Dec 07

A leader showing playfulness? What IS this world coming to?

20111021135206-1It seems the most famous leaders are those who also possess the loudest voices, inspire the most fear and take themselves the most seriously. I'd include Yahoo's Carol 'F-bomb' Bartz, the late Steve Jobs and GE's legendary 'Neutron' Jack Welch in any list of notoriously nasty nabobs of negativity.

So, imagine my surprise when I received not one, but two, videos of Northeastern University's president Joseph Aoun, allowing himself to be playful, funny and, dare I say it, self-deprecating.

The videos were the brainchild of my alma mater's crack public relations team but, as Renata Nyul, director of communications at Northeastern, tells it, Joseph was the guy who took the original concept and incorporated improvisational steps that would make Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell or Amy Poehler proud.

Created to promote the university's ‘Profiles in Innovation Presidential Speaker Series’, the first video featured Joseph literally dancing with iRobot's legendary Roomba vacuum cleaner. Clearly, the man is no Fred Astaire. But, talk about an innovative way in which to hype iRobot CEO’s Colin Angle’s upcoming address!

Not content with cutting the rug with a robot, Joseph went on to record a second video that was even more obtuse. Its intent was to promote an upcoming presentation by Janet Echelman, a world-renowned ‘airspace sculptor’ who uses humongous nets to accentuate urban buildings, parks and public spaces (kind of a latter-day Christo, if you will).

Ms. Nyul says both videos have been spread far and wide on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube by the school's students, faculty and administrators. She says they've been genuine to Northeastern's commitment to innovation while also showing a human side to the leader of a top academic institution. So human in fact that undergrads are now routinely approaching Joseph to appear in their videos. Could you imagine trying that with your college president (or any Fortune 500 CEO, for that matter)?

But, Joseph's Amazing Technicolor Video Series has just begun. He has a third one scheduled for March with Dr. David Ferrucci, the principal investigator and lead creator of IBM's Watson.

I've checked with Joseph, and the school's PR team. They're cool with crowdsourcing the idea for the next video. So, here's your chance to suggest anything (and, I do mean anything) you think Joseph, president of Northeastern University, should do on video to promote the Ferrucci/Watson speech.

Personally, I think he should just riff on Watson's legendary Jeopardy TV show appearance. This time, though, I'd have the computer take on N.U.s three brightest students in a winner-take-all lightning round. As for Joseph? Why he'd play Alex Trebek, and come across as slightly patronizing, just a little bit smarter and a tad more sophisticated than Watson or the students. On the other hand, that wouldn't be Joseph's style, so scrap my idea.

What would you suggest instead?

I'll provide a slightly worn Peppercom baseball cap for the best idea (and I'm pretty sure Northeastern would be willing to toss in a clean, unused T-shirt). So, let the brainstorming begin.

Jun 17

Sorry, Sam, but based upon your skill set, strengths and weaknesses, your new title will be ‘Connector.’

Let me begin by applauding GolinHarris's attempt to re-engineer its infrastructure and become  more client-centric . Anytime an aircraft-sized, holding company-owned firm does anything novel, it's nothing short of breathtaking. I can only imagine the red tape and approval process that such a Herculean effort required before ever seeing the light of day.

Slide1The sizzle in what is an otherwise purely cosmetic change is “…to transition employees from working as generalists to being designated as one of four types of specialists… strategists, creators, connectors and catalysts.” Titles such as VP, SVP and EVP are being abolished and replaced by titles like director and executive director. Be still, my heart.

New, and bizarre, titles are nothing new. Dotcom firms were notorious for them. We once worked for a dotcom called Bigfoot. The CEO called himself  Mr. Big and the head of PR chose the most unfortunate title of minister of propaganda. Ouch.

Years ago, most small and medium-sized firms tore down the walls and silos that GH is just now addressing. But, few if any, of us, chose such bizarre and silo-creating titles as 'connector.' In attempting to fix what's broken, GH will find itself with all sorts of new human resources challenges. To wit:

– Jenny, a high flying account supervisor, is suddenly stripped of her title and responsibilities and told she's now a connector. Talk about pigeon-holing a fast tracker. “Hey dad. Guess what? I'm a connector!”

– Stein, another rising star, sees himself as a creator but is tossed, instead, into the strategist bucket. Say sayonara to Stein.

– And, tell me what client would want a connector or catalyst as the lead on her team? If I'm paying serious, holding company-type retainer fees, I want nothing but strategists and creators on my team. The others be damned.

Last, but certainly not least, is the holding company billing model. Having worked at two holding companies, I can tell you that each and every office has a separate P&L, and will fight like sharks for a scrap of meat when it comes to divvying up the client dollars. I distinctly recall winning a large piece of P&G business back in the '80s while with Hill & Knowlton. As soon as we announced the win, a more powerful executive in a different office simply snatched it away. And, the client didn't care because, in those days, “no one ever got fired for hiring H&K.”  So, how does one organize the P&L here? Will strategists fight with connectors over who gets what share of the client budget? It hurts just to think about the complexities.

I wish GH well with its re-org. To CEO Fred Cook's credit, he called it “…the beginning of a journey.” I only wish Stuart Elliott (and more chief communications officers) knew two things about the seemingly seismic change:

– Smaller, more nimble firms have been doing this for years (but, because they aren't owned by a publicly-traded holding company, simply aren't Timesworthy)
– People don't want to be placed in artificial buckets with ersatz names. That connector title is a one-way ticket to Palookaville.

As for me, in addition to being co-founder and managing partner of Peppercom, I long ago added the title of 'fomenter-in-chief'. I see it as my job to keep pushing our firm to think fresh thoughts and try new approaches. But:

a) I'd never publicize it
b) I'd never try to convince the marketing world that my firm is dramatically different because we no longer have executives carrying the title of vice president.

And, now I have to run. My business partner, Ed, our invoicer-in-chief, needs to talk.

NOTE: PRWeek is conducting a poll regarding what readers think of this move by GH. To take the survey (or view the real-time results click on this link:

May 27

Garbage in, garbage out

9109 I’ve never met Casey Jones (the marketer, not the engineer), but I already like the cut of this man’s jib.

For those of you unfamiliar with Casey (the marketer, not the ill-fated engineer), Jones has a long list of accomplishments including serving as VP of Dell and creating Apple’s memorable ‘1984’ TV spot that launched the Mac computer.

But, I’m not writing about Casey’s past accomplishments as a marketer. Instead, I feel compelled to wax poetic about his fresh way of thinking about client-agency relationships. As a strategy consultant to corporations such as Verizon Wireless, Jones has changed the ways clients think. To wit, Verizon’s VP of marketing communications, John Harrobin, is now holding his internal executives responsible for “…demonstrating excellence in providing the organization’s stable of agencies clearly defined briefs from which to execute marketing communications and campaigns.” That’s HUGE! In other words, clients can no longer pass the buck and blame their agencies for poor execution. Instead, thanks to Casey’s counsel, Verizon’s internal communications team shares success or failure with their agency partners. Talk about a long overdue sea change.

Jones is an absolute evangelist when it comes to the ongoing blame game about failed marketing efforts. His motto is ‘Garbage in, garbage out.’ That’s shorthand for his theory that efficiency-obsessed clients can get want they want by not slashing an agency’s budget but, rather, by briefing the agency better. Jones rates the average client direction as being between a two and a three on a scale of one to 10. “The norm is partial, incomplete and sometimes no brief at all,” he opines. Ouch.

I agree with Jones (with reservations, of course). We have some superb clients with whom we’re fully engaged in the strategic planning process, creative brief and definitions of success. And, then there have been those clients who, after telling us they wanted a strategic partner, left us to put out fires on a daily basis and fired us for ‘not understanding the business of their business.’ I still recall a post mortem with one client who admitted he himself didn’t really get the corporation’s business model but still felt compelled to fire us. “So,” replied Deb Brown, our ice hockey playing, Kangoo-jumping, absolutely fearless account manager of the ill-fated business, “How do you expect your agency to understand your business if you don’t?” You go, girl.

Casey Jones and his ideas are starting to take root. The Association of National Advertisers’ School of Marketing has invited him to give presentations about the importance of quality briefings by the client. That’s great. But, it’s not enough. I suggest the Arthur W. Page Society ( and the Council of PR Firms ( follow suit ASAP and invite Jones to present to PR types.

Success has many fathers while failure is an orphan. It’s high time other clients follow the lead of Verizon Wireless and hold their own internal communications team just as responsible for success (or failure) as they do their external agency partners.

As Ad Age said in its headline for the article, “Marketers, quit blaming your agency – it’s your brief at fault.”

May 25

Advertising’s early warning system

WynfordVaughn-ThomasbbAdweek is to ad agencies what radar was to the Royal Air Force in September, 1940: an early  warning system.

Adweek, and its peers, Advertising Age and The Delaney Report, never hesitate to warn agencies about badly behaving clients. Consider Adweek's April 25th column entitled, 'Is Heineken the Worst Client Ever?'

According to Adweek, nine agencies have represented the beer brand in just six years! Talk about a revolving door. And, get this, the $60 million account is once again up for review, and Publicis and Wieden are pitching it. Why are they wasting their time?

Adweek did some digging to better understand Heineken's heinous habits and cited churn in the leadership ranks (four CEOs and four CMOs since 2005). Yup. That'll do it. The new sheriff almost always boots out the incumbent, regardless of how good the team or how effective the work. That happened to us no fewer than three times in 2008 and '09. New sheriff. New agency. Sure as rain.

Now, as part of our due diligence in new business, we warily check the prospect's churn record. If it's anything like Heineken's, we run away faster than you can say pop top bottle.

Frequent agency churn not only damages the firms, it hurts the client's marketing efforts. As Ken Robinson of search consultancy Ark Advisors says of Heineken, “…how can you possibly put together a cohesive positioning when they switch agencies so often?” Amen, brother.

All of which prompts a question from this blogger: how comes PR trade journals don't provide a similar watchdog service? How come they can't (or won't) 'out' serial prospects as their advertising brethren do?

The client coverage I read in the PR trades is limited to:

– Case studies
– Personnel announcements
– Updates on the latest crisis du jour and accompanying statement (“Pigglesworth & Swine take these allegations very seriously,” said Jane Hare, VP of corporate communications)
– A fawning profile of the VP, Corporate Communications (“His peers at Toxic Chemical say Jim Electron is strategic, creative and positively unflappable; rare qualities indeed in a Fortune 500 executive.”)

PR trades could do a tremendous service to their tens of thousands of agency readers by tipping us off to a serial prospect on the prowl (akin to British radar's alerting the R.A.F. of yet another Luftwaffe sortie).

Radar saved Britain. The ad trades are aiding ad agencies. So, how come the PR journals aren't stepping up to the plate? If they did, I'd be the first to step forward, quote Churchill and proclaim, “This was their finest hour.”

Feb 15

It’s the ‘tude, dude

LeadershipIQ, a training company that specializes in management development, says 46 percent Bad_attitude-20659 of all new hires fail within their first 18 months of employment (insert link). The reason why? Poor attitude.

I can relate. I've had countless encounters over the years with poor  'tudes, including these gems:

– A Drew University intern who, when I asked where my research project was, shrugged her shoulders and sighed, “Sorry, dude. Guess I flaked.”- A recently-hired account executive who strolled into my office and told me he needed an immediate raise since he was “…working on two of the hottest B2B dotcoms in the country.”- A pre-Danderoo executive assistant who, when I asked her if she'd made my travel reservations, snarled, “I'll get to it, ok? I'll get to it.”

In an attempt to determine how my firm tries to prevent hiring employees with poor 'tudes, I turned to Debbie Salerno, our CFO (who also has responsibility for human resources) and Sara Jane Whitman Ramos, who leads our management development program and wields tremendous power at Peppercom.

Both agreed we have a much more stringent hiring process nowadays. Applicants will often meet with six or seven separate employees and we'll compare notes on everything from relevant experience to, yes, attitude.

Debbie and SJWR agree one of the best ways to uncover a poor 'tude is to get an applicant speaking about her previous work experiences. If she relates positive stories and is complimentary of the firm and its principals, we feel good about the applicant. But, if he starts trashing his previous employer and likens him to a combination of Charlie Sheen and Pee Wee Herman, we run away. We run away very, very fast.

SJWR related a recent tale of a woman who came in for an interview from a firm with a notoriously toxic culture. Her credentials were impressive to say the least and, says SJWR, she answered the initial interview questions quite well. But, then, we asked about her previous employer. One would think she'd just escaped from an insane asylum. There was lots of name calling and an increasingly hostile tone in the applicant's voice. We quickly ended the interview and thanked her for her time.

Once someone has been hired, dealing with a poor attitude becomes more problematic, say Salerno and Whitman Ramos. We'll conduct a 360 on each and every employee and, if poor attitude resonates as a concern, let the individual know future advancement and, indeed, employment depends on an attitude adjustment. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. We ended one relationship with an executive because he kept bashing clients to their faces. After being asked off a few accounts, we asked him off the good ship Peppercom.

Salerno says our attrition rate for new employees within the first 18 months is closer to 10 to 15 percent. And, she credits pre-hiring screening and post-employment interventions as the reasons why. SJWR adds that our mentorship and 'buddy' systems also help with attitude adjustments when needed.

All that said, I'm still trying to fix Ed's attitude after 18 years of working alongside the guy. Sometimes one has to overlook a poor 'tude when the dude in question does so many other things well.

Feb 01

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

I don't consider myself a great boss but, according to an article published by the Communications Minime Executive Council, at least I don't qualify as “a nightmare to work for.”

The CEC's Human Resource program says all bosses, even the great ones, struggle in the same three areas:

– Evaluating employee performance
– Providing effective feedback
– Turning around underperformance

I'd give myself a B-plus in the first area, a C-plus in the second and a C in the last (I'm still working on turning Ed around).

The report also lists the five warning signs that you, dear reader, may be a bad boss. They include:

1.)    Meetings happen without you. That's certainly not true in my case. My office should have a revolving door. Meetings occur around the clock.
2.)    Problems blow up before you hear about them. I've always known about the big problems BEFORE they've blown up. That said, I have been caught by surprise when an employee or client walked on us.
3.)    You don't know what your employees care about or enjoy doing. Not this boss. Thanks to our stand-up comedy training, I'm up to speed on more things about each of our employees than even they probably want me to know. I know one employee, for example, hates flying with her Mom. I know another one is a world class Hip Hop dancer. And, I know a third suffers from chronic stomach problems. TMI, no?
4.)    Your people don't know where they stand. We provide standard oral and written feedback and give raises and promotions based on performance alone. There are no teacher's pets at Peppercom. Well, Ted was a teacher's pet for a while, but not anymore.
5.)    No one disagrees with you. Everyone disagrees with me, even our interns. Seriously, I can't tell how many times I float an idea on e-mail only to see it shot down like a low-flying Stuka dive bomber over London circa 1940.

The CEC report is a useful checklist to help bosses at any level improve their leadership abilities. It's a critical factor when one considers the old aphorism: people quit people, not organizations. And, I know for a fact that certain PR firms have a poor image precisely because the head honcho is a horrible boss.

So, do me a favor: if you're a boss, tell me how you fare against this checklist. And, if you're an employee, let me know how your boss measures up. This is an area in which every one of us can learn something.

Jan 19

Latest H&K turmoil is sad to watch

As a proud Hill & Knowlton alumnus, it pains me to read the latest upheaval at the firm's upper ranks. (Founders Donald Knowlton and John W. Hill are pictured, below.) It seems that, since the late 1980s, H&K has been the industry lightning rod for turmoil, controversy and unrest.

Gallery It wasn’t always that way, though. I had the good fortune to land an H&K entry-level position in 1978. At that point in time, H&K was the gold standard of the profession. Sure, Burson was growing rapidly. But, Carl Byoir and Harshe-Rotman & Druck had already started to decline, and firms such as Porter, Ketchum and Golin were still in their nascent stages. H&K was unquestionably the “…shining city on the hill.”

It was a thrill to work there. In those days, giants walked Hill & Knowlton’s hallways.  We had former newspaper editors, syndicated columnists, press secretaries and industry insiders by the scores. H&K also had a curious new business policy. The firm refused to proactively pitch prospective clients, believing it to be demeaning. Instead, blue chip organizations approached Hill & Knowlton, hoping to be added to its uber-prestigious client list.

Our power brokers were the powerfirm’s upper ranks. It seems that, since the late brokers. Bob Gray, who ran H&K’s Washington, D.C. office, was the ultimate Beltway insider. If a client needed to influence Congressional votes, Gray made it happen. I had the pleasure to work alongside two of Gray’s subordinates, Sheila Tate and Colburn Aker, to support the American Trucking Association’s efforts to prevent new anti-trucking legislation in scores of states (note: Tate later became Nancy Reagan’s press secretary and founded Powell-Tate. Aker had his own influential lobbying firm for decades). I traveled to New Hampshire, Oregon and the state of Washington in 1980 to help the team ensure voters turned thumbs down on increased trucking taxes. It was an unparalleled experience for a green-as-grass, 24-year-old account executive.

H&K’s decline began in the late 1980s, when a senior management struggle resulted in the firm’s representing highly controversial clients such as The Church of Scientology, The U.S. Catholic Bishops and, most notoriously, the government of Kuwait. With the latter, H&K was accused of staging a genocide of Kuwaiti kids (an event that later inspired the Hollywood movie, “Wag the Dog”).

H&K seemed to have stabilized its image and reputation free-fall by the end of the 20th century. And, quite a few industry trades rightly lauded Paul Taaffe and Marylee Sachs for their fine work in righting the ship. Now, they’re gone with the wind and the firm, once again, seems to be in adrift. It’s really sad to say this but, once a firm sells to a larger holding company, all bets are off. Some survive. A few even thrive. But most, like H&K, begin a long, slow downward spiral.

Jan 12

A day like any other day? Not quite

1969-ny-daily-news-jan-320January 12th is just another day for everyone in the world. Everyone that is, except for New York  Jets fans.

That’s because it was Sunday, January 12, 1969, that the New York Jets won their one, and only, Super Bowl. It was a magic day that remains to Jets fans near and far, and young and old, a Camelot-like ‘brief, shining moment.’ It was also a major image and reputation moment for the old American Football League since, by winning the game, the AFL’s Jets brought instant credibility to the junior league and expedited an eventual merger.

Since 1969, though, each January 12th has been little more than a drab, early winter day to me and every other member of Gang Green. Will this January 12th be remembered differently? Will it be recalled as a midpoint on the way to a second Jets Super Bowl victory? I sincerely doubt it. But, hope springs eternal for Jets fans and this year’s team is certainly talented, if inconsistent.

So, here’s hoping that today’s otherwise utterly mundane, forgettable date is, instead, a key milestone along the road to a second trip to the Promised Land for Jets fans.

Dec 20

I bet no one’s yodeling at Yahoo these days

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Danielle Rumore.

Sad-yahooWhen I read that Yahoo! had once again done another round of holiday season layoffs, I couldn’t  help but be reminded of Robert Fulghum’s “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” You remember the basic messages in that poem – play fair, don't hit people, say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. That type of thing. In today’s fast-paced, competitive world, I think it’s easy to forget or even dismiss the core point of kindness/do-unto-your neighbor in Fulghum’s poem. If you think about it, it really can be a template for how global business leaders should – but too often don’t – do business today.

I don’t pretend to know a single thing about what’s going on inside Yahoo (or at other companies beside my own), but it seems to me that when you lay off 5 or 10% of your staff around the holidays on a somewhat regular basis, something isn’t quite right inside your house. Worse still, companies that are perceived as quick to swing the ax (especially around the holidays) can get a reputation as being heavy-fisted and dismissive of their people without ever really fixing the underlying issues that plague their firms. When my firm represented Yahoo!, we experienced this iron fist mentality first hand. It’s a surefire way to bleed the good talent you do retain (it has happened at Yahoo!), and that leads to worse productivity still, and so on.

Well, maybe that’s just how I see things.

What I do know is that employees don’t respond well to fear or threats. It destroys morale, and scared or unhappy employees translate to poor-performing employees. This post isn’t intended to pick on Yahoo!, but the timeliness of its announcement couldn’t have come at a better (worse?) time.

Now, I’m not naïve nor am I a modern-day Mary Poppins. I’ve worked through two pretty significant recessions – the Dot Com bust and of course our most recent, ugly downturn. I understand (but definitely don’t like) the necessity of needing to cut costs and conduct lay-offs when these dark times come.  But even with these harsh realities and all the attention paid to cost cutting, being “lean” and global competition, I think leaders have lost sight of basic courtesy, kindness and respect for their most important assets – their employees.

My first boss in the PR world, John Bliss, was not only a savvy communications professional and a great teacher, but also a good man. He always said that an agency’s most important asset is its people – which he reiterated to his staff time and time again. He also said goodnight to each and every one of us every day before he left for the night. Every day. It was the little things that made us feel appreciated and also created a loyal and productive staff. That kind of mentality is about as common today as a landline, and it’s kind of sad actually.

To me, there simply is a right way of doing things and a wrong way. Do your lay-offs, streamline your business, reorganize the hell out of the place but then focus on cultivating, breeding and respecting the talent you do have. Treat them nicely, say thank you, recognize and reward good performance, ask them about their families and their interests. Some cookies and milk in the kitchen helps, too.

Most importantly, though, allow everyone to have a voice. Encourage your people to bring some outside thinking to their jobs. You never know where the next great idea will come from – and that great idea may just be the thing that sets your business apart. Then when the tough times come, your employees may just rally around you if they believe you have always had their backs.

Nov 03

The Ideal Client

Imagine the ideal client. Someone who, once you've proven yourself:
– allows you to make mistakes as long as you learn from them.
– has seat at the table for you when the organization's strategic business decisions are being made.
– gives you full access to the senior thought leaders within the organization.
– celebrates your successes and commiserates with you when something goes wrong.
– stays loyal to you through thick and thin.

009 fixed by MadClients such as Monica Teague at Whirlpool, Tom Topinka at Genworth and Mike Kachel at Clifford Chance certainly fill the ideal client bill. But, when an employee recently cornered me at our 15th anniversary party and asked me to name my all-time favorite client, I volunteered the name of Allison Adams. 
Allison was my client at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School. Like Monica, Tom and Mike, Allison was a true strategic partner. But, where Allison truly separated herself from virtually every other client with whom I've worked was in her unswerving loyalty.

Allison, you see, went with me whenever I packed up and left a previous agency behind. So, when I bagged Earle Palmer Brown for Brouillard, Allison convinced her management to stick with me. And, when Ed and I bagged Brouillard to start Peppercom, Allison held steady. And, when Allison resigned, she took Peppercom along with her to UNC (after we’d had a falling out with her successor). Loyalty like that is virtually extinct in the modern business world.

We'd still be working with Allison if a certain dean hadn't decided to reallocate funds from public relations to fundraising (and how, I ask, does one fundraise without simultaneously raising awareness?). Oh well.

As Don Draper said in a recent Mad Men episode, "Accounts come and accounts go. That's the business we're in." Don's right of course. But, then again, Don Draper never met Allison Adams.