Puff it up, would ya?

“Manager” was in my title, and on my business cards, but I was always an individual contributor.  I did not officially manage, hire, fire or direct anyone. I didn’t write anyone’s annual performance review. For the most part, I did not attend departmental administrative or budget meetings.  Instead, I conceived of, planned and managed initiatives and marketing programs, typically demand generation or re-activation in nature. I collaborated with others of course as an individual contributor; it was a necessity. I worked hard and was usually well compensated: stock options, a trip to Europe with my wife, plaques of distinction given out at company or departmental meetings, and performance-based bonuses too — including the one that was accidentally stashed in the VP’s drawer and forgotten about for six months, and found after he got terminated and his office was cleared for the new VP hired in his place.

The best part about being an individual contributor was the chance to work independently without intrusion or being micro-managed by others. I had the freedom and good budgets (until about 2001) to work with stellar writers and designers and boutique agencies of my own choosing. I delivered results and contributed to the success of the technical firms I worked at, even though I was not a technical guy.  When Cisco Systems bought Altiga Networks, a Virtual Private Networking (VPN) firm, we were told that Cisco bought the technology and its people.

While l worked in four start ups, some were staffed with more marketing resources than others. I was one of many in the marketing department, reporting to a director who in turn reported to a Vice President. Other times I was the marketing department  and reported directly to the owner. At Cisco where there were some nearly 30,000 employees worldwide, it was an incredibly flat organization; I was only three levels away from CEO John Chambers. Yet I was more than three levels below Joe Alsop, the president of $25 million Progress Software when I started, but I had an impromptu lunch at the company cafeteria with Joe on at least one occasion.  Joe knew me, or better still he knew my face.  We said “hi” in the halls.  But I never met John Chambers; he didn’t know me from Adam.

While I enjoyed my positions, worked hard, kept my head down when the department was under siege through some internal political conflict, I had lots of fun especially during brainstorming sessions.  It was at times like this that I still harbored aspirations to work in a creative capacity at an agency, or to follow a path as a Creative Director (CD), so I aspired to be that. An advertisement I kept close to me during the 1980s described a CD as:

As our Creative Director, you’ll shape the copy and design for our clients’ programs. You’ll also work on new business with our top people. You must have excellent verbal, written, visual and presentation skills; be a strategic “big picture” thinker; have flexibility and experience in all media (traditional, alternative and experimental); have solid working knowledge and experience with direct mail formats and disciplines; have an entrepreneurial spirit and skills (including sales  ability); be able to lead and direct a staff, including juniors and outside vendors; have vision, patience and a team focus. (Is that too much to ask) …..

Has-Beens, egomaniacs, followers … Look somewhere else.

I want a leader, a winner, the best of the best!

So I spent extra time working on my presentation skills, sought out articles and books that taught me things I did not know, and continued developing a fertile mind in a number of disciplines and especially promotion, brand building and direct marketing.  I joined Toastmasters and became a better speaker. I read Caples, Kottler, Ogilvy on my own to become more well read.  I tried to help my father with his marketing and communications problems whenever I visited his food factory.

Start-Ups were my preference

As mentioned earlier, three of the start ups were successful and one was not. The unsuccessful one was a dysfunctional organization which showed is real nature soon after my arrival. Senior management fought amongst themselves and in front of employees in an open office setting. The president hired his sister for a senior marketing position but had no experience in marketing.  The CFO increased the price of the device and announced it through the press without buy-in from other departments.  A Fortune 100 company and competitor filed a major lawsuit against the company for stealing firmware. Eventually after ignoring FDA regulations and after a patient died from a malfunction of the device, the company was shut down, the president was fired, and we all lost our jobs.

I liked start up organizations in the technology space because it brought out the entrepreneur in me, the potential payoff was significant and it was kind of glamorous.   Everything was new and fresh; policy and procedures were not settled. Everything was a work in progress. Each of us was valued and had significant impact on the company’s development.  The activity level was high and exciting.

The hardest part in marketing and sales of disruptive new technology is presenting the value of the new technology (innovation) to both “C suite” and technical staff. A lot of technology firms rush the sale or never present the technology in a way that truly resonates with the different audiences. In my experience, the sellers typically have low regard or are ignorant of the power of marketing.  They think marketing is a matter of cutting prices, or giving something away (free samples!) as a way to make a business sale.  But very often, sale of any technology requires sophisticated yet clear communications and proof that solves a problem the buyer has.  Price may not be the gating issue so cutting price may not be the strategic things to do.

That’s  what marketing is all about. It’s strategy and tactics. Cisco produced a “how to launch new products handbook” to its new employees that was used company-wide to build the brand and build marketing programs.  It included schedules, checklists, timelines and corporate resources and standards to follow.  I believe this was one way Cisco was able to be agile and productive without a lot of management layers re-creating launch requirements.  Every one followed the script including freelancers, contractors, consultants and corporate.   John Chambers believed anyone could come up with a new idea, but execution was what mattered in the end.

In lesser start-ups, well-intentioned engineers and developers who built the VPN or 4 GL language or the world’s smallest AED (automated external defibrillator) thought they had built a mousetrap and all that was necessary to make the sale was to let people know about it using a product data sheet.  But others knew that only savvy marketing creates or increases demand. Without demand there are no customers.

Direct marketing is a strategy, not a tactic. As Lester Wunderman says in his book Being Direct: Making Advertising Pay, “it’s not an ad with a coupon, it’s not a commercial with a toll-free number; it’s not a mailing, a phone call, a promotion, a database, or a website. It’s a commitment to getting and keeping valuable customers”.

It was Bill Bellamy too who instructed me that the order form or coupon or response device was the most important part of the direct response package. In proofing a package prior to printing, one works backwards from the order form, to ensure there’s a natural integration with the messaging and creative strategy and “big idea” that drives the entire package.  The order form is where direct response occurs, the offer is clear and where the sale starts or is made.

I wasn’t free from the stresses of working in high powered, high energy technology firms.  There’s so much that goes into writing and designing a direct mail package, I couldn’t stand it when a senior manager, reviewing the content would tell me to “puff it up a little” or “tweak the writing”.  I thought to myself:  Puff it up?  Tweak?  What does that mean?  And you’re what …. a VP?  Their view of the program lacked a keen understanding of the elements that mattered, and the painstaking efforts conducted to match up creative with the overall marketing strategy.  I like a good challenge, but sometimes I privately fumed at these comments.  Now, some years later, when something like this occurs – and it still does – I walk it off, take a deep breath, and just let it go.  I ask myself:  Do I want to be happy, or right?   I guess I have matured!

Theodore Leavitt, the author of one of my favorite marketing books, The Marketing Imagination is an old book with old articles that are as meaningful today as ever. He explains the importance of “meaningful differentiation” and the notion that business transactions are built around relationships.  He speaks to how Sales and Marketing are supposed to work together, for the good of each other. He maintains the truism that Sales concerns itself with tricks and techniques of getting people to exchange their cash for your product, but only Marketing views and values the entire business process as a “tightly integrated effort to discover, create, arouse and satisfy customer needs”. For a liberal arts graduate like me, his writings inspired me throughout my career.  It’s one of those classic books for use in business to business (B2B) or business to consumer (B2C) marketplaces.
















Published by Richard Halpern

Retired (but busy) after a lengthy career in business marketing, communications and research. Worked at four start-ups and one turnaround. Now volunteer doing prospect research for a climate activity and social advocacy non profit, amongst other things.

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