaded entrepreneur who needs to get mountains of work completed before sunrise.

As might be expected, health experts objected, suggesting that Diet Coke was knowingly encouraging my fellow Terps to add Diet Coke to their existing list of such stimulants as kale, Rosa Labs’ Soylent and, of course, caffeine.

Instead of admitting the truth, a Diet Coke spokesperson said the ad targeted, “ambitious young achievers from all walks of life and the ‘You’re On’ reference served as a nod to Diet Coke’s ‘uplift for those moments when you need to be on.” Yeah, sure. And, the Mets will win the World Series this year.

Had I been counseling Diet Coke, I’d have advised them to close the gap between their value proposition and the actual end user experience. Maybe a headline that read: “Need to finish that business plan tonight? Easy. Wash down two Adderall with a Diet Coke and call us in the morning. And, let’s all raise a glass to your Series A funding!”


I’m pleased to report I’ve found a glimmer of sunshine in advertising’s otherwise cloudy skies. And, it comes from JetBlue, whose new campaign, “Air on the side of humanity” tells it like it is.

Sadly, though, JetBlue is a rare germ of truth in a Petri dish full of false advertising promises.

United’s “Fly the friendly skies” is laugh out loud funny considering the airline’s consistently horrible rankings in annual customer service rankings. I recently dealt with a five-hour plus United delay in Las Vegas because a broken part wasn’t available at McCarren, and had to be flown in from Newark! That prompted me to suggest a new destination-specific motto for United: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Especially United Aircraft.”

McDonald’s is just as bad. Their brand promise is, “I’m lovin’ it!” I suggest they be more specific, and rotate the word it with others, such as: high blood pressure, obesity and stroke.

And Coca-Cola’s new slogan is, “The world of ahh.” Now, that’s just two letters away from authenticity. Had it read, “The world or argh”, we’d be in business. Coke’s Argh could refer to everything from the bloated, unclean feeling one experiences after consuming a Happy Meal, or it reflect the pain of having to buy a whole new wardrobe to accommodate a far larger frame.

I walk the talk when it comes to authentic taglines. Whenever I perform comedy on stage, I warn audiences to “Expect less.” And, I deliver on that promise each, and every, time.

And, after Crain’s New York Business named Peppercomm’s the city single best workplace (topping 930 other competitors, thank you very much), it provided us with an authentic slogan for the following year: “Nowhere to go but down.”

When will marketers finally wise up and align their messaging with the actual audience experience? I’d suggest the 12th of Never as the entire industry’s response to the question.

Apr 07

Your listening tour is experiencing an indefinite delay

NJTddddI had to chuckle when I read New Jersey Transit’s most recent passenger newsletter, titled, ‘FYI.’

The chuckle was prompted by the lead story. It was written by Ronnie Hakim, NJT’s brand new executive director, and titled, ‘It’s an honor to serve you.’

In the text, Hakim reports that she’s spent every day since March 1st riding the system, introducing herself and listening to what we commuters have to say. I guess it’s Hakim’s version of Hillary Clinton’s legendary, if ill-fated, listening tours of 2008.

NJT’s new top kick says that, when our paths ultimately cross, she’d like me to tell her what’s on my mind and how ‘we’ can build a first-class transportation experience together. I think that line in particular elicited a laugh out loud chortle.

Hakim noted that, in her 23 years of service at the New York MTA and nearly four years at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, her focus had centered on three critical tasks:

– Identifying priorities
– Motivating people
– Achieving results

She plans to do the same at NJT.

I honestly wish Hakim well in her new assignment. But, I’d also counsel her to begin by managing rider expectations with authentic language and realistic goals.

For example, we will NEVER, EVER make NJT a first-class transportation experience. I’d settle, instead, for achieving a third-class, third world experience. That would be an upgrade.

And, I think it’s easy to identify realistic priorities:

– Reduce the endless number of indefinite delays.
– Encourage conductors to treat passengers with some semblance of respect instead of contempt.
– Provide rest rooms that don’t make the black hole of Calcutta seem inviting in comparison.

I’d also suggest Hakim resurrect NJT’s tagline from a few years back. But, I’d add one key word to the brand promise:

‘Getting you there (eventually).’

Consumers respect brands that own up to the reality of the experience they provide. So, if it’s less-than-stellar, admit it.

Hakim should apologize for the role her transportation system has played in spoiling so many commuters’ days for so many years.

And, she shouldn’t enumerate vague, feel good goals. Instead. She should tell me the specific, concrete steps you’ll put in place to at least make the NJT commuting experience palatable.

Be honest with me, and I’ll lighten up on the various Tweets and Facebook postings I’ve written over the years. Until then, I suspect the only time our paths will cross will be on @NJTransitSucks.

Apr 03

The Spoiler

Few things infuriate me more than brands who promise one thing in their messaging and then provide a very different, often abysmal, end user experience.

unfriessssssssssssnd1Coca-Cola, for example, promises happiness. But, their empty-calorie drinks only expand Americans’ waistlines while the sugary liquid rots away our teeth.

There are many other brands who do the same thing (either hoping their upbeat words will somehow entice people to forgive their lousy service or, perhaps, simply not caring one way or the other).

No business, though, can match United Airlines for the sheer hubris of their message (‘Fly the friendly skies’) or the fresh hell of their actual service.

aaaaaaaaaaaaaIMG-20140402-00056I’m writing this in the midst of a typical United Airlines Twilight Zone episode.

United Flight 1271 from Las Vegas to Newark was scheduled to depart yesterday morning at 10:57 am (PDT) and arrive at 7:01pm (EDT).  “That’s a surprisingly quick three-hour, 51-minute trip,” our enthusiastic captain informed us as we buckled up.

And, then, as sure as lost wages in Las Vegas, the captain spoke again: “Ah, ladies and gentlemen, as I’m sure you can appreciate United Airlines employs some of the finest flight mechanics in the world. Well, one of these eagle eyes just spotted something amiss in the cockpit. So, please pack up your belongings and de-plane. We’ll keep you posted. Oh, and thanks again for choosing United as your carrier.”

And, so we de-planed. And, we sat. And sat. And sat.

Finally, a gate attendant announced, “Well, the mechanics have found the problem. It’s a part problem. But the problem with the part problem is, well, we don’t have any extra parts here in Las Vegas. So, we’re checking ALL of our hubs to see if they have the problem part. Once we determine that they do have it, why we’ll put it on the first available flight headed this way. Oh, and once it does arrive, we figure the mechanics will need two hours to install it. We do thank you for your patience AND for flying the friendly skies.”

Trust me. Had I been holding that missing part at that precise moment, I would have whipped it right at the gate attendant’s head.

Instead, I continued to sit.

As I fiddled my thumbs, I thought of a new, unique and memorable nickname for United: ‘The Spoiler.’

United: ‘Give us the opportunity, and we WILL spoil your business trip or vacation. Give us the opportunity, and we WILL spoil your day, your week, your month or even your year.”

United: ‘The Spoiler.’

Apr 02

How to Hire Your Next Communications Agency

Today’s guest post is by WALEKPeppercommer Brian Hickey.

keep-calm-and-make-the-right-choice-3If you’re a professional services firm and shopping for a communications firm, you’ve confronted the pros and cons of an in-house approach to communications, which affords its own advantages and disadvantages.

The code for successfully outsourcing communications isn’t a secret.  But it does require some key ingredients requiring specific input from both the client and the communications agency:

1.  Begin at the end.  A grasp of agency economics is critical tool to assess compatibility and prospects for long-term success.  Understanding the economics of the agency you’re contemplating hiring is crucial.  What kind of business does this communications agency wish to build?  What are they trying to accomplish, and how will you factor into their pursuit of profitability and growth?  Will your business be firmly seated among the top third of the agency’s clientele, or will you be somewhere in the middle of a long list?

2.  Let your communications agency succeed.  You can’t just hand the reins to your new agency… you need to provide the horse, too.  A successful firm/agency partnership will hinge on the client having the right people and processes in place to permit the agency to succeed at what it’s been hired to do.  At the least, this means clear communication channels between the agency and key marketing people.  Also critical is providing access to someone in the firm with broad institutional knowledge.

3.  Be clear; be strategic.  Professional services firms and their agencies can do themselves a big favor by establishing clear expectations from the outset.  What do we want to accomplish by working together?  What’s included in the fee, what’s not?  The best outcomes for outsourced communications efforts will be found in firms that have linked their underlying business strategy to a clearly defined communications strategy that links up to the practice-group level.

4.  Prune where you must.  A communications agency taking on a new professional services client is often surprised to find themselves inheriting a clandestine relationship between an individual partner deep in the firm’s galaxy of professionals and a second, competing communications firm.  Often the partner is happy, the communications interloper is happy, and you, the in-house marketer, have one less headache.  You’ll need to deal with that at some point if you bring a new agency on.

5.  Stay in your lane.  Given the day-to-day hurly-burly of professional services marketing life, it’s not surprising to find “drift” occurring in a firm/communications agency relationship.  It happens just as often among in-house teams.  Keeping tabs on how the external communications team is doing relative to the targeted practice groups and desired objectives will help you avoid that.

6.  Think small.  The best results start with small steps.  Agree with your new agency from the outset that you will focus on a finite number of partners in a clearly defined space.  This is your “beta” group.  Success begets success.  Don’t underestimate the ricochet effect a few high-quality placements for one practice can have in creating buy-in from recalcitrant partners.

7.  Expect knowledge.  At the risk of stating the obvious, a communications agency professional should understand precisely not only how your partners work, but how your firm and your clients’ businesses work.  There are no shortcuts – i.e. they either understand the difference between an underwriter and an issuer or they don’t.  If they don’t, they have no business sitting down with the head of your securitization practice.

8.  A fast start.  You want a firm that hits the ground running from day one.  While planning is absolutely necessary, it should represent a straight line to results, not a detour.  An agency’s job is to help you become a star within your firm.  Fast results are a great first step toward that objective.  Trust your gut.

9.  Consistent results.  At the end of the day, communications is about brand support, which means saying the right things, in the right places to the right audiences on an ongoing, consistent basis.

The secret to hiring the right communications firm is no secret: Measure twice, cut once.

Apr 01


New York, April 1, 2014 — Peppercomm today announced that George Washington, the nation’s first president, had joined the firm as chief ethics officer.

The position is Washington’s first since passing away in December, 1799.

April fool aaaaaaassaWashington with Peppercomm Co-founder and CEO, Ed Moed.

Steve Cody, Co-founder of CEO of Peppercomm, noted that Washington was selected after a lengthy interview process.

“We knew every global agency had already cornered the market on any living ex-politico, so we decided to dig deeper as it were,” he explained.

Stiff Competition
Cody said that, in addition to Washington, his firm had interviewed many other deceased candidates, including:

– Winston Churchill (“The cigar-smoking was a deal-breaker.”)
–  Mahatma Gandhi (“The sandals revealed surprisingly ugly feet that we felt would be off-putting to clients.”)
– St. Francis of Assisi (“The man turned out to be a one-trick pony. His only real area of expertise was animals.”)

Cody said that, like so many other former Inside-the-Beltway types, Washington would serve as both an adviser to current clients and help with new business development.

“That said, we’re not letting George near any clients or prospects in the oral hygiene field,” noted Cody. “I’ve seen some bad teeth in my day, but George’s are beyond the pale. Literally.”

Like quite a few other Peppercommers, Washington will telecommute from home. “He’ll continue to be headquartered in his Fairfax, Va., grave, but will periodically visit our offices or join a new business team on-site when needed.”

Roles & Responsibilities
Cody expects Washington to have an immediate impact on the firm’s culture as well as its ability to serve clients.

“What other agency can say they have an ethics officer who won a war, served as the first president of his country AND never told a lie?” mused Cody. “No offense, but not even that annual Trust Barometer can trump George’s cherry tree story.”

When asked to comment on his new assignment, Washington responded to reporters’ questions by knocking once for ‘yes’ on a Peppercomm conference room table and twice for ‘no.’

Based upon those knocks, Washington indicated he is pleased to once again be contributing to society, believes that slavery was, indeed, wrong and still sees the Beatles as little more than a passing fad.

George 2.0
The former president has already activated multiple social media channels including his own Facebook page, LinkedIn profile and a blog entitled, ‘FirstInTheHeartsOfHisCountrymen.com.” His Twitter handle is @RottenTeeth.

Martha, Washington’s wife, is less than thrilled with the former president’s presence on Twitter. “She’s worried I might become the next Anthony Weiner,” he grinned, exposing a mostly toothless upper jaw. “And, she told me she’d leave me for Benedict Arnold if I ever started to Snap-Chat.”

Peppercomm is an integrated strategic communications firm headquartered in New York, with offices in London and San Francisco. Washington is said to be advocating for a fourth office to be opened in Valley Forge, Pa.