Aug 27

Stealing My Heart

080402_i_left_my_heart-702731 The parallels between a love lost and a client lost can be strikingly similar. I was reminded of this  as I working out to the lyrics of an old Stones song called ‘Stealing My Heart.’ Some of the lines reminded me of the upcoming anniversary of our termination by what was, at the time, our second largest account. It had been a troubled, roller coaster-like relationship from day one (think Burton/Taylor, Brad/Jennifer or Tiger/Elin, if you prefer). It was also one of those relationships where, to paraphrase a Fleetwood Mac lyric, we were over our heads, but it sure felt nice.

Aside from money, prestige and the opportunity to play on a larger stage, I’m not sure why we engaged with this particular client. They’d had a history of churning agencies, were in the midst of a hostile takeover attempt and invited us into the pitch at the last second. But, the call of the siren was too strong and we succumbed, turning the agency upside down to develop smart creative, schedule the requisite rehearsals and prepare our various leave-behinds. The rehearsals were a disaster and I can distinctly remember Ed shaking his head the night before the presentation and predicting it would be a train wreck. But, aside from one member of our pitch team showing a competitor’s product in the midst of our presentation, the entire meeting was flawlessly executed.

Just like one does on a very special first date, we immediately felt the chemistry. There was love in the air. We knew we’d connected in a big way. And, sure enough, the call came asking for references (they were very concerned about a bait-and-switch since a large agency had just done that to them). Once we cleared the reference check, we were good to go and, just like that, we’d added $1 million to our billings (which is a big deal when your annual billings are $14 million).

And, as is the case with almost every relationship, the first few months were a love fest. We adored them. They thought we walked on water. The birds were chirping. And, the sun was shining. But, then came the storm clouds. The CMO who’d hired us left. A new global head of public relations was hired and refused to meet with us for months. And, a pit bull of a direct report was switched to our part of the business. His mission in life seemed to be to berate and belittle our team. If the first six months had resembled ‘Romeo & Juliet,’ the final six felt more like ‘Kramer v. Kramer’.

I was eventually summoned to the client’s Manhattan office and told he wanted “to dial down the relationship.” I need to try that line sometime. It’s so vague that I wasn’t 100 percent sure we were being fired. But, we were. And the million dollar sweetheart left just as quickly and unexpectedly as it had arrived.

Mick and Keith nailed the whole relationship thing when they wrote, “I thought you were dinner, but you were the shark.”  Man, this particular client was a Great White shark, and it left us bloodied and battered for quite some time.

Older, and hopefully a little wiser when it comes to mega accounts that suddenly want to start dating, I’d like to think we’d follow another bit of advice from ‘Stealing My Heart’: “When love’s on the menu, I don’t drink so deep.” Some more due diligence would have saved us a lot of pain and suffering.

Aug 16

Don Draper rocks

Don Draper, the fictional lead character in AMC's breakout hit, 'Mad Men,' just did what every PR Mad-men-office and ad agency executive pines to do just once in a career. In a recent episode, he threw two executives from a prospective client out of his office. Draper did so because the Jantzen swimwear executives refused to see the strategic business sense in Don's suggested creative campaign. The fearful Jantzen guys, not wanting to upset their conservative target audience, were afraid of Draper's provocative ad and told him so (and what a brutal product placement for Jantzen, whose swim suits remain amazingly modest, BTW. I checked).

Draper stormed out of the conference room, thought about it for a second, and then stormed back in to tell the Luddites to immediately get out of his office. It was breathtaking to watch (and, might I add that this is stuff of which dreams are made).

I don't know how many times I've wanted to toss a rude, boorish or indifferent prospect out of our conference. You know the types:

– The self-absorbed prospects who bang away on their Blackberries while you pitch.
– The ones who are totally evasive about their budget (“Why don't you tell us what you think it will take?”). Prospects who don't know what their budget is shouldn't be seeking PR support
– The marketing executives who, after telling you category expertise isn't important, interrupt your presentation to ask, ”So, that's it? That's all the category experience you have?”

There are many, many more examples.

The beauty of Mad Men is its spot-on accuracy. In addition to dealing with maladroit prospects, Don's nascent firm also has to walk on egg shells for their biggest client, Lucky Strike cigarettes, which commands 71 percent of billings. The Lucky Strike client knows he can belittle and berate his agency, so he does.

The Lucky Strike guy reminds me of a huge client of ours from long ago and far away. This particular master of the universe boasted that he'd give us a $10 million budget with which to work. He also immediately applied the pressure, knowing he was indeed, for one brief, dark moment, our largest client. His particular mission in life was to force diversity on the profession. So, right after hiring us, he gave us an ultimatum. Prove that our staff was at least 18 percent minority-based, or risk losing his business within the year. (Note: that's one tough mandate in an industry that remains as lily white as ours).

Anyway, my business partner, Ed, rose to the occasion with some amazing legerdemain and convinced this bizarre client that Peppercom was, in fact, 18 percent diverse. (I think Ed counted left-handed employees and New Jersey residents as minorities).

Long story made short, the big shot client was fired less than a year after his hiring, and has bounced around from one job to the other since.

We're a bit older and wiser now, and make sure no one client dominates too large a percentage of our billings. That's somewhat easier when your firm is an established, 15-year-old midsized business. That isn't the case for Don Draper's upstart agency and it certainly wasn't the case in Peppercom's embryonic days.

While he may have many dark sides and hidden agendas, I love the way Don Draper manages new business prospects. As his partner, Roger Sterling, said in the same episode, “My father told me advertising would be a great business if it weren't for the clients.” I'd change that to read, 'PR would be a great business if it weren't for the abusive prospective clients.’

Aug 06

Two Centuries of Brand Building Pays Off

Today's guest post is by London Peppercommer Carl Foster.

Times2 The balance sheet of most major newspapers looks something like this: 

Advertising RevenueDown
Editorial StaffDown

The most radical move to counter this downward spiral has come from one of the world’s oldest newspapers, The Times (Incorrectly referred to by many as The Times Of London or The London Times). Last month The Times put all its content behind a pay wall – the first major, non-financial daily newspaper to do this. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the outcome of this experiment will determine the future of the newspaper industry.

Subscription to costs £1 for a 24 hour pass or £2 for a one week pass. (The daily print issue costs £1.) In the weeks leading up to the introduction of the pay wall, when visitors were asked to register to view articles, traffic fell 58 per cent. The paper’s share of UK news traffic, from sites like Google News, fell from 4.37 per cent to 1.83 per cent.

Losing almost two thirds of your customers overnight is enough to panic any business owner, but  is it really that bad? I don’t think so. First of all, have you lost 58 per cent of your customers or just 58 percent of your footfall coming through the shop door? How many people clicked through from Google News not caring if they read a story in The Times, The Daily Telegraph or, the 800 lb gorilla in the room, the publicly funded BBC? The fact that people should be focusing on (and the newspaper industry rejoicing at) is that 42 per cent of people chose to pay for their news from The Times. That is the kind of brand loyalty that 225 years of publishing gets you.

The other positive is that the people paying to access The Times’ content are a much more lucrative demographic than the froth that washes up on the site from a news aggregator. People see more value in things that they consider worth paying for, and that goes for consumers and advertisers. This is completely the opposite strategy to that taken by another stalwart of the British newspaper industry, the Evening Standard. As I blogged about last year, after more than 150 years, the Standard became a free newspaper. Yes, the readership grew significantly, but the brand, and the value of its content was reduced, irrevocably, in my opinion.

I am heartily encouraged by the apparent success at The Times and what it means for mainstream publishing. Yes, citizen journalism is important, and in situations like the Iran elections it can be invaluable. But don’t discount the big media groups. There are times when only the resources of a major newspaper can tell a story adequately. Two examples of this are the recent leak of the Afghanistan files to Wikileaks, which in turn passed them to The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel. The other is the British Parliamentary expenses scandal, when thousands of pages were passed to The Daily Telegraph, which ensured the story was analyzed and told properly and responsibly.

There is much ill will directed at Rupert Murdoch, but as owner of The Times his brave experiment will hopefully prove to be the turning point for a troubled, yet vitally important industry.

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.

Aug 13

Striking the right balance

August 13 - pencil According to The Wall Street Journal, President Barack Obama has become quite the micromanager. He sets daily Oval Office meetings with his various direct reports and wades through minutia that surprised more than one source quoted in the text. That worrisome to me.

I'm not a big fan of micro-managing. Many historians say micromanagement cost Jimmy Carter the presidency way back when. The man was so caught up in the details of a failing economy and the Iranian hostage crisis that he lost sight of the wants and needs of the average American. And that, in turn, enabled erstwhile and ersatz Hollywood actor Ronald Wilson Reagan to sweep into office.

I've worked for micro-managers. They drove me nuts. One, in particular, was so anal that he actually decided in advance who would sit where at client and new business meetings. He'd also insist we 'scope' out a prospect's conference room the night before a pitch so that we knew every angle and nuance of the facility. And, he once famously rejected an order of agency-branded pencils because the office manager had ordered 'number one' instead of 'number two' models. 'We've always been a number two pencil firm. Send these back!' he barked.

I've also worked for totally detached managers. One, in fact, was so out of touch with the day-to-day operations of his New York office that the place resembled a Felini movie, featuring everything from very public and very torrid affairs to brazen rifling of client products ('Ok, who took all the Tumi luggage from the product room last night?').

The office would also shut down early every Friday, with most of us trooping over to PJ Charlton's for an afternoon of Bahama Mamas and god knows what else.

In management, as in life, striking a balance is key. People need to feel empowered to make their own decisions. But, accountability has to be enforced as well. We like to believe we've built a meritocracy that encourages risk taking, rewards success and enables people to fail without serious consequence. That said, fail often enough or in a particularly egregious way and you're gone.

Ed and I have totally different management styles, but we'll both swoop into an account if, and when, our instincts (or our people) suggest we do. As a result, we don't get bogged down in minutia, nor do we allow the inmates to run the asylum (although some would suggest that Ed and I are recovering inmates).

I hope Obama doesn't become so obsessed with details that he loses touch with what really matters. We need him to succeed. And, by 'we,' I mean the entire world. I, for one, will really start to sweat if I read a follow-up Journal piece reporting the President is setting aside time to review White House stationery, logo designs and, god forbid, number two pencils.

Aug 12

The vagaries of business: 1995-2009

August 12 - business-101 I had the opportunity to join a day-long meeting
of PR agency executives last week. While a few were excelling, most were
struggling in the current economy. Many, in fact, had taken Draconian cuts
to assure their firms remained profitable. Others had re-assigned formerly
billable staff to nearly full-time marketing and business development
activities. It was grim, to say the least.

I hope these firms succeed in their prospecting, but making changes after the
fact is akin to trying to run down the proverbial horse that's already bolted
from the barn.

But, I digress. At the meeting, participants agreed that clients were not only
inviting more firms than ever to pitch their business, but taking an inordinate
time to make a decision. One statement in particular took me aback. An agency
principal reported that his firm had won no fewer than three recent pieces of
business only to be told the client budget no longer existed. Ouch! It's tough
enough to chase down some of these leads. But, imagine receiving a call that
begins with the prospect/client saying, 'Herbert, I have some good news and
some bad news. Which would you like first?'

I went through the 'now you see it, now you don't' experience once before. It
was back in those lazy, hazy, crazy days of dotcom-mania. We'd pitched a
company, been awarded the business in the morning and then fired in the
afternoon. Apparently, the CMO had neither the authority nor the budget to hire
a firm. Nice.

Last week's therapy session also reminded me of Peppercom's first big setback.
We'd been in business for about three months when I received a call from a guy
with whom I'd once worked. He was now head of human resources at a global
chemical company and had a mega budget for employee communications. 'Steve,' he
said. 'I want you guys to overhaul everything. Soup to nuts. You give me the
budget and I'll authorize the purchase orders. Oh, and we need to start

Talk about manna from heaven! We had one or two other small clients at the time
but, in one fell swoop, this chemical company client was about to transform the
fledgling Peppercom into a multi-million dollar agency.

Ed and I quickly crafted the program (with Ed gleefully whipping together
massive budgets, btw). The two of us then barreled up Rt. 95 to Connecticut to present the plans and budget, and begin the work.

When we arrived at the reception desk and asked for the contact, however, we
received a puzzled look. 'Why don't you take a seat?' suggested the

About 20 minutes later, a woman came strolling out. She introduced herself as
the new head of human resources and corporate communications, and sighed, 'Did
no one contact you about John?' We shook our heads. 'Well,' she continued,
'John was fired last week. I saw your proposal and budgets and, frankly, have
no interest in working with you. I'm sorry you had to come all this way.'

Boom. Easy come, easy go. Talk about a long, brutal ride back to Manhattan. The word 'funeral' came to mind. 

I was never able to track John down to find out what had happened. And, he
never bothered calling me.

Ed and I overcame our shock and disbelief (as well as our intention to hire 10
people and move into new office space) and went back to cold calling new
business prospects. (Footnote: a variation of this anecdote occurred many years
later when a global CMO promised us a $10 million budget only to disappear a
few months later).

Business always has its ups and downs, in good times and bad. While
commiserating over one's bad luck can be cathartic, I've found the single
biggest 'secret' to success is resiliency. When an ITT, Panasonic or a Unisys
fires you, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off,  paste a smile on your
face and charge ahead.

There will always be clients who spin your wheels and dangle assignments and
budgets they have authority to award. And, every once in a while, there will be
a prospect who disappears completely after promising a wealth of riches. The
best remedy is to simply chalk it up to the vagaries of business: yesterday,
today and tomorrow.

Aug 03

They call Alabama the Crimson Tide. Call me Deacon blues.

August 3 - climb-stack-of-paper An erstwhile client of ours recently decided to put the entire account up for review.

As a 'courtesy,' they invited us to participate in the pitch.

Wary of not re-engaging with what had been a tenuous, high maintenance relationship at best, I asked our point person to carefully qualify the opportunity. She did so, and reported back that the prospect was 'limiting' the field and would duly note our track record in their evaluation.

Since the budget was respectable, the times were tough and the client sported a recognizable brand name, I gave a reluctant go-ahead. 

Later that very same week, though, O'Dwyer's ran a front page story indicating the prospect was issuing an RFP. Oh boy. 'Danger Will Robinson!!!!!' When O'Dwyer's runs a front page story announcing an RFP, one can safely go to the bank assuming that everyone and their brother will be pitching the account.

Our point person promised to check with the prospect. After doing so, she insisted we still had a great chance and should proceed. So, times being what they were, we did. And, we heard nothing for the longest time. Complete radio silence from the prized prospect.

Then last week, rising like some proverbial Phoenix, the contact resurfaced. We received a long note thanking us for our 'excellent' submission, but letting us know that, sadly, we hadn't made the final round.

To cushion our loss, though, the prospect was nice enough to let us know he'd received some 55, count 'em 55, proposals. Let me repeat that number: 55.

How'd you like to cozy up to 55 public relations proposals over a bottle of chardonnay, some Barry White love songs and a roaring fire? I can think of more romantic weekend escapes.

To further cushion our loss, the prospect really opened up in his note and told us we had made it to the 'semifinal round of 10' agencies. Oh boy! The semifinal round of 10? What are the odds of that? Actually, I guess they'd be one in five. Nonetheless, what an honor! 

And, where would the semifinals be held? Greensboro Coliseum? The Staples Center in LA? MSG itself? And, who else made the semis? Gonzaga? Syracuse? Wake Forest? What a joke.

As Steely Dan wrote, 'They got a name for the winners in the world. I want a name when I lose. They call Alabama the Crimson Tide. Call me Deacon Blues.'

After this experience, you can also call me Deacon Done. I am so done with not trusting my gut and avoiding these pointless cattle calls.

Jul 06

A new digital divide

July 6 - customer service Most large organizations today are living a lie. On the one hand, their marketing communications staffs are rushing pell-mell into the blogosphere to learn the rules of social media and how best to 'engage' with customers and prospective customers.

Simultaneously, though, these very same organizations are pushing their customer service departments to 'disengage' with customers as quickly as possible. Customer service is a quantity game, so the more customers that can be handled in the shortest period of time leads to the greatest profits.

According to Emily Yellen's 'Your call is (not) important to us,' the approximate cost of offering a live American-based customer service agent averages somewhere around $7.50 per phone call. Outsourcing calls to live agents in another country brings the average cost down to about $2.35 per call. Having customers take care of problems themselves, through an automated response phone system, averages around 32 cents per call, or contact. Guess which option more and more companies are choosing?

Is it any wonder why American business is so dysfunctional? The organization is in a constant state of civil war. The answer may seem obvious: an enlightened CEO should simply mandate that marketing and customer service huddle up and find a win-win solution. Sadly, solutions take time (and lots of money). And, with the change of pace measured in nanoseconds and the economy continuing to slide, the average CEO, CMO and head of customer service instead adopt a 'Let's make do with what we have' mentality.

Ah, but the consumer is king and, if we rant and rave loud enough, or, better yet, buy a competitor's product, corporations will have no choice but to close their digital divide.

Until then, please press 'one' for a service disruption, 'two' for a service disruption of one hour or more, 'three' to ask about our new service offerings, or 'four' for recommended methods of committing suicide when caught in voicemail hell.

Apr 24

You guys do know that’s our competitor’s product, right?

April 24 - Doh I tend to rail about the boorish behavior and mean-spirited treatment we’ve experienced at the hands of some prospective clients over the years. Typically, they involve prospects who demand a proposal within a very tight timeframe and then hang you out to dry. Or, others who pick your brain and then never respond to your inquiries about next steps. Then there are the clients who put the account up for review, tell you not to worry because the incumbent always has the advantage and then fire you.

that said, we can be just as dysfunctional as any prospect. We once so badly
mangled a new business opportunity that it’s actually become part of agency

prospect was based in the Midwest so we decided to have our New York and San Francisco offices 'co-own' the pitch. That was mistake number one. No one truly owned it
at all. Then, we had a few key people take vacations while the presentation was
being put together. That was mistake number two. Finally, we didn’t decide upon
the actual pitch team until the night before and never actually rehearsed. That
was the nail in the coffin.

the prospect was at least three connecting flights away from any major airport,
we opted to present by phone. Naturally, the technology froze. When we finally
got started, our ideas were met with stone-cold silence. The silence became
deafening. At one point, we asked, ‘So, what do you think of that idea?’ ‘We
tried it and it failed,’ they responded. Oh.

we presented a program theme based upon a classic rock song. We hadn’t done our
homework in order to find out another company was already using the same tune.

coup de grâce came when we presented an ‘out-of-the-box’
idea that involved having the product ‘show up’ at unexpected places (i.e. rock
concerts, sports stadiums, etc.). Again, silence. Finally, the prospect said,
‘You guys know that’s our competitor’s product on the screen, right?’ Game.
Set. Match.

meeting went so poorly that we had to laugh afterwards. Then, we buckled down
and got serious. We installed a number of new processes to make sure we never
again took a lead so lightly. In these times, leads can be like gold
(especially if they’re serious leads). So, I think I can safely say we’re done
showing a competitor’s product in any future new business presentations.

Sep 30

The Business of a Client’s Business

"The business of a client’s business." That’s a catchy phrase, isn’t it? I sure think so. In fact, we use it as firm’s our signature tagline.

We do so for a reason. Because we have so many more offerings than your average, plain vanilla PR firm, we "touch" a client in many different ways.

One day, we’ll work with a business continuity manager on a crisis/security plan for his organization. On another day, we’ll work with a chief marketer to close the communications gaps between her sales and marketing teams. On other occasions, we’ll liaise with a client’s interactive group to create its first intranet.

All of this adds up to a deeper understanding of the client’s business. And, that’s a big deal. Especially nowadays, with the markets tanking. Clients want to know their PR firms understand the role of public relations within the marketing mix. They also expect agencies to understand the implications of a stock’s rise or fall and meeting or missing the Street’s expectations.

GE CEO Jeff Immelt emphasized some of these points at his recent Arthur Page Society keynote address. Keith O’Brien’s PR Week opinion piece speaks to the need for PR people to "get" business. And, Brian McGee, who chairs the College of Charleston’s communications department, sees more and more students declaring business administration as their minor.
If our industry wants to claim (and maintain) a seat at the table during these times of
rollicking economic uncertainty, we need to know more than just the name of a Wall Street Journal editor, we need to understand what happens on Wall Street itself. Until then, we run the risk of being further marginalized on prices and continuing to be perceived as little more than press release writers, special events managers and party planners.