Jan 04

“Success has a thousand fathers while failure is an orphan.”

While it’s a day late and a dollar short, I’m pleased to share this infographic with you.

Created in partnership with BrandFoundations, our longtime strategic marketing partner, the list below analyzed the best and worst managed societal crises of the past year

Note: We define a societal crisis as anything ranging from a mass school shooting and the Southern border chaos to trade wars and environmental rollouts. We’ve also included #MeToo crises and self-inflicted wounds. Traditional crises such as product recalls, financial malfeasance and price fixing were not included in the analysis.

As you will see from the infographic, we chose to grade the organizations based on three criteria:

– Speed: How quickly did the organization take a stand on a societal crisis that either aligned with, or was the polar opposite of, their values?

– Strength: Was the stand taken by the organization unequivocal, or could it be interpreted in different ways by different stakeholders?

– Purpose: Did the statement double down on the organization’s stated higher purpose?

Hope you enjoy the graphic. Would love to hear your POV on our POV.


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.

Oct 09

A miniature statue of a 5th Century Greek boy? Sure. It’s right by gate 124.

Met I've seen some questionable business decisions in my life, but none quite as perplexing as the sight of a Metropolitan Museum of Art Store right smack in the middle of Terminal C at Newark's Liberty International Airport.

The store features everything from Egyptian cat bookmarks (now there's a perfect stocking stuffer) to busts and miniatures of ancient heroes ('Honey, let's pick up that figurine of Herodotus before we board.'). There are also books on Cleopatra and 2010 calendars featuring the works of Monet and Winslow Homer.

And, of course, the store is completely deserted.

I like to think I appreciate finer things in life and I really enjoyed strolling through the Classic artifacts and facsimiles thereof. But, an art store at Newark? That's like having a Bentley dealership in South Central L.A. It's laudable, but makes no sense whatsoever from an image, reputation or target audience standpoint.

The average Newark Airport visitor appears to be harried, hurried and much more interested in a quick Sbarro pizza slice than a Degas pastel of some South Sea island.

I'm not sure what Met executive made the daffy decision to situate a high-end boutique in the midst of a déclassé thoroughfare like Terminal C, but I'm guessing his or her career will soon be experiencing its own version of 476 AD.

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 17

Silence kills

September 17 - layoffnotice I was shocked to read about the horrific happenings at France Telecom, the global telecommunications giant. Based upon huge staff reductions and other Draconian measures taken during the recession, no fewer than 23 employees have committed suicide in the past 18 months.

I was even more shocked and, in fact, sickened to read about senior management's apparent lack of communication and abject indifference as the crisis unfolded. One France Telecom employee, Monique Fraysee-Guiglini, said management had been in total denial for a long time. “It has refused to listen to what the office doctors had to say about the restructuring. We tried to sound the alarm several times, in vain. Speech is very restricted,” she said.

What a terrible indictment. And, what a horrible way in which to manage an organization and treat fellow human beings. I've seen lots of corporate cultures over the years, many of which were positively toxic. But, I've never, ever experienced one that seems as totally detached from common sense, business ethics and basic decency as the one at France Telecom.

Having just attended the Arthur Page Society's annual conference, I know how critically important honesty and transparency is to a brand's reputation and performance. During the two-day conference, we had the opportunity to listen to the CEOs of such companies as US Airways, Darden Restaurants, CDW and others. Each consistently stressed the critical importance of placing ethics ahead of expediency. These companies succeed because they do the right thing.

If the allegations against the senior executives of France Telecom are true, then the company will most surely be forever branded as the evil doppelganger of J&J/Tylenol in the annals of crisis communications management.

Sep 02

Building sales overnight and brands over time

September 2 That’s a pretty catchy mission statement, no? It belonged to an integrated marketing firm for whom I once worked. It’s also one of the reasons I’m not a big fan of mission or value statements. The firm in question, you see, rarely, if ever, delivered on either promise. They didn’t walk the walk.

I bring all this up because I’m reading a new book by the same title. ‘Walk the walk: The #1 Rule for Real Leaders’ by Alan Deutschman is chock full of examples showing how great leaders such as Ray Kroc of McDonald’s really did walk the walk when it came to delivering on mission and value statements. Kroc, for example, insisted from day one that cleanliness be one of his company’s core values (quality and service were the others). To walk the walk, Kroc would clean up any debris he found when visiting restaurants (one employee even remembers seeing him scraping up gum with a putty knife). Employees bought into Kroc’s value system because he lived it himself.

Southwest and Amazon are two examples of organizations that walk the walk, says Deutschman. Unlike its competitors, Southwest didn’t furlough employees when times were tough and Amazon continually posted all customer reviews, even the most negative ones. The former demonstrated Southwest’s commitment to its people; the latter showed Jeff Bezos’s commitment to Amazon’s customers.

All of which brings me back to my former employer’s mission statement. Because management was so indifferent and inattentive to walking the walk, we worker bees actually made fun of the line and would often mutter it after being fired by a client or losing out on a big new business pitch.

The beauty of walking the walk is its simplicity. Organization mission and value statements are nothing but words if the leaders aren’t delivering on the promise in visible and tangible ways. As it turned out, my former employer neither built sales overnight nor brands over time. It did, however, go belly up about five years ago.

Aug 27

One marketer’s dream is another’s nightmare

August 27 The newly installed chief marketing officer of a one-time client was recently quoted as saying his organization was a ‘marketer’s dream.' I found the quote more than a tad perplexing since, for us, the client had actually been a marketer’s nightmare.

The firm in question is one of hundreds that provide an identical service. So, as is the case when publicizing a commodity, it was critical that we uncover some point of differentiation. Failing to find anything at all, we chose instead to attempt telling the client’s story through its customers’ eyes, undertaking industry surveys, drafting opinion pieces and arranging interviews at which the chief executive officer could provide thought-provoking commentary. We were able to do a little of each of these in the years we represented the client, but were forever hampered by the CEO who was either unable or unwilling to say or do anything of any substance.

We’d meet with the CEO and suggest a potpourri of cutting-edge ways in which she could break herself and her firm away from the pack. Like many CEOs, this one aspired to be included in major articles in BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal and leading trade publications. But, unlike other CEOs, this one simply didn’t have much to add to the conversation. We’d set one-on-one interviews and follow-up with the reporter only to be told that the client was a nice woman, but had said nothing at all that was newsworthy. Making matters worse, the CEO would often cancel interviews at the last second for what she perceived to be a more important business meeting (not caring that such behavior undermined our relationships with the media).

Needless to say, it was a difficult relationship that we thought about ending on more than one occasion. But, with the recession still in full bloom when the new CMO took over, we decided to try and defend the business. As is so often the case, though, the new CMO had already made up his mind and chose a firm with whom he’d partnered in the past. And, we quickly replaced the billings with larger and more substantive accounts.

It wasn’t until I saw the new CMO’s quote that I was reminded of the dysfunctional relationship, and the meek and mild CEO who yearned to see her face on the cover of Fortune. In retrospect, I should have had the guts to stand up to her when she first broached the subject. Ideally, I should have borrowed what a legendary PR luminary once told me he’d do whenever a prospective client expressed the same unrealistic goal. ‘I’d reach into my desk drawer, pull out a water pistol and say, ‘Here, you want to be on the cover of every leading business publication? Go shoot someone famous.’’’

I wish the new CMO well. But, my gut tells me his ‘marketer’s dream’ will cause lots of insomnia. Unless, of course, the CEO becomes a crack shot.

Aug 19

Loose lips can indeed sink ships

I was minding my own business at breakfast recently when a team of salespeople sidled into the booth next to me.

August 19 - orig They were dressed to the nines and clearly prepping for a major presentation. But, they were also projecting a distinct air of frustration and resignation. They then began a conversation loud enough for the entire room to overhear:

'We need to dial down the net prices on the dials or The Widget Company simply won't buy from us,' stated the apparent group leader.

'If we do that, say good-bye to any profit for the home office and any commissions for us,' lamented a second.

'We have no choice,' chimed in a third. 'I get the feeling that if we don't come back with a sale to Widget, we better not come back at all.'

'Damn recession!' said the leader. The others nodded dejectedly and tore into their waffles.

I found the conversation fascinating on a number of fronts. First, it vaguely reminded me of Glengarry Glen Ross, my all-time favorite movie about the business world. Second, it reinforced how brutally difficult it must be to sell a commodity such as a dial. I'm sure it's difficult in the best of times. But, try selling it when there are no value adds beyond price, quality, and service, and the prospective customer is gouging prices across the board. Talk about grim.

The conversation also got me thinking about the dangers of a public discourse. Suppose I'd been a member of the Widget Company team that the breakfast club would be pitching later on? Odds are good I would have tipped off my bosses about their complaints and suggested we select a competitor instead.

Just such a scenario happened to me long ago and far away. I was the junior person on a team that had just pitched and won a consumer product from one of the largest companies in the world. We were celebrating on the flight home and reminiscing about the presentation. One thing led to another, and we soon started mimicking some of the client-side characters and criticizing the way they spoke, the way they acted, the clothes they wore, etc. It got ugly.

Fast forward to the next morning. The pitch team was summoned to the New York general manager's office. He lit into us and said we'd just been fired by the brand-new client. We were shocked. What could have happened? Then, our boss began reciting verbatim some of our in-air mocking of the client team. Apparently, another employee had been sitting nearby, overheard our remarks and fed them back to the soon-to-be-former clients.

We were stunned, to say the least. It was a great, if painful, learning lesson as well. I now always make a point to withhold any comments, pro or con, until I'm positive I'm out of ear shot.

I wish the breakfast club guys well in their dial sales pitch, but they need to learn to dial down the bitching and moaning in public settings. The account they save may be their own.

*Thanks to Michael Dresner for the idea behind this post.

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 04

Being Steve Cody

Guest post by Laura Zanzal

August 4 When my alarm went off Thursday morning, I got up, started to get ready and then thought to myself, “Wait a minute!  I’m the CEO!” I was back in bed faster than you could say, “Laura Zanzal, managing partner and founder.”

To prep for my job role as Steve, I carefully packed my gym bag and studied options for my turkey burger.  All kidding aside, my day as Steve was informative and flew by. It was an eye opener to how demanding his schedule can be as well as how many impromptu, yet important, meetings Steve is expected to attend. Furthermore, it was interesting to see how “quick on your feet” and confident you have to be in this job role. In one particular meeting I sat in on, Steve was expected to work with a select few to come up with some humorous ideas for a client – in just a few hours. While I’m used to brainstorming and deadlines, I’m not in a position where I’ve ever had to think of an idea and run with it almost immediately. It was definitely interesting to watch ideas bounce off one another, with a more serious tone than what’s typically found in a brainstorm.

Being Steve though definitely had its perks. Between a spacious office with a—gasp—door to a personal assistant who happily called my roommate with Happy Hour specials, it was definitely comfortable and I look forward to these perks as my career progresses. As much as I hate to say it though, I did miss being in the trenches. I was disappointed that I didn’t know the “gossip in the cubes” and missed all the casual conversations through the cube walls. Once you are all alone in an office, it really makes you realize how fun your Peppercom family truly is.   

All in all, I think the job swap was an excellent idea. During my reign as Steve Cody, I found myself telling everyone about the swap – from friends and family, to even those employed at Steve’s gym. The common response, “Wow, your boss is really cool. I wish I could do that.” More companies should embrace the job swap, since it was a great learning experience for both myself and Steve, and I think both of us now have a greater appreciation for our jobs.