Thursday, June 30, 2005

Rumors

You may have read in the NY TIMES or CNET that one of SHIFT's clients, Claria Corporation, is "in talks" with Microsoft.

Before you read any further, please note that I will NOT be dropping any hints about this particular rumor. This post is about how you DEAL with rumors.

  • You could say "No comment." Maybe that is all you are allowed to say. But that either makes ya sound like a crook, or, like an admission that "it's true but we can't comment."
  • You could stop picking up the phone or answering emails. That's actually a little bit preferable, in my mind. I'd rather see "Company representatives were not available for comment at press time" than, "No comment." ... 'Cuz if you were "unavailable" then you were probably busy doing important deals and such, eh?
  • How about the ol' "Embrace & Extend" approach? I like this one the best. Acknowledge that the rumor exists, without coming close to confirming/denying it, and then extend beyond the rumor and use this as an opportunity to tout your value.
For example, "Yes, we heard that rumor, too. It's not our policy to comment on marketplace speculation. However, as you can imagine, a company like ours, with pace-setting technology and a strong customer roster, gets a lot of inquiries from all sorts of potential partners. When and if anything significant happens, we'd be happy to call you directly. May I take your number, so I have it handy at my desk?"

What you've done here is: covered your ass, because you did not add to the speculation... reminded the reporter that your company is hot as a comet... and, made the reporter feel like an important stakeholder!

Monday, June 27, 2005

So Simple...So Necessary...So Brilliant

Kudos to the folks at Idea Grove. They created an online quiz to help clients evaluate their current agency relationships, and, a PDF worksheet that marketers can use to evaluate agencies during the proposal process.

One of the beauties of developing close relationships with clients is the "talking shop" part, where you get to learn why they REALLY picked your firm, how the politics worked, what qualities they looked for, etc. You might also get to help them out when they are hunting for new relationships, i.e., "We need an Asian PR firm, who do you know? Can you help me write the RFP?" A lot of this stuff is covered nicely by the docs found at the Idea Grove site.

Too often, the qualities of agency selection feel nebulous. Too often, the proposal process is a reinvention of the wheel. The brainsurgeons and rocket scientists at Idea Grove have made a nice contribution to the industry. Hats off.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Creating an "Aura of Inevitability"

Through a combination of careful analysis and gut instinct, our team at SHIFT has identified 4 key ingredients to achieving “the aura of inevitability."


You know that aura. It's usually called buzz, but buzz alone will not create a leader, as I'll explain in this post.


Bottom-up revolution

Journalists – and Americans in general – favor underdogs and “people power.”

Examples: the Linux movement... The Internet... Google... Howard Dean had this going for him, too, back when he was a hot political prospect.

A tangent strategy is "the next big thing." Everyone wants to feel like they're discovering something. That's why the media is so often enthralled by "stealth companies" ... especially if the company has the OTHER 3 ingredients listed below.

Credibility

Credibility ensures a respectful hearing. "Credentials" can be based on lots of factors: technology, prestigious financial backing, proven executives, etc.

Tension

Competitive tension works best. Whether in the schoolyard or the evening news: “if it bleeds it leads.” The struggle for power is the sub-text of lasting stories, from David vs. Goliath to Microsoft vs. Netscape (or more recently, Microsoft vs. Open Source in enterprise computing and Microsoft vs. Sony in gaming).

Tension can come from other arenas, however. For example, the push for regulatory compliance (HIPAA, Sarbanes-Oxley); America's lagging leadership in areas such as broadband adoption and science education; etc. - these themes can create the requisite tension for stories about client companies.

Viability

It’s one thing to be credible: the Segway’s founder was credible and the technology was rock-solid…but how many have you seen on the sidewalk?

It’s another thing to be viable: luck, smarts, and public acceptance play a critical role. Why do you think every danged editor wants to talk to your client's customers? If you're so hot, you oughta be able to prove it, eh?

You really do need pretty much all 4 attributes.
For example, let's look at Howard Dean, circa the 2004 Iowa Caucus. Just before the big show, Dean had been the coverboy for all the major news weeklies, portrayed as a potential usurper for the Democratic nomination. He was "it."

Bottom-up revolution? Yup - the disenfranchised, college-youth, far Lefties all loved Dean's combative spirit.

Credibility? Well, Al Gore gave him the thumb's up. He was a governor. That's more credibility than some of the other candidates ever mustered.

Competitive tension? That's a cinch in a presidential election, and Dean amped up the competitive tension, didn't he? Did you often see him without his sleeves rolled up? The guy was a hard-charging gladiator, smash-mouthing the other Dems and Bush in particular.

Viability? Nope, nope, nope! He lost the Iowa Caucus and lost his marbles. He's only proven to be more unsteady in recent months. Extremism is not sustainable and thus is not viable.

Think about your own company or clients. If you can frame their story and strategy within this 4-part framework, in a sustainable and compelling way, you'll be successful.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

OutCast Acquired

Today it was announced that OutCast was acquired by Next Fifteen, the group that owns BitePR and Text 100. Another strong independent succumbs to the PR Oligarchy.

Typically an acquisition like this means that the agency slowly succumbs to the will of the beancounters. More than half the earn-out will be paid out on a performance basis for 5 years. With that much moola riding on things, it will be tough for the principals of OutCast to stay strong, fearless, and fun. Remember when Lois Paul was a force to be reckoned with? How about Alexander Communications? Exactly.

We'll see.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

PR vs. Advertising - a brief primer

Hey! Someone actually sent me a question, per my request below...

"I run a start-up. How do I know whether to advertise or use PR?"


First, the biased answer: "PR is always the right answer."

Now the nuanced answer: "PR is almost always the right answer."

Here's the essence of it, Mr. Start-up: With advertising, you can completely control the message; it takes relatively little of your time (assuming you are not a control freak in the ad design phase); you can place this tightly-controlled message wherever ya want. That's great - but the credibility factor hovers somewhere around "zilch."

Now, despite what you may have heard about the General Public's disdain of traditional media, outlets ranging from PEOPLE to eWEEK still wield enormous influence over purchasing factors. And while many pundits claim that people don't read, that they're barraged by too much info, the reality is that most folks on the Internet are reading something, goshdarnit. ...The difference from Ye Old Worlde is that they can now read whatever they want to read - there are no printing press limits and dang few editorial filters - and, they can react to it in an organic, impactful way.

And this, friend, is the beauty of PR: PR is about credibility, and PR can have an effect on the aura of credibility in virtually any forum, whether a blog or a print magazine. PR can be as crude or as polished as it needs to be, and, since it is usually all accomplished with words and 1:1 contact (which leads to 1:many distribution), it can all happen on-a-dime.

It is true, though, that as in the world of High Finance, there's a risk:reward ratio in PR. With PR, you can have much higher levels of credibility, but at greater risk (you can't control the message, and woe to you if you try too much to do so!), and, at a far greater expense of time (advertising is primarily event-driven. PR is non-stop, 24/7, forever).

By the way, did I mention that PR is a lot cheaper than Advertising? No fancy models or photographers or media placement firms in PR's mix. Since you likely have a limited budget, as a start-up, this is a consideration.

As a start-up, your first goal is credibility. PR can give you that, for a lot less. It's riskier and more time-intensive, but it's the way to go.

Having said all THAT, I am not one of those PR types who hate the Ad guys. Ads are cool. Ads are a great way to bolster an existing and credible corporate brand. "I'd like to buy the world a Coke"? - BK's "Subservient Chicken" campaign? - C'mon, that's great stuff. When you are a name-brand company, Mr. Start-up, you should definitely augment PR with advertising campaigns.

Want more? Here's a great book on this subject. It's called "The Fall of Advertising & The Rise of PR" so yea, it is biased - but in a smart way, and it's a book written by a noted brand expert, Al Ries. You want a book that skews in favor of advertising? Sorry, wrong blog. ;)

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Thanks for your notes

I occassionally get notes from readers (even a newbiz lead here & there), and I just wanted to thank those of you who have written me with words of encouragement, and with your questions. It's great to hear from you and your contact is welcome. If I can't reply right away rest assured I will get to it as soon as I can.

That's not to imply I am getting Brad Pitt levels of mail, but still.

Here's a question for YOU: I'm participating in a panel this week about "PR As A Strategic Weapon"... If you were attending, what would you expect to hear or want to know more about?

Again, thanks for the support...

Friday, June 10, 2005

Happiest Loss, Ever

If the gods are kind, you'll soon hear that SHIFT recently came in 2nd place for one of the largest & most competitive bids of the year. We're thrilled. There were 12 agencies on the original list, and that list narrowed to 5 firms, and in the end, we found ourselves in the #2 spot. The losers. Apparently, we lost by just 1 vote on the decision-making committee. Heartbreaker!

But as the dust settled, through the grime and grit that smudged our faces, you'd see a bunch of loony, manical grins. We ALMOST won a piece of business that no one in the industry expected us to even compete for! Wotta world!

How did we get as far as we did? The same way we've been able to win every other important piece of business: by speaking Truth to Power, and by demonstrating a genuine passion for storytelling.

When interviewing employee candidates, I am fond of asking, "What did you REALLY want to be when you grew up?" Because let's face it, few kids dream of the life of a publicist. It's the kind of job most folks fall into. For many, a job in PR represents the surrender of a more innocent or ambitious dream.

But as I do a little self-examination I am realizing that success in PR depends on passion. Sure, you might have dreamt of being a Great American Novelist (as I did), but if you haven't lost your passion for the tall-tale, then a) kudos to you, and, b) welcome to PR stardom.

Our team at SHIFT lives for The Brainstorm. We already have a pretty flat org structure, but in The Brainstorm, titles and ego are left outside and we engage in a visceral, no-holds-barred, energetic debate about our client or prospect.

"What if XYZ Company was the star of a movie? At what point in the story arc would we find ourselves?"

... "Now let's go big, and put this in Biblical terms! Our client is David, taking on Goliath: but what happens if David's sling breaks and Goliath comes charging at him? - how will the storyline change, and how would it change our advice to the client?"

... "What's the best analogy for what our client is now going through? Are there any parallels from earlier eras in computing?"

It's story-telling by committee, and it's fun as hell. We brought our best ideas to the table for The Big Bid, and by themselves, our ideas and passion almost brought home the trophy.

Then, we spoke Truth to Power. As noted in earlier posts, SHIFT's business model precludes outsized, "anchor" accounts, so we're always free to speak our mind. After all, if your mortgage payment is never in jeopardy, what have you got to lose?

In this particular instance, at least one fella on the decision-making committee thought that our style was "a little too aggressive" for this Big Company's traditional style. Of course, we'd argue that that's exactly what the company needs right now, but, c'est la vie. Point is, li'l ol' SHIFT Communications beat out 10 of the very best agencies on the PLANET to get to #2. I mean, everyone wanted this gig.

Whomever did win it in the end will have an unprecedented opportunity to do something grand with this client. I hope they don't fuck it up, because like I said, I am passionate about this particular storyline and I know that if handled well, it could literally change the face of enterprise computing.

Damn, that'd be a fun tale to tell.

Maybe next time.

Our day is coming.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Hey! Another Award!

SHIFT was just named one of the "Best Places To Work" by the Boston Business Journal. Cool. We like our people and are glad to know that they like us, too. Thanks, all!

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Should You Be A Reference?

You love your PR team.

They are engaged. Strategic. Proactive. Adept and "spot-on" in terms of execution, too. The ink is flowing, in all the right places.

And then it happens.

You get a call from one of your agency's business prospects.


They want to know about YOUR team. What do you do?

For some clients, especially the happiest ones, this situation presents a small quandary. They love their PR team and know, at some level, that the services they enjoy depend on this squad's bandwidth. If the agency crew get busier with additional clients, that must mean less time for them! So while they love their PR team, and want their agency to be successful, these clients also don't want to sacrifice an iota of the service levels.

This is perfectly understandable. Even if you've already been a good reference for your agency (or other service vendor), you've no doubt felt that twinge of "jealousy."

But here's the thing: you should not only agree to be an agency reference, you should proactively offer to do so - especially if you're happy, but even if you're not-so-happy.

Huh??

It makes perfect sense; bear with me. Here's how it works at your PR firm:

Behind the scenes, your dedicated Account Manager is busting their butt to impress you so that you will say something nice about them to their agency VP or principal. That's how careers are cultivated. You should do this as appropriate, just to be nice. If you're nice to your AM, they'll work hard for you.

But if compliments about your AM internally are helpful in their career cultivation, your active referenceability for the Agency is like Miracle-Gro in terms of how it will affect your own account services. Being a reference, now that's a selfish act!

References are golden. No agency wants to lose a reference. When you're asking your account team for ever-higher levels of service, invariably your AM will complain to a higher-up at the agency... and trust me, that VP will then say, "Yeah, I hear you, but they are such a great reference, I'm inclined to give them more than they're paying for..."

See what I mean when I suggest that being a reference is in the client's best interest? Yes, your advocacy might mean your account team gets busier, but, they won't forget that their firm's growing success depends on your kind words. And so, when it's 6pm and they are desperate to go home, your AM will still take the time to make one last call, just one more pitch, on your behalf.

Help your agency grow. Your PR program will only benefit. It's a quid pro quo thang.

Skipping The Analyst Circuit

Sometimes a PR Guy gets tired of the rigamarole. You know this schtick: as part of the new product/company launch, the client is expected to kowtow to the analyst community; to approach with hat in hand, saying, in effect, "Would you please bless my company/product/service, that I may prosper?"

Most of our clients in the tech sector are B2B, enterprise software, etc. In these cases, the schtick is usually warranted. Many IT execs still check in with Gartner, Forrester, et al., before making a big purchase. But more and more of our clients, such as Shimano the huge bicycling components maker, and some wireless start-ups, etc., simply don't need any analyst input whatsoever.

One prospect we've been talking to is targeting the power-sellers on E-Bay. Most of our competitors on this business suggest he run the gamut of analyst firms. That's our usual inclination, but moreso out of habit than well-plotted strategy.

Luckily, this time around we were quick on our feet and cried out, "No! Wait! Stop the insanity! There's not a single E-Bay zealot out there who's waiting for an analysts' Word From On-High. We can safely skip the analyst circuit (and, yes, this means your retainer can be lower)!"

The truth is, even in the enterprise/B2B realm of IT sales, it's been our experience that the client community has less and less faith in the analysts. The analyst tour is now increasingly seen as a chore, rather than an opportunity to derive valuable feedback and approbation.

Maybe it's because there are fewer and fewer reputable analyst groups? Less competition can make folks sloppy and/or lazy and/or arrogant.

Maybe it's because the dominance of one particular analyst group (I won't name names, but, umm, their initials are GG) has led to the spawning of numerous highly-specialized boutique analyst firms? This fragmentation of the market lessens the impact of any one group, and, the tight specialization means that the niche analysts' biases are quickly calcified and well-known. I can't count how many times I've recently heard, "That guy knows the (fill-in the blank) industry but he's a champion/enemy of (fill-in name of industry Goliath) so it would be a waste to visit him..."

My point, as always, is to do what makes sense for the client. Don't automatically assume that to get from Point A to Point Z that you need to check-in with the analysts at Points B, K, P, and R.

Remember my mantra, "Reputation Drives Revenue"? That's just another way of saying "It's about Sales, stoopid."

Work backwards from the client's own sales prospect: who is this person, and what influences their purchase decisions? Do the media representatives who impact these purchasing decisions rely on the analysts? If not, why should we waste our time or the clients' time/money, eh?