Call It Something Else

A floundering campaign leads to a conference-room showdown between the account managers and public relations.


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I first got wind there was going to be trouble, one of those conference room assassinations, from Kelsey Rowe, another account exec, my opposite number on Anastasia’s team. The essence was that one of Ana’s campaigns for IPP wasn’t going well, and she was looking for a person or persons to blame. She had my boss in her sights. Kelsey didn’t put it like that, of course. What she said was, “Hey, I just want to give you a heads up that when we review the Pledge campaign results on Thursday, there’s going to be some critical questions about the media pitching. There’s a perception that the results are a little lackluster. You and Chad should come prepared to talk about your process and any challenges you’ve had.”

“Perception by whom?” I asked. “Who shares this perception?”

“You’ll have to read the room,” Kelsey said. “Ana’s not thrilled, for one.”

The question was key, since the idea that any given PR campaign was a success or a failure was, in my mind, entirely how someone looked at it. Especially someone that paid for it. Thursday’s meeting was an internal review, and it was clear from Kelsey’s heads-up that Ollmann & Partners anticipated disappointment. I wasn’t surprised, since I worked on the campaign and was seeing the results, too. There’s a popular saying in our biz that “you can’t polish a turd,” but that certainly seemed to be what we were doing.

I’ve always found it humorous the way we think we’re palpably changing things by rebranding them. Like how IPP was originally called International Paper Products in the 1920s when a Massachusetts logging firm acquired a handful of smaller CPG companies, but then renamed itself Integrated Personal Products in 1994 as it acquired hygiene brands and yet still was the butt of jokes for having a name that could be pronounced “I pee pee.” It didn’t help that IPP made reinforced undergarments as well as business envelopes. I later worked at Hyland, Greenwich, and Kluth when they renamed themselves Symphony in a misguided attempt to seem more digital and hip. Some malicious copywriter nicknamed the “new” agency Cacophony and it stuck, to the point where the managing director would fly into small rages if he heard it.

Ollmann & Partners almost did that to themselves. It wanted to rebrand as OAP until someone realized this would make our London office sound ridiculous; OAP is British slang for old age pensioner. This was the kind of thing that was probably on everyone’s mind when we were given the task of coming up with a campaign for I-pee-pee’s dinner napkin products, which included the brand names Quality Quilt and Quality Quilt Plus. Surely, the whole trick was simply to “rebrand” the act of purchasing a disposable, forgettable, insignificant product like napkins. Call it something else.

They gave the job to Anastasia Derrico, who had a face like a new day, unblemished and changeable, or perhaps that quality was projected onto her by everyone that knew her circumstances in the agency. See, she was Chad Bradshaw’s AE on the media relations team before I was, but she had formed a relationship with Elaine Imes, who saw in Ana promising talent and promoted her to account sup, promoted her too high and too soon in the opinion of some. Was I one of them? Honestly, the jury was still out. On the one hand, anybody who makes a leap like that is suspect, especially if they are part of an old girls’ or boys’ clique. On the other hand, Ana had some good ideas, and some behaviors that I had to admit I admired. PR has always been treated like advertising’s kid sister, only present because our parents insisted she be included. The differences in our budgets and scopes of work reflected this. Ana had the good sense to recognize that when advertising with its deeper pockets came to the table, it did so with an impressive cross-disciplinary team of specialists, including egghead brand planners and strategists and researchers who could demonstrate, with bar charts and trend lines and eyebrow-raising sound bites from focus groups — excuse me, ethnographies — why their 30-second spot and accompanying web banners were the solution to everyone’s problems. PR came across as flacks by comparison, offering the same tired tactics without any of the genius context: press release, wire service, spokesperson, tastemaker event, satellite media tour. Ana didn’t invent the idea that we should likewise talk about our work like expensive consultants — neither did Elaine, for that matter — but she played the role well. She was short and pretty, and she dressed snappily but seriously. She had a way of pulling her hair back and settling her glasses on her nose that made her seem like a poised eagle. She would take these pauses when speaking, and they often drew space to her words, especially in an airless conference room where everyone was in a hurry to be heard.

It must have been a little bit painful for Chad to watch Ana gradually move out of his orbit and into Elaine’s. The coffees, the lunches, the hallway recognitions and sly, woman-to-woman telepathy. This fresh voice, this wise, precious presence, had originally been his protégé, his right hand on the “storytelling” team. What must have made it gnaw was not necessarily losing a disciple, someone who might have shared Chad’s vision of what PR was supposed to be, a vision that ran perpendicular to that of Elaine and the other VPs, but because Ana had created the opportunity to move up independently of her old boss, behind his back, so to speak, as a result of her rapport with the person who poached her. “I’ve been offered a chance to join Elaine’s team and I’m taking it.” No discussion, no negotiation, no asking for advice or blessing. As far as I know, Chad never reproached Ana for this minor but palpable act of betrayal. After all, if she wanted to do something else within Ollmann, he would never stand in her way, would indeed have helped her if he could. But to have Ana leave him the way she did, to circumvent the person who was supposed to impact her trajectory and not just join another team but embrace an opposite philosophy, must have sliced.

When I replaced Ana, called up from a bench of AAEs ready for my first role in the bigger leagues, I sensed Chad was not as eager to pour his ideas into me as he had been with her, maybe because the fruitless experience was too recent, he was too spent, or I didn’t show the same promise or receptiveness. But I liked the work, to organize, to anticipate. He needed that. I respected his ideas and we began to gel. Chad at that time was a pudgy man in his late 30s with a good head of hair the color of straw that has been left in the rain. As will be evidenced, he revered old ways and old things. He wanted to be the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit of another era, but instead translated this impulse into untucked bowling shirts, milkman jackets, baggy slacks, and battered black brogues. Outside the office he was a suburban married father of two elementary school kids, an almost prototypical Gen X-er who held onto his personal passions and interests but parlayed them into or reconciled them with a day job he distrusted or wanted to remake or reinterpret. He had wanted to be a writer, a journalist-musician, and he still played guitar and dabbled in bands with other dads, many of them marcomm men like himself. He always seemed harried, distracted, or like he had put something on hold, even as he was professional and interested in what he did at work.

Chad thought PR was a unique tool in the arsenal of marketing communications and that it could do something no other branch could: earn media. Anything else was pretending — and there was plenty of pretending going on. PR people called themselves “storytellers,” enunciating it in a lofty voice, but what Chad meant and what people like Elaine meant were two different things. For one thing, people like Elaine didn’t like to be too specific about what a “storyteller” was. It was a trend spotter. A social intuiter. It was a message crafter. A brand articulator. It developed guidelines. It taught others how to speak and act. It set tones. Provoked atmospheres. It didn’t execute campaigns so much as it created moments. It got noticed. It wasn’t concerned with saying anything as much as it was with being louder than words.

Chad felt this was bullshit. And said so. And earned enemies. He felt a storyteller — the merging of his personal and professional selves — was someone who recognized what was interesting about a brand or product, brought it to life with a pitch and a hook, and communicated it clearly so that others could reveal or amplify it in their own way. There was nothing ambiguous about what PR did. They wrote press releases and pitched stories. They maintained a rolodex and worked the phones. They trained their clients in how to talk in front of a camera or on an earnings call, and they responded swiftly in times of crisis. They published newsletters and white papers, corporate blogs, annual reports; they ran trade show booths. That was it. “Say plainly what you do” was his anthem.

Sitting in his cube — he didn’t rate an office — with his boots on the desk, behind his head a Replacements poster pinned to the wall next to pictures drawn in colored pencil by his kids, Chad would grumble and scowl as we both leafed through the latest brief, a pretty deck produced by someone like Elaine or, increasingly, Anastasia. “‘Consumers don’t look at prices,’” he would scoff, “‘they sense value.’ Tell me another one.” “‘Our target market wants experiences, not products.’ If I hear that one more time, I’ll vomit.” “‘Every Millennial considers themselves an influencer — and wants brands to treat them that way.’ God!”

It was in these circumstances that I-pee-pee’s latest campaign and our subsequent media relations effort was created. The Quality Quilt Pledge was predicated on the idea that every consumer was to some degree a sophisticated foodie, and when they entertained at home, with such “inspo” as Saveur and Food52 and Pinterest and Instagram at hand, they were, or wanted to be, hosts of the caliber of any restaurateur or television or social media cooking personality. Pretty plausible so far. But where it swerved for Chad and me was the assertion that, given the capabilities of every party planner, no detail would or should be overlooked, from the eccentric dinner music playlist to the thrifted vintage digestif glassware, and this necessarily included one’s choice of dinner napkins. There was even a little manifesto that culminated in the promise: “So I will take the Quality Quilt Pledge, to carefully curate every detail of the occasion’s mis-en-scene, and I will choose Quality Quilt napkins for my table-mates. Because every detail matters.”

Gosh, I love a good manifesto, the same way I love watching a child have a tantrum in a store. It was unclear whether any part of this was supposed to be repeated verbatim by our brand ambassadors or by consumers themselves. Really, it was the reaction we wanted in the marketplace, and the manifesto was to be internalized as a kind of mantra to everyone who worked on the campaign. If our clients that bought this work articulated it to their bosses, I would have loved to have seen it.

This was in summer so we could launch the campaign in fall, capitalizing on the holiday entertaining season and getting ahead of the year-end food trend predictions. Nordic moss was supposed to be big again that year. Anastasia took over one wall of Elaine’s office, turning it into a campaign “war room” and covering it in 11×17 printouts from various decks, post-it notes, and diagrams. A spokesperson was chosen for the kickoff event — a strolling vegan charcuterie and juice bar brunch in Manhattan — and several pop-up events in DMAs across the country, all of which would capture video content for use in social. The spokeswoman chosen was a relatively obscure “up and coming” social media foodie fashionista because it was all we could afford, and Ana’s research showed it was important to use a young woman to resonate with our target audience, which was not, she insisted, the older suburban women that usually bought Quality Quilt napkins, but the new generation of Millennial tastemakers with which we “needed to build brand connectivity.” That wasn’t a new idea, either, Chad pointed out. Us and the ad guys loved to presume the current buyers of our clients’ products were dying off, but it was more likely the industry just worshipped youth.

Chad’s team went to work. Anastasia extensively rewrote his press release, which irritated him, and it went out on the wire uselessly. Getting media to the kickoff event was a heavy lift. Favors were called in — someone even paid for a blogger and her friends’ cab fare. Getting participants to the events in the other markets and the SMT were even more difficult. The spokeswoman was good, if a bit too unknown, a charming, knowledgeable, and unoriginal woman who created written and video content about her adventures in eating, shopping, and make-up called “Jessica Jane Explores.” She was pretty engaging in front of a camera, although clearly a little uncomfortable being live and unable to edit. Her appearances, though, revealed the cracks in our strategy.

Everyone was comfortable talking about food, entertaining, and eating, and the banter flowed easily; our pre-holiday timing turned out to be right. But when it came time to reinforce the idea that this whole act was to demonstrate the necessity of choosing the right brand of napkin, an awkward bubble expanded and popped. Picture it, Jessica Jane in a smart dress standing behind a counter littered with cutting boards, fruits, and spices opens easily with, “Well we’re here today because Quality Quilt believes that when it comes to gathering, you know, every detail is important.” Then the closer: “The last thing you think about is how you’re going to make sure your guests can clean themselves up as they eat. So you really want to think about what kind of napkins you’re laying out.” They knew it was coming, but you could see the local broadcast personalities strain at this juncture, wondering what characteristics of disposable paper to discuss. On a Minneapolis morning show, the anchor even remarked, “Oh, so like cloth napkins!” Chad and I giggled when we saw that — the anchor was right on with the trends that Ana tracked; her own decks pointed out a Millennial preference for recyclable products. By this time in the conversation poor Jessica Jane Explores was learning just how hard being an influencer can be. “So we’re asking people to take the Quality Quilt Pledge,” she’d say, beaming, an astounding feat of emotional labor, “and you can learn more at QualityQuilt-dot-com-forward-slash-Take-the-Pledge.”

Getting this material on TV, radio, and in the then-expanding circle of podcasts was difficult; getting journalists and bloggers to write about it with any enthusiasm was harder. Chad’s team called in more favors, used every trick, leveraged every blogger, counted every tweet and dubious pick up of the press release, running up the score of eyeballs like some mad game of pinball. As the campaign continued and Jessica Jane Explores repeated her performance in local news markets from Boston to Atlanta; as the lukewarm news stories and blog entries trickled in; as few clicks to accumulated and even fewer of those visits resulted in anyone actually taking the pledge, much less sharing it to Facebook; as the campaign rolled forward on its wobbly rails; the leaders of the IPP account, Elaine and Roger, and the leadership of Ollmann & Partners, Ignacio and Lewis, barely concealed misgivings that crept into everyone who worked on it. In between status reports it became apparent we were, in the old parlance, polishing a turd, and everyone knew it, or suspected it, and what we were going to do about it was unclear.

The answer turned out to be: probably nothing. We were going to pull together, look our clients in the eye, and with a straight face claim the Pledge campaign was a solid edifice, plastering over any cracks where daylight showed through. It helped to look at it from the perspective of the various people to whom this mattered. To Ignacio and Lewis, Quality Quilt was one of several IPP brands we had, and as long as the overall health of the account was good, OAP could get past a few duds. From Elaine’s perspective, or that of her EVP Roger, they were already in talks with the brand team about next year’s budget and scope of work. The Pledge campaign cast a thin shadow over these documents, but it would not derail them any more than other factors that typically pulverized a statement-of-work. Besides, they “over-serviced” this client — we always “over-serviced” our clients — and so they owed us a little grace. Elaine could also further distance herself from Pledge, which was after all a project for Ana to cut her teeth on. If it was brilliant in its inception but lacking in execution, that was chalked up to Ana’s inexperience and even reflected well on Elaine, because it showed she gave the people she mentored room to fail a little, to grow.

Who was left to care, then? Who was going to bleed? I was younger and the situation seemed much more serious to me then. Plus, I had to admit I was taking Ana’s defection a little personally, saw in this a chance to vindicate Chad. When I, warned by Kelsey Rowe, alerted him to the possibility that Ana was going to come after him in the review, I said I’d start pulling a few slides together with some of the challenges we’d faced in placing stories for Pledge. “You know what,” he said, with that distracted expression he always wore, “I think we’ll be okay. A lot of these verbatims can speak for themselves but I’ll have some things in my back pocket that can maybe help us.” That didn’t sound urgent enough to me, but I followed my boss’s lead, and the stage was set for the showdown.

It was to be only one of several narratives in a crowded gray room. Everyone sat around a long glass table looking up at a projector screen, where Ana’s deck was displayed, reading, “The Quality Quilt Pledge Campaign: Recap, Results and Next Steps, Fall, 2013.” Those that couldn’t get seats at the table occupied additional chairs against the wall; I was one of these, as was Kelsey. It gave us a view of an arena that included Ana and Emily, Roger, Chad off to one side, Terry from digital, Alyssa the project manager, producer Ben, designer Troy, and on and on; even more people were dialed in on the conference room phone. “We’ve got a lot to cover,” Elaine announced, “and I know some of us have a hard stop, so let’s get started.”

This is what our polished turd looked like, Ana in her calm, measured voice describing it: “So, we open with the objectives slide. Position Quality Quilt as the preferred choice of culinary paper products for our target audience. We spell out here the insight that Quality Quilt has, in fact, multiple audiences, introducing our own ideas on segmentation.” Next slide. “Then we transition to headwinds-tailwinds and articulate the trends and insights that lead to the Big Idea.” Next slide. “Here’s the Big Idea: that every element of a gathering matters, right down to the napkin. In the sidebar here we’ve got the manifesto …”

A few slides later, as we were getting into the unforgiving mathematics of the earned media results, the pubs that reported “Quality Quilt has a new campaign” with the same tone they’d use to report it had rained last weekend, Roger opened hostilities between Elaine/Ana and Chad. “Can we pause here for a second?” Roger gestured with a finger. “So, putting on my client hat, these numbers seem a little weak. What’s our answer to that?”

Tony from digital stumbled in with some long-winded explanation of why the website metrics were faltering, half blaming an invisible algorithm and half Kate from social media, but as he was winding down Elaine lobbed her first dart in Chad’s direction. “Frankly, the media placements on this are underwhelming. Chad probably has some insights into how crowded the editorial calendars are this time of year for the media his team is pitching, but I am a little concerned that maybe we missed something or didn’t push hard enough in our call-downs.”

Ana, behind Elaine’s elbow, remained, in her big glasses, poised over her notebook, immobile and raptor-like.

Chad patiently responded. “Yeah, it’s reasonable to say that our media contacts have a crowded calendar right now. There’s a lot going on, shrinking newsroom, all that, and it’s becoming harder to break through. You might even put on a slide somewhere, Ana, that we’ve noticed a lot of the people we’re pitching have a Pinterest-like mentality where they are easily distracted by pretty things, and it’s been harder to get through that clutter. Internally, I’d tell a different story.”

Elaine and Ana started to speak at the same time. “Internally how?” said Elaine, before yielding to Ana.

“Kind of an odd observation, Chad. What could be more Pinterest-worthy than the story we were pitching? If we really captured the insight in the pitch and call-downs, leaned into all the elements we have about atmosphere, and décor, and variety, the attention to details … how was Pledge not a perfect fit for that? Any insight?”

Chad, thick neck, chin-and-a-half, curtain of yellow hair, rested both hands on his chair as he leaned back. “Well, and again this is just us internally, the feedback we’re getting, or what I am noticing, is it’s too hard for a reporter to connect the dots. They get that we are pitching them on the excitement of eating and all of the details that go into it but it’s that final leap to napkins they’re having a hard time making, and even when we get a placement it shows.”

“Maybe we should have created a special pitch team,” Ana suggested. “One more fully dedicated to the story, that better understood the insight.”

“That wouldn’t have made a difference.” A trace of heat. “And besides, we’d be cannibalizing our contacts and creating even more fatigue at these outlets. They can’t be getting three different pitches from us in a day, you know this. We’ve been over this. It’s why O&P has a centralized pitch team across all the brand offices.”

Murmurs and paper scraping on the conference room speakerphone. Kate from social started to pipe up but Elaine spoke over her. “But we’ve had this problem before, Chad, and here we are again. If we’re going to have one pitch team, that team has to be all in on everything the agency is doing. It can’t pick and choose which stories it’s really going to pitch.”

“Nor do we,” Chad said tightly. “But you’re also going to have to listen to us when we’re giving honest feedback on what we’re hearing when we pitch these things. Look.” Here he opened a folder on the table in front of him and began to remove a handful of papers. “I’ve got something here that might put it into perspective for us.”

He handed them to me to pass out, and as I did so I could see they were printouts of his email correspondence with a columnist for one of the better-known food industry trade publications, print and digital. If you started from the bottom, you’d see Chad’s initial email. “Hi, Nick, writing on behalf of Quality Quilt with a story idea for Shelf & Aisle.” Going up from there you could trace the back and forth. “Thanks, Chad, I’ll take a look.” “Appreciate it, Nick. Let me know how I can best follow up and if you’d like to do anything with Jessica Jane Explores or someone from the brand.” Then, reaching the top of the page, was in full the columnist’s ultimate reply and what Chad wanted the room to consider.

“Dear Chad,” it began.

We’ve decided to mention this item in our Around the Table news round-up section. Should be out this Friday in digital and Monday in print. But we’ve been friends for a long time, and I’ve been a journalist and publisher for a long time, and I wanted to share with you some additional feedback on this pitch, to assist you and, maybe more helpfully, your agency and clients, in coming up with material for publications like ours — or any publication, really.

For years, the PR and ad industry has been asking people like me and, by extension, our readers, to believe things that simply defy what we see with our own eyes. Whether it’s a whopper about a new grocery item that’s supposed to upend consumer expectations to the point that they tap into their kids’ college fund to buy it, or the difference a new CEO is going to make as he passes through the revolving door of a prolific franchise of indistinguishable chicken shacks, your side is always asking us to not only embrace the incredible but pass it on as news. “This is going to change people’s lives,” they say, “this new frozen burrito. It’s organic, and free trade. Please tell the world.”

I don’t mean to single you out, Chad, but to point out an industry problem with which I think you’re well acquainted and which explains clearly, I hope, why we’ve relegated the Quality Quilt Pledge to the Around the Table section. This one just sort of tipped the cart for me a little, sitting as it did on a high pile of other, similar pitches. I even started to write a column making fun of it and, by extension, the whole business of marketing food, but I decided it was too mean-spirited and, like I said, we’ve been friends for a long time.

Anyway sorry to be so candid. I should probably be telling you this over a drink at the next expo, but I truly hope this helps you. Not a lot of writers, editors or publishers would take the time, but I think I can honestly say I’m expressing what a lot of us think.

“Yours truly,” it ended.

There was silence in the room as Chad waited for everyone to read the email, a silence that was extended uncomfortably as everyone reacted to it. Someone on the conference room phone asked, “What are we looking at?” and Chad replied, “I’ll call you after, Kelly.” More reading. Finally, someone muttered, “Rude,” although I think no one knew quite what to say; my jaw was agape and, across the open sky on Ana’s face, a breeze trembled small clouds. Chad finally spoke. “If it wasn’t for this centralized pitch team, and our relationship to this writer, this could have been some very bad press for our client.”

“It’s a minor trade pub,” Elaine groused.

Ignoring her and, speaking as much to Ana as anyone else, Chad continued, “It’s only our relationship to Nick that prevented the column he references from being written. As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s all about relationships.”

“All right,” Roger said. “Let’s move on.” He signaled an end to the skirmish by gesturing for everyone to hand back their copy of the columnist’s email. When they had, he gathered them and gave them to Chad, who slipped them back into the folder and handed the folder to me. “Let’s look at the social content and engagement metrics,” Roger said. Ana advanced to the next slide.

The room moved on. The days moved on and the weeks moved on. Chad’s act of self-defense in the meeting caused a noticeable ripple in the agency. “Damn,” said Kelsey Rowe, admiringly, to me and a table of account execs having drinks that Friday, “your boss brought a knife to a fist fight.”

For a time, Ana’s star was dimmed and Chad’s brightened, and he basked in its glow. “She should have known better,” he pontificated to me and a few others in the media room, shoes on the desk. “If she learned anything at all when she was with us, she should have learned that.”

But in the course of time this effect, while not forgotten, was spent and its potency depleted. We did with the Quality Quilt Pledge exactly what we said we would. Our clients, if they had any misgivings about our work, shared none with us. No one’s career on the account was discernably affected. Anastasia, in fact, after another year, leveraged her experience to move to another agency in a similar but more senior role, with a complicated title for which Elaine complained Ana was not yet qualified. She leapt from Elaine’s fingers, leaving only a few feathers behind.

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