The phone rang this morning. From the caller's introduction, I assumed she wanted to sell me business services. I wasn't in the market, but I'm nice to salespeople. To do otherwise would be rather hypocritical of me. After all, I make sales calls myself.
So we chatted about her home town, its nickname, and the weather there. We had fun. But, alas, the time came to get on with it, so I said, "I assume you're calling to sell me something." Nope. She was calling to inquire into retaining the agency.
I was completely surprised. And completely glad that I had been pleasant with her.
Years ago, when I worked for another agency, a fellow came to our office unannounced. We assumed he was a salesperson. My boss marched up and seethed, "I don't let my people show up without an appointment, and I'm not going to take it from you." Feeling that was unduly aggressive of my boss, I invited the fellow into my office. There, he apologized graciously for not arranging an appointment—and proceeded to say he had stopped in to see about hiring our shop. "You come highly recommended," he said.
My intercom buzzed. It was my boss telling me that if I didn't throw the fellow out, he would come in and do it himself. "He's a client," I said. My boss came slinking into my office, now cute, cuddly and apologetic. Amazingly, the fellow indeed hired us—and later sent my boss a bag of red hot jaw breakers to "go with his volatile temper." He was a great man. The client, not my boss.
So I'm sure you can see why I breathed a sigh of relief that, this morning, I hadn't followed my former employer's example.
But here's the thing. Regardless of whether you're being hired or sold to, nice is a good idea. We gain nothing by being nasty. On the contrary, we lose. Not only do we needlessly flay someone trying to make a living, we risk vandalizing our inner Dorian Gray.
Even if the caller is a tenacious jerk—it happens—the healthiest, most angst-free course is to skip the verbal assault and simply hang up.
So here's a New Years resolution to consider. Let's be pleasant in our business dealings. Genuinely pleasant. Whether or not we think it's going to fatten our wallet.
Happy New Year.
Some years ago at a business lunch, I noticed something rather unappetizing in my beef bourguignon.
A cigarette butt.
I summoned the manager to express my lack of interest in paying for the meal. Her response was interesting: “You have to understand my position. None of my employees smoke that brand. This must have happened in the packing plant, so it’s not our fault.”
Wait a sec. There’s a cigarette butt in my beef bourguignon, and I have to understand her position? It seemed to me that she needed to understand my position, apologize, and assure me of steps she would take to ensure such a thing never happened again. Anti-nausea medication might have been nice, too.
Fast forward to a scolding one of our clients just received from a customer, who was offended at direct mail addressed to her husband instead of to her. She, not he, makes the family’s business decisions.
A little digging revealed that her husband had opened the business relationship, but that, over time, she assumed responsibility for it. Unfortunately, the database still listed the husband as the primary contact.
Some of our employees felt she should have understood our client’s position. It was, after all, an honest database error. And, some thought she was guilty of having an over-the-top feminist reaction.
But I'm on the woman's side.
Much in the same way I didn’t see a meat packing plant error—just a cigarette butt in my food—this woman didn’t see a database problem. Right or wrong, she saw sexism. She emphatically did not need to understand our client’s position. She needed an apology, at most a brief explanation, and an assurance it wouldn’t happen again.
Database problems happen. We know that. Direct mail recipients don’t know that. So errors like this one are opportunities to update the database and, equally if not more important, win customers by apologizing with class.
As for whether this customer was guilty of an over-the-top feminist reaction: hard to say. I’m male, and I don’t know what it’s like to be a female in business. But I do know that sexism, even the appearance of it, matters these days.
Many people dislike the new constraints of political correctness. Tough. If it’s important to our customers, we need to work with it, like it or not.
A well-intentioned guardian of concision took me to task for writing "free gift." Granted, it is redundant. But it also happens to sell better than "gift" alone. There is no more powerful word in marketing than FREE. Omit it at your own risk.
Mr. Cuno deserves high praise for his speech at the James Randi “Amaz!ng Meeting Roundup” held this past summer in Las Vegas. The recent James Randi Educational Foundation Quarterly Newsletter included the comment, “Thank you to our many speakers, especially Steve Cuno, who came roaring out of left field and stole the show.”
Congrats to Mr. Cuno, and a big thanks to the JREF for such a gracious comment.
Joe Szymanski, Agency Principal
Today I received an invitation to the American Advertising Federation’s 2010 conference. I speak at AAF events, so I hesitate to criticize. But what the heck. They’re big kids. They can take it.
Besides, I doubt they read my blog.
The invitation reads:
“Okay, we’ll say it. Conferences can be dull. That’s why this conference will be unlike any conference you’ve ever been to. No boring case studies. No mind-numbing speeches. No hard metal chairs. In marketing, it’s always been about the 'big idea.' How do you come up with one? Once you have one, how do you grow it? Manage it? Make it profitable? AAF National Conference 2010 will explore the 'idea' from inception to execution, and everywhere in between. Want to explore? Sign up for the 'Scavenger Hunt,' a workshop that will send you on a hunt for the next big idea. How far can you stretch a penny? Our speakers will help you discover innovative and efficient ways to address conservative budgets in today’s marketplace. Can you think on your feet? Take an improv workshop to boost your creativity and quick-thinking skills.”
If you plan to attend, don’t show that to your clients. When it comes to client complaints about agencies, limited scavenger hunting and improv skills don’t exactly top the list.
As for the Big Idea? Overrated. Creative people would do better to brush up on building a rock-solid strategy—from which sound ideas flow. Sound needn’t be “Big” to pay out big. No one would accuse the old Ginsu Knife ads or, more recently, the Snuggie ads of featuring a Big Idea. Moreover, lots of Big Ideas flop when it comes to sales. The Taco Bell Chihuahua. The Milk Mustache. Man Law.
A worthwhile event should challenge thinking, broaden horizons, sharpen skills and improve measurable outcomes. The upcoming AAF conference may well be a great one. But, unfortunately, the promo I received makes it sound more like play time designed to validate the myth that creativity is some elusive, etherial je ne sais quoi, rather than a discipline you can develop.
To be fair, the session on penny-stretching might be worthwhile.
These days it's fashionable to lambast companies for not selling something healthier or more useful.
Could Hostess sell something healthier than Twinkies? Yup. Could Harlequin publish something better than mindless drivel? Yup.
Should they? Not for me to say. Moreover, this line of reasoning inevitably leads to questions as to where to draw the proverbial line. Suppose Hostess gave up Twinkies and went into the fresh produce business. The fault-finding wouldn’t cease. (“They should import asparagus only from countries that treat their llamas better.”) Same thing if Harlequin switched to publishing classics. (“How dare they publish Crime and Punishment? The central character is a cold-blooded killer who questions the existence of God.”)
Instead of blaming marketers for what they sell, perhaps it’s time to accept responsibility for what we consume. No one, not even the alleged but non-existent powers of so-called subliminal advertising, can force you to buy against your will.
So if you object to a product, here's a revolutionary idea: don’t buy it. Nor must you buy your kids every toy they see on TV. Even if they can't tell a commercial from programming, I know of no law of physics preventing you from teaching your kids that nagging is impolite and that not getting everything they want is part of life.
Should some products be banned? Sure. Trouble is, that's a can of worms. What I would cheerfully disallow (acupuncture, chiropractic and assault weapons, for starters), others would vehemently defend. And vice versa.
Meanwhile, what is legal to buy should be legal to market. The two kind of go together.
As a side note, if you’re a marketer who objects to a product, I suggest declining helping to sell it. That is, provided you have that luxury. I have it, and I exercise it. Products of would-be clients I have declined include software purporting to predict stock prices (impossible), a multi-level company (generally a fraudulent system but for a few notable exceptions), an alternative “medicine” company (quackery, and downright dangerous at that), and a right-wing political organization bordering on fascism (let’s just say they’d have made the KKK proud).
Old Pepsi logo
New Pepsi logo
You may know that Pepsi updated its logo this past year. What you may not know is how much Pepsi paid the design firm for the update.
One. Million. Bucks.
Note to Pepsi: we'd have cheerfully done it for half that.
The design firm defends their epic work (and equally epic price tag) on the grounds that the new logo calls to mind the Earth's magnetic fields and the sun's radiation, thus evoking "...emotive forces [that] shape the gestalt of the brand identity."
Er, yeah. Right. Got that.
Furthermore, this wasn't the sort of thing a designer could just dream up in a studio. No, no. He had to travel the world to meditate in myriad different settings.
How can any rational person effectively argue with any of the above logic?
When I was the advertising manager of a decent-sized hospital chain, we used direct mail to invite people to tour our newly opened urgent care facility. Knowing that an incentive offer is the Number 2 strategic peg in successful direct mail (extra points for readers who can name Numbers 1 and 3), we promised each visitor a certificate for a free Baskin Robbins ice cream cone.
Within a few days, I received a note from an outraged consumer. He felt it was deplorable that “…a health care organization would encourage people to ingest ice cream.”
(Let me state here and now that I had no idea people were actually ingesting the stuff. We thought they would merely eat it.)
The outraged consumer’s helpful letter concluded with a suggestion that we offer bran muffins instead.
I’m not making this up.
The urgent care center was mobbed with visitors, and the nearest Baskin Robbins ran out of its most popular flavor. Clearly the promotion did its job. Bran muffins might have been healthier, but no one would have come to our party.