If it's a story about me, then I'll say so up front.

This is a blog about Truth, Justice and the American Way. The stories are true. No names have been changed to protect anyone's identity, including my own. If the story is about me, then I'll say so right up front. If I don't use a name to identify whom the story is about, then it's because it's not relevant. So please do not call me or e-mail me with your kind condolences or unwarranted congratulations about something that you believe is a cleverly disguised bio from my alter ego. These stories, like my photo, are unretouched.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

We're Not Limping - We Just Walk Funny

Long, long ago in a Galaxy far, far away (OK, Chicago in the late 1970’s) my husband, the marketing guru, had a coffee client. McDonald’s was introducing their new coffee standard to the country and this high-end coffee client was the anointed supplier. In the end, Brad (the husband du jour) wrote a heck of a darn strong campaign that spelled out, in plain terms, just exactly what it was that made his client’s coffee so superior to the competition that McDonald’s would be proudly featuring this coffee exclusively. And the client just shit.

“You can’t say that,” was their response.

“Why not? Isn’t it true?” Brad retorted.

“Of course it’s true. But nobody outside the industry understands that this is the way the industry has traditionally processed coffee beans. If we tell the public, our peers in the coffee business will be furious.”

They were dead serious. In the end, they chose to go with a much weaker campaign that sounded more like puffery than truth, because they would rather keep peace in the industry than sell more coffee.

I’ll bet you think that this is an unusual case. Not necessarily. I’m always surprised at clients who will pay good money to shoot themselves in the foot and then pretend that they are not limping.

Back when I was in the film production business, we were casting a spot for a water heater company. (Hey, they can’t all be big, glamorous clients. Some days it’s United Airlines and some days it’s water heaters; the bank just doesn’t care.) Anyway, we looked at a lot of actresses to play the nagging, harpy wife. In the end our client insisted on casting an inexperienced newcomer who, frankly, gave a crappy audition. We were mystified and none too pleased.

On the day of the shoot, the actress was so nervous that it took nearly two hours to get a decent reading of one lousy line. It wasted time and cost us thousands. But the client didn’t care because when she first appeared on set, ready to shoot her scene with her hair in curlers, cold cream all over her face, wardrobed in an unattractive bathrobe and ratty pink slippers, our client stood up and proudly declared in a loud voice that carried across the whole soundstage, “Yes! She looks just like my ex-wife. I hate her!!”

How that helped sell water heaters I will never know, but the client was thrilled and we all limped to the bank.

I used to have a wonderful friend, Susan Gillette, who was President of DDB Needham, a big Chicago advertising agency. One day at lunch, Susan admitted that, “We agency people award a million-dollar-spot to a director based on what he can bring to the party. We then proceed to spend the rest of the project trying to protect our egos and thwart his efforts.” Thank you, Susan. At last, truth in advertising.

I wonder if there are other businesses where clients pay good money to shoot themselves in the foot?

Sure there are: I recently worked for a nonprofit that was sinking deeper and deeper into financial trouble. Part of what I was paid for was the ability to raise money. But the Board of Directors refused to allow me to tell anyone of our problems. “Keep a positive attitude,” insisted the Board. “We have to look like a winner.” If we had been a high-profile player on the New York stock exchange, that attitude might make sense. But when you are a nonprofit that depends on grants and contributions for your sustainability, it’s hard to go to a grantor and say, “We’re just great. Everything’s terrific. Couldn’t be better. And by the way, could you please give us a big sweaty wad of money? Please? Not that we need it or anything……”

Bang bang, they shot me down
Bang bang, I hit the ground
Bang bang, that awful sound
Bang bang, my client shot me down...

(with apologies to Sonny Bono, as I limp slowly into the sunset)


  1. I think this is a truism of the advertising profession. Unfortunately I work for a guy who thinks the client is always right due to the fact they pay the bills. Unfortunately that is just not so – sometimes on both counts. I lay little claim to anything we produce because after the client gets through making his “changes”, I usually don't recognize it. One client, with three degrees from Harvard, kept writing gangly headlines that I would have to condense into clear, quick messages. Which I would do and then he'd change that or come up with another gem for me to polish. Finally we get a campaign started and he wants to change again. I explain the importance of repetition, repetition, repetition, repeatedly. His reply is that we have learned so much more sense we launched the campaign. Well Dumbass, apparently not.

  2. Advertising isn't the only place this exists. I have a friend who worked in sales. She was one of the top producers when she was fired one day, for no reason at all. They were all "at will" employees.

    It turns out that this company has a history of hiring people and when they get to the point that they are doing well, they fire them and take the accounts in house. That way they don't have to pay commissions. Then they hire someone else who works like crazy to get new accounts which they will eventually take in house.

    They thought they were so smart. But then word got around town (it's a big city but a small industry) and now they can't get anybody to come to work for them because everybody knows that it won't last. It's like stealing the person's work product.

    They think this is smart business, but I think it is just shooting themselves in the foot. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

  3. Kay, I love your sense of humour and upfront, down and dirty and Real commentary! Who can't relate to this in any industry, for profit or not for profit, doesn't matter I've experienced it in both arenas. Even more frustrating in the not for profit sector where transparency in funding and grants is paramount. Yes, talk about shooting themselves in the foot!
    Thanks for sharing!

    Mary Wozny
    Collingwood, Ontario, Canada

  4. Kay,
    Thank you for commenting on my blog, Sophisticated Peasant. I decided to pop over to your blog and see what you're writing about.WOW!! what a wild read! I love your honesty and your double edged humor. As a small business owner with only occasional employees, I find your stories and suggestions instructional. Always more to learn, always more people coming up the path to teach it to us. Thanks and keep writing!

    Sharon A. Kane
    Ashland, Mass.

  5. I am working on getting through the list and have found some amazing blogs out there. I am reading you from Hong Kong. I am new to blogging (only been doing it for about a week). You can find me at: http://sellingitinhk.wordpress.com/

    Helena Gurusamy

  6. Kay,

    Another insightful article full of funny stories. You must lead a very interesting life. I know that you like to blog about business topics, but two of my favorites were your stories about being stuck and being hacked. Have you ever considered writing a blog that doesn't have anything to do with business and just focuses on your personal life? I have a feeling that just recounting your day-to-day activities would probably be a hoot.

    Bob Baldwin in Atlanta

  7. Bob--you have no idea the stories Kay could/should write!

    I love that even though I'm not in the biz, I feel I can relate. Thanks for the enjoyable read. I can hear you saying this aloud as I read it! Miss you!

  8. Kay,

    Sorry to use this for this purpose but have been trying to get in touch with you. Your emails aren't going through and bounce back. I have a business proposal for you and we need to connect. If this works you can make a lot of money or get another great story from it! An added bonus is helping save the planet!