Placating the Masses
As always, her day was exhausting and it was lasting longer than originally planned. In addition to the annoying duration, her head hurt, her muscles were sore and there was still so much to do before the end of the day. There were so many people who were relying on her to be positive contributor to their own crusade but days like today made it difficult to keep a smiling face pointed towards her personal audiences. As she walked back towards the building, she was making a conscious effort to not to think about all her personal pressures and to re-focus her energies on her loved ones and the people who relied on her to bring them positivity. There were at times that that inconsistency made her laugh; people continued to demand her full attention while she kept fighting her own battles.
As she walked, she concentrated her mind to ignore the outside noise and begin to list the positivity in her life. As she sought out personal success stories, she was wondering why it was so challenging until it hit her: all her efforts and hard work had had the opposite effect. She worked so hard for others that their ability to understand and appreciate her good deeds became difficult because they could not remember when she wasn't there; working and expending all her effort to make others happy. She wasn't frustrated with that particular circumstance because she was brought up to give to others but when a compliment came her way, it made her uncomfortable to get the attention and the adoration that always came with it. When people were nice to her or when men flirted with her, it confused her more than anything else. "Why would anyone seek me out to ask an opinion or to provide a service" was a question she often asked. She liked being the person in the background; doing for others and asking nothing in return but a quiet (and many times EXTREMELY quiet) thanks from her family and friends.
The momentary thoughts had moved her exhaustion out of the present time and allowed her a moment of quiet contemplation. She was feeling better and her body was not hurting as bad. Part of the pain was brought upon herself; she did not wear comfortable clothes or shoes. Her uniform was a corporate one; dark hues and professional lines. She was not that tall so she compensated with darker clothes with striking blouses and high heels. The look was powerful but after a long day, a challenging one to endure. While she knew a more comfortable ensemble would give her some relief, she also found strength in her clothing choices; much like a knight, this was her armor and her ultimate protector.
Her last meeting of the day was with her boss, Tim Verlo. In her opinion, he was a tough but fair boss but at times his personality could be too much and too loud for the issue. As she walked into the building, she took a deep breath and entered the meeting room. She has won his respect many years ago and she could handle anything he chose to throw at her. She was a little late but her reputation made it an unspoken assumption that she had just come from something more important and she was smart enough to catch up quickly.
"The marketing message is far too complex," sighed Tim. He was in charge of the entire marketing strategy for a large financial institution and as he sat in the large glass-walled conference room, he moved around in his chair trying to get comfortable. Tim was the padre de familia of this advertising pitch and he wanted to make sure his words were both the last spoken and the ones blindly obeyed by the toadies around the table. People nodded frantically and individually scribbled into a variety of portfolios. Tim used to enjoy watching subordinates reacting with masturbatory intensity to every whim and notion that wandered out of his mouth but as the time passed, the novelty caused that enjoyment to evolve into annoyance. He would be the first to admit his shortcomings but his nature was proactive and confident which continually positioned him above the cowed and scared crowds.
"Stop writing and listen," said Tim. "I look at all these pitches and each one of them has turned a relatively simple message into verbal and visual goulash."
Tim noticed a slight hand movement in his periphery and stood up from his chair. He took a deep breath and said, "I said, 'Stop writing and listen' and I want to make sure you all put down your pads, your pens, your notebooks and your IPads™ and begin to help me clear up all this clutter."
No one moved. The person on the edge of his peripheral vision froze completely. Tim had called her out and she was not going to give me another reason to notice her. She, like the rest of the room, had nothing. There was no idea amongst the group but no one had the courage to take control of the room and introduce a second flavor of confidence. Tim stood patiently and waited for someone to do something and he had all the time in the world. The only thing on his calendar for the entire week was to finalize the marketing message and prepare it for focus group validation. The years of managing programs taught him that any message which was not easy to understand by a generic audience was doomed to failure but he knew he could rely on her to solve all of his problems. As he looked up, he saw the deep purple blouse stand out in the sea of gray and black suits...it was time to bring her in.
Tim looked at her and she made a reassuring face to tell him that she would take care of it. She dropped her briefcase on the carpet and sat down. The chair was extremely comfortable and if the situation was different, she could have fallen asleep in the chair in a few moments. She waited until Tim had stopped stomping around and she gave him a non-verbal cue to leave the meeting to her. She hadn't heard these complaints but she knew him well enough to know that he hated poor listeners almost as much as he hated people who never accepted or took responsibility. His personal hero was Martin Moser and if he got out of hand or became immature, she would quietly and gently remind him Martin Moser would never comport himself in that manner and her strategy was always successful. Tonight however, the transition to her firm hand was done elegantly so it was time for her to focus her attention on the topics at hand and give once again.
As Tim left the room, one by one, each face turned towards her in a quiet request for assistance. They had been suffering in this meeting; taking the full force of frustration from a successful and powerful leader and did not give him anything worthwhile. They knew she was revered his eyes and he listened and respected her but no one would not dare to extend their help to her even when she needed it most. Whether they were incapable of true assistance or simply because they felt any help extended would seem too small compared to the pure positivity she emitted to all others. At times they wondered why someone who was a giving and open as she was could work with a jerk like Tim Verlo but they never broached the subject because she never seemed to concerned about him or his antics. It was obvious that the things that concerned her were not work-related nor easily seen.
"Okay, let's figure this out." Her voice was calm and while she could string together an impressive list of obscenities, she fought the urge with a new and unknown room. The answer would be found in an hour and it is always was something related to cleaning up the message and removing all the secondary and tertiary messages that seemed to always dilute and confuse the main pitch.
She paused again and said, "Tell me what it has to be. Not what you want it to be but what it has to do."
The marketing folks all saw an opportunity to start their internal blather speak, a collective inhale surrounded her and just before they all simultaneously start spewing a banal list of buzz words, she raised her hand and said, "No one can say synergy, leverage, maximize, socialize, high-level, conceptual and low-hanging fruit. If I heard one stupid phrase or one comment which was blogged or tweeted, I will go find Tim and tell him."
A collective exhale occurred as the room mentally re-grouped as her decision gave them all one last reprieve to come up with some answers. As many know, Marketing (capitalized only once to establish this punchline) is neither a science or an art; it is a place where attractive people head to sit around and discuss issues with no nouns with a welcome mat to introduce opinions as valid evidence. Furthermore, marketing remains one of the last business arenas in which the phrase "I think..." is an acceptable start of an argument and an equally acceptable retort to someone else's argument. As she looked out over the room, she realized she needed to rope in this group of high-level imposters and get Tim what he wanted: a straight answer with no fluff, no PowerPoint or no mealy-mouthed corporate speak.
"I have given you all a repreive; but I expect specific and fact-based answers from each of you within an hour. I am going to sit in here and catch up on my emails and give you all the chance to deliver something that was already committed months ago. I don't want a PowerPoint, I don't want vacuous or unmeasurable answers and this is not a team exercise. Summon your individual talents and provide me with your answers within one hour. If you are ready now, step right up. If not, the clock is on."
A collective inhale occurred as the good-looking people scattered to deliver something they knew they were all incapable of doing but hoping a blank screen would provide some actual inspiration today. As the room emptied, she noticed one person sitting there, prepared to engage and she felt this person might be onto something.
"Aren't you running away like everyone else?" asked the newly-appointed decider of fates.
"No, I am ready to go" said Andrew Joseph ("A.J." to his small circle of friends at Verlo Inc). "In fact, I have been ready to go since the meeting started and when Tim handed this train wreck off to you, I decided to wait until called upon or dismissed en masse." A.J. chose not to add some dramatic French accent to punch home the phrase "en masse" and literally held both hands together to avoid instinctively throwing out air quotes.
"No, not a smart one, my only one. I have been playing by the rules for the entire six months I have been employed and this time after seeing your recent direction-setting strategy, I decided either to slow play my ideas or wait until called upon to put it out on the table."
"Which is what?"
"Which is my solution to the current dilemma."
"Why haven't I seen you before?"
"I am not one for contrived friendships plus I am not one for a lot of rudderless conversation. Time is too short and we can waste much of it just talking without any destination in mind. Those two factors plus I don't like wasting people's time." That comment was left open because if he meant her time, he was just like all the other toadies and if he meant his time, then he was a fool.
"Let's hear it. The idea."
"Okay." He stood up, handed her a single, outlined piece of paper and stood in front of the white board with a pleasant but comfortable posture of a person that had a worthwhile thing to say. After years of beating to death by re-purposed PowerPoints which were long on cosmetics and short on content, the sight of someone preparing to speak extemporarily was refreshing to the Vice-President of Whatever she was Responsible for Directing. While the individual was someone she didn't immediately know, although she convinced herself that she semi-recognized him; plus he had the guts to stand in front of her with nothing but quiet confidence and a single piece of paper.
"I want to start this presentation with one guiding statement of truth. Whatever you hear or see, ask yourself whether or not the idea or suggestion makes money or saves money."
A.J. steadied himself and took a clean, deep breath and said,"In my opinion, while the main problem appears that no one is making money, the real problem is no one is making real money. If you aggressively cutting costs, all you get some short-term relief while eroding your foundation by not paying for things which will haunt you down the road. You can cut staff, eliminate training, discourage travel, postpone or reduce bonuses but you are playing a dangerous game. I am all for leaning our processes but we have to take the offensive; we have to go on the offensive and start making things which our customers are willing to pay for without expensive convincing. And expensive convincing is marketing."
She smiled and said, "You officially have my attention. Please continue."
A.J. paused to collect his wits and to continue the illusion of calm and quietly said, "Thank you."
"Many people in Marketing make the mistake of looking at their role as adversarial. We feel we can mis-direct or convince customers that we are doing more, when in fact we are usually doing less. Furthermore, we rely on many time consuming tools such as large decks of slides, drunk with animation, to trick them into thinking that they, the customer, are really receiving something of value, when in fact, they are receiving nothing but tired, cliché -ridden lip service. We need to find efforts which are worthy of everyone's time, which are creative and easily understood. For example, if we do this task, we will make a million dollars. Spending six months to re-design a cereal box to short change the customer into thinking they are getting the same amount for the same price is chicken shit; figure out what the customer wants, and we are on our way."
She agreed. One time she had tried to estimate the very scenario of a packaged food company attempting to quietly reduce the amount of the product to the consumer and realized it was freakishly expense to re-design the package because it impacted supply chains; it forced the company to create new cartons to ship the boxes because the old boxes were engineering for a certain number of boxes with a certain dimension. "Okay, um, what's your name?"
"My name is Andrew but I go by 'A.J' to many people here at Verlo."
"Okay, A.J., I agree so far but we need to shift our of the philosophical and into the million dollar area."
A.J. smiled, he had drawn her into his idea and began to move towards the goal. This was no time to re-hash or dull the V.P.'s attention with additional foundational back stories about general commerce, it was time to stop placating the masses and make some history.
"Since this is a relatively small audience, I have two other follow-up questions."
"What do I call you?"
Ann Starson, Vice-President of Marketing, for Verlo Incorporated, blushed a bit. This type of politeness was indeed rare; this young man wanted to know if he should be incorporating her title or some title-related greeting into his remarks. He was cute.
"You can call me Ann."
"Thank you. And the second question, do you want me to lecture or allow for a more Socratic method process?"
"What ever feels right, A.J. But before you start, can I ask you one question in return?"
"Certainly, that seems fair."
"Why did you ask what you should call me? It is because of my position at Verlo?"
"No, I just didn't know your name."
Ann minimized her blushing but the comment stung. She assumed everyone knew her but it was obvious, unless the kid was a Zen master of head games, that her perception and her reality were not as close as she once thought. Deflecting the sting, she said, "Okay, show time. Let me see what you have to say."
Over the next fifteen minutes, A.J. did not disappoint. He reviewed five areas in which Verlo could not only make money, but make large amounts of it by committing to an environment that embraced initiative and dismissed vacuous and posturing behavior. He did not mount any personal attacks nor did he single out colleagues which were lemming-like but he did establish an expectation of a new standard of delivery and backed it up with concrete, reasoned examples. Ann felt energized and was ready to jump in and begin this journey. Their roles were basically reversed from the start of the conversation as A.J. presented a vision for the future that was valid, innovative and without a large slide deck of superfluous and vague buzz words which had been polluting the collective mind. And while he dismissed many of current trends as frivolous or elementary, he didn't pile on with personal attacks. If the tool or trend was in its infancy, he said that calmly. If the tool's only attribute was its novelty, he said that. But the main thrust was to clear the clutter and to take tangible ideas and execute on them without postering or qualification; the purity of honest effort meeting well-reasoned strategies were literally a breath of fresh air.
Ann looked up and noticed the clock for the first time. It was five minutes past the one hour deadline she had originally given the room. She looked to the door and saw a majority of the original meeting attendees peering in, wondering if they should interrupt this kid who was demonstrated a living example of what rapt attention really looked like.
She looked at A.J. and said, "Good job. Got anything else?"
"No, that is it."
"Great. Take the rest of the week off and come see me Monday. You are now working for me."
"I think I am already working for you."
"Well," said Ann, "this will be different. Get out of here."
A.J. smiled, wiped the board clean and folded the paper into his shirt pocket. He opened the door and as he walked out, the room re-filled with the rest of the attendees. Ann felt her oxygen begin to fade as she looked at this group, who was collectively staring right back at her.
"Who wants to go second? A.J. was first and I am ready for someone else to enlighten me."
No one raised their hand or gave any indication they were willing to jump into this unknown breach of accountability.
Ann re-phrased and said, "Okay, who wants me to just read your ideas?"
Every hand went up.
Ann then asked, "How many are PowerPoints?"
Every hand went up.
It is fascinating what you see when you are not looking for anything in particular.
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