On Stupid Rules

Blitz Magazine, June 2008

stupid1The other day, I was sitting on the patio of a Vancouver restaurant and a pair of Mexican tourists sat down across from me. After their drinks arrived, they asked if I minded if they smoked. I said no. I almost said: “Uh, it’s against the law to smoke on a restaurant patio in Vancouver,” but I didn’t. Because it would have sounded unfriendly. And stupid.

It is stupid. In Vancouver, smokers can no longer smoke near the entrances of buildings. So they go into the lanes and walk around on the sidewalks. Since there are no ash trays anywhere, they drop their butts wherever they happen to be. So the streets and sidewalks are heavily-littered with cigarette butts. This mess is the basis for the latest move on the part of the anti-smoking Nazis, who want to ban smoking on beaches.

If they succeed, you will be able to drive an exhaust-spewing vehicle, be morbidly obese, raise diabetic children, live on food from McDonald’s and furnish your home with lead-laced, Chinese-made junk from Wal-Mart, but you won’t be able to sit on a beach and watch the sun go down while enjoying a cigar. While I’m sure that special-interest groups will soon form to lobby against all of the former, the latter remains strange but true.

The West End of Vancouver is home to one of the largest gay communities in North America. It’s a place where people can be proud of their sexuality. In the heart of the West End is the ironically-named Olympic restaurant. Its owner recently refused service to a heterosexual couple. Why? They were kissing. The owner, while refusing to make eye contact with the woman, told the man: “We don’t tolerate that kind of thing in here.”

I recently pulled into a parking lot, just a few blocks from that restaurant, and was in the process of straightening out the car when an officious little man walked up to my window. He informed me that there is a law against idling one’s car and that if I didn’t turn the car off, he’d call the police.

stupidA couple of months ago, I went into a downtown hotel in search of lunch. Only the hotel’s lounge was open (the ‘lounge’ being an empty room separated from the restaurant by a movable screen). I was refused service, because I had a friend’s son with me—a minor. I told Mr. Rules that he could hardly expect the Liquor Control Board to pull the hotel’s license, pointing out that the minor in question was 53 weeks old and firmly teetotal. We got the boot anyway.

Ahhhh Vancouver. One of the most beautiful cities in the world. Where a West Side housewife waged a two-year campaign to bring down the tree house of the little kids next door. Where, while community festivals shut down for lack of funding, millions are spent on ‘traffic-calming devices’ (piles of cement that jut out into the road and cause accidents and vehicle damage). Where there is a sign at Third Beach reading ‘No Ball Playing’.

Tourism Vancouver has a $14 million budget to market its city as a travel destination. It does a terrific job; 9 million people visited the city last year. Marketing materials show dazzling images and speak of all of the things there are to do here. And now millions more will be spent on bringing people here for the 2010 Olympics. I’m thinking, though, that its executives are going to have to lean on the plods at City Hall. Because if you’re spending millions of dollars communicating to the world that your product is the best choice and it turns out that it is not, why bother? If you tell people that Vancouver is the best place for their honeymoon, but public displays of affection are punished, why bother? If you tell people that Vancouver is kid-friendly and families are refused service in hotels, why bother? And who gets to tell South American, Asian and European tourists that they can’t smoke while standing on the street?

The last word goes to a British tourist who was brought here by successful marketing. Last week, the man told a friend: “This is a fabulous city, but I could never live here. You people are just too up-tight.”

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Religion on TV: It Has to be a Choice

Blitz Magazine, May 2002

 tv

I’m watching a murder mystery on 48 Hours. Suddenly, the show is interrupted by a sickly-looking man in a grey suit telling me that I should read the Bible. Then he reads a passage from the Bible, which explains why I’m supposed to read the Bible.

I realize that I’m watching 48 Hours on NowTV, a newly-created Canadian ‘family values’ station. I check the listings and find that 48 Hours is also on the American channel. I switch to the CBS channel; same signal. The grey man is still there, telling viewers to read the Bible.

I change the channel. Get NBC. Dateline. The subject is the latest sex abuse scandal to hit the Catholic Church. I watch a woman state that, for 10 years, she complained to her diocese executives about a priest who, she knew, was abusing boys. When asked why she simply didn’t call the police, she said that the priests told her not to.

I change the channel. I get a re-run of a recent news conference held by the local Anglican archdiocese. The British Columbia government is currently conducting a referendum to allow the public to voice its opinion on how aboriginal land treaties should be settled. The Anglican Church, which has much to answer for as far as treatment of aboriginals is concerned (and knows it), has told its flock to vote ‘no’ on all of the referendum questions.

The maxim that there absolutely must be a clear separation between Church and State is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago, when it was first enshrined in democratic processes. Religions are not supposed to tell us what to do. They are based on philosophy, faith, superstition and folklore. The priests, ministers, pastors etc., are supposed to present the ideals of their religious affiliations to accepting members of their congregations, and use those mores to offer guidance, when it is requested.

Politics, while also ideological, is fact-based. It follows the laws of economics and geography, and the facts of history. It reacts to reality. It creates reality. It provides reasonably workable frameworks within which we co-exist. And the people put in office to make the decisions which form these frameworks are elected by independent, free-thinking individuals.

What politicians and clergy do share is power over society—power that is granted to them by those they serve. It is, therefore, essential that there be reportage on how their actions affect us. The two institutions should be completely open to journalistic scrutiny, but neither institution can be allowed to fill the airways with dogma. I may have been watching some mindless ‘news’ show, which will in no way enhance my intellectual or spiritual life, but that’s my business. I am allowed to watch anything I like, and at no time did I consent to be interrupted by some guy spouting scriptural samplings.

Religion has caused must distress and bloodshed over the centuries. In my lifetime, it’s been Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine, the American Religious Right, Muslim Fanaticism. When religion ceases to offer solace and guidance and begins to dictate the thoughts and actions of its adherents, it can do tremendous damage to society as a whole. Ferocious, irrevocable harm.

I’ve always been relieved that Canadians, while being free to practice any religion of their choosing, have also always been able to keep religion in perspective. That religion has never been allowed to force its way into our homes. That if we didn’t feel like being preached at, or hit up for money in the name of God, we could just change the channel.

Religious programming has always been there, always freely available to anyone who wants it. But, much more importantly, it has always been avoidable by those who wish to conduct their spiritual practices in the privacy of their own heads. In has to stay that way.

 

Public Relations ‘Professionals’ : The Damage Done

Blitz Magazine, January 2004

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Some of the PR people out there may have noticed that I’m not returning their calls. If they want to know why, they need only look at the recent issues of their favourite magazines. They’ll notice that these publications are markedly thinner than they were two years ago, six months ago. This is what happens when magazines lose the support of those who need them. We can no longer blame 9/11; the Canadian economy is healthy. I place the blame squarely with the Public Relations industry.

There’s a company in Western Canada that provides firms with short-term marketing and advertising personnel. Blitz is the perfect advertising vehicle for this firm. Its president, an MBA and years of marketing experience, was about to sign a one-year contract with Blitz. Then he called to say that he had changed his mind, and had entrusted his entire marketing budget to a PR consultant. The PR consultant is sucking up a good portion of that budget in fees, is industriously spitting out news releases and has placed all of his client’s allocated advertising dollars into the sponsorship of golf tournaments. ‘Strange, and dumb, but true.

I start getting said releases. Aside from the fact that they’re replete with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, they’re irrelevant. Do I care that this company is sponsoring golf tournaments? No—it doesn’t fit my editorial mandate. But the consultant doesn’t know that because he didn’t do his homework. He can’t write, he’s lazy and he’s sabotaging a firm that had great potential but which, I now believe, will not be around for long.

(My favourite is the Web marketing thing. People channel their marketing dollars into developing their websites. They pay PR firms to send out endless news releases announcing their new sites. Then, instead of advertising the sites, they sit and wait for Net surfers to stumble upon them.)

There’s much talk these days about ROI, which everyone wants. Lately, the word is that advertising isn’t bringing in ROI. But, despite what people say, ROI is very difficult to measure. Media buyers look at numbers of people reached, who those people are and the costs to reach those people—they don’t demand guarantees that the advertising will work, because they know better. What advertising does is keep a company’s name and services in people’s faces. It supports all other sales and marketing efforts. It’s not the magic bullet for increasing business—it’s the gun.

Last week, a certified PR professional said to me: “We provide tangible ROI—the evidence is in the write-ups our clients get in newspapers and magazines, or radio mentions, or whatever.”

Or whatever. It’s illogical, and foolish, to assume that mentions in the media will bring increased business. There’s no guarantee that an editor will do more than glance at a news release. If a release piques interest, there’s no guarantee that the release will culminate in a positive story—it could end up sparking a career-ending expose. And so what if your company gets a positive media mention? Is that going to send consumers scrambling for your product? Of course not.

PR people are great persuaders. But those who sell PR as a solution, rather than as a small part of an overall communications strategy, are doing huge damage. They’re not bringing their clients closer to ROI nirvana. They’re wasting tons of money, they’re hurting their clients’ long-term prospects and they’re damaging the media properties that cannot stay in business without advertising dollars—plus all the designers, writers, producers etc., that rely on those media properties.

If PR ‘professionals’ continue to divert dollars into their own pockets, and away from advertising vehicles, they’re not going to have any media properties to contact. They can send out all the news releases they like, but there will be no magazine editors left to read them.

 

On Advertising & Getting What You Pay For

Blitz Magazine, November 2002

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This issue is the 5-year anniversary issue of this magazine; here’s hoping that readers may look forward to more Blitz pages. Osama’s attacks and corporate corruption didn’t just rock the stock market—they knocked the wind out of magazine ad sales. You have, no doubt, noticed that every magazine you pick up is a lot thinner than in previous years. As for me, if all the people who gush about how much they love Blitz don’t start supporting it, I’m going to pitch my publisher’s hat into the Pacific.

The experts keep telling us that the Canadian economy is the envy of the G7, that we’re perfectly stable and thriving and bla bla. ‘Problem is, Canadian businesses don’t appear to believe that. The response of many has been to cut advertising budgets.

This is most unfortunate, because it is an inviolate rule of business that the uncertain, or down, times is when advertising is crucial. You can advertise when you have gobs of cash coming in—but you must advertise when it seems like you can’t afford to. Otherwise, you’ll sink.

Some recent examples: In an effort to maintain earnings, Bristol-Myers cut advertising by 14%; three of its five top-selling drugs are now losing their monopolies. Buy.com thought that cutting ad spending would save the company; sales immediately dropped by $20 million. Samsung decided to eliminate “unnecessary” costs. A spokesperson said: “The company is seeking ways to reduce travel, traffic, advertising and miscellaneous expenses.” To this, Sergio Zyman responds: “If you’re the kind of company that puts advertising in the same sentence as ‘miscellaneous expenses’, you deserve what you get.”

Zyman is the former chief marketing officer at Coca-Cola and the author of the newly-released The End of Advertising As We Know It. His point is that, in an effort to capture the attention of information-overloaded consumers, ad agencies have had to find increasingly inventive ways to reach audiences. Which is fine, except that the focus on brand awareness has shifted. Now, everybody seems to want to use every technical tool available—just because it’s there, to create hip portfolio pieces and win awards. When the focus should be on sales results, i.e. the actual goal. Zyman cites K-Mart as a perfect example: huge awareness, but it’s in bankruptcy. Remember the Taco Bell Chihauhua commercials? The ads won awards, the client’s sales tanked.

Over the last five years, I’ve had hundreds of calls from ad agencies and pr firms. The conversations rarely vary:

Caller: “We’ve done a terrific campaign for ABC Widgets and we think it would make a great article.”

Me:      “Well, the campaign isn’t newsworthy. The results are newsworthy.”

Caller: “Huh?”

Me:      “Once the campaign is well under way, or complete, the increase in sales figures would make it a story.”

Caller: “I don’t understand….”

Me:      “Your agency, and ABC Widgets, will track the campaign’s results, right?”

Caller:  “Uh…”

Me:      “So, in four months, or whenever, you should be able to tell me that, as a result of this campaign, the client’s sales went from ‘here’ to ‘here’. That they increased by ‘this much’. Then the campaign could be a cover story.”

Caller:  “But it’s a great campaign. Why isn’t that worth writing about?”

Me:      “Because it’s not a great campaign if you can’t show increased sales.”

Caller:  “Oh. OK. As soon as we have those results, I’ll call you back.”

No one has ever called back. And as it’s not likely that they passed on the chance for a cover story, I have to assume that I didn’t hear from them again because their campaigns didn’t generate results. They may have won awards, and the teen-agers producing them thought they were really cool and were able to persuade the client of same, but the work didn’t work.

It should be obvious to everyone that if anything a business does doesn’t contribute in some way to increased profits, it shouldn’t be done. To that end, marketing directors have to say to ad agencies: “This is the plan, this is what it has to achieve, I’m going to pay for your ideas on how to best achieve this. Once I, and the rest of my staff, agree that your ideas are likely to increase sales, I’m going to pay you to provide the required services.”

Marketing directors and company owners should not say: “This is the company whose products represent my life’s work. These are the products whose sales support the jobs of dozens of employees. I’m putting all of our prospects in your hands. I hope you can pull it off.”

payfor1At the same time, a marketing director or company president who expects a certain result, and who’s confident that what his agency recommends will work to increase sales, but who then balks at the cost of the work, is doomed. Ditto with company owners who think that flash-in-the-pan campaigns will produce results. This is especially true with print campaigns, where advertisers often cancel a campaign if one or two insertions didn’t generate immediate results. You want results, you have to commit for the long haul. You want more revenue, you have to open your wallet. You get what you pay for.

I thought everyone knew this. Zyman says that that is most definitely not the case. And that it’s time for everyone to think again. Because, he says, advertising is a science. And those who fail to master that science, and properly practice it, are going to go out of business—along with their clients.

On the Bad Business of Selling Editorial

Blitz Magazine, March 2002

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We’re all familiar with the practice of selling editorial. It’s nauseatingly common. Blitz does not engage in this practice. Why? Because everyone can tell when editorial is paid for and, once they realize that, that piece of editorial has no credibility. Then everything else in the magazine has no credibility. No one wants to read a magazine that has no credibility. And, since advertisers want their ads read by the magazine’s audience, there’s no point in advertising in a magazine that no one believes and/or reads. Forget journalist ethics—selling editorial is bad business.

I speak of magazines because (call me naive) I tend to think that newspapers aren’t as easily swayed by outside interests. There are many instances of editors and columnists going ‘too far’ and consequently having to apologise (on the insistence of their publishers) to representatives of ethnic groups, trade groups. But I like to think that these PR moves do not keep serious reporters from continuing to do what they should do, which is find the facts and truthfully and objectively report them.

My philosophy is: if it’s true, print it. If someone’s insulted, they’ll get over it. If a journalist reports on shenanigans at ABC Widgets, and ABC Widgets pulls its advertising, fine—it can find another way of reaching your valuable audience and other advertisers will be smart enough to stay with you because yours are the publications that people will read. Because they have credibility. Objectivity and fearlessness, therefore, are not only good for journalism. They are essential for the success of your publications.

Oh look. I seem to have slipped into saying ‘your’ and ‘publications’. I’ve somehow begun speaking to the Aspers, whose CanWest/Global Communications now owns the majority of Canada’s daily newspapers. What with the mess being created by media convergence and the negative ink that CanWest is getting over its convergence efforts, I have mixed feelings. This is a positive move for media buyers and sales reps. I think it’s a great idea to use CanWest journalists for cross-promotion. But I feel absolutely sick about the fact that CanWest, as a corporation, appears to intend to dictate the content of its newspapers.

The slope couldn’t be more slippery. CanWest is a huge company. Its owners (duh) could have corporate and personal financial interests in all sorts of conflicting areas.

What if a CanWest bigwig owns a large share of a pharmaceutical company and it releases a Wonder Dug—let’s say a cure for baldness. A Vancouver Sun journalist finds incontrovertible evidence that the drug attacks the liver. He does the story, head office finds out, the story’s yanked. No competing journalists find out about the problem. People take the drug, their hair grows, sales soar, profits rise. A year later, those customers are waiting for liver transplants and the other investors in the pharmaceutical company have lost their money.

What if the Aspers have a particular religious position?  Political position? Could this policy lead to the end of any reportage that goes against their grain? Of course it could. Should we care? Well, yeah. Every day, millions of us make decisions based on information taken from newspapers. If that information is tainted by the influence of private interests, our lives can be so tainted.

Should those in business care? Sure they should. Businesses of all types rely on print advertising—in most cases, a marketing plan without print advertising is no marketing plan. Further, because PR is often as important as advertising, businesses want their activities (well, most of them) reported in publications which are deemed to be legitimate.

Newspapers are integral to the smooth functioning of a society. But if people think that the material in their papers is inaccurate, incomplete or biased, the trust is gone. No trust, no credibility. No credibility, no readers. No readers, no advertisers. No advertisers, no newspapers.

It ain’t brain surgery. If you own newspapers, you leave your journalists alone. Your only communication with them should be your signature on their cheques and the order to ‘Find the Facts, Then Tell the Truth’. The worst that could happen is that your papers develop stellar reputations and your profits go up.