Sep 08

The Babe Ruth of the expletive deleted

In our 16 years of business, we've represented a few particularly, foul-mouth executives.   

I remember a young, dotcom PR director, for example, whose salty language would put any longshoreman to shame (note: PR Week actually named her one of the industry's bright, young stars way back when). Not surprisingly, I've haven't heard or read of her since. My guess is she's plying her trade as a stevedore these days.Slideaaaaaaaa1

Another foul-mouthed leader was a guy named Joe, who was the short-lived CEO of VerticalNet, Newell Rubbermaid and about 30 other companies. He was incapable of uttering a sentence that didn't begin or end with the F bomb.

But, the true Babe Ruth of the expletive deleted was Carol Bartz, Yahoo's just fired CEO.

Bartz not only cursed a blue streak, but also used bullying tactics and fear to try and turn around her also-ran company (note: in the interests of transparency, I must acknowledge we had one of the stormiest, most abusive client/agency relationships with Y! in Peppercom history).

Our team had ringside seats for the inauguration of Ms. Bartz three years ago. We had just won Yahoo's business and were in the midst of a multi-day brand immersion (which consisted of little more than listening to various sales and marketing teams explain why they were losing market share to Google and Microsoft).

We were assured all that was about to change with the advent of Ms. Bartz, a noted turnaround artist who'd worked wonders at Autodesk.

And, so we eagerly shuffled into a massive, suitably New Age-looking employee cafeteria cum auditorium to hear the new CEO's vision for a bright future.

After receiving a standing ovation from the thousands in attendance (and the thousands more viewing via video conference from around the world), Carol began her speech. After hearing all the Bartz hype, we were expecting something along the lines of “…a government of the people, by the people and for the people,” or “We have nothing to fear but fear itself," or even  “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Instead, Bartz launched into an expletive-laced discourse that began with the company's ongoing problems with press leaks. “The first person I catch leaking confidential information to the media,” she yelled, jabbing her finger at the astonished throng, “I will personally drop kick his f*cking ass to Mars!”

One could hear the proverbial pin drop as she followed that threat with even scarier ones. Finally, mercifully, she ended her speech. Then the nascent CEO opened the floor for a question-and-answer session. I'll never forget the first query. It went something like this:

Employee (smiling): “Carol, we're so glad you're here and ready to lead us back to greatness. That said, you mentioned leaks to the press. Many of us in engineering have our own personal media contacts. I assume it's OK to continue speaking to them?”

Bartz (frowning and scowling): “What, are you f*ucking brain dead, or something? Did you not JUST hear me say I'll kick your f*ucking ass to Mars if you talk to the press? How stupid can one person be? Any other stupid questions?”

And, so on and so forth.

Afterwards, I remember walking back across campus with one of the in-house corporate PR types. He asked us, “So, guys, what did you think of Carol?” I felt like I'd just been asked what I'd thought of the atom bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. But, since this was about two weeks into a 100k per month account, I tread carefully. “Well,” I responded, “She's certainly direct.” The client smiled, nodded his head and said, “Yup. She's EXACTLY what Yahoo needs.”

Well, as events turned out, the client was dead wrong. Carol Bartz was exactly what Yahoo DIDN'T need. She didn't turn things around. And, her foul-mouthed, acerbic ways (beautifully illustrated in this video, BTW) succeeded in alienating any support she might have otherwise garnered to protect her when the company continued to languish.

Instead, Carol Bartz and her salty tongue are walking away with a golden parachute that, were she so inclined, would probably buy enough rocket fuel to propel HER f*ucking ass to Mars. Which is where she, and other foul-mouthed, fear-mongering CEOs belong.

Aug 10

Great whites need not apply

Jaws_6 Here's a sure sign the economy is picking up (at least for PR firms): large holding companies are  once again poaching fast-track managers from fleet-footed, independent shops such as mine.

It happened during the dotcom era, again in those zero interest rate, “Hey honey, let's buy a house even though neither of us has a job,” pre-market crash days and, blossomed again this spring and summer.

Sure as rain, one of our senior executives will stroll into Ed's, Ted's or my office and announce, “(Weber's) just made me a great offer.”

We'll sigh, ask about the particulars and, frankly, depending on the individual's real value, either wish them well or ask for time to prepare a counter. Sometimes they'll stay. Other times they'll split for what holding company executives tout as “the big leagues.” That line always makes me laugh.

I mention all of this because we're recruiting right now for various positions. But, guess what? We never (well 99 times out of 100) poach from holding companies. They'll take our senior people, but we won't touch theirs with a 10-foot pole. Here's why:

– Holding company executives are used to working within multi-layered, multi-department offices. In other words, they're great administrators, but depend on minions to do the heavy-lifting for them. I'll never forget a recently hired H&K alumnus innocently asking me where our research department was located. I told her SHE was the research department. We bid her adieu within three months.

– Large agency executives are incentivized, first and foremost, for serving the C-suite executives at WPP, Omnicom, Interpublic and Publicis. We need folks who live, eat and breathe the business of our clients' business.

– Last, but certainly not least, big agency types are political sharks. They have to be in order to survive. Political astuteness is a prerequisite to success (whereas it's a ticket out the front door at Peppercom). We should actually add a line to our help-wanted ads: 'Great whites need not apply'.

So, we know Andy and Richard and Patrick and Ray have unleashed their recruiting types into our waters. And, we know we'll probably lose one or two fast-trackers. But, that's the price we pay for developing smart, entrepreneurial-minded executives.

Aircraft carrier-sized firms need P.T. skippers to help them at least try to inject some innovative thinking. Whereas, staffers from the S.S. Enterprise almost always flame out on the Good Ship Peppercom.

And, that's a fact more clients and more trade publications should note. Agency recruiting is almost always a one-way street. And, great whites need not apply to our lagoon.

May 20

You better hope he wins

080211_MrRude With Judgment Day now less than 36 hours away, I thought I'd come clean and relate THE most egregious example of client abuse in my firm's 16-year-history.

The incident occurred quite some time ago at a long-forgotten PR Week awards banquet. We had 'bought' a table that was shared by a few clients and their respective Peppercom account managers. One of the clients happened to be our largest billing account and all three of the top three corporate communications honchos were in attendance.

The trio reveled in their power and expected us to be dutifully reverential in their presence. Two of them were actually decent human beings. But, the third, who served as the senior person's henchwoman, was an absolute horror show. She'd routinely yell, scream and demean (and was later unanimously inducted into our client hall of shame).

Anyway, fast forward to the PR Week dinner. We had nominated the most senior client for the prestigious PR professional of the year award and, mercifully, he'd been named one of four finalists. As a side note, Peppercom itself was nominated for several awards that night, including best midsized agency of the year.

As the dinner ended and the awards presentation began, the henchwoman waited for the top dog to make a quick trip to use the facilities. As soon as he was gone, the henchwoman leaned across the table, looked me in the eyes and hissed, 'You better hope he wins.' She wasn't kidding. My life flashed before my eyes. I looked at my colleagues, who responded with looks of shock and horror. How could we possibly control the judges' decision? And, would we really lose the business if the top dog wasn't named PR professional of the year? (which, based upon the subordinate's behavior, was rather ironic).

The big moment finally came and, sure enough, our client did win the award. Everyone smiled and hugged, and the team breathed a huge collective sigh of relief. Then came the kicker. The categories in which we, Peppercom, had been nominated were still to come. But, the client trio grabbed their award, sipped the final dregs of their wine and said, 'Thanks for treating tonight, but we've got to run.'

I still recall one of our 'lesser' clients leaning over to me and whispering, 'That may be the rudest professional behavior I've ever witnessed.'

Needless to say, the PR professional of the year and his entourage are history, and we've moved on to represent bigger, better and much nicer clients.

But, Judgment Day has a way of dredging up past slights, real or imagined. And, this one was very real and very painful. If there is a god and tomorrow is judgment day, I do hope He was watching those industry awards. If so, there will most assuredly be no rapture for the PR professional of the year or his henchwoman. In fact, I have a parting message for the latter: 'You better hope He doesn't come.'

May 18

We need the Navy Seals to take down the bin Laden of Burgers

Some 55Presentation10 leading health care professionals and organizations have signed their names to a  full-page advertisement running today in six national newspapers. It's a call to action pleading with McDonald's to stop its sleazy, subversive marketing to kids and to retire their damnable corporate icon, Ronald McDonald.

Fuggedaboutit! The ad won't work because McDonald's won't stop marketing to kids. They can't. The impact on future sales would be too horrible to contemplate. (Could you imagine life without plus-sized families wolfing down Big Macs five times a week? How positively un-American.)

Instead, America's health groups should get serious, mobilize their monies, marshal their troops, and declare war on McDonald's. And, public enemy number one of what I'm calling 'Operation: Waistline' should be Ronald McDonald himself.

In my mind, Ronald's the bin Laden of Burgers, the Pol Pot of Poor Diets and the Hitler of Healthy Living.

And, I'd engage the same elite Seal 6 team that took out bin Laden in his Abbottabad compound for this surgical strike. Why not? They've got a proven plan and are ready to roll.

I'd have the Seals initiate a midnight raid on Mickey D's Oakbrook, Illinois, headquarters. I'll bet they'd catch Ronald watching the tube (hopefully nothing worse than PG-13 content). I picture him lying in bed, wearing just his red overalls. He'll have an arm draped around one or more of his morbidly obese wives while puffing on a cigarette and scarfing down some fries and a chocolate shake.

As was the case with bin Laden, I'd tell the Seals to take him down ASAP. Who knows what a cornered corporate icon might do in a moment of desperation? Waste him. Plus, no one wants Ronald McDonald alive and put on trial. The guy's a real charmer and that red and yellow costume might just sway a jurist or two. No, I'd tell the Seals to put one bullet just above Ronald's eye.

Then, let's bury him in an undisclosed location in Lake Michigan. We don't want McDonald's fanatics making a shrine out of Ronald's final resting spot.

The Mob likes to say if you 'cut off the head, the body will die.' I think health care professionals need to adopt the same strategy with McDonald's. Whack Ronald and watch our nation's obesity epidemic (and waistlines) slowly, but surely, contract.

One caveat to the Seals, though. Do yourselves a public relations favor and don't adopt an American Indian code word such as Geronimo for Ronald. There's no need to undermine the results by alienating an important minority.

So, let's get to work. Let's infiltrate Ronald's inner circle, use some advanced terror techniques to determine his daily habits, get some spy satellites to focus their cameras on his compound and get this deed done. If Obama doesn't want to issue the final execute command, I will.

Ronald McDonald must die if America is to live. It's go time!!!!

Apr 18

Stealing my heart

The current issue of PR Week carries a totally irrelevant 'gloves off' discussion as to whether  “…clients have become more vigilant in the pitch process since the recession.” More vigilant? Try more vigilant, more demanding and more demeaning as well.

Kidtantrum2Ever since the 2008 economic meltdown, there's been a seismic shift in the ways in which prospects select (or, in many cases don't select, a new firm). I won't elaborate further since Jen Prosek's take on the rather sophomoric debate nails it on the head.

We had a recent experience that exemplifies just how much the agency search process has changed of late (as well as the low regard for a PR firm's time and professionalism that exists within some corporations).

The CMO of a Midwestern technology firm e-mailed us in a panic. Her business was rapidly ramping up its market spend and needed to hire a “top, midsized, BtoB firm” ASAP. She provided the budget range ($15k-$20k per month) and said we were one of only three firms she was contacting.

Since our growth has been robust of late (and, we were reluctant to further strain our resources), we responded cautiously. One of our managers left the prospect a voice mail asking for more details, but never heard back.

Now, fast forward several weeks. My business partner, Ed, received an e-mail from the woman complaining that:
A) I had never responded to her original note, and
B) She had never heard from anyone at Peppercom.

While it's true I didn't acknowledge her original note, one of our executives did, in fact, call. Regardless, she implored Ed to respond and said that we'd already been shortlisted.

And so, I called her. We had an amiable conversation and discussed her needs. That's when she told me she needed a plan within 48 hours. I should have balked. Instead, feeling a little Catholic guilt, I asked one of our managers to drop everything and submit the materials within the deadline.

Then, predictably, our rapid response was followed by prolonged silence. More than a little angry, I shot the woman a note. “Stay tuned,” she replied. “We're making decisions this week.” The note was followed by yet another extended period of radio silence. I e-mailed again, asking for an explanation. This was her response:

“Your timing couldn't be better. We've just made our decision and, sadly, Peppercom isn't one of our two finalists. Thanks and good luck.” Damn. Suckered again.

I felt just like Mick Jagger, who sang in 'Stealing My Heart', “I thought you were dinner, but you were the shark.” In fact, Stealing my heart could serve as an anthem for any agency that's been raked through the coals in today's murky world of new business pitches.

If PR Week wanted to host an authentic gloves off discussion, they would invite two VP's of corporate communications to address a far more relevant question: “Should PR firms be treated shabbily in new business searches?” I could connect them with one woman who answer with a resounding “You betcha!”

This post is dedicated to Peppercommers Sara Jane Whitman Ramos and Courtney Chauvin Ellul.

Apr 05

Can you spot the ancient ad that’s more relevant than ever?

Pic19912Pic17035This blogger’s older brother constantly bombards me with videos, tunes and other memorabilia from the distant past. I’m not sure exactly why he sends me these things, but most end up in my virtual wastebasket. This one containing the ads pictured, however, struck a chord.

As you’ll see, it contains a number of print advertisements from a bygone era. It’s hard to say which is more politically incorrect. But, there’s one ad that, sadly, is as relevant today as it was when it first appeared a half century ago. Let me know if you agree about the ad in question, and we’ll go back-and-forth on why this particular ‘wrong’ is more ‘right’ than ever before.

One other observation: these print ads from yesteryear are amazingly patronizing and condescending towards women. I find it fascinating that today’s advertisements and commercials have come full circle with many, if not, most, equally demeaning to men (i.e. portraying us as dumb, helpless creatures always in need of a woman to show us how to Pic25667survive, etc.).Pic14771Pic01869Pic26299Pic21726Pic23811       Pic26299  Pic11538

Mar 16

The tiger in your mind is more ferocious than the tiger in the jungle

When asked, most humans will admit to being more scared of public speaking than dying. (According to a study conducted by National Public Radio, 43% of Americans say their greatest fear in life is public speaking.  In fact people who responded to the survey said they fear public speaking more than death. )
StepupIt's the fear of the unknown that scares most of us, and the anticipation of speaking in front of a group triggers our age-old fight or flight response (a fact I think the Buddhist expression in the headline captures beautifully).

I saw this very basic human emotion demonstrated yet again Monday night when I led a 'Humor in the Workplace' seminar at the Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University. At first, the 17 students were petrified to hear that, after some coaching, they'd be expected to stand in front of the class and 'be funny.' But, each did. And, each student was, in fact, funny.

Recognizing that overcoming the fear of public speaking is a key component in our employees' professional development, we've incorporated stand-up comedy workshops in our training and have seen remarkable results. In addition to making our employees feel more secure about addressing a large group, stand-up comedy training has produced a host of intangible side benefits: enhanced morale, team building and a subtle, but very real reinforcement of our workplace culture: We take our work seriously, but we don't take ourselves seriously at all.

I'm amazed that more organizations haven't embraced humor as a recruiting and retention tool. With the economy improving and headhunters once again cold-calling employees with offers, one would think more firms would wake up to the importance of humor to culture (and, in turn, the importance of an open and fun environment in recruiting talent). Yet, as this PR Week feature indicates, most firms are, instead, relying on technology, contests and other gimmicky tactics to woo talent.

I'm not suggesting that humor in the workplace is a be-all and end-all. Money matters. So do perks and an opportunity to work in many different areas of an organization.

But, with everything else being equal, employees will choose a warm and engaging employer. Why? Because people want to work with other people who make them laugh.

So here's a note to all the headhunters and in-house recruiters at the large organizations: think about incorporating humor workshops alongside matching 401k programs, massages, meditation rooms, contests, Twitter feeds and other ploys. Every human being needs help dealing with the tiger of the mind. And, every organization can play a role in helping employees tame the beast. Those that do will find themselves further up the food chain in the never-ending quest to be king of the workplace jungle.

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 08

The Maritel bucket

This blog is dedicated to Peppercommers Deb Schleuter-Brown-Schleuter and Jackie Kolek.

Ever find yourself at the bottom of the Maritel bucket? I'll bet you have; you just use another  Old_bucket phrase to describe the experience.

We find ourselves at the bottom of the Maritel bucket every few years. It's just happened in fact. We were awarded a nice piece of business in December, finalized the plan over the holidays and were about to kick things off when, hold onto your hats, we were told we had to pitch the business all over again. It was a classic Maritel bucket scenario: You win an account only to be told a few minutes, days or weeks later that, no, in fact, you didn't win the account after all.
The Maritel bucket phrase originated in those hallowed, halcyon, shoot-from-the-hip dotcom days. A firm by the name of Maritel contacted us one morning, requested a meeting early that same afternoon and called to award us a sizable piece of business before 5 pm. They then called back to say someone had made a terrible mistake and, that Maritel had no interest whatsoever in public relations. The absurdity of the whole experience was so extreme that it became memorialized as the Maritel bucket.
 We've had other bucket experiences:
– A huge chemical company's SVP of human resources adored us and was in the process of handing us all of the corporation's internal communications and collateral work. The plans and budgets were approved and we were set to go. But, suddenly, 'John' stopped returning our calls. A week later, we called the main line to discover he'd been terminated. Bye-bye million dollar program.
– A technology company that provided software for Wall Street was poised to spend lots of money to overtake SunGuard, the market leader. And, the new marketing guru had chosen us. We got off to a strong start, attended several meetings and then, poof, our contact was gone. A day or two later, an executive called to say 'Randy' had had no authority to hire us, had  been terminated and oh, by the way, they'd like their money back. With a signed LOA, time sheets and status reports to prove we'd done the work, they backed off.

– The SVP of marketing for a Scient, Sapient, Razorfish wanna-be hired us to the tune of $35k per month. Their marketing goal: to do and say exactly what the front runners did so that they, too, could go the IPO route and retire as multimillionaires. They not only never paid us for our three months of work, but demanded their money returned with interest. They then went belly up.
I'd love to create some sort of industry-wide Maritel bucket hall of shame (and would welcome your case studies, BTW).
In fact, the Maritel bucket could become a catch-all phrase for a new category in all the PR industry awards programs (“And, this year's Maritel bucket winner for the worst abuse of a PR firm goes to …”).
Ask not for whom the Maritel bucket waits. It waits for thee.

Jan 25

Our New Yawk office? It’s just off Toidy-toid and Toid.

In this hyper-competitive job environment of ours, it seems that regional accents can limit one’s Dialect career aspirations.

I can’t say that I’ve ever refused to hire someone because of a thick accent, but I have taken it into consideration (especially when recruiting for a receptionist).

According to a recent BBC Radio segment, more and more ‘New Yawkers’ are turning to voice coaches to help them lose their Brooklyn, Queens or Staten Island accents. Note: please don’t confuse my Jersey accent with that of a New Yawker. My pronunciation of the word ‘youse’, for example, is slightly, but perceptibly, different. And, as for Lawn Guylanders well, don’t get me started.

Voice coaches say New Yawkers want to lose their accents in order to sound more worldly, a key consideration in a global marketplace. But, as I said, unless the position is that of a receptionist, I don’t know that I’d care about a candidate’s accent. After all, we have several Southerners holding executive positions at Peppercom. Their continual use of y’all is accepted by one and y’all. And, our very own Carl ‘Union Jack’ Foster’s British accent is positively melodious. (What is it about a British accent? And, why does it always sound so damned sophisticated?)

I’d like to think that, with one exception, I’m accent agnostic; the exception being a particularly thick Boston one. It literally drove me wild my freshman year at Northeastern University, and still creates a Pavlovian response akin to someone scratching his nails on a chalkboard.

How about you? Does the New Yawk accent bother you? How about that flat Midwestern accent? A Southern drawl? More importantly, do you think it should be factored into a job evaluation? I’d be interested in hearing your views (as long as they’re not left on my voice mail in a thick, Boston accent).