Nov 30

Dead Mayor Walking

deblasioI’ve always believed the best PR in the world cannot compensate for a flawed product, service, company or, in this case, politician.

In the latter case, I’m speaking of embattled New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who just made the most unusual and some say “unprecedented” decision to hire a Manhattan PR firm to provide counsel, pen press releases and, get this, craft commentary for city officials to use when defending Hizzoner’s controversial programs.

To further complicate this sordid tale, the PR firm in question, BerlinRosen, represents several other clients who conduct business with The Big Apple. Holy conflict, Batman.

When confronted by the ever tenacious Marcia Kramer of WCBS-TV the mayor was his usual haughty, dismissive self, poo-pooing Kramer’s suggestion he’d created a “shadow government” by hiring a whole new team of outside advisers when hundreds were already on the city’s payroll. The mayor sighed and said it “…was nothing unusual.” Yeah, right, and Donald Trump’s flag-burning Tweets are standard operating procedure for any president-elect.

There’s no doubt the de Blasio brand is in desperate shape. Since taking office, he has not only managed to antagonize virtually every key constituent audience, but has seemingly turned a blind eye to the city’s rapidly-deteriorating state.

Alas, neither BerlinRosen nor Edward Bernays himself can, or could, save de Blasio from losing his bid for re-election.

That’s because, despite what our hagiographic trade press may tell you to the contrary, the very best PR programs in the world can never compensate for a shoddy product or a horrible customer experience.

But, hey, maybe there’s a silver lining to this particularly grey cloud after all. Imagine the business they’d be able to attract if the PR firm in question can change its name to BerlinRosendeBlasio?  It does have a certain ring to it.



Nov 28

A tale of two gems

Lexus Dec to RememberIt strikes me that the two most heavily marketed words I hear after every Black Friday are:

– “Gems” (as in “The right gems tell her everything she needs to know”). Like what? That you’re now officially living below the poverty line?


–  Lexus (as in “Make this a December to remember”). No thank you.

And, so, I’ll ignore Lexus completely while turning my attention to two very different kind of gems: fascinating documentaries about two radically different men.

The first, called “David McCullough: Painting with Words,” is a 39-minute homage to my favorite biographer and historian, David McCullough.

I’ve read every one of his books, ranging from The Johnstown Flood and John Adams to The Great Bridge and, my personal favorite, Mornings on Horseback.

And, yet, having read millions of words written by the man, I knew next to nothing about him.

“McCullough”, like its subject, is no ordinary documentary. Sure, it chronicles his rise to fame and fortune but, more importantly, it explains exactly how he targets each new subject.

The researcher and author will spend countless hours reading personal notes and letters written to, and from, his subject and, in the process, get so close, that he considers them friends. He says that, based upon the minutiae he’s unearthed up to a certain point in, say, Truman’s life, he knows exactly what step the subject will take as an impending crisis thunders on the horizon. It’s fascinating stuff.

The other gem is, one might say, a horse of a different color. Called “Fall to Grace,” it picks up the life of former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, who dominated the tabloids after first, resigning in the wake of same sex harassment suits about to be filed by staffers and, secondly, enduring a brutally messy front-page divorce.

After those gut-wrenching ordeals, McGreevey completely disappeared from public sight. But, he never left The Garden State. Instead, he embraced his homosexuality, moved in with his decidedly upscale Wall Street partner and choose to pursue two distinctly different paths:

– Working in female correctional institutes and halfway houses in which he has helped countless junkies and criminals turn their lives around.

– Renouncing his Catholicism since it vilified love between two men, branding it as a mortal sin.

Instead, the erstwhile Democratic hotshot (and presidential hopeful) embraced the far more liberal Episcopalian faith. McGreevey became deeply religious, served mass every Sunday and even studied to become a priest (the Church powers-that-be rejected him, not knowing if he truly had a calling or was merely running away from his past).

Each gem is rich with insights into the images and reputations of the two men in question.

The first is nearing the end of an illustrious career (yet still plans to write 27 MORE books) while the other has found true, inner peace and is fully immersed in not only writing a completely different, and unexpected, second chapter in life, but embracing and accepting whatever benefits or sacrifices may lie ahead.

So, put down the check book long enough to hold off paying for a temporal gem and instead invest a few minutes in learning more about two, true gems of humanity who have lived far richer lives than many of us can ever hope to attain.



Nov 22

A Millennial’s Take On JFK’s Assassination

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer Catharine Cody (pictured, middle, below.)

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 53 years ago today. Last week I had the opportunity to visit the scene of the crime and tour the fascinating Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas.
After the tour, my dad texted me asking “So, what’d you think?” I replied, “Seems like Oswald didn’t act alone.”

I’ll spare RepMan readers the 500+ word explanation that my dad came back with, shooting down my conspiracy theory (no pun intended.) But, as a true millennial who questions everything, I’m still not sold on the one gunman theory. Like the majority of my age group, I love a good cover-up story.

Let’s look at the facts surrounding the JFK assassination:

• The Warren Committee says that both JFK and Governor Connally were hit by a single bullet which “entered JFK’s upper back, exited his throat, and then struck Connally, breaking a rib and shattering his wrist, and finally coming to rest in his thigh.” Sceptics say the trajectory was fanciful and re-named it the ‘magic-bullet theory’. My dad says that the bullet trajectory made sense.

• When the president was hit by the bullet that killed him, the motorcade was passing a grassy knoll on the north side of Elm Street. Newspaper photographs record that shortly after the shooting, police arrested three tramps found in a railroad car behind the knoll. And, there were footprints and cigarettes found on said knoll where witnesses claim they heard bullets come from. My dad says the arrest, footprints and cigarettes are just a coincidence.

• Jack Ruby killed Oswald while he was in police captivity, before he went to trial. Sceptics say he was killed so as not to reveal a larger plot to kill the president. My dad says Ruby was simply deranged and acted alone.

I’m not saying Oswald DIDN’T shoot JFK. I’m saying I don’t know that someone else didn’t ALSO shoot JFK. And, it’s hard to disprove a negative, so no one can actually say for sure that there wasn’t a second shooter.

What’s your opinion? Am I a gullible Millennial who will believe any conspiracy theory if it’s interesting enough? Or, is my dad right when accepting the government’s position that Oswald acted on his own?

Nov 21

A different kind of courage

Tcourageo paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, entrepreneurs aren’t like you and me. Well, actually, they are like me since I happen to be an entrepreneur.

But, the statement holds true regardless. I identify myself as an entrepreneur who also happens to ply his trade in the marketing communications field.

I do so because, in my mind, there are two types of successful marketing communications executives:

1.) The company woman who slowly, but surely, does everything right to consolidate her power base and plays her cards just right to end up as either the CEO of a global agency or CCO at a major organization.

2.) The entrepreneur who started with nothing, chased his dream, endured countless hardships along the way and eventually established a thriving business.

Each group demonstrated enormous courage as they rose to the apex of the industry. But, make no mistake: there are two very different definitions of courage when it comes to the successful global executive and the entrepreneur.

Having toiled at both Hill & Knowlton and J. Walter Thompson, I understand the zeitgeist of the global workplace culture.

Success requires a unique skill set that includes superb counseling, business development abilities, a solid ethical and moral compass, the guts needed to make tough, and sometimes, unpopular decisions AND, critically, the singular ability to navigate shark-infested waters.

While I admire those individuals, they possess no real understanding of the word courage.

Courage means walking away from the corporate world and setting up your own shop. It means lying awake nights knowing you, and you alone, are responsible for feeding a wife and two small children, paying the mortgages on two houses, the leases on two cars and the future college costs of said kids. It also means going hat in hand to friends and family to ask for start-up seed money (we kick started Peppercomm with a $12,500 loan from my older brother and mother-in-law).

Entrepreneurial courage also means occasionally digging into your own wallet to meet payroll (thanks to clients who express no remorse at stringing out their payments to 230 days or more).

Last, but not least, entrepreneurs must ride the roller coaster highs and lows that go along with being master of your own fate (and maintaining the same even keel whether you’ve just won or lost a $2mm account).

That’s why I chuckle whenever I see PR Week publish yet another one of their “Power Brokers” issues. Make no mistake these lists do indeed include the most powerful people in our business. But that power broker moniker is bestowed upon these individuals because they control massive budgets and/or run gargantuan organizations. Money = Power.

We do have a few powerful entrepreneurs who would qualify as power brokers in my mind (if not Steve Barrett’s). I’d include Jen Prosek, Tom Coyne and Lynn Casey on that list.

But, here’s the rub. You do NOT have to play the global power broker game if, like me, you despise the red tape, back-stabbing and arbitrary decision-making that goes along with it.

I’ve just finished reading Unemployable! by David Thomas Roberts. The book is specifically aimed at every single American worker who has had it up to here with playing all the games necessary to make PR Week’s Power Broker list.

It’s chock full of tips for everyone from eight to 81 who has ever aspired to be their own boss. I cannot recommend it more highly (except to Peppercomm employees who will be fired without cause if I catch them reading it).

Having the chutzpah to start ones own business isn’t for the faint of heart. As we know, 44 percent of all new businesses fail within three years.

But, if like 70 percent of your fellow Americans, you don’t like your job this book is your ticket to the promised land.

But, keep in mind the promised land could turn out to be colder than the dark side of the moon. There’s no guarantee of success but, as The Donald said when attempting to woo black audiences, “Hey, what have you got to lose?”



Nov 17

How strong is your front-line ambassador?

rosI never cease to be amazed at the mediocre (or worse) experiences I have when engaging with the receptionists of organizations of all shapes and sizes.

Those experiences tell me senior management either ignores or, worse, is ignorant of the critical role a receptionist can play in creating a positive first impression.

In some very subtle ways, your receptionist can make, or break, your organization.

We’re blessed to have an extraordinarily good receptionist by the name of Roslyn Sengo. Roslyn possesses the unique ability to effortlessly field incoming calls, forward important e-mails from potential clients and greet each, and every, visitor with the enthusiasm and respect they deserve.

In the interests of enlightening those of you who view a receptionist as a necessary overhead cost at best, I’ve asked Roslyn to share her advice on how she’s become a true asset to Peppercomm:

  • Having customer service experience is a plus. Everyone is a customer and I like to see how businesses present themselves in restaurants, retail stores, hotels etc. I take in all my experiences and use the best practices for myself at the front desk. Everyone just likes to be treated well.
  • Don’t take it personal. If people are moody, it really has nothing to do with you.
  • Be alert. Being alert is always a work in progress. Like life, you don’t know what will come at you. This also helped me to better prioritize myself and creates better flexibility overall.
  • Breathing and centering also helps me to keep balance when things are hectic.
  • Being optimistic is also a plus. I happen to be an optimist. When I do have my moody or down moments, just seeing different people often and talking to them changes my vibe and even cheers me up.

So, the next time you’re evaluating the overall experience your organization provides, DO NOT underestimate the role of the receptionist. He or she may be your least understood and most important asset in your arsenal.


Nov 14

Big data takes a big hit

33de2474704041f586f79cd1a0e01daaHillary is blaming James Comey. Others say blacks just didn’t turn out in the numbers expected. And, then there are those who are positively shocked by the percentage of Latinos who voted for Trump.

Alas, the above-mentions politicians, pundits and just plain, old folk like you and me missed the REAL culprit behind Clinton’s loss last week. It was Big Data and it little brother, Analytics.

As many of you know, Big Data and Analytics have become Hollywood A-Level superstars in the marketing communications/public affairs/lobbying and polling worlds. In fact, one might liken them to Brad and Angelina prior to that oh-so-messy break-up.

After all, it’s a given that EVERY great campaign MUST begin with a deep, quantitative dive into the target audience to determine exactly who they are, what they think, where they’re concentrated, when is the best time in which to engage them and, of course, how to create that oh-so-critical connection with them.

Then, Big Data passes the baton to Analytics, which proceeds to spew out all sorts of scientifically-based, nearly indecipherable charts and graphs that enable the strategic and creative types (that’s me, BTW) to create a campaign.

Ah, but Big Data and Analytics sustained one whale of a wake-up call on Election Day.

The “experts” who crunched all the data, created all the profiles and made all the predictions (some of which called for a Clinton landslide) were dead wrong.

Why? It’s actually intuitive but, in the mad rush towards digitizing everything in marketing, the Stronger Together team forgot to listen.

They also forgot to put themselves in the shoes of every conceivable voting bloc, and not just assume the very same majority that twice put Obama over the top would do the same for Hilz.

In short, they didn’t add a qualitative overlay to their Big Data findings.

Qualitative surveying enables one to ask the one question that always trips up Big Data: Why?

So, as Clinton’s ground game went knocking from door-to-door, urging Swing State voters to back Hilz, they just shrugged their shoulders and moved on as said door was slammed in their face by an uneducated and, most likely, unemployed rural worker who proudly proclaimed she or he would be voting for The Donald instead. Hilz people never bothered to ask why.

We INSIST on adding qualitative interviewing as well as what we call Audience Experience to any significant client project.

That’s because yours truly in particular has never been a big fan of relying solely on Big Data.

I like to ask the why question to target audiences. Why do, or don’t, you like my client’s product, service or organization? Really? Tell me more? And, why is that? And, so on and so forth (Note: Please do NOT confuse the above with focus groups, which are badly flawed since the alpha personality in the room ALWAYS dominates the conversation while the Beta types nod their heads in agreement).

We also assign teams who actually experience the client’s product, service or organizational experience first-hand from the outside-in.

We invariably find gaps between a client’s brand promise and what the target prospect actually experiences (Note: most gaps are subtle, but significant; others are wider than the Grand Canyon).

I’d like to believe the 2016 election will cause my peers to take pause and think twice about relying solely on Big Data and Analytics.

As we’ve seen, Big Data has an Achilles Heel: it doesn’t humanize the fact-gathering. Nor does it allow one to rely on one’s gut instincts, rather than highly complex charts and graphs.

For all his faults, Trump ignored Big Data and Analytics, went with his gut instincts and, like it or not, came out on top as our new president.

I’m not suggesting we stop investing in Big Data or Analytics, but I am strongly advising marketers to slow down and spend time listening to the human beings you’re trying to influence. You may be surprised at their answers to the question why. And, that answer just might prevent you from making the very same mistake as Team Clinton.

Oh, and BTW, I’m Steve Cody and I approved this blog.



Nov 10

You, too, can destroy a 16-year relationship in 16 days

How Crunch Gym joined NJ Transit and United Airlines in the RepMan Hall of Shame

I began my local, Manhattan gym membership in the year 2000. Remember 2000? Among other novelties, it featured the Y2K virus, hanging chads and civil discourse.

The gym relationship in question began on an auspicious note. After all, the facility:

– Was only two blocks away from my office
– Featured reasonable rates
– Provided working rest room and shower facilities.

crunch jpg
After a decade or so, I was informed that a new owner, Crunch, would be taking control of my gym. I was pleased. Crunch made a lot of upgrades, including:

– A bright, cheery workout space
– Walls that were actually painted
– Mirrors that weren’t cracked
– Updated exercise equipment.

I have to say it was beautiful thing.

Ah, but, sadly, while the aesthetics improved, the interpersonal communications took a nosedive. Let’s just say their likability numbers dropped precipitously.

In fact, it’s only taken me 16 days to decide to sever a 16-year relationship.

Here’s what happened. Last June, I ruptured my quadriceps tendon. Once I was able to shed the crutches, I began working out again, albeit with a physical therapist and licensed high intensity interval trainer. I wanted to both rehab the severed tendons and ligaments AND regain my previous fitness level.

All went well until I suggested the therapist join me at Crunch, hoping I could combine rehab and training.

No such luck. As we walked through the front doors, one would have thought the Hatfield’s had just inadvertently strolled into McCoy Country. I swiped my card as always, said I’d like to pay a guest fee for my friend, who would be buddy training with me (and helping with my rehab).

The latter comment immediately transformed the reception area into a Manhattan version of the O.K. Corral.

“Look, your ‘buddy’ can buddy train, but if we catch him doing any actual training, you’ll both be asked to leave,” snarled one attendant.

To which I calmly replied, “Look, I’ve been a member here for 16 years, just paid a $26 guest fee, intend to buddy-train and will only ask him to do a few exercises that are specifically designed to help rebuild my leg (I actually pulled down my brace to show him the stitches).

The attendants harrumphed and let us go upstairs. We worked out for a full 60 minutes but, again, we had that unnerving feeling of being watched the entire time. It was weird.

Same thing happened a second time. And then a third. Finally, when the attendant gave us the same threatening dress down, I said, “You know what? You can take your 16-year-long relationship and put it where the dumb bells don’t shine.”

We promptly walked out and I joined another gym.

Naturally, an oh-so-courteous Crunch customer service representative called me right away to find out what had happened, how things could be repaired and what it would take to reinstate my membership.

I told her I appreciated her courtesy, but the deed had been done.

I felt like a client when I said, “No, I’m sorry. There’s nothing you can do to change my mind.” Ah, to wield such power. I can see why some of you clients love being clients.

Anyway, I am now happily training and rehabbing at a new gym where the lights are bright, the equipment first-rate and most-importantly the customer service superior.

Whoever coined the phrase, “Customer service is the new PR” is spot-on. Would that Crunch would train their people to understand that most basic concept.

Nov 07

And they say I have a death wish

Just about every time I tell people I’ve:climbing

  • Summited Mt. Washington 15 times
  • Rock climbed in Scotland’s rugged Isle of Sky
  • Topped out South Dakota’s treacherous Devil’s Tower
  • Completed two of the fabled Seven Summits (Elbrus & Kilimanjaro)
  • Scaled many of Colorado’s 14ks
  • And taken everything the Andes, the Alps and the White Mountains can throw at a person,

I invariably hear the same response, “Do you have a death wish?”

Au contraire, mes amis.

Ice, rock and mountain climbing rejuvenate me physically, mentally and emotionally. They’re my drug of choice. But, according to a New York Times article, I’m a rank amateur. Extreme athletes, bored by the mundane accomplishment of running a mere 26.2 marathon, are testing themselves in truly remarkable, mind-boggling ways.

Consider the following:

Pete Kostelnick just completed the fastest run across the United States. He covered the 3,100 miles in 42 days, six hours and 30 minutes (I’ll bet that last half-hour was a killer). Kostelnick “paced” himself, logging a mere 40 miles in the morning, taking a lunch break to replenish the 13,000 calories he’d just burned, and then completing his day with an easy 30-mile trot.

If you think Kostelnick is alone in his love of extreme exercise, think again:

  • Jim Walmsley just logged the fastest rim-to-rim-to-rim trip around the Grand Canyon (it took him five hours and five minutes to complete the 42-mile circuit).
  • Karl Meltzer just completed the fastest traverse of the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail. It only took him 45 days.

In fact, there are all sorts of new, maniacal challenges ranging from: A 135-mile run through Death Valley and up the face of Mt. Whitney in mid-July (I’d pack extra deodorant for that one). And get this. There’s even an endurance run that retraces the steps of the infamous Bataan Death March in the Philippines (Note to Millennials: You will not believe the story of the actual march).

Alas, high reward is often accompanied by its evil cousin, high risk:

  • A man recently died after running 40-miles through wind-driven snow in Patagonia.
  • A Canadian runner was struck by lightning in the midst of running a 100-mile race. But, he got up and finished third. What a bummer NOT to have won!
  • After being trapped under a boulder during a trail run, Dave Mackey had to amputate his leg to free himself (Now that’s what I call being caught between a rock and a hard place).

Anyway, you get the gist. There are uber athletes (I’d like to think I’m one) and then there are super human athletes (a la Pete Kostelnick).

I think it says a lot about a person’s image and reputation when she’s willing to break through barrier after barrier of pain to, say, summit Everest or swim the English Channel.

But, extreme athletes are a breed apart. Do they have a death wish, or what?


Nov 02

A sad day for pooches and re-positioning alike?

The Red Barron couldn’t shoot Snoopy down, but MetLife just did.  MetLife has abandoned Snoopy as their corporate icon.

snoopy monumentSnoopy WAS MetLife for some 30 years (that’s 210 in dog years, BTW) and, in my mind, set the brand apart from all of the other cold, impersonal personal insurance companies.

But, alas, a new sheriff (read: CMO) arrived in MetLife World and she see saw her first task to be burying the beagle. Esther Lee said research showed consumers believed Snoopy lacked key qualities such as leadership and responsibility. I beg to differ. Snoopster alone took it upon himself to battle the dreaded Red Baron in nonstop mano-a-canino aerial combat. That’s Congressional Medal of Honor-type leadership. And, Snoopster alone took the responsibility to maintain the appearances of his dog house. Show me another pooch who accepted such weighty (and odiferous) tasks.

But, MetLife’s game-changing CMO said the brand needed to abandon the dog, and embrace warmth and humor in its new efforts (excuse me, but aren’t dogs, warmth and humor interchangeable?). In fact, that thinking runs (trots?) backwards when one stops to think there isn’t a single TV spot, print ad or FB page that isn’t chock-full of lovable pooches.

As for embracing warmth and humor, that thinking is also a day late and a dollar short.

Every single one of MetLife’s competitors has been embracing both to humanize their brands for some time. One need only think of Geico, Allstate’s Mayhem and State Farm, to name a few.

And, here’s the final nail in Snoopy’s coffin: MetLife also unveiled a new corporate logo that it is not only bland as bleach water, but nearly identical to that of Emblen Health (insert pics).

Emblem Met life logosI’m a big believer in staying ahead of the curve and anticipating marketplace needs. But, I’m not a big believer in change for the sake of change. Sadly, far too many new CMOs take the latter course. And, whacking Snoopy sure seems to me to be the wrong choice at the wrong time.

But, hey, I adore dogs of all kinds, so what do I know?

Snoopy: R.I.P.