Feb 02

The shoemaker’s children

Conventional wisdom holds that, like the shoemaker who is so busy making shoes for others that Barefoot-shoes he neglects his own kids, advertising and PR agencies don’t do a good job of promoting themselves. That’s simply not the case.

More and more advertising agencies are taking publicity seriously. (Note: They have to. Their traditional business model is imploding as you read this.) And, some public relations firms have absolutely mastered the art of self-promotion.

Our agency publicity team has absolutely excelled at the task, as witnessed by this just-released Dow Jones analysis. As you’ll see, Peppercom ranks fifth among all midsized agencies for most publicity garnered during the year 2010. And, that’s a good thing. A very good thing. It means we’re breaking through the clutter and connecting with the world of prospective and current clients in terms of sharing our point of view on matters of importance. But, in surveying both the midsized and large-sized agencies on the list, I can also state that not all the publicity generated by these firms has been positive.

Take Hill & Knowlton, for example. As I wrote in a previous blog, H&K has suffered a series of high-level executive and client defections. Both have produced enormous negative news and speculation. Another large agency, Cohn & Wolfe, received a ton of negative publicity for publicly airing a feud it was having with one of its best known clients. In fact, CEO Donna Imperato’s barbed statement about her erstwhile client was selected by PR Week as ‘the most memorable’ of 2010. That’s one PR Week award no agency wants to win.

Other firms made the list simply because they specialize in providing counsel to publicly-traded companies that are in the midst of a merger or acquisition. The firm’s name appears automatically in just about any business coverage of the event, so their publicity is a foregone conclusion.

I’m proud of our team’s achievement and hope we can move up the Dow Jones ranks in 2011. My only caveat, though, is the publicity we generate about ourselves should be of the positive variety. I’d rather be like the shoemaker’s child than caught up in the harsh glare of the media’s spotlight. That’s the wrong type of agency publicity.

I’d list Peppercom in that group. From day one, I’ve insisted we set aside time for a team of employees to promote Peppercom’s thought leadership as well as general news and announcements. In fact, we strive to produce far more of the former than the latter, believing clients and prospects judge us on our ability to craft thought-provoking original material covering issues of concern to them.
Jan 26

Why not toss in a ’64 Chevy Impala as well?

I delete most spam. Some, though, are bizarre enough to warrant a response (i.e. The Nigerian lawyer who wanted to wire me $150mm immediately, but needed my account information first. I thanked him profusely for his generosity, but noted that I never accepted less than $151mm from strangers).

Your Plaque Preview Then, there are the spam e-mails that unintentionally tarnish the sender's image and provide fodder for Repman columns. I like those.

I recently received this notice from American Registry which, if nothing else, certainly sounded legitimate. The spam alerted me to the fact that, if I hurried, I could still order a drop dead gorgeous plaque recognizing my firm's excellence in sports and leisure in the year 2009!?!?!

To begin with, we do very little, if any, sports or leisure work. So, I seriously doubt we ever won an award for excellence in the category. But, why in god's name, would I order a two-year old plaque? To remind people of what once was? To be able to stop strangers in the street and, after asking for spare change, interject, “So, guess who just got an American Registry plaque for excellence in sports and leisure in 2009?'

But, why stop with selling two-year-old plaques? I think American Registry should go all the way with its retro offerings and include:

– an owner's certificate for a 1964 Chevy Impala. Who wouldn't pay top dollar for that?
– an authentic lock of Arthur 'Fonzie' Fonzarelli’s hair from a 1978 episode of 'Happy Days'
– a mint condition Pan Am flight bag circa 1985.

I'm trying to understand the motivation for the e-mail in the first place:

-Did someone in the American Registry warehouse do some winter cleaning and find the old Peppercom plaque lying in a corner? “Hey Jim, there are some really old plaques back here. The boss ain't gonna be happy.”

– Did someone at A.R. find an old softball tournament plaque, slap our name on it and try to re-sell it as an industry award? I'd give them an 'A' for creativity if that were the case.

– Or, do they practice a bizarro world version of just-in-time manufacturing in which it takes two full years between the time a plaque is made and finally reaches the market?

I'm just glad the company's name is American Registry and not American Dentistry. Imagine receiving an e-mail alerting you that, in 2009, you had advanced gum disease? If nothing else, it would give a whole new meaning to the word plaque.

Jan 24

What sets your organization apart?

Thumbnail Differentiating a public relations firm is no easy task since we all pretty much offer the same set of  services. Sure, the holding companies will play the size card and boutiques will tout their category expertise while we midsized firms will sell a ‘best of both worlds’ solution. Still, it’s tough not to be tossed in with the pack when a big search is underway.

That’s why our decision to embrace humor as a competitive advantage has been so important in making us a breed apart. Some competitors may be larger. Others may have deeper sector credentials. But, no one, and I mean no one, can stand-up to our team of professionally trained, stand-up comedians.

We embraced stand-up comedy as a key management training technique about three years ago. It’s done wonders for improving our people’s presentation skills and workplace morale. And, when a prospect asks what sets us apart, we always add the kicker: “You’ve undoubtedly met some fine firms in your search. But, we’re the only one who will make you laugh.” That’s critical, especially when a new business pitch is extremely close. Clients end up selecting firms with whom they’ve built rapport. And, ladies and gentlemen, guess what skill stand-up comedy training enhances? Rapport building.

MSNBC thought enough of our commitment to humor that they just devoted a five-minute segment to how Peppercom uses comedy as a business tool.

Besides the obvious, there are all sorts of intangible benefits to our comedy ethos. For one, it helps us self-select prospects and employees (i.e. ‘arrogant, pompous individuals need not apply’). For another, it helps us identify stars in the making.

There are more than 3,000 public relations firms in this country.  But, I’m not aware of any other one that would use the words ‘sense of humor’ in answering the critical prospective client and employee question: “What sets you apart?”

Dec 03

You Can Go Your Own Way

This post is dedicated to the long suffering Ann Barlow, President Peppercom West.

This is a cautionary tale about a professional services firm that exemplified a Fleetwood Mac lyric Goaway_sm_000 written with a different meaning in mind. To wit: “Players only love you when they're playing.”

The professional services firm in question has only 'loved' us when they were 'playing' at retaining a PR agency.

They first played with us three years ago. At that time, we were one of several firms to pitch the account. We were told we lost because we lacked an office in the firm's headquarters city (a criterion not mentioned once in previous meetings). Nice.

They next played us about six months ago. In the midst of a mega crisis, they asked us to attend an immediate meeting with their partners. We did so at our expense. The meeting went so well that we were asked how soon we could begin, whether we'd be available for a start-up session the following week, etc. Then, nothing. Radio silence.

More recently, the very same firm re-surfaced asking for help with search engine optimization. Being the naïve optimists that we are, we sent recommendations. Again, nothing. Radio silence.

We're done with this player. They've loved us for the last time. Borrowing from another Fleetwood Mac standard, “(They) can go (their) own way."

Oct 19

Fool me twice, shame on me

As a follow-up to last week’s blog about crisis prospects who disappeared after soliciting our Charlie-brown ideas, here’s one about an equally sinister strain I call the repeat prospect (Latin: devious repeatus prospectus).

This variety makes initial contact, spins one’s wheels, leads one on and then selects another firm only to surface years later with the very same siren call.

And, yes, it is akin to a siren call when an erstwhile prospect calls you out of the blue, tells you how highly they thought of you the last time around and would really love to reengage. It’s just like the guy who, having had his heart broken once before, agrees to hook up with the love of his life, knowing full well she’ll probably burn him once again. Sometimes, just like men and women I know, some public relations firms simply can’t resist the temptation to give it another go (especially in a recession).

So, we did give it another go. Twice, in fact. And, in both cases, we were badly burned for a second time.

The first repeat prospect was a financial services firm that had actually retained us for a few weeks several years back, but then decided to halt the program, open it up for a competitive bid and ended up returning to its previous agency! The drama played out like a subplot in “All My Children.”

Then, like a bolt of lightning, they re-appeared this Spring when things were slow and we were prowling for new business. Sure enough, the repeat prospect wooed us with all sorts of superlatives about our thinking and creativity, and implored us to pitch her ‘two’ separate accounts that, in total, would bill $30k per month. So, knowing full well this woman had burned us once before, we pulled together a presentation, arranged a videoconference and, sure enough, received absolutely no response. When I finally pinged the woman after weeks and weeks of waiting, she said they’d decided to go in another direction.

The second heartbreaker was a law firm that really put us through the ringer three years ago. This one not only demanded a full creative pitch, but an on-site presentation requiring out-of-pocket travel expenses. They left us hanging for weeks before finally telling us that, “We were really looking for a firm in our headquarters town of Duluth, but thanks anyway.” So, when these guys re-surfaced, the self-defense system was at DefCon 5.

Just like the financial services firm, though, the law firm types waxed poetic about our prowess, and even called me a “rock star.” (Note: Flattery will get you everywhere with this blogger.) Still, the whole “ …ya gotta be in Duluth” thing made it a non-starter and we told them so. “Not to worry,” said the lead prospect. “We’ve learned our lesson. Please do us the favor of speaking with our lead partners." So, being the gullible, business hungry agency we were at that moment in time, we pursued the account. We once again subjected ourselves to a videoconference presentation and absorbed the out-of-pocket costs for a trip to the hinterlands. And, sure as rain (or snow, since we’re talking about Duluth after all), nothing happened.

But, you know what? I don’t blame either prospect. It’s my fault for falling for the same line twice. The ‘woman of my dreams’ had re-engaged years after breaking my heart and, like a chump, I convinced myself that, ‘This time would be different.’

Whoever said, ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me’ must have pitched these two organizations. Or, maybe some femme fatale suckered him into a second go-round only to once again lay him low? Whatever the case, I’m going to start following George W. Bush’s savvy, advice. Once when delivering a speech, W. decided to quote the line, but mucked it up badly and said, "Fool me once, shame on… shame on you. Fool me… (long period of silence)… you can't get fooled again."

I hear you, W. I hear you.



Oct 11

Prospecting 101

There are right ways and wrong ways to develop new business. Alaska-state-library-photograph-pca-44-3-15-sourdough-in-stream-panning-for-gold-skinner

The right way is to first conduct deep research on a prospect organization, arrive at some sort of possible 'white space' opportunity and then 'ask' the prospect's permission to discuss the findings.

The wrong way is to spam the prospect. One of our clients, who leads communications for a global brand, says she is literally being deluged by spam pitches from myriad public relations firms. They're arriving in ever-increasing numbers, are 'inside out' in their approach (i.e. “We're a great agency and you'd be smart to hire us.”) and are actually counter-productive since they damage the firm's image and reputation.

I have the great fortune to serve on several boards populated by some of the best and brightest corporate communications chiefs in the world. I would never, ever allow my firm to blindly spam these individuals. To do so would violate a business relationship and, even more importantly to me, a personal friendship. That said, I've been able to win new business with some of my board peers but only after a long period of building mutual trust.

So, here's a heads-up to all the new business people at all the PR firms in the world. Stop spamming prospects. Step back and be more thoughtful in your approach and suggest solutions instead of pitching your incredible capabilities. My client will tell you those unsolicited mailers are going straight in her trash can, as is any chance of being considered for future assignments.

Sep 30

A dicey proposition at best

I don't know Cohn & Wolfe CEO Donna Imperato, but I sure admire her moxie. Unlike most agency Donna-Imperato executives who've just lost a significant piece of client business, Imperato told PR Week exactly what was on her mind (insert link).

So, instead of the typical, “We're very proud of our work and wish the client well,” Imperato let loose with both barrels after the Hilton HHonors guest-loyalty program put their 20-year relationship up for bid. Imperato said CW not only refused to participate (which makes sense since incumbents almost never win), but also threw in a few very pointed barbs at the erstwhile client.

According to PRWeek, Imperato alleged the strategic platform CW presented in a previous review is now the basis for the client's "Go Hilton. Stay Everywhere." global advertising campaign. She also said the agency switcheroo had been caused by “international management shakeups, a layoff of half the workforce and significant internal changes at Hilton.” Wow. Talk about airing dirty laundry.

A Hilton spokesman fought back. He said CW's sister agency Y&R had created the campaign and that it had already been in place when Imperato's team made its presentation. He also deflected Imperato's claim about downsizing, stating, “To say that we laid off half our employees is not accurate.”

PRWeek noted that, despite the HHonors awards program loss,  CW remains AOR for Hilton's Doubletree and Hampton brands.

I really admire Donna's chutzpah for calling out a misbehaving client. More agency leaders need to do so, so that media such as PRWeek get the message that all client-side executives aren't saints (as they're typically depicted in the publication's various cover stories).

That said, I'll bet Imperato's in a little bit of hot water within WPP, the holding company that owns CW and Y&R (along with 3,000 other agencies). In one fell swoop, she undermined her own firm's long-term opportunities with the two remaining Hilton brands while also shining an unwanted spotlight on Y&Rs work for the client (i.e. who really created the campaign? Y&R or CW?).

Holding companies do not like internecine warfare. And, as a WPP alum, I'm guessing this article is causing quite a bit of angst at the moment.

Donna's words were a dicey, if brave, proposition. I admire her transparency and wish her and CW the best in salvaging what must now be a very difficult client relationship.

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 20

Misspelling the word ‘Manhattan’ isn’t helpful to one’s job search

Having just finished a hilarious novel entitled, “The Pursuit of Other Interests”, my sensitivities Death-of-a-salesman-logo towards middle-aged, out-of-work job seekers is at an all-time high. The book, which profiles a 50-year-old advertising executive named Charlie, paints a bleak, if heartwarming, picture of the current landscape for middle-aged, unemployed white collar workers.

So, knowing how few employment opportunities exist as well as how thin the margin for error is, I was totally flabbergasted to receive the following note from a guy I’ll call Buck.

Dear Seekers of New Revenue:
I am currently seeking a full time, salary plus commission New Business Position in Manhatan. I would address these personally, but with over 2,300 names, I need to solve the challenge  quickly. I am the most dedicated, energetic, and knowledgable person in the Tri-State Area with respect to opening doors for corporate pitches.
I have been in the business for over 15 years and I work from 7 to 5 and can make at least 100 calls per day. I can very quickly develop a custom database for cold calls for your firm and set 2 pitch meetings per week.
Should my skill sets meet your requirements, I would love to speak furthur. Also, should you have a person or people in place to handle cold calling, I also work as a consultant on a per diem basis to upgrade their best practices.
Best Regards,
Buck McDesperate
(800) 555-1212 DesperateBuck@ISPProvider.com

To begin with, it was e-mail addressed to Sally Kennedy of Cossette Communications in Canada. Sally: sorry to be reading your spam. Second, Buck lets it be known that he’s an accomplished business development dude looking for a full-time salary plus commission gig in Manhatan. Yes, that’s Manhattan minus one ‘t’. Ouch. Misspelling Manhattan in the opening sentence of one’s pitch letter doesn’t augur well.

But, it gets worse. Buck lets me (or, Sally to be precise) know that he has a Rolodex with 2,300 names on it and is the most dedicated, energetic and knowledgeable person in the Tri-state Area (I wonder if that includes Toronto where, I assume, Sally is headquartered?). Buck’s been in the business world for 15 years, works from 7am to 5pm daily (he later amends it to 6am to 5pm daily), makes at least 100 calls each and every day (and that has to start hurting the fingers after awhile) and can produce “…a minimum of 2 valid pitch meetings over week.” Talk about Always Be Closing. Wow.

But, here’s the rub. If Buck is really that good and can produce a minimum of two valid pitch meetings per week, why is he blasting unsolicited e-mails to me (via Sally, of course. Sorry Sally). The sad truth about Buck, and the hundreds of thousands of other Bucks out there, is that he’s desperate. He’s probably been out of work for at least a year and has no solid prospects whatsoever. So, driven to desperation, he creates a rambling, semi-lucid, almost laughable pitch that is chock full of typos, poor grammar and inconsistencies.

Buck is not unlike the fictional character Charlie in the aforementioned Jim Kokoris book. Whiling away his time in an outplacement firm’s offices, Charlie puts together a database of former co-workers, clients, prospects and friends and blasts out a periodic e-newsletter entitled, “The Charlie Update!” Its subtitle is “Charlie B. Out on the Street.” One by one, the people on his hit list asked to be removed from the unintentionally hilarious mailings as Charlie becomes increasingly desperate and despondent.

Buck and Charlie are part of what a recent New York Times article called the 99ers. If memory serves, there are some 1.4 million unemployed, middle-aged, white collar workers who have passed the 99-week mark and no longer qualify for unemployment benefits. That’s when, driven to the brink of despair, they hit the send button and distribute embarrassingly bad missives like the one from Buck. I feel for these people and I wish I could help. But, sadly, I don’t have an answer except to suggest a dictionary and Thesaurus.

Aug 09

When your CEO isn’t New York Times worthy

Remember the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine Bennis, running low on contraceptive devices,
Nytimes1 had to decide which boyfriends were and weren't sponge worthy?

The episode came to mind recently when we were fired by a client CEO whose story, despite our very best efforts, was found by reporters at the 'old, gray lady' not to be New York Times worthy.

Never mind that we had scored tons of superb placements in outlets such as Fast Company, general business press, vertical industry and trades. The narcissistic CEO felt his epic tale should be splashed across the front pages of the 'print' edition of The Times. Aside from feeding his Mt. Everest-sized ego, the Times hit was uber critical to the CEO because the other power players in his social circle also routinely appeared in the paper. So, he HAD to be there or else.

Unfortunately, the Times editorial staff disagreed (no matter how many angles we tried). And, since we failed to produce the seminal Times hit, we were summarily discharged.

The CEOs self-aggrandizing misbehavior reminded me of the stereotypical typical dotcom founder who, armed with a freshly-minted Stanford MBA, a me-too business model and millions of dollars in venture capital seed money insisted his mug be front and center on the cover of BusinessWeek. His CMO henchwoman (they were almost always henchwomen, BTW) would nod her head vigorously and add, "How could they not put Halsey on the cover?" Well, nine times out of 10, the professional journalists laughed off the pitch as not being cover worthy and the henchwoman would discard us like yesterday's newspaper.

All of which reminds me of a superb observation the legendary Manhattan PR wizard Howard Rubenstein shared with a PRSA audience many years back. When a prospect or client CEO demanded to be on the front page of The New York Times or the cover of Fortune, Rubenstein said he'd let out an exasperated sigh, lean over, pull open his desk drawer and produce a toy gun. “You want to be on the cover of Forbes? Fine. Go murder someone and I'll get you on the cover of Forbes.” I think that sums it up beautifully.

Stanley Bing's book "Crazy Bosses" contains a hilarious chapter about the care and feeding of self-absorbed, narcissistic maniacs who believe the sun rises and sets with their every move. My only addition to Bing's pearls of wisdom would be to determine expectations BEFORE a relationship begins. If you run into the next George Steinbrenner who needs his ego stoked with one front page feature after another (and you believe the actual news value akin to what Lindsay Lohan was served for breakfast in the L.A. County jail, walk away). Tell the prospect he or she isn't client worthy.