Author Archives: mikepalma

About mikepalma

Rainmaker & Headhunter for creative agencies.

The 12 Best Cuban Cigars of 2018

New releases & old favorites made for a very good year

“By the sweat of your face you will eat bread until you return to the fertile land. From it you were taken; you are soil, to the soil you will return.” — Genesis 3:19

What the heck do cigars have to do with the mission of this blog? Well, we toil by the unknown-1
sweat of our brow in an industry with a 6-9 month sales cycle (at best). For many ad agencies, one good account per year is both sufficient and acceptable. That makes for a rare opportunity to celebrate the fruition of our labor. What better way to do so than by gifting and/or enjoying one of nature’s perfect organic treats — the Cuban cigar.

imagesHistorically, the cigar represents a time of celebration or victory. From the birth of a new child, weddings, business mergers, World Wars (Winston Churchill, anyone?) and perhaps most common, a victory cigar for a sporting event. Cigars and winning seem to go hand in hand for as long as I can remember. And Red Auerbach is our patron saint.

Year-end “best of” lists are ubiquitous, I know. But there is one in particular that I plug into while monitoring my own Cuban cigar collection: James Suckling’s Havana Insider list.

2018 was special for me as I finally had the opportunity to visit Havana and experience the cigar culture of Cuba firsthand. That September visit inspires this list.

My 2018 list focuses exclusively on regular production vitolas. While there is no disputing the quality of pricey Limited Editions; and special Regional Releases are great too, but it’s like “cheating,” akin to naming a $500 bottle of First Growth Bordeaux as a “Wine of the Year.”

Nobody asked me, but here is my subjective list of best Cuban smokes from 2018:

  1. Quai d’Orsay 50: 2018 marked a glamorous comeback for this marca; born as a regional brand targeted to the discriminate French market. Both the “50” and the “54” (named after their ring gauges) are reblended and repackaged from the original QdO brand. The result is an elegant short cigar. As refined as a Cohiba Robusto and richer than a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure #2, this cigar tops my list. The perfect complement to a glass of champagne. Purchased as a 10 box from La Casa del Habano, Hotel Conde de Villanueva near the Port of Havana. 98 points
  2. Punch Punch 48: A new size and blend for a classic cigar. Double-banded as an LCDH exclusive, it is still a regular production cigar and is priced accordingly. But it’s what’s inside the wrapper that’s special. If you enjoy the Punch flavor profile, as I do, this cigar takes it to a new plateau. Rich, decadent, fresh. Purchased as a 10 box from the La Casa del Habano, Hotel Meliá Cohiba in Vedado, Havana. 97 points
  3. Partagas 898 Varnished: Unapologetically old school. This is what Cuban cigars tasted like 30 years ago. And I miss that. Long and skinny, this cigar bucks the current popular trend of thick, jawbreaker girths. The Lonsdale size is one of my favorites. The 898 is a classic in the earthy, spicy, peppery tradition of Cuban flavor profiles. A rare find, purchased as a 25 box in the 898 format at the un-snooty La Vega at Palacio de las Artesanías in Havana. 96 points
  4. Ramon Allones Small Club Coronas: These babies are little gems. Perfect for your employees or clients that “don’t smoke cigars.” There is no more exemplary small sampling of the alchemy and magic that Cuban soil and seeds can create. Majestic and bold. Not as complex as the RA Specially Selected, but more flamboyant. Purchased from an authorized Habanos SA dealer in Hong Kong. 96 points
  5. Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo de Depute: Woody and creamy, hard to imagine this much flavor can emanate from such a small format. The perfect after-lunch cigar. Good things come in small packages. 95 points
  6. Trinidad Fundadores: Boy, did this cigar make a comeback last year. Long, thin and elegant, these lanceros drip honey. Sweet and rich, maybe the best turnaround story in the Habanos portfolio. A special occasion cigar, like after winning a major review. Purchased as a 24 count varnished slide-lid box. 95 points
  7. Fonseca No. 1: Another old school Lonsdale makes the list. A superb value, the tissue-wrapped No. 1 holds its own in any blind tasting. Unusually flavorful for a mild cigar. Good for the golf course or the 19th hole. Purchased as a dress box of 25 at La Casa del Habano in the basement of the famous Hotel Nacional, Vedado. 94 points.
  8. Partagas Serie E No. 2: Many of these boxes are rolled at the famous Cohiba-dominant El Laguito factory. And the quality/flavor concentration is on par with the vaunted Cohiba Behikes. These are rich, strong, bold after-dinner smokes. Not for the faint of heart. They are sold in 5 and 25 count semi-boite nature cedar boxes. 94 points
  9. El Rey del Mundo Choix Supreme: Inconsistent production and quality control. Admittedly, some are not so good. But, the good ones are absolutely glorious. I smoked a couple that were superior to the Cohiba Robusto. Sweet, mild and harmoniously balanced. When they’re on, they are great. 92 points
  10. Cohiba Exquisitos: What Cuban list would be complete without a Cohiba? These are slim, panatela-styled smokes. A tiny but powerful flavor bomb. Hard to describe grassy and honey flavors in the Cohiba tradition. Readily available. Don’t take them for granted. 91 points
  11. H. Upmann Petit Coronas: Unfortunately, this cigar was discontinued last year by Habanos SA. My favorite Petit Corona in the world. If you can find them, buy as many as you can and stash. No better example of a pure H. Upmann experience. Burns like a champ. 91 points
  12. Diplomaticos #2: I prefer this piramide to the Montecristo #2, and many smokers consider them cousins. Again, rustic old school notes. Yet somehow refined and elegant flavors. A miracle in construction. The “hairiest” wrapper in the Cuban portfolio. Good gracious, if someone said I could only smoke one Cuban cigar moving forward, this may be the one. 90 points


The Best Creative Agency in each State: 2018


It’s that time of year for the Midterm creative agency evaluations. Below are the winners, by state. The single criterion is current creative work; not legacy reputations. The best work right now. In some cases, certain states are omitted. Either no agency met the standard, or I simply didn’t know enough about the creative landscape in that particular state (Alaska, for instance).

The Palma Honor Roll:

  • Alabama               BIG, Birmingham                    
  • Arizona                 Santy, Scottsdale                     
  • Arkansas              Eric Rob & Isaac, Little Rock
  • California (So.)    Anomaly, LA                            
  • California (No.)   BSSP, Sausalito                        !/welcome
  • Colorado               Made, Boulder                        
  • Connecticut         Cronin, Glastonbury             
  • D.C.                       Admirable Devil                    
  • Delaware            Aloysius Butler & Clark, Wilm.
  • Florida (So.)         David, Miami                         
  • Florida (No.)         Bright Red\TBWA                  
  • Georgia                 Fitzco, Atlanta                        
  • Illinois                   C-K, Chicago                           
  • Indiana                  Young & Laramore, Indy   
  • Iowa                       Flynn/Wright, Des Moines
  • Kentucky               Scoppechio, Louisville        
  • Louisiana              Trumpet, New Orleans       
  • Maine                    Via, Portland                         
  • Maryland              RP3, Bethesda                       
  • Massachusetts     The Fantastical, Boston       
  • Michigan              Doner, Southfield                 
  • Minnesota            Fallon, Minneapolis             
  • Mississippi           MWB, Jackson                        
  • Missouri               Barkley, KC                             
  • Nebraska              Bailey Lauerman, Omaha  
  • Nevada                  R&R, Las Vegas                     
  • New Mexico         McKeeWallwork, Albuq.     
  • New York               360i, NYC                                
  • North Carolina     Baldwin&, Raleigh               
  • Ohio                       Brokaw, Cleveland               
  • Oregon                 Wieden & Kennedy, Portland
  • Pennsylvania (E)    Pavone, Harrisburg           
  • Pennsylvania (W)  Brunner, Pittsburgh           
  • Rhode Island          NAIL                                       
  • South Carolina       EP, & Co. Greenville            
  • Tennessee                Tombras, Knoxville           
  • Texas                         McGarrah Jessee, Austin  
  • Virginia                     Martin Agency, Richmond
  • Washington              copacino+fujikado, Seattle
  • Wisconsin                 C-K, Milwaukee                   

The 5 key questions to ask on a job interview

Candidates can control their fate by asking these 5 questions

Ok, I’m fortunate to have learned a few things after setting up 5,000 interviews in my 28 Unknownyears as an agency headhunter.

For one, many employers don’t know how to interview talented candidates. For another, HR sticks too closely to specs and job descriptions. And most importantly, candidates are so eager to talk about themselves that they often fail to ask the right questions.

What are the right questions?

  1. What do you expect me to accomplish in this role?
  2. What current obstacles are there in the way to accomplishing these things?
  3. What are next steps in the hiring process?
  4. Is there anything else you or I need to know?
  5. When can I start? (assuming you want the job, ask for it)

Ask the first two questions early in the interview. Ask question 3 about midway through the interview. Save the last two for your “close.”

Make sure you take notes and write down the answers you get. You are now ready to respond intelligently to the employers’ questions framed in their own language & expectations. Control the interview, don’t let it control you.

Win One Good Account in 2018


The hour is upon us. Grow Agency Grow is officially launched. Our website is live and the betting windows are open for business. Free pizzas to the first 100 members.



2018: The Year of Grow Agency Grow

Welcome to New Business MasterClass

It’s a new year and everyone is back to square one in the ad agency world. New forecastscropped-GrowAgencyGrow_Gradient-1 to meet. New business to get. Do you have a plan for growth? Are you committed to growth? How are you preparing for growth in 2018? Or is this year just a wash, rinse and repeat of 2017?

I’m excited to announce a better way for your agency to approach new business in 2018 and beyond. Next week, Ed Klein and I are launching Grow Agency Grow, an ad agency gag-1new business training & coaching company.

Grow Agency Grow will provide on-demand new business training content through online video lessons. It is the ad agency equivalent of MasterClass.  The videos will be released next week to subscribers. We believe it is a more efficient, effective and modern way to gain winning new business knowledge than attending conferences, seminars, summits and other code names for boondoggle.

cropped-GrowAgencyGrow_Gradient-1Grow Agency Grow launches next week on LinkedIn, so keep a lookout …it will change your agency’s life.


What Agencies Can Learn from Warren Buffett about Pricing their Services

“You can determine the strength of a business over time by the amount of agony they go through in raising prices.”– Warren Buffett

UnknownI’ve been hearing a lot from my clients and friends in the agency business about the erosion of their margins for years now. What Mr. Buffett alludes to as it relates to agency services is that if you’re not creating real value for your clients, and figuring out how to charge for that value, you’re never going to grow your margins. Many are wondering how we got into this mess in the first place, and how we’re ever going to get out of it.

My friend and colleague Ed Klein, who’s sat on all three sides of the table as an Advertising Director and VP Marketing at Coca-Cola; Principal at Hauser Group and 22squared; and as a search consultant has some insight to help us continue the migration away from the hours based fee structure.

Ed: “Thanks Mike. There’s an evolution in our industry that’s taking place right now. It can become a revolution if everyone gets on board and starts changing the conversation 36918c8with the client community. The good news, clients are open to and wanting the change! They didn’t get into Marketing to manage an agency’s profitability. The only reason they ask to see proposals in the form of FTE’s, blended rates, overhead and profit is that we trained them to do it that way. Think about it, what other business opens the kimono so wide that their customers can calculate not only the costs behind your operation, but right down to the salary of many employees.”

 Palma: “How do we get out of this?”

 Ed: “The big headline is pricing deliverables based on the value created. I love the
Warren Buffett quote because the best agencies in the world right now are more profitable than at any time since the days of massive commissions on media. It’s because they understand that the value they’re creating isn’t related to their time, it’s directly correlated to the value they’re creating for their clients, and no one has trouble paying for that.”

 Palma: “How should agencies go about determining the value they’re creating, and how do they price from there?”

 Ed: “The best news in the movement to what economists refer to as value based pricing is that from the outset of any engagement, you’ll be discussing your client’s goals and objectives, not your overhead and profit margin. Agency’s need to understand the value they’re creating to set a price. That conversation will lead to a deepening of their understanding of their client’s business, and their client’s belief that goals and objectives will be aligned. From there, agencies will calculate their costs, (not for client consumption), to build Pricing proposals, (not fee proposals), that protect and grow their margins. There is an element of art as well as science in pricing, as we can all understand when we think a little harder about what we pay for clothes, food, and other professional services. The strongest proposals will always come with options, so that all negotiations will be based on the pricing structure you’ve presented, not the slashing of your FTE’s, overhead, blended rate and all the other drivers of your profit margins.”

images-1As Jack Torrance said to the bartender in The Shining, “Words of wisdom, Lloyd…words of wisdom.” By the way, Ed and I will be launching a major initiative next year, disrupting the new business model and revolutionizing the agency search process, so stay tuned to


What’s Wrong with Ad Agency New Business Conferences: 4 Things

Obsolete Boondoggles in the Modern Age of Training

 It’s late in the fourth quarter and the time when  agencies invite me to visit and take a look at their new business efforts from this past year. I run a diagnostic test that examines what works and what doesn’t at small-to-midsize independent agencies. This requires some painful Q&A.

The first question I ask the agency principal is “What did you do to win new business this year?”

The first answer I usually get is, “Well, we went to NY in the Spring for a new business conference.”

Me: “How was it?”

Them: “Well, we won’t be going back.”

I’ve heard this so many times over the past 6 or 7 years that I’ve lost count. Of course, I ask why; and the reasons are invariably the same.

  1. It’s expensive.  When you add airfare, hotels, NYC restaurants to a conference imagesregistration fee you’re making a minimum investment of $5k per key employee. It might be worth it if you know it worked. But…
  2. Disseminating the content is challenging. Assuming someone took great notes, it’s still difficult to capture all the elements necessary from a live setting. The learning resides with one or two agency people. Cascading the information accurately throughout the agency is a common complaint I hear.
  3. The content is dated and similar every year. For those few agencies that do go back a second time, they pretty much get the same old playbook with a new wrinkle Unknownhere or there. Chaucer said “There is nothing new under the sun.” Boy was he right
    about New Business Conferences.
  4. The content is not effective in the modern economy. The “big takeaway” at these conferences is that your agency needs to be a category specialist. It’s a round peg/round hole approach.  It was somewhat relevant in the awful and fear-driven economy of 2008-2011. But, it’s a weak application today in the booming, modern economy. You’re paying a ton of money for content that was born in a world prior to uber, AirBnB, Amazon and Facebook.

Please make it stop. There has to be a more cost-effective, internally efficient and fresher way to impact your agency’s business development program. There has to a better method led by proven coaches that actually won new business at an ad agency like yours. There will be…and just in time for 2018. Stay tuned to