Wednesday, April 13, 2011

True stories of a real Mad Man: How I put my foot in my mouth BIGTIME.

True stories of a real Mad Man: How I put my foot in my mouth BIGTIME. ©Joel Baumwoll

Did you ever have the experience of unknowingly doing or saying something insulting or inappropriate and finding out afterwards that you had committed a gaffe so big it wouldn't fit in the trunk of a Cadillac?

Well, friends, it's a terrible feeling.  Mainly because it's a done deed. The moving finger, as the saying goes, has writ, and neither piety or wit can erase one line....

One of the most pungent gaffes in my career occurred shortly after I arrived at J. Walter Thompson to run the Research and Planning Department.

Kodak was one of Thompson's biggest and bluest chip clients. Kodak commercials were famous for making people moist eyed and bringing lumps to throats all over the country.  Our advertising was Norman Rockwell in 35mm film, and we were proud of it.

George Eversman, the top account man on Kodak, befriended me early in the game.  I liked George.  He was a salt of the earth type; a pipe smoking ex-Marine fighter pilot with movie star good looks, graying temples and an earnest manner.  "Darn" was the strongest thing I ever heard him say.  George was impressed with my ability to make presentations about complex business issues interesting enough to keep an audience from falling asleep.  He invited me to make a presentation to Kodak top management in Rochester.

This was a great opportunity to score some points with this big and powerful client, as well as with George.  The thought that a good performance would not go unmentioned to my boss did not escape me either.

At that time (1973) Kodak was in serious trouble with the FTC.  Like our modern day corporate giant, Microsoft, Kodak dominated its category, the photography market, to the tune of 98%.  Film, paper, developing, amateur cameras all bore the familiar "K" in the yellow box. 

The FTC had their sights set on getting Kodak for some violation of antitrust law.  It was a big fish and some anti-trust lawyer was hot to land it.  One of the most sensitive areas had to do with predatory marketing or business practices designed to keep a competitor from gaining a foothold.  For example, selling film and cameras as a system was a no-no. That would keep other camera makers from making a sale, which would constitute abuse of their market dominance to restrain competition unfairly.

Years of being under the FTC microscope had produced a kind of Orwellian doublespeak in the halls of Kodak.  No one talked of "competition" or of gaining "share of market," rather they spoke of meeting people's needs and offering improved products.  An acronym called SPICE was used as a kind of mantra to keep people from straying into dangerous territory in their memos and documents.  A close as I can remember, SPICE stood for something like Stockholders, Public, Investors, Customers and Employees.  These were the folks that Kodak toiled to keep happy.

Unfortunately I hadn't been told any of this before I marched up in front of Kodak's top brass with an easel full of charts.

With the precision of Von Clauzwitz planning a battle, I had prepared a treatise designed to conquer the world.  Hoping to impress Kodak with the depth of my thinking and insight into their business, I launched into a presentation that talked about competition, share of market, gaining business from competitors, and more. 

As I began, I noticed one man stand and quietly leave the room.  A few minutes later, several more followed.  Taken aback, I plowed gamely ahead, until the polite exits looked like a full-scale evacuation.  

I a few minutes, I had an audience of one--George.

I was dumbfounded!  Had there been some secret signal for a bomb scare or a fire drill that I was unaware of?  I looked beseechingly at George, who sat in front with a pained expression on his handsome face.  

He looked ashen.

Something was seriously wrong.  Hoping against hope that it was a batch of bad scallops from the company cafeteria, I asked George "What's going on?”

"I goofed," he said graciously.  "I should have told you about SPICE and the FTC.  

SPICE?  What the hell is SPICE?  It is a code word for staying clean with the anti-trust division of the FTC.  Oh boy...had I stepped on a land mine.  It was like giving a speech in favor of socialized medicine at an AMA convention!  Oy.

Kodak's executives are not supposed to participate in meetings to discuss competition or share of market.  They don't even use the term "share of market" or the word "competition."  They don't want to be vulnerable to some deposition or subpoena.

As far as we're concerned this meeting never happened."

So much for my gala debut as a marketing star with the Kodak account.

I learned to do my homework more carefully before any other meetings with clients.

We decided it would be best for my partner Sonia to take the lead with Kodak.

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