May 19

R-E-S-P-E-C-T


Blackberry  
I'm dedicating Aretha Franklin's 'R-E-S-P-E-C-T" to 
some ADD-ravaged marketing folks at a leading distilled spirits maker. They’d recently invited us to pitch their business despite the fact we possessed little, if any, 'liquor' experience. Naturally, once we were in the midst of the presentation, the lead marketer asked about our creds and, after listening to two or three brief case studies, sighed and asked: 'That's all?'

 

But, disrespecting our lack of industry experience didn't prompt today's blog. It was something far more pernicious. The entire team used their BlackBerries throughout our presentation. 

 

I kid you not when I say that each, and every, member of the seven-person team consistently sent and received e-mails on their PDAs as we walked through our pitch. It was unbelievably rude.

 

But, according to research conducted by Christine Pearson, a professor of international business at The Thunderbird School of Global Management, this sort of boorish boardroom behavior has become par for the course.

 

Pearson says increased incivility in business is a direct result of the PDA craze. Why? Because we believe simultaneously attending a meeting and multitasking on a Blackberry increases our efficiency. Neuroscientists say it produces the exact opposite effect: dividing our attention between competing stimuli instead of handling tasks one at a time actually makes us less productive.

 

The folks from this leading spirits company are by no means alone in their multitasking boorishness. Peppercom has two senior executives who are notorious for their use of BBs during our weekly management meetings. I've even tried to hide one of the offender's PDA in the hope that he'd cease and desist. Alas, no such luck.

 

Prospective clients are more insensitive than ever to an agency's time and resources. It's one thing to demand a proposal overnight, select the best ideas and then never announce a winning agency. But, it's even worse to publicly humiliate a firm by paying more attention to a BlackBerry than to a presenter. So, note to this particular marketing team: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me.

Apr 20

Conduct unbecoming an owner of a PR firm

A few years back we were about to fill an account executive spot. Having been left out of the interview process, I asked where the candidate currently worked. When I was told, I put an immediate hold on things. The prospect worked at a firm run by a good friend. I picked up the phone, called the friend and, without naming names (so as to not damage the candidate's standing within the incumbent agency) told the CEO what was going on. I said that our friendship was more important than an individual hire and offered to call off the negotiations. The CEO asked for a few hours to think things over. He called back, thanked me profusely for the courtesy, but said, 'If this employee has one foot out the door, he'll either go to Peppercom or somewhere else. I'd feel better knowing he was going to work with you and Ed.'

I share the anecdote because two 'friends' have recently poached talent from my firm without saying word one to me before, during or after the incidents. I expect this sort of behavior from the large, more impersonal agencies. But these two firms are quite a bit smaller than ours. And, frankly, the agency CEO network is a rather tight one. While there are a few rogues, most of us like each other and are often willing to share advice, best practices, etc. There's an unwritten rule that we won't steal talent from one another. It's just not done.

I expect to run into the two CEOs of these firms at some point soon and, when I do, I want to ask them each the same question: 'Why did you steal my people? Why would you want to hurt my firm? I'm honestly disappointed in your behavior.'

Needless to say, our management team is angry and anxious to exact revenge. That's unfortunate and, I hope we can fill our needs elsewhere. Two wrongs never make a right. Especially in such a small world as public relations.

It's best to move on. But not before authoring a blog calling attention to conduct unbecoming an owner of a PR firm. This is boorish behavior that, in the final analysis, will adversely impact the image and reputation of the other agencies. And, that, is the only revenge necessary.

Mar 26

Kathleen was here until 8pm again

March 26 Karen Burns of U.S. News has been publishing a fascinating series of ‘seven things’ employees should never tell their bosses, and vice versa. I can really relate to the latter list since, well, I’m a boss (note to the FBI: I’m the usual kind. Not a crime boss).

Anyway, a couple of the no-no’s struck home both from a Peppercom and previous workplace/client perspective. To wit:

  • Number three: ‘I was here on Saturday. Where were you?’ In Peppercom’s youth, we employed a senior manager who was simultaneously a talkaholic and workaholic. Sadly, the former condition served as a catalyst for the latter. When Kathleen wasn’t on the phone all day long chit chatting to anyone and everyone, she’d be holding endless meetings that were notorious for endless tangents. As a result, she never really got down to doing any work until 5pm. And, that’s what caused the problem. Because Kathleen didn’t get her work completed until 8pm or so, her direct reports felt obligated to stick around as well. And, because her office was the last work space one passed before making it to the elevators, it was impossible to slip by unnoticed. Even I started treading lightly as I’d tip toe past her office at 5:30ish, knowing that I’d get a withering glance of disapproval from her. It got so bad that we had to stage an intervention. Our consultant at the time had to sit down with Kathleen, show her how inefficient her work style was and force her to change it so that she, and our employees, could leave at a decent hour.
  • Number five is also classic. ‘We’ve always done it this way’ has been the mantra of several former clients and employers alike. General Motors was famous for rejecting any idea that ‘wasn’t invented here.’ And, the Brouillard CEO I reported to reveled in the rigorous systems and processes he’d honed in the 1960s. He pooh-poohed virtually every new idea including, ‘That Internet thing David keeps pushing me to do. It’s just another hula-hoop,’ he’d say to me. ‘Shut it down.’ Needless to say, the CEO is long gone, David’s doing well and, unless I’m mistaken, the Internet is still around.

How about you? Do you have any particular favorites on this list you’d like to share? I’m all ears (which is one thing I always say to my employees).’

Thanks to Greg Schmalz for the idea behind this post.

Feb 22

Really Frustrating Process

February 22 - frustrated Most public relations firms hate the RFP process. In fact, most corporate PR executives with whom I've spoken aren't too fond of the process either.

Depending upon the organization (and, whether those lovely folks from procurement are involved), an RFP is an onerous undertaking. Beyond the basics, RFPs will ask everything from billings and profitability to hourly rates and the eye colors of the proposed account team.

RFPs are also cattle calls. It's rare that fewer than 10 firms are included in an initial search. Usually, the number is far larger, topping out at 100 for a recent Wikipedia clusterf**k.

That's why I'm amazed to see a series of non-stop spam RFPs from some outfit called AllPublicists. As you'll see from the e-mail, they indicate that, based upon our profile, we're being alerted to a new RFP on the AllPublicists.com web site. The budget is confidential. The retainer will be month-to-month and, if I want to know more, I have to pay $29.95 a month. Yeah, sure. AllPublicists probably has a bridge in Brooklyn they could make available for the right price as well.

I've told these guys to take me off their list. But, they haven't. So, I thought I'd go public with my request.

Note to AllPublicists: I hate RFPs. I'll respond to only those that are in our sweet spot, limited to a few other firms and come with a reasonable annual retainer. I would never, ever subscribe to an RFP web site. Nor would I waste my time searching the RFP section on the O'Dwyer's site that lists open competitions for, say, the $50k per annum North Dakota tourism account. RFP should stand for Really Frustrating Process. Few pay off. The vast majority are a total waste.

All publicists hate RFPs, AllPublicists. I'd suggest a different business model: maybe matching bridge sellers with potential buyers?

February 22

Feb 03

What would you do?

Ad Age just ran a fascinating article about the industry's 'most toxic' clients. According to 'unnamed' advertising search consultants (Don't you just love that they won't go on record? What is this, Watergate?), there are several brands that are positively notorious for churning their agencies. They incFebruary 3 - logoslude:

 - Chipotle (which has had something like 30 agencies in five years)

– Quiznos (we had a small project this past Summer and really enjoyed the working relationship. Go figure.)

– 1-800-Flowers

Ad Age suggests the churn is caused by a constant turnover at the CMO level. That sounds right. I'd suggest, though, that the CMO churn is precipitated by constant change at the organization's CEO level. One begets the other (I love Biblical speak).

We've fallen prey to three recent CMO churns, losing an existing relationship in each case.

The whole sorry and sordid mess got me thinking. What would I do if I were a newly-minted CMO at a Fortune 500 organization? Would I:

A) Alert the incumbent firm(s) that they're dead meat and have 60 days to wrap things up? Like Nick Lowe, I believe it's cruel to be kind.

B) Put the account up for review, but assure the incumbent CEO that his firm has the best chance of winning? I fell for that line.

C) Tell the incumbent it has one chance to defend the business before you'll put the account up for review. Then, hold the meeting, tell the incumbent they've addressed your concerns and fire them regardless immediately after the new year? That one just happened. Nice, no?

I, personally, would go with option one. As a newly-minted CMO, I'd want to be surrounded by people I've worked with in the past, not vestiges of a predecessor's regime. That said, I'd call the agency CEO, tell him or her that I respect their work, but was making a change. It's the only humane thing to do.

One new top kick at a Fortune 500 company called our account team together this past Fall, lauded our efforts, said his direct report raved about us and even told us he'd like to expand the relationship. In the process, he asked for no fewer than four separate proposals on how we'd do just that. We were psyched to say the least. Then, we heard absolutely nothing for 30 days.

His lieutenant (the one who'd supposedly praised us in absentia) finally sent me a note, asking for dinner and commenting that it had been 'too long' since we'd last broken bread. We met and, after telling me about his son's soccer team, said, 'Steve, it's time to dial down the relationship.'

Advertising has its toxic brands. PR should have the same. The group I just mentioned would top my list. Have any toxic client churn stories you'd like to share? I find it quite cathartic.

Jan 27

Brouillard, Brainerd or just bad manners?

January 27 - stockdown I've received some pretty amazing, unsolicited e-mails over the years. But, two recent ones were exceptional in their sloppiness.

The first came from the editor of a leading industry trade publication, inviting me to submit ideas for a new daily news feed. That was cool, but the editor ended the note by adding, 'And, Steve, please pass along this note to other executives at Brouillard Communications." Ouch. I left Brouillard in August of 1995. Could it be time to update your database, Mr. Editor?

The second came from a job seeker who had seen our recent posting for new hires and exclaimed, 'I cannot tell you how excited I'd be if I got the junior account executive position at Brainerd Communications!' Ouch. Brainerd Communications? Is the job seeker related to the industry trade editor?

Needless to say, neither the Brouillard nor Brainerd notes lived to see another day.

We're all in a rush, but sloppy e-mails are an embarrassment for all concerned. In the case of the trade editor, there's no real damage done since his publication will do just fine without our commentary. But, the job seeker cost herself an interview. And, in this horrific economy, that's inexcusable.

So, the next time you're about to send an e-mail to more than one organization, do everyone a favor: update your database and be sure your note is going to the intended recipient. The job offer you save may be your own.

Jan 14

“I will personally dropkick your ass to f***ing Mars!”

A bunch of us piled into front row seats in a large auditorium to witness the first speech of anDragonfire incoming CEO of a major corporation. Needless to say, there was real excitement in the air.

The organization had been struggling, to say the least. It had shuffled CEOs more often than Elizabeth Taylor has husbands. The stock had tanked. Hostile takeover threats were in the wind and morale was lower than that of a NJ Transit passenger facing an indefinite delay.

So, the hundreds in attendance and the thousands connected by video sat on the edge of their collective chairs as the new CEO began. Would we be witnessing a corporate version of FDR's “You Have Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself” speech? An update of JFK's “Ask not…” clarion comments? We couldn't wait.

And, then the CEO lowered the boom and told the great, unwashed masses that a new, zero tolerance era had been ushered in. The organization would be lean and mean, with an emphasis on the latter. It would no longer be the media's favorite whipping boy. Nor would analysts be questioning each and every move. Most importantly, the CEO would put an end to “leaks” to the press, who had been gleefully reporting the organization's every misstep courtesy of myriad, in-house deep throats. The speech was a no nonsense, take no prisoners riff, more worthy of a Stalin than a Gandhi.

And then came the question-and-answer session. One timid guy in the back of the room tentatively raised his hand and asked: “A few of us engineers have direct relationships with reporters. Is it ok if we still speak with them?”

Oh baby. Duck and cover. First, the CEO screamed, “What a stupid question!” That was quickly followed by a very direct threat: “Speak to the press without permission and I will personally dropkick your ass to f***ing Mars!”

The silence was deafening. (I love that phrase, BTW.)

There were a few, more half-hearted questions and choice responses. But, that was it. The die had been cast. The tone had been set. The new era had been ushered in.

We were dumbfounded to say the least. I honestly hadn't experienced this sort of direct management-by-fear, screaming and cursing session since the mid 1980s when I worked for a CEO who’d once played for the Chicago Bears.

Needless to say, the message had been received. The organization battened down its respective hatches and the purge began. Scores of senior executives vanished overnight. Messaging was tightly controlled and the fear was passed down the organizational food chain until it reached the lowest common denominator: the external agencies.

We walked on eggshells for the 15 months in which we served the company and were routinely beaten up, back stabbed and patronized.

We've moved on and, truth be told, the organization has recovered some of its external mojo. But, at what price? Is living one's life in fear worth a paycheck? Not for me, I'd rather do what's right and work in a culture that allows risk-taking, supports humor, open communication and camaraderie. If that means a one-way ticket to f***ing Mars, then please reserve an aisle seat for me.

Oct 15

Attention vendors: “Your feelings mean nothing to us. Thanks again for wasting your time and money chasing our business”

I know I sometimes sound like a broken record, but I cannot believe how poorly some  
prospective clients treat the agencies competing for their business.Wspicture3

For example, there's a certain Midwestern home appliance maker that more than six months ago rushed us to develop a presentation, travel to their godforsaken headquarters and deliver a two-hour pitch. After awarding the business to another firm, they've refused to respond to our repeated e-mail and voice mail entreaties asking for feedback.

And, then there's a certain well-known consumer brand that just really put us through the ringer.

The top communications honcho called me about two months ago. She said we'd come highly recommended and invited us to be one of a “…few, select firms” to pitch her seven-figure account. She asked if we had conflicts. I assured her we did not.

So, she issued the RFP and we answered the typically inane, 'fishing expedition-type' questions ('Tell us how you'd break our brand through the clutter and overcome the poor economy to once again become number one in our field.” Prayer was one obvious answer.).

We submitted our lengthy proposal before the 5pm EDT deadline on the appointed day and crossed our fingers. Surprisingly, we heard right away. The lead prospect asked me to visit her HQs ASAP for an “informal working lunch.” Wow. Good sign, no?

So, I moved around my schedule, hopped in a car and traveled to god's country for the command performance.

Once there, I was greeted by the prospect, who carried a dog-eared, Post-it flagged copy of our RFP. We ate lunch. (She didn't treat.) In between bites, she'd flip to a given page, skim down to a section and say, “So, on page 22, section three, paragraph two, you say you'd jump on breaking news opportunities for us. Give me an example from today's news to show me how it would work.” Fair enough. But, the questions became more arcane and more intense up to, and including, how we KNEW our program would guarantee a sales increase. I told her the G word didn't enter our vocabulary, whether it's applied to media or sales. That seemed to cause some mild indigestion.

The 'lunch' ended and I returned to the office. The next day, I sent her a spot-on example of a breaking news story she could leverage on her organization's behalf. She responded effusively and said I'd given her the ammunition necessary to make some decisions. That sounded promising.

And, then, radio silence. Two weeks passed. I sent a follow-up note. No response.

Then, yesterday, came a note headlined: “To vendors.” It read: “Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately, you are not being invited to the final round.”

I was appalled, but not at all surprised. I shot the erstwhile prospect a note, asking for an explanation and letting her know that we had expended lots of blood, sweat and tears pursuing the account. At the very least, common decency dictated a personal phone call.

That said, I expect the same type of radio silence from this character as we got from the 'Midwestern nice' prospect.

I'm at a loss to explain why highly-paid, highly-educated and highly vulnerable corporate types treat their agency brethren with such indifference. If the economy doesn't turn around and these 'overhead expenses' find themselves on the streets, their reputations will precede them. In other words, I won't be inviting either of them to a working lunch anytime soon.

Sep 30

And I thought Wikipedia was bad

We were one of the 55 hapless public relations firms that responded to an initial RFP from Wikipedia. That's not a misprint. Wikipedia invited 55 firms to submit proposals. We actually did fairly well, making it to the 'semifinal round' of eight or 10 firms.

September 30 - Zappos_Logo

I was stunned to learn Wikipedia had spun so many wheels at so many agencies. But, the W types are pikers when compared to Zappos. According to the current issue of Ad Age, Zappos invited 100 ad agencies to pitch its business! Can you believe that? And, after a year of sifting through the proposals, they ended up selecting Mullen for what turned out to be a meager ad budget of only $7 million.

Some might attribute these fishing expeditions to inexperience or indecision on the part of the prospective client. I don't. I think it's a combination of hubris and insensitivity. Inviting 55 or 100 firms to pitch one's business is cruel and unusual punishment, and certainly no way to conduct business or treat one's fellow human beings.

I'd like to think the Wikipedia and Zappos cattle calls are one-offs. But, something tells me this sort of boorish behavior is becoming the norm and is just another manifestation of an overall societal meltdown of civility and decency.

Sep 29

Just declare it an open city like the French did with Paris

September 29 - morton511

Throughout history, when faced by insurmountable odds, military leaders have often abandoned a key fort or city to a rapidly-approaching foe. The Russians did it with Moscow when Napoleon's Grand Armee was bearing down on their frozen capital. And, the French returned the favor in June of 1940 when the Nazis had overrun their country and were blitzkrieging their way towards Paris.

I mention these historical footnotes because I see parallels to an agency's being asked to defend an existing account. The September 14th issue of Advertising Age contains an interesting editorial urging clients to tell defending agencies the truth when putting an account up for review.

I'm not sure what specific event, or series of events, prompted the piece, but it's thoughtful and ends with the following admonition to clients: 'There is shame….in leading an agency along, watching it waste money and time in a futile effort, because you either don't yet know what you are looking for – in which case you shouldn't have called a review in the first place – or because you simply didn't have the guts to tell your current agency the truth.'

We've had some very bad experiences defending existing accounts. In almost every instance, the client assured us they were merely 'seeing what other resources might be available' and told us we had the inside edge as a result of our hands-on knowledge. Yet, we lost almost every review.

When clients put accounts up for review, they do so because they're unhappy with the status quo. Period. Defending an account seldom works and ends up hurting agency morale.

The far better approach is to take a page from the history books, declare the account an 'open city' like Moscow or Paris and allow the invading armies (or agencies, in this case) inside the walls.