Avoid These Four Agency Client Types at all Costs

boat for saleYou may have heard the expression popular among some boat owners:

The two best days of being a boat owner are ‘the day you buy it’ and the ‘day you sell it.’

Others use a similar expression. Like those who have purchased a vacation home they never have time to enjoy.  Or that convertible as a full-time car (if you drive in New England).  I’ve heard some hackers on the golf course say the same about their Titleist blades.

And it’s been said on many occasions in the PR agency world; on those occasions when a new client turns out to be everything the agency hoped they wouldn’t be – when the two best days are the day the agency wins the client’s business and the day the agency fires that client.

A boat.  A second home. A roadster that’s to die for.  That shiny new client. All seemed like great ideas at the time. All looked wonderful from the outside. And then the honeymoon ends…and you’re in it for real.

For better or for worse, things we learn in life are often learned through trial and error. While we may try to not repeat the same mistakes over and over (there’s a definition for this type of behavior), we sometimes do.

Unlike the regretful boat owner who is typically one and done, PR agencies have histories of chasing bad client after bad client, deluding themselves into thinking that this time things will be different because they will “control” the relationship and not let the client run roughshod over them.

What do I mean by “bad’ client?  Well they come in many shapes, sizes and disguises.

There’s the client whose initial budget is below the agency’s minimum monthly retainer but promises that the budget is going to increase after the first three months or when the next round of funding comes in.  Three months come and go … another three months come and go … etc.

There’s the know-it-all client who has never worked with a PR agency before but skimmed the Public Relations for Dummies Cheat Sheet which has a section entitled, “Convincing Editors to Print Your Press Release.”  Seriously.  This client knows just enough about PR to be dangerous but still doesn’t make the distinction between an article written by an actual journalist and a news release replayed verbatim on one of those free press release web sites.

Of course, there’s the client working at his third start-up, the first two of which had successful exits and were media darlings and who is expecting and demanding the same level of media interest for his also-ran entry into the dying market du jour.

And finally, there’s the worse client type of all: the one who hires you and then disappears expecting the PR program to run smoothly without them having to pay any attention to it now that a firm has been hired.  You know the type … they make a living of hiring and firing agencies as a job protection ploy.  They blow off weekly check-in meetings, rarely return your phone calls or email pleas for information but are fast to get in your face when their company is left out of a story.

But they are happy to take credit for any positive results the agency does manage to generate.  When that happens, it’s time to sell the boat.  Don’t you think?

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Rebuilding a City’s Reputation, Brick by Brick

BrickIf the out going mayor of the city of Lawrence, Mass. thought about Warren Buffet’s famous quote on reputation — “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it” — then William Lantigua might have done things differently.  Maybe.

For nearly four years Lantigua has been the mayor of the besieged city of Lawrence and its 80,000 souls squeezed into a puny seven square miles that sit just south of the New Hampshire border in the Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts.  For several decades leading up to the middle part of the last century, this once proud urban center was a leading manufacturer and exporter of textiles and a significant wool processing center.  Its glory days came to a rather abrupt end in the 1950’s when the need for cheaper labor moved to the southern states.

Since then, the city has endured decades of fits and starts; effort upon genuine effort by buoyant officials who would begin their elected terms with bright promise and optimism only to find that once the celebrations and the honeymoon were over that most were in over the heads.  Leading a city like Lawrence, better known recently for its high unemployment, poverty, gang violence, a beleaguered school system and corruption among city officials than it is for being a great place to raise a family or start a business, isn’t a job for the faint of heart or the inexperienced.  Ask the parade of mayors who preceded Lantigua. While one can easily argue about the success of their administrations, it’s more difficult to argue about whether their hearts were in the right place or not.

However, the same can’t be said for Lantigua or his administration during which ….

  • he was sued by the state’s attorney general for allegedly violating campaign finance laws,
  • his former chief of staff and deputy police chief, appointed by the mayor, faced criminal corruption charges,
  • a close ally was found guilty of bribery, obstruction of justice among other charges, and,
  • his ex-campaign photographer was indicted for allegedly stealing proceeds from the city’s parking garage where he worked.

Earlier this week, following his failed elected bid for another four years as mayor, Lantigua repeatedly refused to address the election results in any great detail, instead letting his lawyer do most of the talking.

Lantigua has almost single-handedly tarnished the reputation of a city that was trying OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmightily to fight its way back.  He has scared away investors, long time homeowners, and businesses.

Now he has what is perhaps the biggest decision of his life to make. Does he demand a recount from this week’s election which he lost to challenger Daniel Rivera by a mere 60 votes?  Does he dig in his heels and drag the city though the angst of an unresolved election?

Or does he, just this once, have what it takes to truly lead and begin to rebuild his own tainted reputation by conceding the election, congratulating Rivera and leading the smoothest possible transition from his administration to the next so that the city of Lawrence can pick up where it left off four years ago?

It’s up to Lantigua on how he wants to be remembered.

David “Big Papi” Ortiz’s Timeless Leadership Lessons

COV_BigPapi(5)From the Boston Globe to USA Today to SportingNews.com, writers across the country are paying tribute to David “Big Papi” Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox (my home town team) for his on-the-field heroics.  At age 37, Big Papi is tearing up the MLB’s best pitchers and as one scribe reports, is “turning back the clock.”  And never at a loss for words, the Sox slugger responds with just the right hint of humility: “I’m the dinosaur here.”

That’s just Big Papi being Big Papi.

The fact of the matter is that Ortiz is anything but a dinosaur.  He’s a player a few scouts said was on the decline just a couple of years ago.  But he’s also a player who since then has essentially reinvented himself by making the training room his off-season home, by burning off his love of the good life by running laps in the park, and by turning to a healthier diet … and then by letting his bat do the talking on the field.

This week, Ortiz is leading his team to (hopefully) its third World Series championship in 10 years. But it’s not only his behavior on the field that has earned him leadership status. It’s also what he says and does off the field, whether it be in the club house with his teammates, in the training room building strength, in front of the cameras talking to fans after a game, or his off-camera work with charities, that make him a role model for corporate leaders.

Here are four Big Papi traits execs sitting in mahogany row can learn from:

Lead by example.  Big Papi doesn’t just talk about wanting to win.  He properly prepares and rehearses to flawlessly execute his plan.  He works harder than most to be the very best at his job and when he sees his skills beginning to deteriorate, he goes back to drawing board (the batting cage in his case).  He never asks his teammates to work harder than he’s willing to.  He simply sets the bar and then hurdles it.  Simple.

Leaders as change agents who inspire.    First a leader has to be trusted by his/her employees (or team).  It’s the same with customers. Customers trust people and not necessarily companies.  It’s only when trust is established that a leader can become a change agent.  Remember how the Red Sox responded in game four of the World Series following Big Papi’s inspirational dugout pep talk mid-game?  “David Ortiz rallied us together,” said teammate Johnny Gomes following the Red Sox win.

Strong leaders choose their words carefully.  Great leaders understand the power of their words and their tone.  A CEO addressing a struggling organization at a company meeting can galvanize or demoralize the troops.  A confident “we will overcome these challenges together and here’s the plan” delivery always trumps a punitive one.  Last April 20, on the heels of the Boston Marathon bombings, Big Papi “unofficially” reclaimed the City of Boston for its residents with his famous Boston Strong speech at Fenway Park. He delivered the right words with the right tone at just the right time.

Great leaders wear their passion on the outside for all to see.  Steve Jobs.  Tony Hsieh.  Jeff BezosRichard Branson.  CEOs known for their passion.  Name a professional baseball player who loves (and has as much fun) what he does as much as David Ortiz?  His passion, like that of Jobs and others, is absolutely contagious.

Any ideas for other Ortiz leadership traits that corporate leaders should emulate?

Go Sox!

Time for Global B2Bs to Ditch the Herd Mentality

survivorU_following_the_herdNavel-gazing sessions and working at a big B2B company have always gone hand-in-hand. But it looks like many of the big B2Bs are getting it all wrong when it comes to brainstorming key messages and positioning statements that will resonate with their customers.

You might say, as did the Captain in the movie classic Cool Hand Luke, to Luke:  What we’ve got here is (a) failure to communicate.

According to an in-depth B2B brand building study by McKinsey&Company involving Fortune 500 and DAX 30 companies and over 700 executives across six sectors, many of the brand messages customers value most are least mentioned by the companies they buy from.

A few highlights from the survey that are worth calling out:

  • there’s little connection between a brand’s influence on its customers and themes such as social responsibility, sustainability and global prowess – yet these are key themes that many global brands use in their positioning statements
  • brand themes that customers value most — “effective supply chain management and specialist market knowledge” — are rarely mentioned by the companies, and this little beauty…
  • the brand theme customers consider to be most important from their suppliers is “honest and open dialogue.”  But sadly this theme was not emphasized at all by the 90 companies included in the survey’s final sample.

What the…?

Several years ago at a navel-gazing session I participated in while working at a global PR agency, we looked at the key messages and positioning statements of our five largest competitors.  The team was asked to review the brand themes and key messages of the competing global agencies and to compare them with those of our firm.

As you might imagine, it was difficult to determine one firm from the next.

The follow the herd mentality is also prevalent, it turns out, among global B2B companies. According to the survey:  our analysis showed a surprising similarity among the brand themes that leading B2B companies emphasized, suggesting a tendency to follow the herd rather than create strongly differentiated brand messages.

The McKinsey authors — Tjark Freundt, Sascha Lehmann and Philipp Hillenbrand — give props to the IBM Smarter Planet branding campaign as a truly differentiating effort, one that communicated distinct and powerful external and internal themes that connected with the company’s range of key stakeholders — marketing, sales and R&D employees, customers and other influencers.

For an excellent and recent overview of the IBM campaign, check out Edward Boches’ postBoches, a partner at Mullen, calls Smarter Plant “a perfect case study for any of us working on comprehensive brand content programs as it has all of the components…”

As the folks at McKinsey advise, global B2B companies would be wise to closely monitor shifts in their markets and among their customer base and work harder to better align their brand themes with the changes.

Boches points out that while most companies aren’t capable of producing a campaign as grand as Smarter Planet, it remains “a solid example of taking a core business idea and bringing it to life in the form of lots of little ideas, distributed content, attention generating experiences, utility and platforms, and social engagement that invites participation.”

Size Matters When It Comes to Picking a PR Agency

090831-SmallMediumLarge-4651Public relations agencies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are holding-company owned with offices in 50 countries or more and thousands of employees.  Others are independent and mid-sized with a handful of offices and perhaps a hundred or more workers. And of course there are scores of founder-run, single-office firms and boutique consultancies with anywhere from three to 50 staffers all working under one roof or virtually.

While all of these agency types often compete with each other for the same prized piece of business, they can be very different in their approach to new business, client service and relationship management.

For the prospect, deciding to work with a one-office firm or a large agency with an office in every major U.S. metro area can be a tricky decision as agencies have grown adept at becoming chameleon-like. For example, a smaller agency may try to present itself as bigger and more “scalable”  than they really are when pitching a potentially big client. They will bring up that they work with “partner” agencies all over the world allowing them to send your message out globally.  And a large agency may attempt to present itself as nimble and flexible (with pricing and programs) when pitching an emerging brand with limited marketing dollars.  They will bring up the fact that they have specialized teams working on smaller programs and the promise that you won’t be a small fish in a big pond.

Blah blah blah.

Ok, so perhaps there are a few instances where both the large and the small agency can get the same job done well.  But typically, this won’t be the case.  So to help you decide, here are a few guidelines to mull:

  • if yours is a global company, then hire a global agency with global branded offices. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t bring in a boutique for specialized work as well. But in my experience, the various global networks of independent PR agencies are better suited for project vs. ongoing work.  I’m sure there are exceptions, but it’s difficult for one agency (the AOR) to control and manage the quality of the work that another agency in another country is doing for a client.
  • if it’s important that agency principals pay close attention to your account, then hire a boutique. Even with many mid-size firms, you won’t see the firm principals very often once the contract is signed unless you insist on it or have a previous relationship.  In most cases, agency principals are too busy running the business to pay attention to client service until something goes wrong.
  • if you are an emerging brand with limited PR dollars to spend for the foreseeable future, hire a boutique or mid-size agency.  Big agencies are working hard to penetrate the emerging brands market, especially in tech, but until they figure out how to make money on small budgets it’s still largely a work in progress for them. Generally, if you’re an emerging brand, the sense of urgency and enthusiasm and attention you’ll get from a smaller firm will outshine that of a big agency (at least once the honeymoon is over).
  • if prestige and name recognition is important to your CEO, then hire the global agency so he/she can brag at the next cocktail party that his PR agency has offices in 75 countries even though the client only does business in three of them. Just remember, someone has to pay for all that overhead.

A More Human Model for Product Storytelling

Reblogged from MarketingProfs I Kathy Klotz

by Kathy Klotz-Guest

October 16, 2013

Humans are wired for stories; we’re storytelling animals. The resurgence in storytelling, the original social medium, is an important and welcome evolution for many reasons. Memorable stories scale in a way that facts alone cannot. And a multiplier effect is critical in marketing. Finally, stories cut through the tremendous clutter—much of it lacking context and meaning—created by the never-ending content explosion. Here’s where stories pay dividends: According to a recent Stanford study, stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone.

In a world of noise, the best stories win.

From Product-Centered to Story-Driven Content

The most important thing any organization can do is become a storytelling organization. That means elevating your product or service discussion to one that focuses on the human needs of your audience.

It all begins with telling the right stories about real people who use your product or service and not focusing on the product itself. Your best stories are not about your products or you. Your goal is to tell a bigger story that makes your customer the hero.

Customers are doing their own research, and they’re asking the most important question: How will your product or service make my life better? If your marketing fails to elevate the discussion to one of change for the better, you’ll never rise above the din.

Getting Started

One of my favorite models for getting started with storytelling comes from improvisation—one of the most powerful ways of co-creating stories. It’s also that classic and fun universal bed-time story model that you’ll recognize from movies. I’ve used this model as an improviser on stage and as a marketer. Recently, I used this approach in several storytelling sessions I gave at Product Camp Silicon Valley 2013.

What I love about this particular model, called the “seven-step story,” is that you can easily adapt it. This approach covers all the key elements of a story, and it works for just about every type of story a company can have: a core purpose story, product stories, origin stories, and others.

Here’s the model for product/service stories told through the lens of your customer:

Once upon a time, <customer name> was doing…

And every day, he or she did <big challenge he or she has>…

Until one day, he or she discovered <enter the solution: your product or service>…

And because of that, he or she could <benefit 1>…

And because of that, he or she could <benefit 2>…

And because of that, he or she could <benefit 3>… (You don’t need three, but three is the maximum you want. Shorter stories are more powerful.>

And every day since that day, he or she uses <your product or service> because it enables him or her to <big human need>…

Show How Customers’ Situations ‘Change’

The most important part of a story is showing how the hero/protagonist of the story changes. What can your customer do now because of your product or service that he/she could not do before? That’s story rocket fuel.

Your product or service must make your customers look good. (They are the hero; your service becomes the supportive sidekick!)

Start thinking bigger than your product by focusing on what people really want: time, freedom, success, recognition, enhanced reputation, self-reliance, stability, belonging, safety, reduced risk, acceptance, security, credibility, and so on. Think about Abraham Maslow‘s famous “Hierarchy of Needs.”

No one needs your product or service. What they need is the change that your product or service allows them to make! And you don’t have to be saving lives to claim real value. You must aim for credibility, however. Great stories are built on a foundation of truth. And if you are in need of inspiration, ask customers, “How did we make your life better?” And make it personal. The best product stories are.

Here’s a brief example applying the model to Company X:

Once upon a time, Bob, a company owner, kept numerous files in various locations.

And every day he had to update information in many places because he did not have the data in one secure place to be able to work remotely. It was a huge pain in a number of ways.

Then, one day, a friend introduced Bob to Company X’s cloud-based data services.

Because of that, Bob could securely access data anywhere, anytime wherever he was.

Because of that he was able to get more work done quickly and easily and without worrying about compromising data security.

And every day since that day, Bob’s organization uses Company X because the ability to access data “anytime anywhere” securely has reduced his risk, ensured data freedom, and freed up his time to do what does best: run his business and spend time with his family—not with his IT department.

Customers Buy Stories, Not Products

Company X delivers its service via the cloud. No one needs cloud-based services, but the cloud is how Company X delivers its value. What matters is that the product allows users to do something (bigger than the product) that they could not do before. In this case, Company X enables information freedom, simplicity, security and freed-up time.

Your product story is always about the people who use what you sell and how their lives are better. When you focus on products and features—on you, instead of your customers—you are playing a small game.

Elevate your marketing. Products come and go; a deep commitment to changing customers’ lives for the better—something bigger than any company—must be an unwavering purpose that provides meaning. That’s the change your stories must focus on if they are to resonate emotionally with your audience, be memorable, and create compelling calls to action.

That’s my story. What’s yours? Email: Kathy(at)keepingithuman(dot)com

IPO Communications Guidelines That Make Good Sense

GM-NYSE-listed-720x340It’s the dream of many public relations professionals:  land a position with a promising pre-IPO company. Take less base compensation and sacrifice weekends and holidays for the promise of mainlining a gold vein of stock options and sailing off to the Caribbean following a robust IPO and the requisite vesting period.

Ah.  If only it was that easy.

The reality is that the PR pro in a pre-IPO company has enormous pressure and responsibility to ensure that his/her organization is playing by the IPO communications rules of the road. The job can be like herding cats.  A single communications misstep can be extremely costly to the organization, and of course to communications leadership.

2013 is actually turning out to be a banner year for IPOs in the U.S.  According to the czars of IPO research at Renaissance Capital, 165 IPOs have priced so far this year — that’s a near 50 per cent increase over 2012. In addition, a whopping 208 IPOs have been filed with the SEC year-to-date, more than 75 per cent than a year ago.  And the average IPO has returned almost 30 per cent from the offer price.

Twitter, as the galaxy is aware, is expected to complete its IPO process before the end of the year, possibly by Thanksgiving. Its recent decision to fuel the IPO frenzy is having a significant and positive impact on other recent IPOs as well, like Rocket Fuel Inc. and FireEye Inc.  Their stock price has doubled since their IPOs less than one month ago.

Going public has many pluses.  Among the benefits is the opportunity to earn significantly more interest and coverage from business and financial information channels, major newspapers, business magazines, television, radio, financial and business websites, among other media outlets.

However, the benefits of enhanced publicity come with the increased responsibility of communicating appropriately, leveraging new-found media attention to support strategic business goals while playing by fair market rules and maintaining corporate transparency.

Much of this enormous responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the organization’s communications leadership. Remember the companies in the dot.com boom that screwed up their IPOs by inadvertently leaking confidential information that found its way to the media and then the SEC?  That’s a sure-fire for the dream to become a nightmare of epic proportions.

Here are a few guidelines for PR  pros and their pre-IPO companies that will help dreams come true:

1. Prevent official and unofficial spokespeople from telling external sources your company intends to go public. Regardless of when it’s said, it can be published during the IPO quiet period and will look like SEC rules have been violated. Instead, focus on the company’s growth story.  Talk about financing as an adjunct that facilitates growth.

2. Develop a story that describes your company’s competitive advantages and barriers to entry without industry jargon. Keep it simple and do it well in advance of the IPO as it will serve as the basis for your corporate description in the prospectus.

3. Strengthen your website. During the quiet period, your company website will speak for you to industry influencers and potential investors.

4. Stay visible.  Typically, visible IPOs price higher in the range and trade higher afterwards. Don’t focus only on the Wall Street Journal and other national publications. Industry trade publications, bloggers, industry and Wall Street analysts are also excellent visibility creators.

5. Be visible now or company attorneys may say “no” after you have filed. If you haven’t been active before the filing, it will be difficult to be active once you have filed.  Even if you have been active with the media before the filing, many attorneys will take an ultra-conservative position and still try to prevent the company from being visible.  Challenge their position by sharing the many examples of companies who got their cake and ate it.

6. Once your company has gone public, employees have no right to material information before other shareholders. Make sure your company employees understand the rules. Be prepared to circulate policies that explain how to handle material information and how to avoid insider training.

7. IPO day is the beginning, not the end, of communications. Use the remainder of your quiet period to plan your debut as a public company. Decide what your publicity stance will be on the first day of trading.

8. The first nine months of being public will prove whether you can properly forecast your future for Wall Street. It’s easier to keep your good reputation than try to rebuild it.

9. Look to bellwether companies outside your industry for best communications practices, and not only to your competitors.

10. Work with your company’s attorneys and advisers to fit your desired business strategy within regulatory rules.

11. Get your corporate legal and investor relations teams involved in social media to protect the company from violating disclosure requirements. The risks simply don’t outweigh the benefits.

Oh, and good luck.