Welcome to a new year of bad advertising
Tuesday February 12th 2013, 10:12 pm
Filed under: advertising,Reputation Managment,Wall Street Journal,women

I think it’s fitting that my first “bad advertising” post of 2013 has a lesson in it. A sort of, higher meaning.  A clarion call.  I mean, why not think big thoughts until September or so, when you could fit all my thoughts on the head of a pin?

Anyway… Here’s a full-page ad from the WSJ this week.   Marcus & Millichap.stephanie-fierman-mm

Now, I’d never heard of Marcus & Millichap, so I did my research.  It’s a REIT based in California. That’s the end of my research.

Note that the ad congratulating the company’s “top investment professionals of 2012″ contains 35 photographs: all white men.  35 out of 35.

That’d be – wait, wait, don’t help me – 100%.

A couple thoughts:

1. If you have a company and your top 35 producers are all men, I would advise you not to voluntarily ANNOUNCE IT TO THE WORLD in the Wall Street Journal, because it makes you look like huge jerks.  You may not BE jerks, but it doesn’t matter. You’ve also offended some good number of the female WSJ readers in the universe (online, that’s 42% of readers and, in print, 32% of the sub base).  Not to mention potential female employees, partners, etc.  That is, if you want those kind of people – meaning women.

2. If you have a company and your top 35 producers are all men, you may have a serious diversity problem.

And there you have it.  This is less bad advertising and more “Stupid Pet Tricks Advertising,” but I had to start somewhere.

‘Til the next time…

Stephanie Fierman Suggests Goldman Sack This Idea

Marketers become accustomed to defending, documenting and demonstrating the value of marketing itself – particularly the beautiful art and science known as branding.  A lot of us are pretty good at it.  When branding comes up, I stand at the ready.

Ready, that is, until I’m not.

And so it was with the news that Goldman Sachs is considering a big, broad, very public effort to polish its brand. “Public” as in advertising, letters to the editor(s), responses to media reports… even an appearance by CEO Lloyd Blankfein on Oprah.

Can you imagine? Oprah. I picture it as a cross between Tom Cruise’s 2005 crazy-eyed appearance and her skewering of James Frey in 2006, and not in a good way.

Lloyd Blankfein

Look, I may condemn the investment banking scoundrels for their wrongdoing when I’m out having a drink somewhere, but – behind closed doors with the Goldman team – this would be my position:

Goldman executives may indeed be shocked – even hurt – by the way they’ve been treated by Congress or by the all-out vitriolic point of view on Main Street, but the fact of the matter is that these are not the audiences that really matter at Goldman… and this is the price to be paid for what they do for a living.

It’s a pretty small price, in my opinion.

Goldman isn’t nor was it ever in the business of being loved. It’s in business to be 100% rational, not emotional, and to make money for itself and its clients. That mission defines a fairly narrow set of individuals and companies that really need to know what Goldman is doing. For these people, a big initiative is (a) likely to be a grossly inefficient way of communicating, and (b) even more likely to be seen by those in the know as a silly distraction that pulls Goldman away from (make me money) what it’s supposed (make me money) to be doing (make me money).

Strike One and Two.

Then there’s John Q. Public, who may not understand a lot of Goldman’s business activities but knows the firm was at the epicenter of a series of events that were highly disruptive and that made a very small number of already rich people even richer. For most, these beliefs are almost purely emotional, and no company can promote itself out of negative sentiment. If you lay low – particularly when a bunch of abstract business concepts are involved – the public’s anger will dissipate, and soon another target will present itself.  Sad but true.  To communicate now would only inflame an audience that Goldman doesn’t need and create added stress for one the firm does need – it’s own employees.

Strike Three.

Branding, PR, advertising… none of these tools can be used to uproot deep-seated negative opinion while an issue is still hot. It’s tempting to buy full page ads in the Wall Street Journal that say you’ll make things right (paging British Petroleum) but you can’t win doing this and, frankly, it’s a bit immature and disrespectful. It’s like saying “Hey, I punched you in the eye, hard, and I can’t take it back or make it any better, but I still want you to like me.” In Goldman’s case, the firm plays hardball, it’s going to bruise some people and it’s going to make billions of dollars for its inner circle of stakeholders. Everyone knows that’s the deal, and – when the spotlight turns toward them – those involved need to be able to put up with not being “liked” in exchange for their success.

Goldman’s communications advisors would do well to make sure that its client is staying focused on what’s important to its core business and true constituencies.  I disagree with those who say that Goldman must vigorously present “its vision of the ‘right thing to do’ in the financial services industry going forward.”  To what end?  To “clarify” its point of view, or contribute to the national dialogue? Through a branding campaign? On Oprah? Please.

Take care of your own employees, talk with clients, prospects and key constituencies around the world as you normally would, and wait.

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to simply live with a situation, keep going and accept that there are moments when the right kind of marketing may be no marketing at all.

Stephanie Fierman Believes In Trying
Saturday September 05th 2009, 10:43 pm
Filed under: retail,US economy,Wall Street Journal

The economic news these days is, uh… bad.  It turns out that the productivity increase in the 2nd quarter was due to companies letting more people go and freezing the salaries of those who remain.  And then there’s unemployment.  And retail sales.  And GM.  And the banks.  And the entire state of California.

Shampoo.  Rinse.  Repeat.

So I was somehow heartened by an issue of the Wall Street Journal this week that just happened to include stories about a lot of companies trying to grow and people looking to better times.  Here are just some of the stories I noticed in the WSJ on just one day:stephanie-fierman-hope.jpg

Disney buys Marvel
Baker Hughes agreed to pay $5.5 bil to purchase BJ Services
Walmart is creating an online mall and will sell merchandise from other retailers
Restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory are testing healthier menu selections and kids-eat-free nights to try to get families to eat out again
Payless Shoes is expanding into Russia
Companies are doing more pro bono work – and finding that it’s earning them paying gigs
Dell is going to sell Brocade networking gear under its own name
Samsung is launching an apps service for cell customers in Europe
Blue Nile is undergoing a major overhaul in an effort to attract women (most of its customers are men)
Some people are making fools of themselves with wacky job-hunting tactics that may not close the deal today, but have helped garner them some positive media coverage and made them stronger for it

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not exactly a blind optimist, and it’s not the first time I’ve noticed that newspapers are full of stories every day (wow!).  But there was something about that particular issue that just seemed bursting with hope and –  on that singular Tuesday –  I appreciated and was grateful for it.

Stephanie Fierman’s Peers Are Whining – And It’s Not Attractive
Sunday July 26th 2009, 11:01 pm
Filed under: ad agency,advertising,cmo,stephanie fierman,US economy,Wall Street Journal

Pity the downtrodden marketing services community.  That bad economy-thingy appears to have smacked it right in the face.  No surprise.

And since price pressure should be no surprise, either, I’ve been startled by the snarly response emanating from the ad industry.  I’ve already forgotten a few instances I noticed recently, but the WSJ late last week offered an ok example.  In an article titled “Thrift Darkens [Ad] Industry’s Hopes,” Maurice Levy of Publicis sniffed, “The reality is that clients want more for less.  It’s something that is unfortunately becoming quite common.”

Is that right?  Really? Clients want more of the same quality work that you’ve been giving them all along for a lower price?  For some, this may be the case.  Then again, many of the large agencies in my experience became too big, spoiled and overpaid through the years.  Too many clients have been pithed by the senior staff, and left with inexperienced AEs.  You were supposed to fork over 15% just – I dunno, because.  Because advertising is magic.  Or whatever. 

Times used to be great, no question.  I’ve enjoyed some wonderful agency relationships and learned a lot of my craft from my partners in those shops and others.  We all have.  How many AdAge headlines have screamed about client cutbacks and layoffs in the last year?  More with less? I’d say there’s plenty of pain to go around.

AdAge really lit this match for me whenb I first read an editor’s reaction to a set of business decisions recently made by P&G: business decisions that – for a reason that cannot be justified -touched off a cascade of immature, naive and nasty remarks from this person’s bully pulpit.

According to this editorial, P&G’s decision puts the “still-moist notion that it’s possible to do interesting things for huge, unglamorous marketers” out of its misery.” That’s just embarrassing.  And my personal favorite – that the changes give “the best talent yet another reason to leave the industry… buh-bye, innovators and creative geniuses” – is pathetic.  Wow: talk about turning on someone when times get difficult.  What does this solve?

The editorial concludes by toasting P&G for killing one of the “final drops of joy” (*gag*) left in the industry, and for making the business – and I quote – a “little bit shittier just because it can.”  I’m actually still appalled just typing these words weeks later.  This isn’t about freedom of the press: if the writer has her own blog, she should knock herself out.  But AdAge is a publication read by professionals and aspiring professionals on all sides of the business.  Such bitter statements are grossly unproductive and, frankly, more than a little silly.

I wonder if AdAge believes that this kind of vitriol will help the industry attract the “creative geniuses” whose absence it so mourns.  I doubt it will.

The fact is that agencies and vendors work at the pleasure of clients and – in AdAge‘s case – report on them.  I also believe it’s safe to say that both agency executives and marketing journalists fancy themselves articulate thought leaders… and they should be.  Clients would like them to be.  Throwing oneself on the ground and having an unattractive hissy fit helps no one and only makes a difficult time harder and needless (or at least more) contentious.

Grow up, people.

Stephanie Fierman Says Her The Boss Is Best Ever! (On Twitter)
Thursday May 14th 2009, 10:07 pm
Filed under: blogs,facebook,Internet,stephanie fierman,Twitter,Wall Street Journal,web 2.0

So yes, this is another post about Twitter.  What can I say?  It’s the fastest growing, probably weirdest social media phenom thus far, and I’ve been sucked in.

One of today’s interesting tweety tidbits is a quite lengthy email that Rupert Murdoch – sorry, I meant the Deputy Managing Editor at The Wall Street Journal – recently sent to employees outlining “do’s” and “don’ts” for employees on Twitter or otherwise engaged on the “social Web.”

It’s sort of a doozy.

Don’t “friend” confidential sources, don’t criticize colleagues, and my favorite (verbatim): “Don’t engage in any impolite dialogue with those who may challenge your work — no matter how rude or provocative they may seem.”

Employees may cite (but not push) their own reporting and – well, that seems to be pretty much all they can do.  And even that rule, as you can see, comes with a murky qualification.

Some of the restrictions make perfect sense, such as not detailing how an article was edited.  Others are ripe for wrongful discharge lawsuits, such as the “don’t” that says you mustn’t recruit family or friends to promote your work.

In most instances, this particular restriction would be nearly impossible to dissect and prove.  If I retweet comments from a former colleague who then talks up my work, did I solicit that positive feedback?  And, I’m sorry:  if my mom claims that I’m just the cleverest person ever ever ever, there’s nothing I can do about it.oracle-twitter.jpg

So I was thinking that the whole thing seemed very 1984… until I spotted a blog post detailing real tweets that some knuckleheads have posted on Twitter.  A sample (with all grammar errors intact):
– “I just got to work (Oracle) and I am doing as little as possible”
– “Huh, with my boss on twitter, maaaybe I should take down that sexy picture of her… but her reaction will be priceless!”
– “hate my job!! i want to tell my bosses how dumb they are and how meaningless this job is, then quit, and be happy!”
– “Workin… This job sucks worse then [sic] the economy!”

The title of this blog post? “TwitterFired: The Top Ten Tweets to Get You Fired.”

Huh.  Maybe The Wall Street Journal Twitter police knows what it’s doing.

Stephanie Fierman Sees More Of The Same. Again.

It is a good thing that bank and investment advertising no longer touts high-higher-highest (!) returns, Morningstar stars, 40-something couples retiring to their house(s) in paradise, and the like.   Outside of just a few stalwarts, such as Vanguard with its measured point of view and Bogle-esque approach, many of the siren calls in the newspaper, on television and online had all begun to (or already did) sound and look the same.  That’s not effective.

Now we appear to have swung all the way to the other extreme.  Take a look at a list of advertisers, all crammed into today’s Wall Street Journal, along with text pulled verbatim from their ads:

MORGAN STANLEY:  “To find the smart investments today, you need to be world wise.”

MERRILL LYNCH (aka Bank of America):  “Seeing clearly.  Acting confidently.”   “With personal insight into your goals and an understanding of the market…” “…Find a smart place for your money.”

CME GROUP: “Rise Above the Risk.” “For more than a century CME Group has provided competitive, transparent and safe markets.” “…protect customers and ensure financial integrity by guaranteeing the performance of every transaction on our exchange.”

TD AMERITRADE: “There’s never been a better time for a second opinion.”

FIDELITY: “Guaranteed income you can live with.”

GLENMEDE: “There’s no substitute for safety and stability.”

PNC:  “…It’s also a way of doing business that has strength and stability at its very core.”

Safe, smart, transparent and guaranteed: these are the adjectives financial firms are now scrambling to use, as they adjust to our new reality  The problem is – well, it’s the same problem as before – if you sound like everyone else, the messages essentially melt into one and stakeholders become unable to distinguish one from the other.  If I held a focus group tonight, and scrambled the names of the above firms and the quoted text, I would challenge anyone to re-match the elements correctly.

I’ll also say this:  killing your ads’ effectiveness may, in fact, be the most benign result.  Worse?  Just as when every firm claimed great returns – which turned out to be untrue and, in some cases, unscrupulous – everyone claiming safety now looks equally unlikely and untrustworthy.

All of these brands are more and are capable of doing more: the “more” being the hard work needed to determine exactly what it is about the brand that is unique and distinguishable from the competition.*

Without doing this work, going out with a “safety” message isn’t safe at all.

* I am aware that many of the above firms are in different businesses and are not competitors per se.  It does not matter, because it does not matter to the public. For individual investors (and Congress…), too much of the same becomes one, amorphous perception.

Stephanie Fierman Presents: The Tone Deaf Ad Of The Week
Friday January 23rd 2009, 10:23 am
Filed under: ad agency,advertising,branding,financial services,US economy,Wall Street Journal

Now don’t get too excited – I hope that this is the first in a weekly series presenting tone deaf ads, but we’ll have to see. Companies are scrambling so crazily trying to figure out what to say in this economy that I think the odds are in my favor, but the proof will be in the… tone deaf ads.

Let’s knock it out of the park this first week, at least, OK?

May I present to you… Bessemer Trust. Henry Phipps founded Bessemer over 100 years ago to manage his family’s proceeds from the sale of Carnegie Steel. Today, the firm’s website states that Bessemer manages in excess of $50B in assets for over 1,900 families, and that its “history of serving wealthy families affords us an understanding of the issues that matter to you.” 

Really? Let’s review some of the issues that are, in fact, on everyone’s minds these days with regard to the financial markets:  Economic meltdown.  Uncertainty.  Greed.  Irresponsibility.  Misrepresentation.  Anxiety.  This means that any financial firm today has a choice to make:  either don’t advertise – which is a perfectly acceptable option for now – or advertise a message that is very, very carefully crafted to take these concerns into account. 

So I was shocked when I saw Bessemer’s ad in The Wall Street Journal yesterday:  a half-page ad with huge type, saying “We invest your money right along with ours.  Needless to say, you benefit from some very careful thinking.”


My reaction: “They’re joking.  Bessemer is an honorable and discreet company.  Why would they get down in the mud  with a bunch of other companies that followed this same practice and scr**ed over their investors?”  Investing your own funds is no guarantee of anything – it’s not a guarantee of wealth, intelligence, integrity or the “alignment of interest” explained in Bessemer’s ad.  Lots of categories currently in the hotseat invest their own funds:  venture capital firms, investment banks, mortgage companies…  Enron invested its own funds alongside clients, for goodness sake!

To make matters worse, the small type does actually call out some positive characteristics and benefits of being a Bessemer client “as the credit crisis loomed.”  Unfortunately, I can guarantee that no one who saw this ad ever read the small type.

Does the firm have an executive tuned in to the American zeitgeist today?  If not, they need one; if so, that person needs to get his hearing checked.  This is truly a frustrating example of a company deliberately and needlessly putting itself in harm’s way.

Stephanie Fierman Wonders About Santa’s Credit
Thursday November 20th 2008, 9:39 am
Filed under: branding,financial services,Internet,Wall Street Journal

So… what do we tell kids this year about Santa?  Is there a lesson to be taught here about financial responsibility?  Some parents and cooperative mall Santas think so. santa.jpg

I think that not overpromising a kid is a good idea and there are various articles and blogs that give parents ideas of how to manage kids’ expectations.  But telling your kids that, while Santa makes and brings the toys, he sends the bills to mom and dadWow, that’s harsh!

Then again, Santa himself is looking for a second job this year, so all bets are off.

Stephanie Fierman On Resisting The Obviously Obnoxious
Tuesday August 12th 2008, 2:26 pm
Filed under: branding,retail,Wall Street Journal

In July, Crain’s New York published a letter written by Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, part of the United Food and Commercial Workers.stephanie-fierman-walmart-wages.jpg

Representing 100,000 union members in the US and Canada, Appelbaum holds the view that Wal-Mart would be bad for New York because of the company’s history of low wages, problematic benefits and its past tendency to, shall we say, sidestep US labor laws.  The UFCW has been trying to unionize Wal-Mart for years, a topic made all the more topical by a Page One Wall Street Journal story on August 1, “Wal-Mart Warns of Democratic Win,” which describes mandatory meetings held with store managers and senior staff during which Wal-Mart HR predicts the apocalypse if Obama wins. 

At the end of June, the NLRB ruled that Wal-Mart had broken the law when it fired an employee who supported the UFCW and threatened to withhold pay increases for those employees who vote for a union.

So I certainly wasn’t surprised to see a rebuttal of sorts in the paper’s Letters to the Editor section last week – I was, however, surprised to see that the response was written by… Wal-Mart!  More specifically, the blurb was written by a lobbyist for Wal-Mart.

Whatever you think of Wal-Mart – even if you support Wal-Mart coming to New York – I thought this was sort of amusing.  Sort of like asking me to read a letter the big bad wolf wrote to the three little pigs assuring them that everything would be ok, or a quick note penned by the old woman to Hansel and Gretel.  Of course Wal-Mart is going to feel differently. Wouldn’t there be something wrong with them if they didn’t?

So why would a reputable paper bother?  And even if there’s an answer to that (and I freely admit that there might be), why would Wal-Mart bother?  For me as a consumer and businessperson, such a completely unnecessary action smacks of smarminess and a shove-it-down-your-throat, can’t-let-it-go attitude.  Pay attention to your CEO, H. Lee Scott.  He was right.  And even if you’re still working on good ol’ New York – be a little smarter about it, huh?

Stephanie Fierman Cheers The Smart Chicks
Monday July 21st 2008, 7:10 pm
Filed under: Wall Street Journal,women

Does an article in this Saturday’s Wall Street Journal mean that we can stop thinking about Barbie vs. Bratz and starting pitching products to young girls because we think they’re smart?  That would be nice!

The article, “The Secret to Marrying a Billionaire: Brains,” says that, although the media heralds beauty as the key to man-snagging, it appears that many contemporary billionaires believe that finding a smart partner is more important.  Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Michael Dell are all held as examples of men who “married smart.”

Unfortunately, the WSJ article also links to Forbes’ “Billionaire Wives List,” which includes a feature that allows you to check out the chicks “In Pictures.”

When was the last time you saw one of these lists offer a photo gallery of Steve Schwarzman, Carl Icahn and Vikram Pandit (hey, sexy!)?  I thought not.

Oh well, I’ll be happy for the article and leave it at that today.