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.

Sep 10

Would you have kept Peggy working late?

The most recent episode of AMC’s ‘Mad Men’ probed even deeper into the exceedingly dark side Office-window-sam of Don Draper (nee Dick Whitman).

In last Sunday’s episode, ad man extraordinaire Draper worked late into the night to develop new strategies for a Samsonite Luggage campaign. Not content to suffer alone, Don forces his creative aide de camp, Peggy, to work right alongside him. The endless evening ends up costing Peggy a surprise party thrown by her soon-to-be-erstwhile boyfriend (but draws her closer to Don in some very interesting ways).

I’ve never been a fan of making people stay late into the night. It’s abusive. It speaks poorly of the organization. And, it will eventually impact image and reputation.

That said, I’ve heard of more than one PR firm, especially those in the technology space, who suggest their employees leave the office at 6pm, gobble down a quick dinner and then return to complete their assignments. That’s brutal. I’ve heard of other firms that use the ‘West Coast’ excuse to keep East Coast employees working well past 8:30pm. That’s also bogus. And, then there are the corporate versions of Don Draper’s “keep ‘em late and make ‘em sweat” management style. In Jacked Up: The inside Story of How Jack Welch Talked GE into Becoming the World’s Greatest Company, author Bill Lane says the entire corporate office staff was afraid to leave for the day before their chief had. This was problematic since Mr. Welch seldom departed before 7pm. He knew others feared him, wouldn’t dare leave before he did and, either didn’t care about inconveniencing them or enjoyed the rush that went along with controlling other people’s lives.

We once had a mini version of Jack Welch working at our firm. This guy’s office was conveniently located right by the elevators. So, he’d naturally spy anyone who was skulking out while he was still slaving away. After hearing about the issue, we sat down with the executive (and his reports). We found that he tended to while away his time during normal working hours and, for whatever reason, didn’t really roll up his sleeves until late afternoon. As a result, he’d set meetings that began at 5 or 5:30, mete out assignments and then expect his direct reports to stay and finish their work before leaving. Rather than suffer a palace revolt (I’ve always believed that people quit people. They don’t quit businesses.), we had our strategy consultant work with the executive to help him better organize his day. We ended up keeping our people, but losing the executive to a corporate gig (which was a win-win in my book).

Because of the nature of our business, we still have people who, because of a client crisis or over servicing on our part, stay later than they should. When they do, we try to either intercede or, at the very least provide transportation home and compensatory time off. But, we’re far from perfect.

There are many different ways to manage an organization. Draper’s approach may work in the short-term, but I’ve rarely seen it work over the long haul (unless an employee completely defines himself by his work and thrives on a steady diet of 24×7). I can’t speak for Welch’s management style since I never experienced it first-hand. But, I know we don’t want executives who, intentionally or unintentionally, make their employees stay late. Life’s way too short (which I hope Don Draper figures out sooner rather than later).

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.’