Category Archives: New Business

Hernias & The Sausage Factory

TMI in the Age of Information

You have a medical condition, a hernia. You know something is definitely wrong with your body — it’s not performing properly. So you go to the doctor. What does he do? Does the doctor show you x-rays of previous hernia patients? Does he waste your time by walking you through his track record of success in performing hernia operations? Does he show you what those other patients are doing now; how they are performing as a result of his operative techniques? And does the doctor try to convince you to get an operation because of his proprietary hernia procedures? We would think that doctor wasn’t very good if he had to make a case study to perform a hernia operation. We would seek a second opinion.

Or, let’s say you want sausage for dinner so you go to a Pork Store (when I was a kid, there was a “Pork Store” or Italian butcher in every neighborhood). Does the butcher take you in the back of the store and say — “Here’s where we take the gizzards and chop them up. And these are the casings that we stuff the fat and chopped organs into. Our casings are made of the finest pig intestines.” If this happened, you may never eat sausage again.

Yet, ad agencies feel compelled to show x-rays to prospective clients and give them a tour of the sausage factory. Why? It’s easier than diagnosing a particular patient’s hernia, or the prospect’s particular problem. We show them what we have done for others and not what we can do for them. We stamp trademarks on “secret sauce” processes as if they are anything more complicated than making sausage.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a rare and true art to make a great sausage. It requires time-tested recipes involving carraway seeds and special spices. But, the sausage maker knows that only two things really matter to his customers: taste and price. The Italian butcher doesn’t say, “well if that’s what you want to pay for the sausage, then I will make them smaller.” He sets his price and makes his sausage. Then he sells them because his customers like the way they taste.

It’s the same with great creative communications. There’s this new show on AMC called “The Pitch”. This was actually an idea I was trying to sell in to agencies in 2006. But this rendition gives me douche chills (not my line, but I like it so I’m using it). I’ve never watched Mad Men so I don’t really understand this emerging public fascination with the advertising business. It’s really quite unsensational, the day-to-day of it; much like the butcher’s day.

This comes from Carey Moore, one of the great Southern copywriters of our era: “If you rolled the cameras and re-created a typical week in a creative department, it would be the most boring television ever made. What we actually do isn’t very glamorous to a cold set of eyes. They had to make it contrived to make it even remotely watchable.”

I visit agencies ALL THE TIME. Between biz dev and headhunting, I’ve been inside well over a thousand agencies in the past 23 years. Ad agencies are quiet, like a library (more so now than ever). They are sterile, like a hospital. They are politically correct, like a government agency. They are fashion-backward (jeans & Clarks), like a college campus. Yes, the babes are hot, but besides that, there is nothing remotely entertaining about the advertising business — EXCEPT THE PRODUCT (at the better creative agencies, that is). Shows like Mad Men and The Pitch create a false illusion about our industry — show business replaces sound business sense. Creativity becomes a cliché, marginalized in a sea of strategy and soap opera voyeuristic sexcapades.

Does our industry really need this type of promotion? No wonder it’s so hard to find a good young writer today. Everyone wants to be this Don Draper guy. But, the smart kids are going to work for the top consulting firms, like Boston Consulting Group. And, as a result, BCG and the like are writing the real business and marketing strategies for clients today. They view us as narcissistic dilettantes. They warn our clients away from us. This explains to me why talent agencies like Creative Artists Agency have infringed upon advertising creative territory. They’ve become more creative than us and produce better work. We go to Mad Men cocktail parties and watch ourselves on The Pitch.

Clients aren’t buying into it. They remark to me about how offended they are by agency case studies. “It’s like the brand never could have succeeded without them,” one recently told me. Their “douche radar ” beeps loudly when agencies tout their trademarked proprietary processes and the fancy phrases they coin to promote themselves, er, explain their point of differentiation. They don’t want to see x-rays — they want their hernia fixed. Don’t show them gizzards, show them the sausage.

Hide the Buddha

“We have our principles… and if you don’t like those, we have others”

New Business people have plenty of pitch war stories. There’s the urban legend about how the Aflac Duck came into existence, supposedly on the elevator with the client after the pitch creative failed in the formal presentation. Then there’s the notorious story how BBDO stole the Cingular Wireless account from what was then known as WestWayne (now monikered 22squared) after the selection committee chose the Atlanta independents. Maybe the juiciest of all was the WalMart pitch led by Julie Roehm, choosing Draft/FCB but then having to re-review the account following tales of impropriety, lust and betrayal (ultimately settling in at The Martin Agency). If you’re in New Business, you have a war story — or several.

My favorite centers upon a character named Tim Bayless. I’m fortunate to have worked with many magical personalities in my Gump-ish life: Jim Valvano, Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Lee Clow, Bogusky, David Lubars, Andrew Robertson, Richard Ward, Doug MacMillan (The Connells), among others. Bayless had as much magic in him as any of them. Tim started an agency on his kitchen table in Atlanta in 1994 and proceeded to build one of the hottest shops in the country within 5 years. He recruited the writer (Jerry Cronin) that created the most famous Nike & ESPN work (at a time when getting talented creatives to move to Atlanta was harder than getting the Olympics to come to town). In his sixth year, he sold the agency to Omnicom. Think about that… a guy with not much else besides gumption, starts an agency alone on his kitchen table and 6 years later sells it to Omnicom for millions. That’s magic.

About 10 years ago, I was helping Tim with Biz Dev. We had just lost the agency’s cornerstone Church’s Chicken account. So Tim ordered me to “call every chicken company in America and tell them we’re available.” We didn’t have to look very far. Atlanta (and the regional Southeast) is the fried chicken capital of the world. Chik-Fil-A became an obsessive target. I badgered their marketing people for weeks. Told them that “nobody will like this Cow stuff you’re doing.” And “The Richards Group is the Dead Poet’s Society” and desperately, “Why is such a civic-minded, community-based company like yours taking jobs and business to Dallas?”  Finally, I struck a nerve and one Friday, they emailed me and agreed to meet with us “soon.”

That same Friday we also received an RFP from Van Gogh Vodka. The RFP arrived in a box with dozens of mini airplane bottle-sized samples of flavored vodkas — chocolate vodka, raspberry vodka, et al along with all the mixing accoutrements — all these flavors at a time when flavored vodkas were relatively new. So, at around 4 PM that afternoon, I sent an email to all agency personnel that we would be “doing research” on these flavored vodkas for the RFP in the main conference room and all were invited. Within 5 minutes, the conference room was teeming with everyone from our Controller (boy did HE need a drink, trying to balance Bayless’ books) to our building’s Janitor. It was a real mix-off, concocting potions previously unimaginable. And we were catching a bit of a buzz.

At one point amidst the all this mixology, our receptionist came into the conference room to alert me of a phone call. I retreated to my office and took the call. It was the CMO from Chik-Fil-A. He said he wanted to come by the agency to meet with us. “Awesome!”  I exclaimed, “when would you guys like to come, what day works best for you?”

“Uh, we’re in Midtown NOW and would like to come by the agency on our way back to the office (their “office campus” is near the Atlanta airport). I’m with Mr. Cathey (S. Truett Cathey, CEO and famously devout Christian) and he’d like to meet you, too.”

“Nanananowww?” I stammered.

“Yes, now. We’ll be there in 10 minutes.”

“Sounds great. See you then. Do you know how to get here?”  I never heard their answer because I was already hustling over to Tim’s office.

In the center of the agency, in the “public area” of BaylessCronin sat a large Buddha statue/fountain. The Buddha symbolized all of the agency’s manufactured new age values: peace, tranquility, spirituality, mysticism. It anchored the most visible and central spot in our feng shui space. It was the star of the show, the belle of the ball. The flowing fountain was symbolic of the lifestream of the agency and our values.

I barged into Tim’s office. “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.” Tim never wanted to know bad news. “What’s the good news?”

“Chik-Fil-A is coming to the agency to meet with us,” I blurted.

“Awesome. What could be the bad news?” Tim cackled.

“They’ll be here in 8 minutes. The CMO and S. Truett Cathey. What are we going to do? Everyone’s getting hammered in the conference room.”

Tim took all of 5 seconds to respond. It was the single most brilliant answer to a question I’ve heard in my entire ad agency life.

“Quick, hide the Buddha.”

The 7 Deadly Sins of Advertising

Weakness in the Shadows of Strength

One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from the great Irish playwright and poet, Oscar Wilde, “I can resist everything except temptation” (scripted from the play, Lady Windermere’s Fan). We’re all human — each one of us prone to temptation and the foibles of this earthly experience.

Ad agencies are merely the sum total of the humans that inhabit their halls. 90% of an agency’s inventory disappears nightly via the elevator. When the sum of the parts of that human total exceeds the whole, a creative agency is in a position to catch lightning in a bottle — to be magical. It is this elusive magical elixir that seduces agencies, tempting them to succumb to their weaknesses.

Recently I ran a reference check on an ECD and while speaking to their former Account Planning partner, I asked him what this particular candidate’s strengths were — and then I asked about their weaknesses. The Planner’s answer was enlightening (that is his job, after all): “his weaknesses are merely shadows of his strengths.” That was a simple but seismic insight.

Our weaknesses are merely shadows of our strengths. This applies to all people-first companies, like creative agencies. Human nature is fairly predictable. Chaucer taught us through his Knight in Canterbury Tales that there is “nothing new under the sun” (turns out that even this message wasn’t new as it appeared first in Ecclesiastes 1:9). So what can we learn from our weaknesses in trying to grow our creative agencies? What temptations will most likely to lead to demise? What sins do we commit that may ultimately lead to our death?

The Seven Deadly Sins of Advertising:

Pridethe excessive belief in our abilities. There’s a fine line between confidence and pride. We often demand that our people “take pride” in their work. This is a strength that is shadowed with weakness. An example are the ridiculously self-important and self-promotional case studies that appear on agency web sites. Not only do they reveal strategies to our clients’ competitors, they often make it seem like our clients couldn’t succeed without us. We make it seem like we have some special secret sauce that other agencies don’t. Another example is the way we put silly TM’s on processes that are pretty much self-evident and use fancy words when simple ones will do. Agencies don’t appear humble, even if their people are. It’s like we’re all seduced by our profession, as if we think we’re on Mad Men, or something. Makes me want to get out of Biz Dev.

Envythe desire for others’ status or abilities. Is this a wannabe business, or what? I mean one crappy little designer, Bogusky, takes an 18-person shop and makes them a global creative superpower and everyone thinks they can do it. I guess anything is possible, but it took Alex 10 years to become an overnight sensation. And it required tireless devotion and a deal with the devil at the crossroads with Robert Johnson for that to happen. Agencies should focus on what they can be the best at in their region and pursue that. They should talk their core target and invite others to listen in. They should have a simple, humble mission and stick to it. We’re an envious industry — when there’s a big public account review and we’re not in it, we secretly hope that NOBODY wins it. It reminds me of being a college basketball coach. Those guys open the USA Today in the morning and hope they see that everyone lost the night before.

Gluttony— or in the old days when language was elegant, profligacy. The inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires. McGarry/Bowen comes to mind. Sure they’re on a roll now. But, just wait — pride and gluttony goeth before the fall. How is it possible to win all that business and service it diligently? But, let’s scale this sin down to the local and regional level. So many agencies get caught up in new business “activity.” They call it a “numbers game.” Tell that to your new client — that they were a number, welcome aboard. Guys sometimes call me and say that they can’t do their job properly because they’re “in 4 pitches this month.” What? It’s hard enough to pitch ONE properly. Not to mention pitch one and keep your current clients happy at the same time. We wind up just hoping that the line coming in the front door is slightly longer than the line going out. Gluttony also destroyed agency compensation models. It got so bad that clients hire consultants to monitor their agency’s financial efficiency. And it spurned entire gumshoe departments known as “procurement.”

Lustinordinate craving for pleasures of the body. Why did you choose advertising as a profession? Let’s face it — the babes are hotter than anywhere else. Admit it, you horndog. Maybe the bigger question is why do all the hot babes get hired by agencies? I’m sure I’ll get hateful comments branding me as a sexist or a pig (or maybe both, if I’m lucky). Whatever. Chicks dig the longball.

Anger— also known as wrath, it’s manifested when an agency spurns love and opts instead for fury. You can spot an angry agency pretty easily. Doesn’t matter how big or small it is. The receptionist sets a condescending tone. Your parking is not validated. The pizza’s cold. People appear stressed, overworked and challenged to keep up with their tasks. The under-staffed team hasn’t received bonuses in years. A few people make all the money (usually fat, white guys in the suburbs). Only a few opinions are valued. Anger can also often be subtle and passive-aggressive, more difficult to recognize and decipher. Haters appear to be lovers. Lovers appear to be haters. Nobody knows who not to trust. We’ve all worked somewhere like this at some point.

Greed — or,Avarice. The desire for material wealth or gain while ignoring the spirit. Don’t get me wrong — material wealth is fine. We’re all in this to make money. It’s the ignoring the spirit part that is deadly. So, whatever happened to Pro bono? It’s all but gone from the industry. And when we do it, it  STILL comes with an ulterior motive: “If we can’t win awards on Pro bono, then why do it?” Huh? Think about the hypocrisy of that statement. How many agencies are truly integrated into their communities? How many align themselves with institutions, educational and otherwise? You always hear the bullshit line, “the soul of the agency” — and then you look at the client list and they sell booze and fast food. Don’t get me wrong, booze and fast food are legal and part of the great capitalist dream. But booze is the third leading cause of death in America and poor diet is not far behind. We often get paid to help people kill themselves. We glorify the temptation. That’s our craft. So, at least be penitent on your way to the bank. The most successful people I’ve known in this business treated their career and their agency as if it were a vocation — not a profession or a mint.

Sloth — I love that word. It just sounds so much like it is, almost onomatopoeia. The avoidance of physical work. Agencies expect to “get to the next level” (they rarely define what that actually means) as if they are simply entitled to it. Everyone wants to succeed, but few are willing to prepare for success. Bobby Knight said that. He probably stole it from Chaucer, who probably stole it from one of the Prophets. I’ve noticed that there’s a high correlation to agencies that talk about “getting to the next level” all the time and ones that are barren and desolate at 5:15 PM (unless it’s freelancers in the creative department fixing the mistakes and revisions of the FTE’s). And it’s funny when the FTE’s complain about how hard their job is. It’s friggin’ advertising! Go dig ditches for a week, then come back and explain how difficult your agency job is. Fat, drunk and strategic is no way to go through life, you horndog.

Positioning Your Creative Agency for Growth

How to Get to Your Value Proposition

I hear and see so much about agency positioning these days. It seems as if agencies are constantly re-inventing themselves to adapt to market conditions. So I thought I’d weigh in on this topic since it doesn’t seem to take Einstein to opine on positioning.

When discussing a positioning for a creative agency, I’ve found it helpful to consider these three questions first:

  1.  Who are you?
  2. Why are you different?
  3. What does that mean to your clients’/prospects’ business?

These questions should lead the discussion and bring some clarity and simplicity to the process. Positioning a creative agency for growth is an arduous and daunting task. Without the proper structure and road maps it can also lead to frustration, bitterness and worst of all, paralysis.

Can you articulate who you are in one or two sentences? Can you explain why you are different – truly different — in ONE sentence? And NOT how you think you are different – but the reality of your point of differentiation. Do you have a point of differentiation? Finally, do you understand your value – what it means to your clients’ businesses? Do you have a value proposition?  Can you state it simply? Can you articulate it in an interesting way? In a creative way? Your value proposition will be at the core and essence of your positioning.

Let’s look at what a value proposition is NOT:

  • A process. It’s not a TM of some special proprietary mystery procedure.
  • A self-promotional rally cry, also TM’d
  • A place or region (“Texas-sized solutions”)
  • People. Talent is not a positioning. Everyone says they have the best people.
  • Products. Cookie-cutter solutions. Offerings. Widgets. Technology. Disciplines.
  • A Mission.
  • Creative or “Creative-driven” (this is assumed, it’s like ketchup brands talking about being “tomato-driven”)

All of these elements are part of a creative agency’s value proposition, but none of them can stand-alone or hold up as THE POSITIONING.  Worse, over-reliance on any one of these elements becomes oversimplification. A position should be as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler (paraphrasing Albert Einstein).

When embarking on any positioning exercise, go back to basics. I like referencing Jim Collins’Good to Great”.  This bestseller is on the bookshelf of every CEO in America. Most have implemented its recommendations at their companies. It has been the “positioning bible” of the past decade. I remember in 2004 at BBDO, we were pitching Delta Air Lines. When we advanced to the final three — their CEO Jerry Grinstein sent the agency two copies of “Good to Great”. Until then, I kind of scoffed at business books that claimed to solve company-wide issues and problems in one easy read. But, then I learned that MOST CEO’s of major companies were forming hedgehog councils and treating Collins’ tome as gospel. Marketing directors began talking about Bhags.

The crux of  “Good to Great” is the Hedgehog Concept. It looks like this:

Collins uses the word “world” in the lower left circle. But for our purposes, we can effectively substitute the word “class” or even “region”. What is your agency best-in-class at? Or what can your creative agency be “best-in-class” at? What can you own within your class? What positioning is unique and “own-able”? If it is not own-able, it’s not a powerful positioning. That does not include “share-able” or “borrow-able”.

What are you uniquely passionate about? What drives your economic engine (where do your clients place the most financial value)?  What can you be the best at within your class? Dialogue centered on these questions lead to lively discussions and healthy debates. Monday morning meetings are ideal for engaging in such banter.  But at some point, you need to put a strategic stake in the ground. Don’t allow these positioning discussions to dissipate into paralysis of analysis. That happens all too easily when the first client emergency arises on your desk.

There are, essentially, two kinds of agency archetypes:

  1. Those that solve problems (stop the bleeding)
  2. Those that create opportunity (add revenue)
The first type requires COLLABORATION. These agencies stress collaborative processes. They reflect their clients’ cultures. They are problem-solvers; therefore they need to understand the problems. They speak the clients’ language. They are not usually entrepreneurial or independent. They stay in the present and address the now. They ask questions like, “What keeps you awake at night?” and “What are your marketing objectives?”.

The second requires LEADERSHIP. These agencies stress thought leadership, and cultural “curation”. They are opportunists, therefore they need to understand potential. They take risks (educated and strategic risks, but risks nonetheless). They make language new for their clients. They have their own culture. They are independent and maverick. Because they are ahead of the curve, they create revenue opportunities for their clients. They make them money. They ask questions like, “What is your vision for your brand?” and “What’s the one thing you would do for your brand if you thought it was possible?”.

Most agencies try to be both. And as a result, they are neither.  Of course, both types of agencies are collaborative AND leaders in various junctures of the marketing process. But I’m talking about how they tell their story and what they do best – that’s their value proposition. Identify what your creative agency does best.  Where do you shine? Where do you play best? In short, don’t pick a fight you can’t win.

If you remain steadfast and disciplined in your positioning discussions, you will arrive at an insight that is compelling. You will discover your true identity. It will be an epiphany. It will give you goosebumps. It will be that “aha” moment. The germ of your insight will lead naturally to your positioning.

But, start by trying to answer the 3 questions:

  1. Who are you?
  2. Why are you different?
  3. What does that mean to your clients’ and prospects’ business?

Advertising in the Garden of Good & Evil

How Agencies and Brands Feed Each Frenzy

A curious and somewhat troubling inertia is pressing upon the advertising industry today. It represents a conflict as primary and epic as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Genesis 3. The conflict is, essentially and literally, Good v. Evil. In the beginning, God didn’t really want us to know the difference — He omnisciently wanted to wait on that one for another 4,000 years or so. But, the low-hanging Forbidden Fruit dangled seductively from a particular tree. That sacred, yet grasp-able tree, according to the Bible, was The Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil. Its nectar produced Godliness, Godly knowledge. The knowledge of… good and evil.

We look to our institutions for leadership, to provide valuable knowledge. We award degrees for levels of knowledge — various degrees in various degrees. Institutions: universities, churches, hospitals, banks and the like don’t reflect society. It is their purpose to lead it. They must remain as constant as the northern star. They are our true compass. Institutions tell us things and we believe them, sometimes as gospel. If our governing institutions tell us that Osama bin Laden was assassinated, for example, we believe them. Even if a body or photographic evidence do not exist. We believe them. They lead us and they don’t stoop to our level by providing proof. (As an aside, did you ever notice that assassinate has two asses?)

This is also the way other institutions, like churches, work. They insist that God is a mystery. There’s no physical proof of a god. There doesn’t need to be. Oh, I know there were a bunch of miracles in Italy — and a shroud exists. But, religious institutions demand that we maintain this sort of blind faith. Medical institutions claim there is no known cure for cancer. We believe them. Academic institutions deem what is and isn’t valid and useful knowledge by their curricula — nobody questions that. It’s mono-cultural and flat — this is this and it is what it is: your education. Now go out into the world and make something of yourself. You are cast east of Eden.

Advertising agency people don’t consider their industry institutional. They’re too maverick, too iconoclastic. Conversely, people outside of our industry view us as if we ARE an institution. They talk about us as if we’re really important — like we actually do have an institutional effect on society. Or at least they blame us when we are negligent in our messaging. Our clients get class-action lawsuits when the beef we advertise as real beef is just 38%, uh, beef. Some women blame anorexia on advertising. Yes, we have that kind of institutional control over society. This is how we deal with it: we reflect society instead of leading it. We insist on proof.  We claim knowledge — intimate and insightful knowledge. We reflect society — we take it and give it right back.

Except this is how it all really works in advertising: some brilliant creative mind sifts through all the crap from research and focus groups (anything can be proven with statistics and then immediately disproved, as well) and creates something somewhat magical — an idea. Then everyone goes back and rewrites revisionist history — building a bullet-proof case for that idea that even Columbo couldn’t crack.

How else could today’s advertising be so violent? I got whiplash watching the Super Bowl spots this year. Has advertising ever been so gruesome? How about the new Alec Baldwin ads for New Era caps? That’s supposed to be funny? A Red Sox fan getting punched in the face by a Yankee fan is funny? We are reflecting society — not leading it. Agencies would like us to believe that they tested a modern 3 Stooges routine with the target dummies in focus groups and they came out with the insightful knowledge that Betty White and Abe Vigoda getting smacked down into the mud is funny. Our knowledge told us that violence is funny. Unexpected violence is REALLY funny. Shame on us for reflecting society in such a self-serving and evil way. No wonder some women blame us for anorexia. How do brands allow it? I liked us better when we airbrushed naked women on the ice cubes in liquor ads. When sex and violence was subliminal, it was cool. It’s just way too obvious today.

On the other side of the fulcrum of this inertia is the trendy way brands and agencies are hopping on the “cause” and “purpose” bandwagon. I mean, even Gucci is into cause marketing. Give me a break. How many alligators do they kill per year? I suppose their customers want to feel good about themselves despite their conspicuously narcissistic species-endangering consumption. And I suppose brands also realize how disingenuous and mindless their advertising appears so they may be trying to overcompensate with cause initiatives. But even those initiatives reflect society rather than lead it. Agencies always brag that they can change or motivate certain behaviors. What if they actually did this for good instead of evil?

Let’s look at the Volkswagen brand as an example:

A few years ago, VW hired Crispin and unleashed a new mascot upon the great autobahn of life. He was named, “FAST”. I can only imagine how this happened — Crispin told VW that they understood how to connect with young people (the Truth campaign) and they understood how to sell them cars (Mini). They probably told them there was a huge, untapped youth market for VW and they knew just how to suck them in. Young people want to go FAST. Hence, this creepy mascot named FAST was born. They probably went into focus groups and came out with the precious insight that young people like to drive fast. This is neither responsible or institutional. It reflects what’s bad in society instead of leading it. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t imagine a greater disconnect than that of the Volkswagen brand and the concept of FAST.

Fast forward to this year’s Super Bowl. A wonderful and humane Volkswagen commercial produced by Deutsch entitled “Darth Vader” (who ironically looks strikingly similar to the FAST mascot). It made VW owners and prospective owners feel good about their car and themselves. So how does that lead society? Just the other day I was driving on a crowded midtown street. Suddenly, my lane was blocked by a DPW truck filling a pothole. I had 20 yards to stop or change lanes. In my rear view mirror I saw the driver of the car in the left lane motioning me to cut in front of him. He slowed down and allowed me to change lanes without incident. It was a Volkswagen. He didn’t care about FAST. He just wanted to do good. Do you think it’s possible that VW’s advertising might have influenced that random act of good? I wonder.

The Anatomy of a New Campaign

What’s the Beef?

Beef seems a rather newsworthy topic these days. First, the 38% Taco Bell scandal (frankly, I’m surprised there is that much real beef in their taco meat). Just when we thought it was safe to swim in the erstwhile Mad Cow waters, and our national taco stand belies public trust with beef that is nearly two-thirds not. The resulting vitriol from special interest groups and the public grew to incendiary proportions. You would think they were guilty of bio-terrorism or something. I fail to see the logic in any legal complaint grounded on the claim that QSR chains disingenuously sell nutrition or food value. No, duh. We don’t need Morgan Spurlock or even Owen Marshall to know that. Imagine a class-action suit founded on the fulcrum of fast food total disclosure? Count me out and save the stamp for the time-sensitive proxy vote mass mailer.

On the heels of this national QSR beef debacle, America’s Last Roast Beef Stand, Arby’s, has rolled out a new advertising campaign to breathe life into their anachronistic brand. I have always loved Arby’s — the Jamocha Shakes, the Beef n’ Cheddar, the Horsey Sauce. Ever since Roy Rogers disappeared, Arby’s has been the last dinosaur standing in the roast beef subcategory of QSR. And for an unashamed beefy guy like me, that fostered an enduring courtship that has become a rare and reliable relationship. Extra rare.

So Arby’s recent business struggles hit particularly close to home. For awhile it seemed as if the brand was on the brink of extinction. They disappeared from the QSR conversation, with the possible exception of old-school carnivores like myself. Faced with the looming anxiety of roastbeefophobia, I began tracking the brand, its value proposition and its equities and tried to figure out if America really wanted a (kinda) roast beef sandwich out of a window.

Certainly, the brand faced more than enough external obstacles. For one, Subway changed the SANDWICH conversation with the $5 foot long (Arby’s average ticket is 30% higher for half the sandwich). For another, Chick-Fil-A delivered on a perceptibly healthier and tastier product. But, more than anything, the new economy forever cemented dollar menus and value meals as staples in the QSR world. Arby’s, had none and couldn’t get out of their own way to boot. They lost their way, rolling out something called a roastburger (it was NOT actually burger, but… you guessed it, it was a roast beef sandwich). Talk about confusing your customers and torpedoing your point of differentiation.

Enter a hotshot new CMO with high-profile creative campaigns in his portfolio and a commitment to rebuilding the brand. How do you make a high-waisted khaki clothed, bad wristwatched, short-sleeved-dress-shirt-wearing square like Arby’s seem cool? Or relevant? Or, how about if we just start at tolerable? You do what Burger King did when it was in the scrap heap of QSR also-rans: you hire a hot creative ad agency to speak to your core in a cool way. Arby’s is a bit of a cult, a 3,600 unit cult, but cultish among QSR’s nonetheless. You grow your cult by speaking to your core and inviting others to listen in.

Enter BBDO NY, the agency renown for big-budget, celebrity spokesperson TV commercials. When Arby’s hired them in December, I couldn’t wait to see what they were cooking up — maybe Charlie Sheen? Someone topical and unapologetic — “I’m rarely hungry, but when I am, I go to Arby’s because it’s better for you than drugs”. That would have been pretty cool. Or maybe even Clint Eastwood selling his line and doing a $10 million spot “Go ahead, make my day. I’ll take an Angus Wrap Combo.” Why not? Chrysler spent $11 million for a Super Bowl spot 15 months after a federal bailout and sold Eminem back to us as nationalism. I mean if you’re not going for the big TV spokesperson thing, why hire BBDO? Not to do guerilla or live billboards, I hope.

Ironically, it was Crispin Porter + Bogusky that resorted to spokespeople for Burger King (quirky types like Darius Rucker, Erik Estrada and Tony Stewart). But, they featured them in cool, non-linear ways. Shockingly, BBDO and Arby’s didn’t. The new campaign broke last week. And I’m not quite sure what to make of it. It’s so un-BBDO and un-Arby’s that I’m actually stunned beyond immediate comment. I feel a bit like the audience at “Springtime for Hitler”, the play-within-the-play of the Broadway revival hit, “The Producers”. At first, my jaw dropped — not just as an ad guy, but as a member of the Arby’s cult. I felt a bit like they were “insulting my Fuhrer” (another “Producers” reference). And then, I laughed. And then laughed louder, and harder; so by the end of the first :60, I had laughed so hard, I was nearly crying. And I’m not sure if I laughed at the spot, or the irony.

Truth be told, Arby’s is the genuinely quirky  brand compared to Burger King. And what BBDO has given us is a quirky “vehicle”: a Conan-esque Everyman character leading Fast Foodies through hybrid “We are the World”-meets-“Glee” verses with Mitch Miller bouncing ball lyrics super-imposed on the bottom of our screen. The new tag line,”Good Mood Food” is supposed to remind us that we are better off when we eat at Arby’s. It’s a choice that we should feel good about. At least better than the way we feel after eating a re-heated frozen puck that somewhat resembles a burger; or that meat they pull off the waxed paper at Subway; or the chicken they fry in pickle brine at Chick-Fil-A. And without question, certainly better than a visit to Taco Bell.

I’m still somewhat stunned by it all. So, for once, I don’t have an opinion. Not yet, at least. I invite you to influence it (role reversal is sexy). This is the first ever Palma Poll. The new Arby’s campaign from BBDO. Yay or nay? Comments welcome.

Turning the RFP Process Around: A Maverick’s Guide

How Creative Agencies Can Control Their Own Fate

You are a maverick. You have your own creative business or career. That’s a fairly intangible and subjective commodity. You survive and advance on guile. You succeed through desire — the greatest of all inspiration. You grow serendipitously, through good work and karma. At the end of every year, you wonder not only “how did it go by so fast?” but also, “how can i keep this up?” It’s no game for kids, selling creative ideas that sell. You understand the difference between creating content and communicating. You know how to communicate well and effectively for your clients. Yet you are too busy or modest to do this for your own business or career — often preferring to “let the work speak for itself.” It sometimes does but it often remains silent.

You are not a conformist. Yet, you conform to the rules of engagement for agency growth. You comply with the RFP process. This is unlike you. It quietly eats away at you — particularly in a pitch against agencies that you know you are a better fit than. You put yourself in this position. You played the game. You played by the rules. You allowed everyone to level the playing field. You allowed yourself to look and sound the same as everyone else. You are supposed to be a creative agency and yet you let creative “speak for itself” in the engagement process. You did nothing creative about the creative. Did you think all clients can tell the difference?

You have a chance to do something about it. You can begin by first vowing to take fate into your own hands. Then you can pick 5 – 15 companies/brands/clients you KNOW you can help and should be working with (no more than 3 in any one category). Then you can tell them why. But, as it stands now — you are just playing the new business game, responding to RFP’s, kissing consultants’ asses, bringing in some smile-and-dial monkey, or some of the new Twitterati to blog and tweet your way to fame and fortune. You realize tweeting for new business is just a technologically advanced form of “cold calling.” Whatever you want to call it — you’re at the mercy of unknown and therefore sinister forces. That is NOT the way to control your own fate.

You can tell them why they should be working with you in a creative way. You can tell them why in their own language, in their own format. You can send them an RFP. Why not? They have no problem sending you an RFP. Why can’t you return the favor? If nothing else, it will get their attention and you will stand out from the pack. And if the RFP is crafted and worded intelligently with relevant and insightful questions, you will score more points than directing them to your web site or blog. Your insights should be unexpected and dramatic based on the homework and research you’ve done on that particular brand and its category.

You are a maverick. Act like one.

Next: A Sample RFP Sent TO a Prospect

5 Factors Pressing the Advertising Industry


“What are you seeing out there?”

This is the one question I am asked most often about the creative agency business.

This is what I’m seeing out there — the state of the advertising industry, via my somewhat myopic viewpoint

1. These Are the Good, Old Days — Invariably, the first question (“So, Mike, what are you seeing out there?”) is followed by a second question, “Will we ever get back to the good, old days?” No. I don’t even remember what the good old days were. I think they were a myth, or a mirage. They were never “here” to begin with. For the 21 years I’ve been in this business, our industry has been in constant transformation. The “good old days” of what? When “Integration” was a new horizon? Or Account Planning (then Connection Planning)? Things will never be the same again because they never were the same. Or do you mean the good, old days of when clients valued creative? It was never easy to sell in great work. Why? It was never easy to find it in the first place. This is as good and as old as it’s gonna get — now. Don’t dig in, because that fastball is coming right at your head.

2. Digital: Liar’s Poker for Dummies — Everyone wants what they don’t have. The “traditional” agencies are scrambling to add digital. Why? Because it’s the “new frontier”? Uh uh. Because that’s where clients are focusing their energies and budgets now. If it were the real “new frontier”, why are digital agencies scrambling to add traditional? Digital “is like the Ponderosa on Bonanza, it’s faked”.  I couldn’t resist that line from the movie, Diner. It’s really not faked, but it’s not really the “new frontier” either. It is what it is — another medium, another technology. Yes, embrace it, love it, sleep with it — but don’t marry it. Every award show I’ve judged to date is heavy on traditional and lean on digital. Of course, that will change quickly — but not drastically.

3. Rate of Change — Things are changing exponentially faster than ever. Not advertising things, or media things, or technology things — ALL THINGS. Like global climates, civilization and business are advancing at mercurially unprecedented rates. Today, four of the top ten in-demand jobs did not even exist 5 years ago. The amount of technical information is doubling every two years. More unique general information will be generated this year than in all of history combined. These are some things I’m hearing and reading. Does this scare you? Or inspire you? This is not, in the words of David Lubars, “some futuristic bullshit”, but the new reality. Perhaps the most valuable book for the our industry today is Darwin’s, “Origin of the Species”.

4. New Business is NOT the Answer — Geez, I’ve never seen more emphasis placed on agency business development. The Rainmakers are being named the CEO’s. Just look at what Omnicom’s PHD did last week with their CEO function. Out with a guy who is a true Digital pioneer (that list would be shorter than switch-hitting MVP’s) and in with a … new business guy. And one with a spotty track record at that. Did it ever occur to anyone that it’s easier to keep business than get it? But everyone seems to be so focused on getting new business that they’re losing more existing business than ever.  Business development is crucial, but an over-emphasis upon it is counter-productive and reinforces the perception that we’re content to churn and burn new clients. (That picture to the left is of Vida Blue, the last switch-hitting MVP.)

5. The Myth of Entrepreneurialism — Everyone talks about being an entrepreneur and hiring them — both agency principals looking for employees and clients searching for agencies. Yet, when given the option — clients revert to the same dated multipliers for agency compensation. They talk about agencies sharing their risk, but when the rubber meets the road, there’s very little precedent for incentive-based agency compensation. There are several reasons for this (too difficult to quantify, too many uncontrollable factors and variables, impossible to coordinate with Accounting Department, etc.). But at the end of the day, it just means that entrepreneurialism is more of  a noble concept than a reality. On the employee side, more folks than ever cling to dead-end, boring jobs for fear they will lose their precious 2,000 square feet in the suburbs. A high percentage of the workforce that I interact with says they can’t remember the last time they had fun at their job. When I suggest they quit and try something new, they cower in fear. Ten years ago, creative people trusted their talents and skills and embraced a freelance marketplace. Today, we take them out of their agencies in body bags.

The Leads, Part 2

What to Do With a Qualified Lead

Okay, you’ve hunkered down at your laptop on the business wires. You’ve paid particular attention to your niche industries. You’ve combed through The Book of Lists and separated the wheat from the chaff. You’ve subscribed to and tracked the trade pubs in your focus categories. This does NOT mean Adweek, Ad Age or the other advertising trade pubs. Instead, I am referring to Restaurant News, if you are focusing on the dining category or if you are chasing Big Boxes. And, finally, a tactic I am quite fond of, you have attended trade shows/conventions in your sweet spot industries (what a great opportunity to canvas an entire category — like a all-star summer camp for a basketball recruiter). You evaluate, qualify and prioritize your list of leads — now what? This is usually the juncture where paralysis sets in.

Moving on a qualified lead is a lot like dating (which ironically, I was never very good at). There is an unwritten protocol, a decorum. This is my attempt at writing said unwritten protocol. Here’s 6 Things to Avoid in the dating/qualified prospect outreach process. (Let’s have some fun with this).

1. The Wichita Lineman — Avoid repeated phone calls. There’s a fine line between stalking a qualified lead and nurturing a potential relationship.  Constant calling is a sure-fire way to get your calls screened out. Instead, deploy a holistic communications strategy; including emails, direct mail, hand-written notes and modest gifts (I like to send food, like sopressata, especially if it’s an Italian guy — everyone likes free food, if it’s good).

The great Jimmy Webb (MacArthur Park, Worst That Could Happen, By the Time I Get to Phoenix) wrote Wichita Lineman. It was first recorded by Glen Campbell in 1968 and ascended to #3 on the Billboard charts.  (Jimmy Webb-Wichita Lineman)

2. He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother — Don’t get too personal, especially with what you send out. I mean a little sopressata among paisanos is one thing; but bringing race, religion or politics into the mix (especially early in the sales cycle) is a no-no. Just because you read that your prospect is a member of the local Christian CEO Bible study, stay away from the John 3:16 stuff for now. And please, stay apolitical — there’s enough of that everywhere you turn. Finally, whatever you do, keep race entirely out of it (most minority CEO’s and Marketers are whiter than you’ll ever be). In short,  don’t be smarmy. Instead, send your prospect tickets to a ballgame.

The Hollies were underrated hit makers (“Bus Stop”, “Long Cool Woman”). They were finally inducted into the R&R Hall of Fame this past  March 2010 (what took them so long?). I love the way they harmonized. Some bits of trivia on He Ain’t Heavy  and The Hollies: the song was actually first recorded by Neil Diamond, and was certain to be a huge hit on the heels of Cracklin’ Rosie — but the album’s release bogged down and the Hollies version hit the airwaves first and became gigantic. Also, guess who’s playing the piano? None other than a young Sir Elton John. Finally, the group took its name as an homage to Buddy Holly. (He Ain’t Heavy)

3. I Don’t Wanna Know (the reasons why) — No potential customer or partner wants to be viewed as a sales lead, qualified or otherwise. Avoid technobabble like, “I noticed you opened our last email and clicked all the way through”, or “thanks for visiting our web site recently”.  It just feels gooey. Instead, tell them your sister attended their alma mater (it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a sister, at least that’s better than making the prospect feel like you’ve got them on the GooCam}.

Buckingham Nicks was one of my favorite bands. It’s not that they had a string of big hits — they didn’t until they became Fleetwood Mac. But the relationship between Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks was touching. They loved and needed each other. They relied upon each other, in life and onstage. I liked their thing better than John & Yoko’s. It just felt more genuine to me. No trivia here, just a great song from a great relationship (Fleetwood Mac-I don’t want to know).

4. The Great Exaggerator — Does anything turn off people faster than some blowhard inflating their statistics or case studies? Or distorting sales numbers beyond belief (“same store sales went up 52% and brand recall hit 111%”). Instead, leave numerology out of the relationship entirely. It’s just a number and it doesn’t solve the prospect’s problem. Instead, give the credit to your client who trusted you with his business and acknowledge his courage.

Soul Asylum is a curious case for the ephemerality of the alternative music machine. They went from cult icons to mainstream hit makers in the 90’s. And then, with the advent of the internet as the primary server of pop, they vanished into the millenium; until they resurfaced in 2006 with a polished album of mature, adult rock n’ roll (talk about a triple oxymoron). Well, I liked it anyway. (Soul Asylum-Great Exaggerator)

5. Nowhere Man“…doesn’t have a point of view/knows not where he’s going to./Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”. How many salesmen try to hit on this prospect? Hundreds? Try thousands, annually. You are just drone. Sales babble. An uninvited guest. Or worse, a gate-crasher. So you have 2 minutes to cut through the clutter. Telling the prospect what he already knows won’t cut it. Somehow, you need to make an impression. And you only have one chance to make a first impression. Be a personal brand. Have an informed, educated and insightful opinion. Stand for something so when you call back, he’ll think, “oh yeah, that’s the guy who…”

Don’t you wish we could just freeze-dry John Lennon, Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan in 1965? Those guys wrote songs then like it was an international competition, one trying to outdo the other. While not as adventurous as Strawberry Fields Forever or A Day in the Life; Nowhere Man remains perhaps Lennon’s most autobiographical work. It was the first Beatles song entirely devoid of romance or love. Everyone knows their version, which is sung in sublime three-part harmony. But my second favorite rendition is Paul Westerberg’s solo version, which can be found on the brilliant I Am Sam soundtrack. (Paul Westerberg-Nowhere Man)

6. Burning Questions — Every sales coach in the world preaches the power of the leading question…the closing question…the burning question. Is there anything more ingratiating than a salesman who calls you and asks a question ending with the word “correct” (you know, like “Mr. Palma, your investment portfolio is underperforming, correct?” I refuse to answer any question ending with “correct?”). Throw the old book out. Stop being presumptuous and borderline rude. It’s early in the sales cycle. The most incendiary  question is, doubtlessly, “What is your budget?”. Think about it — you’re like a guy on the street (except you’re not even on the street, you’re on the phone) and you stop someone and ask, “Hey, how much money do you have?” “Can I have some? I’ll help you make more”. Instead, keep your early questions big picture, like: “What’s your vision short-term?”

Just for fun, 5 Questions to Avoid on a First Date:

  1. “Do you eat beef?”  (ice water, menus)
  2. “Do you believe in the single-bullet theory?”  (first drink: Single Malt scotch on the rocks — an ill-advised play on the word “single”)
  3. “Are they real?”  (wine, with dinner)
  4. “Have you ever been to DUI school?”  (more wine)
  5. “I’m going to Havana, you wanna go?  (black coffee, 10 p.m.)

Nobody talks about Graham Parker, so I will. While his contemporaries, Springsteen and Costello went on to mega-stardom, he still loads out his own gear at NY-area club gigs. I always thought he had similar talent. Blame it on a simple twist of fate. Enjoy this clip from a Letterman appearance to promote his 1992 album, Burning Questions:

The Leads, Part One

Follow the Money

Identifying and tracking a lead is like trying to find out the real truth about anything — start by following the money. Does it surprise anyone that one of our planet’s largest depositories of gold and precious metals was housed in the basement vaults beneath the World Trade Center? Or should we be surprised that certain politicians (Vice Presidents, for instance) profit lavishly from war? Or that insurance company CEO’s had a very good decade? Stop me now before Omnicom begins monitoring my content.

You can call me a conspiracy theorist, but that’s what they want you to think.

While there is a dearth of creativity in the world today, there is no dearth of financial news and reporting. Therein lies the gold mine of new business leads. The Wall Street Journal refuses to give away its content for free. Why? Because their stock-in-trade is valuable content/information that most of the business community cannot live without. The business/financial wire services are rife with leads, almost hourly. The trickle down effect from the venerable WSJ to your local business rag is instructively correlative. Most of us (smaller creative agencies) can’t chase every NASDAQ bubble stock, but we can track our local business chronicle for cash infusions, venture capital and newly budgeted product or service launches. And I’ve found that many of these boons are often connected to a larger financial trend in that particular category or niche industry.

So I launch this series with an almost anachronistic notion — go back to basics and study the national and local business journals. Focus on categories that best fit your experience. Keep a folder/binder of financial bubbles and trends in your categories. It occurred to me that if everyone spent as much time on the business news wires online as they do on Facebook — maybe they wouldn’t need to be tweeting for dollars or relying on social media to do their job for them. I’ve found that the majority of leads I’ve generated from social media ultimately became tire-kickers, or worse, underfunded marketers looking for an agency to magically feed the multitudes with fishes and loaves. Wouldn’t you rather follow the money and try to control your fate than be at the mercy of Twitterdom? What appears to be the land of milk and honey may just be a mirage.

I like to hole up with The Book of Lists and a Cuban cigar and play bounty hunter. Every metropolitan market has a Book of Lists published by the local business journal. It may be the most underutilized tool in the new business community. For small agencies, I like the Fastest Growing Companies list. I also like the listings of VC firms. For another angle, try the Best Places to Work. There is a good chance that companies who are good to their employees, are probably good to their vendors and strategic/creative alliances. I like to read the bios of the top executives, because what’s at the top usually trickles down.

A few business development database companies have lead services. I haven’t found them to be completely reliable, but the best of these is Access Confidential ( Actually, what I like best about AC is their combined news wire service. It draws upon tens of thousands of news wire stories and archives them in one handy database. Like LexisNexis on steroids.

There are other services dedicated exclusively to lead generation for ad agencies — these are usually the product of someone else doing this very same homework for you. You could do the same thing for yourself if you weren’t on Facebook telling all your “friends” how smart or cool you are. Or tweeting. Or blogging. Or wallowing in LinkedIn, the land of the unemployed and disenfranchised shill. Most of these agency-focused lead services just comb the wires for press releases of announcements like new CMO hires. But, I’ve followed up on many of these so-called leads from pubs like Pearlfinders and The Delaney Report and usually the “lead” has been so bombarded by agency outreach that they have already retreated to their underground asylum. Think about it, you are paying to share leads with hundreds of agencies. I consider a new hire an okay lead.  But, I’d rather follow the money, it almost always leads to the truth.

Next: Action — what to do with a good lead.