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Monday, December 5, 2016

The Public Relations Renaissance?

Let me be candid upfront. Historically, advertising people did not always have the highest regard for those who practiced Public Relations (PR). The take was that the advertising and marketing people felt that they did the heavy lifting when it came to getting a brand recognition and acceptance while the PR people would get a blurb in a local newspaper and be strutting while sitting down about what they had accomplished. Some found them to be such lightweights that behind their backs they referred to PR staffers as “the flak.”

Well. Having said that, I am convinced that things will change somewhat over the next several years. Of the seven pillars of Integrated Marketing Communications (Advertising, Direct Marketing, Internet Marketing, Promotion, Public Relations, Publicity, and Personal Selling), Advertising is clearly on the decline. Commercial avoidance continues to get stronger with each measurement period as more of use our DVR, watch Netflix or Amazon Prime or simply have another device going when advertising appears. So, conventional advertising simply is not and cannot work as well as it once did even a decade ago. Something has to pick up the slack among the remaining Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) pillars. While each brand or service will have a different mix of IMC components, I would bet that a surprise gainer in the emerging new reality will be PR.

Why PR? Studies in recent years have clearly illustrated that adults are increasingly getting cynical about advertising. This is especially true of millennials who rely heavily on social media, Amazon reviews, and the opinions of friends before making purchases. PR, executed properly, can help a company. Remember, PR is not a 30 second spot or a print ad. It is a PROCESS by which a company can assess where they stand with any number of their publics--consumers, employees, shareholders, government, the media and their local communities and then take action to repair perceptions. Essentially, it is a long game. A company in the 21st century needs to refine and rebuild its reputation continually. Running and hiding from the press only raises more issues than it solves. Meet with your opponents be they political, press or community groups. Today, we live in a 24/7 world of communication. If you let outside groups know who you are and what explicitly that you stand for, you will likely come out way ahead of what advertising (as we know it) could ever do for you.

Finally, a few words about “spin.” The late presidential speechwriter and wordsmith William Safire defined spin as a “deliberate shading of news perception; attempted control of political reaction.” PR people are often referred to as “spin-doctors” who can put a positive face on anything. Sometimes, they get away with it but it appears to be less so today. True PR pros put the best foot forward of their client but they should never spin. Remember when as a child you were told something to the effect that if you tell a lie you will eventually have to tell 10 more to cover it up? Well, in the business world that is oh so true when it comes to spin. As PR guru Fraser Seitel put it, “The crisis will hurt you, but the cover-up will kill you.” If you always tell the truth, even the painful truth, you never have to keep track of what you have said in the past. Spin is manipulation and people today, especially millennials, do not want to feel as if they are being toyed with or lied to in any way.

So, keep an eye on PR. Perhaps upgrade your PR staff or service provider. It may prove to be inexpensive and effective over the next decade.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Importance of Encouragement

Managers and executives often talk about the benefits of encouragement. In interviews, they often say how encouragement is an important part of their management mantra and many trot out the old saw about “catch someone doing something right.” In the real world, I must say that I have seen far too little of it. A few people fresh from a seminar or sensitivity training session would start praising staffers for insignificant things but that would wear off soon and it was back to business as usual.

Yet managers who do encourage staffers generally do get good results. Sometimes, even great ones.

I am going to tell a story from my childhood that up to now I have never revealed to anyone. It makes my point better than anything I have ever experienced. Here goes:

In the summer of 1957, I celebrated my seventh birthday. Relatives dropped off a few dollars, my aunt in Houston sent me three dollars, and I received a couple of gifts from my parents. It was a really nice day. The next morning, I asked my father if he would drive me to the bank in the village so I could deposit my birthday cash haul. He smiled and a few minutes later we were approaching a teller’s window at the bank. I was so tiny that she could not see me. My dad boosted me up and I handed her my passbook and the $9 I wanted to deposit. She took the deposit but did not seem happy. A minute later she returned with my bankbook having the new entry. She said to both of us, “A small deposit like that. It does not seem worth the effort.” My father got very still. He gave her a withering glance that was far more frightening than any he ever gave me. After a few seconds, he said evenly, “The little boy has good instincts. You should encourage him to bank here.” Visibly flustered, the mean old biddy said, “Of course. Is there anything else I can do for you, Mr. Cole?” Fishing a dollar bill out of his pocket, my father said, “Yes, do you have any silver dollars lying around?” A minute later she returned and handed him a 1924 Peace dollar and he gave her a one dollar bill for it (sic).

In the car, my dad said, “You seem to understand saving better than other seven year olds.” He handed me the silver dollar. “Donny, keep this.” My eyes must have gotten huge. I remember asking him if it were real money. He said yes and told me how as a junior in college he had a summer job working a cement mixer at a construction site. The first week he worked some overtime in the hot Iowa sun and received a pay envelope on Saturday afternoon. It contained two $10 gold pieces, a $5 gold piece and three Peace dollars which he said everyone called cartwheels. A few minutes later I was surely the only seven year old in Rhode Island who knew the difference between fiat money and specie (As an aside, the following spring, my father won the NCAA wrestling championship in his weight class. He had paid his room, board and tuition with his earnings from the cement mixer job. It boggles my mind to think what a soon to be NCAA champion would be given on a campus today!).

When we arrived at home, I did not show my siblings or my Mom my new cartwheel. I made a beeline to the toy safe that my parents had given me for my birthday. It did not look like much but it was made of steel and had a real lock and only I knew the combination (still do). I took the passbook and the Peace dollar and placed them in the safe next to my other prized possessions--my Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, and Yogi Berra baseball cards and my Bob Cousy and Bill Russell basketball cards.

A few years ago I sold the cards at an auction for a staggering profit. The silver dollar? I still have it. Every 12-18 months, when visiting a safe deposit box, I hold it in my hand for a few moments. More than once, I am not ashamed to admit, my eyes have filled up with tears when I stare at it. I am convinced that my father’s standing up for me to the dismissive teller and his encouraging me to save, changed my life. He set me on a path toward being a private investor that I never veered from for an instant.

So my friends, there has to be someone you know, work with or for, or love who needs some encouragement. Give it freely. It costs you nothing and it just may change someone’s life or career.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Can Doing Nothing Be A Strategy?

Last week, a bright young person asked me the precise question of today’s post In a slightly indirect way, this leads us in to a brief discussion of the concepts of cost benefit analysis and opportunity cost.

Many times in life and in business we face a tricky situation.  We then generally draw up  a list of factors and calculate what something costs and how it might benefit us. It might be a new job, evaluating a media property, buying a house or a business or moving to a new city. Interestingly, few people seem to attempt to calculate the cost of NOT making the choice. In essence, what happens if we go on as we are?

In answer to the young person’s question, I had a few examples to draw on from my career. Late in 2001, I was asked to provide an analysis of buying some kind of special package or media effort in Salt Lake City for a multi-unit retail client during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. A team member and I hopped out to Salt Lake City and literally gave them a “baker’s dozen” of options of customized media efforts for the Games. People all listened politely but I could see some unease on their faces with the pricing that each package had. Many had an enormous premium over normal rates for similar efforts in a non-hyped environment. When I came to the recommendation page, someone whispered, “Here it comes.”

The recommendation was DO NOTHING. Our thesis was that with the metro area teeming with tourists, business would pick up on its own and they should pocket the money for later in the year when they might need it to fight a competitive fire. My clients were shocked and thrilled. Sales jumped low double digits during the Games and they were even more delighted and my team had great credibility going forward.

A few years earlier, I was having lunch with a friend in Dallas. He told me about a hot company that he had purchased shares in and strongly advised me to back up a truck and buy as many shares as he had. I went back and researched the company and did not quite understand what they were doing. So, I stuck with my cash and waited for another opportunity. The company was Enron!  In essence, I gained by doing nothing rather than buying shares in the soon to be bankrupt company. I profited by not doing what my friend suggested.

At other times in my life, I did not buy Microsoft, Apple, Facebook at their IPO’s so I had an “opportunity loss” by not getting in to them at the earliest possible moment. Hindsight, of course, is always 20/20.

To conclude, the point to take away is that sometimes doing nothing is the right thing. I looked at thousands of media opportunities over the years and, in reflection, only recommended a small fraction of them and bought even fewer as I could not pull the trigger without client approval.

My young friend’s question was slightly off kilter. Doing nothing is not literally a strategy but it is more often than you might think a wise decision.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Monday, November 14, 2016

Tiresome Terms

Over the years, certain turns of phrase have crept in to the American business lexicon. Some are wildly overused; others can be code for something else. We have all heard them and perhaps we still use them even though they are annoying. Here are my pet peeves:

“Think Outside the Box”--why can’t we simply say, “think creatively” or “think differently”

“Give 110%”--total nonsense. You cannot never give more than 100%. Also, most psychologists and others involved in study of humans posit that most of us only use 25-30% of our brainpower.

“Hit the Ground Running”--a worn out cliche if there every was one. Why not say, “get started immediately.”

Synergy--this one perhaps irks me the most and will be the focal point of this brief post.

Back in the 1970’s, media people and advertising folks often talked about a synergistic effect in media plans. The chosen media types in a plan would produce a result where the sum of the individual components would be less than the actual effects on consumer awareness. Certain media types were said to work unusually well together and by receiving messages from different media and, in different ways, the total effect of the campaign was magnified in the eyes and ears of the consumer.

Okay, I can accept synergy in a media mix analysis. Over the last 15 years or so, synergy has been used in a different context--generally it surfaces with mergers or corporate buyouts. These days when I hear the word synergy it means that two companies are getting together. Should they have similar products, services, warehouse or delivery operations, it usually is code for many people losing their jobs.

I have a long standing acquaintance who has been “synergized” three times. He was at an ad agency for many years and was part of the team that departed after the buyout of his shop by a much larger firm. At the time, he told me he was going for a media job as he wanted something more stable. Since then, he has been let go twice due to one corporate buyout and the second a merger. He is getting bitter and was terrified when he heard of the AT&T/Time Warner proposed marriage. Well in to his fifties, he said the following-- “If I get whacked again, I will be virtually unemployable. No one is going to take a chance on me at my age and salary level. My CEO was asked at a staff meeting about the AT&T/Time Warner deal and he said that there were interesting synergies in the merger of the two giants. My young colleagues all nodded. I had to be stone faced.”

The truth is that most mergers end up costing money despite the much discussed “synergies” that will emerge. In the real world, financial and equity analysts usually evaluate a deal by looking at how big a reduction in force will occur and and how much can be saved as a result. Generally speaking, the higher the number, the better. Have you ever noticed when a company does a layoff of 5000-10,000 employees? Invariably, the stock price jumps the next day. That is what synergy is and does. In a free market society, it is inevitable. The victims tend to be those who believed the boss(es) when she spoke about the new, stronger company. Why is it impossible for leaders to speak in plain, American English?

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Freedom To Fail

Recently, I was speaking with a young woman who grew up in a small, western European country. She told me that she loved being in the United States and was hoping that she could spend the rest of her life here. When I asked her why, her answer was illuminating.

She said, “In my country if you fail at a business, you have a target on your back for the rest of your life. When I was a child, a man in my village started a restaurant. He tried hard but it failed. Now, nearly 20 years later, people still whisper behind his back that he is a failure. In your country, many successful people have failed at several things before they break through and make it as entrepreneurs. If you fail in Baltimore-Washington, you can go to Chicago. If you fail again there, you can move to Seattle. Or, you can stay put and keep trying. America gives business people 2nd, 3rd, and 4th chances. I think that this is key for a society to move forward.”

I was floored by the prescience of this young woman. She realizes that almost all successful entrepreneurs have a willingness to fail. In essence, they fail their way to success until they get it right.

A few weeks after speaking with the young lady, I talked to a mature man who is a serial entrepreneur. When I asked him how he thrived where so many others did not, he laughed and said, “Don, I am different from most people. I am not afraid to fail. All my life, I have failed and I continue to do so. I got it right a few times but that is all I have needed. To me, failure is part of success IF YOU LEARN FROM IT.”

Entrepreneurial guru and best selling author Randy Gage (author of Risky Is The New Safe) put it beautifully--“The opposite of success is not failure but mediocrity.”

So, while America has its share of problems, we are still free to fail. And that, along with an innate entrepreneurial spirit among many of us plus passionate immigrants, bodes well for our future.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Best Practices Trap

About 20 years ago, the term “best practices” began to creep in to the American business lexicon.  I first experienced it when working at an agency that handled a large brand with a super agency as a lead player handling creative and network TV and a dozen or so smaller ones existing media for this multi-unit retailer. We were all summoned to headquarters where each of us was asked to present “best practices.” Essentially, they were asking for the tactics that worked best on a local market basis in our selected Designated Market Areas (DMA’s).

When I got to the big session, I greeted a number of acquaintances and a few old friends. Also present were a few media representatives from the mega-shop that handled the national business. When it was my turn to present, I pulled out all the stops and got a rousing ovation from the crowd and a nice compliment from the lead client. In the back of the room, I was surprised to see an angry looking man--the senior media officer of the mega-shop.

The two young media supervisors who worked for Mr. Big approached me. One said, “We need a copy of your presentation.” With a big smile, I said, “That is the intellectual property (a relatively new term then) of my agency and perhaps the client as well. You will have to ask the client for it.” Both had the proverbial deer in the headlights look. “You don’t understand, Don. Our boss said he wants it.” Oozing charm, I said that I was powerless and I could not release it without client permission.

I am not trashing the mega-shop. They handled billions in billing over the years, and their media and creative product was first rate. Being so big, however, they could not or would not put in the labor intensity required to work out customized promotions in smaller local markets. They could buy inexpensively but they never made market trips or spent much time at all looking for promotions and extensions.

That day I learned a lesson which has stayed with me. Whenever I am asked about “best practices” I always try to make a good account of myself and the organization that I am representing. At the same time, I always am silent about the absolute best tactics that delivered the gangbuster results. The client knows about them but why share them with people unable or unwilling to do the due diligence to come up with similar tactics/promotions? Also, if you best ideas are going to be stolen, why do they need you for long term?

In preparing this post, I floated the idea of best practices out to a few of the Media Realism panel members. One responded that she had read that, “best practices should really be NEXT practices” as the media work was changing so rapidly. She could not remember where it came from but I think I found it. Mike Myatt in the 8/15/12 issue of FORBES appears to be the person who first used the term “next practices”.

I realize that this post flies in the face of the approach taken by tech leaders such as Chris Andersen, former editor of WIRED magazine. In his 2009 book, FREE: THE FUTURE OF A RADICAL PRICE, he suggested that initially products and services should often be given to customers free. Okay, I understand that. I do not think that you should give things to your defacto COMPETITORS for free.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com or leave a comment on the blog.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Conventional Wisdom Impedes Progress

Every industry in the world has sacred cows or what we usually describe as conventional beliefs. We often cling to them even though the world has changed and they often are no longer valid. One futurist whom I respect says many were never valid in the first place.

When we look at things we tend to carry baggage with us. Sometimes a great deal of baggage. The disruptors in many categories tend to be people from another industry who are not weighed down with conventional wisdom and perhaps see things more clearly.

For example, I love bookstores of all kinds. A relaxing hour to me is to browse through a bookshop in any large city. Sometimes used bookshops are even better as I find out of print gems that I have wanted for years. 

Jeff Bezos worked on Wall Street. He did not toil at Borders or Barnes & Noble. So, he thought that selling books and music online was worth a shot. He bet the ranch on it and it morphed in to a phenomenon that has changed the way most of us shop. People in the book industry did not take Amazon seriously until it was too late.

There is a young media strategist who writes to me frequently. Sometimes he has an idea and bounces it off me. Other times, he sends me the draft of a proposal that he is working on for a client. And, once in a while, he writes to inform me that he thinks that my latest blog post is way off base.

Last year, he sent me an early draft of a media plan that had his boss had rejected out of hand. Essentially, he wanted to pull out of a college football package that his client had purchased for many years. To sum up, he said that attentiveness levels had dropped and presented some information that showed channel hopping was rampant during commercial breaks on Saturday afternoons when several games were on simultaneously. He suggested that the package not be renewed and that the money be redeployed in a fistful of digital options.

His boss regaled him with the time honored commentary that there was a magic to an advertiser being in a sports property and that while the premium for such involvement was often steep, it was ALWAYS worth it. The young gentlemen stuck to his guns and was a pariah within his shop for a few weeks.

Then, the client, citing business difficulties, did not renew the football deal. My young friend was given half the money he usually had for football and reinvested it in some digital alternatives. Business perked up and he was soon back in the good graces of his management team.

Now, there are many factors that might have caused the client rebound. My point is that the conventional wisdom that the pricey sports package was essential to good allocation of the client’s funds was an accepted practice but it may no longer have been relevant in 2015.

So, examples like this strike me as wake-up call for media people and management at ad agencies. Keep in mind the thing that all disruption tends to have--it is pro-consumer. Decades ago, Wal-Mart offered everyday low pricing and one stop shopping, Amazon took it to your door, mobile apps seem to be changing everything.

Market destruction is a tough game. It will not recede. Remember, with creative destruction comes creativity. Strive to be part of it no matter what business you are in.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com