Archive for May, 2014

Sometimes You Must Just Say No To New Business

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

thumbnail.aspToo often in business, ego and greed go head-to-head with common sense and prevail, causing damage in their wake. Too often, those forces lead companies to say “yes” to new business when they should just say “no.” This is a post about two of those instances wrapped up into one story.

At the end of 2012, the owner of a small online-only business realized her company was overdue for a new website and it quickly became a strategic imperative. We had referred her to an ad agency (that had also referred us business) the year before for some online advertising. They had done a pretty good job, so she gave them an opportunity to propose a new site. The owner of the agency pulled out all the stops in a hard sell, but admitted that his company typically handles such projects for much larger companies and that this would be their smallest project. When she expressed concern about that, he reassured her by telling her he had an an “expert” on staff in her e-commerce platform. He just couldn’t say “no.” In January of 2013, she signed a contract for a new site – the largest purchase in the history of her company.

The agency estimated a four-month “conservative” completion time for the new site. Six months later, it still wasn’t finished. When she wondered why nobody from the agency had contacted her in many weeks, she discovered, via a LinkedIn search, that her account representative had left the agency weeks before. It took the owner several days to get back to her and promised her a quick completion. To make a long story short, when the site still wasn’t completed after nearly a year since signing the contract, she suggested the two companies work out an arrangement that would allow both of them to move on. She obviously wasn’t getting the new site she needed. Her project obviously was either too small and/or too far afield for the agency to complete. Instead of working out a deal to part ways, the arrogant, gutless agency owner committed an act of cowardice – he filed a breach of contract suit against her.

After a counter-suit and much money spent on lawyers, the two sides ultimately agreed to binding mediation. A professional mediator, a former judge, was to hear both sides, and, after two hours, if an agreement could not be reached with his assistance, he would rule on a binding settlement. This mediator typically deals with much bigger cases and much longer mediations, but would not say “no” to taking the case.

To say the mediator mailed this one in would imply a little effort. It was more like he did this one from the couch with a bag of chips in one hand and a remote control in the other. The session started late and ended early. At least for the online business’ side, he barely asked any questions and refused to look at evidence. He mentioned multiple times that he had somewhere else to be and did not issue a decision that day. In fact, his decision came two days later and was just a number – one that benefitted the ad agency and virtually ignored the side of the business owner.

That business owner happens to be my wife. The ad agency is a former collaborator, with an owner who chose to napalm his relationship with our firm. The mediator is one I used to respect, before seeing him in “action.” Cutting through the emotions of the situation, I remember a pledge Don and I made when we started our firm. We don’t know everything. We won’t do everything. Sometimes, when it’s really best for a potential client, we will say “no.” If only that had happened in either case in this story, it could have prevented a lot of pain and a lot of money lost.

If You Don’t Communicate A Difference, You’re Wasting Your Money

Monday, May 12th, 2014

125When you work in the communications business, you can’t consume media like a “normal person.” As case in point, take my most recent experience reading a local business magazine. Yes, I read it for the articles but I also couldn’t help spending time looking at the ads. Many of them, all full-page and in full-color, were placed by professional service firms, a business sector Don and I have both worked with for our entire PR careers.

While advertising is not our core business, paid ads should communicate the same brand core that should be extended over all communications platforms. Ads, particularly business-to-business ads should, in a compelling and succinct way, somehow communicate who you are, what you do and, most importantly, how you’re different. When your company is paying top dollar for space that reaches a target audience, it’s imperative that time and energy be spent in the right ways to take advantage of the communications opportunity. Instead, what I found was a lot of wasted money. Here’s a short take on each of the professional services ads in this issue:

-The ad on the inside front cover prominently features a stock image of a woman (presumably a client?), rather than the people the law firm says are its strength. It uses the we’ve-heard-it-before phrase “from the boardroom to the courtroom” and describes the law firm as “fearless” (as opposed to all of the timid litigators you see out there).

-Two pages later is an ad for a firm that does litigation support “in either the boardroom or the court room” in text on top of courthouse columns, another well-worn cliche.

-A few more pages in is a law firm ad featuring a stock image of four lamps, with one shining toward the reader. I found this on Google images in one click while searching “different.” Even though this is a local ad, the firm couldn’t even spend a few extra dollars to have its designer put Michigan first in the list of states where it has offices.

-A few pages later there is an ad for a law firm that touts its 160 years in business and its “deep bench” (over an image of a baseball team in a dugout). At least those are points of difference amid stock photography. But below, there are three long paragraphs of copy that only a lawyer with a taste for text could love.

-A few pages later runs an ad for “tough” corporate trial lawyers with an image of a coat and tie wearing torso with boxing gloves on each hand. It touts experience and service. Are those real points of difference, especially with the boxing glove image, used by a personal injury attorney in billboards across Detroit? Michigan is listed third in the states where they have offices in this local-only placement.

There are reasons why this can happen with professional service firms. Because they are often run by committee, “groupthink” can prevail with the winning strategy appealing to the room’s lowest common denominator. That helps explain spending thousands of dollars on placement but maybe hundreds on stock, cliched creative work. Also, these firms are often run by professionals whose expertise in their own field creates ego can trump any professional marketing counsel.

Whatever your business, it’s important to remember not to say the same old thing in the same old ways. Dig deep, spend the money, develop your brand and communicate why someone should really choose you over anyone else.

(Don’t) Like a Broken Record Player

Sunday, May 4th, 2014

6d82a57b6268a57a4b46d6ece3ea7f3dToday, I am in the market for a new turntable.  And depending on how important music is to you, it may well have been awhile since you heard someone say that. Last weekend, the record player on my Detrola entertainment system, stopped working, much to the dismay of my euchre-playing friends. While typically used for its radio, the wood-laden piece can also play vinyl at 45, 33 1/3 and even 78 rpm. I miss it already.

I grew up with records.  And as I recount in by book “No Static at All,” there was nothing quite like the experience of jumping on the Purple bus line of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District and heading to Campustown and Record Service to purchase a new album.  The very name, album, was quite apropos as, from cover art to interior band photos and typically extensive liner notes and lyrics, it was, quite literally, a visual and informational experience – a time capsule glimpse into the inspiration and impetus for who and what made this grouping of songs happen.  The record inside this coffee table book-sized casing, moreover, was also aptly named; it was as much a recording of sound as it was an historical record of what had occurred leading up to and inside of the studio.

The album-buying and listening experience is one I’ve started to gravitate back toward and I know I’m not alone.  My controller’s son, in fact, a 19-year old college student, is in the process of purchasing the Beatles catalogue on vinyl.  He gets it. Leafing through the record bins, for example those at UHF Music in Royal Oak or Found Sound in Ferndale, for long lost gems is once again a favorite albeit too-seldom indulged enjoyment.  Yet, I’m determined to replace at least a small fraction of my at one time several thousand record collection, at some point or another given away in favor of CDs and MP3s.

LPs by their very “unportability” also offer a unique aural experience. Where today we listen to music most often on the run, the album listening experience was ideal for comfortable chair and headphones, focused entirely on the music and where it could take us.  This was also why audio quality was so much important then. Modern technology has made the music more accessible, yet, this same technology, with its compression limitations, has made the music less listenable.

It is why Hall of Fame artist Neil Young has unveiled PonoMusic, a player and service, which promises “lossless” audio files and “ultra-high resolution” aimed at bringing higher quality music back to the masses. Pono promises 192 kHz and 24-bit sound, as opposed to 44.1 Khz and up to 4 bit sound typically offered by traditional MP3s.  The higher the bit rate, the closer to the recreation of the quality of the original recording.

Pono (which translates in “righteous” in Young’s beloved Hawaiian), could be the audio answer for the car and iPhone but I will continue my quest for the appropriate big disk player and a different kind of music enjoyment. History can repeat itself.  Sometimes that’s a good thing.


Here’s The One Thing You Never Hear Someone Say After An Event

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

no-talkingWe attend and handle communications for many events, all year long. Events can be an ideal way to connect with audiences face-to-face and create memorable moments that enhance your brand. But nobody, ever, in the history of an events, has left one and said, “That was nice, but I just wish there was a longer speaking program.”

Speaking programs (unless there is a compelling keynote address that is part of the draw or they present a high entertainment factor) are typically the bane of existence for event attendees. They tend to be long, repetitive and take away from the event experience. Sometimes, they are a necessary evil, as they are a communications opportunity to precious to ignore. Some smart organizations have shown videos in lieu of a string of stiff, scripted speakers. But, at a recent event, we recommended something innovative and the client said “yes,” – we helped them pull off an event without a speaking program. And guess what? Nobody missed it.

This was a grand opening, especially for donors, of a building supported by philanthropy it was a celebration and a chance to see, in real life rather than in renderings, the fulfillment of a dream. The client allowed the guests to tour the building, enjoy food and entertainment, and learn about the facts of the new facility through artistically-designed signage located around the venue. Instead of calling a time-out on the fun and bringing the festive atmosphere to a halt to listen to the CEO thank individual after individual in prepared remarks, the party atmosphere remained consistent for three hours, while the CEO worked the room to personally thank donors. The building itself was the star of the show and it was kept that way.

The feedback has been terrific. Attendees describe the event as “fun” and “memorable” and not one asked about why there wasn’t speaking program.

The advice the next time you host an event, keep the speaking program as short as possible or, if it has to be relatively long, make it entertaining with video and/or personality. The host should work hard to make the rounds and communicate the most important messages in person. Or, better yet, if the situation allows, if there’s no sit-down portion of the event, for example, just nix the program altogether. The only ones who might miss it could be the PR firm who could have billed hours to write remarks that would have been nobody’s highlight of the event.