The era of successful jerks in business and marketing is over, according to Peter Shankman. The founder of Help a Reporter Out (HARO) and now VP and small business evangelist for Vocus, which acquired HARO in 2010, has dealt with a fair amount of jerks throughout his career. ClickZ caught up with Shankman following the release of his latest book, “Nice Companies Finish First: Why Cutthroat Management is Over - and Collaboration Is In,” to learn more about his positive vibrations in marketing and how marketers can be effective without being a jerk. As Shankman prepares to launch a new consultancy next month based on the teachings in his book, he describes how business leaders can generate more revenue by empowering their entire workforce to simply do what is right.
ClickZ: How does one become a successful marketer without being a jerk?
Peter Shankman: When you look at 50 years ago, no one really cared how you acted. You could do pretty much whatever you wanted and you didn’t get in trouble because it was really hard to catch you, as it were. But, the problem is now you have everything out there. Everyone you meet, everyone you talk to, everyone you know has some sort of 24-hour connection to the Internet and the ability to grab anything - audio, video, or otherwise - anytime they want. That, fortunately, winds up resulting in the ability to lie disappearing. It used to be when you would screw up at some capacity at a company, there was nothing they could do about it. They were upset, they told their friends maybe. Now it’s everywhere and it’s very easy. So with this 24-hour connected world that we’re in, the easiest way to keep the clients you have and gain new ones is simply to be 1 percent nicer than what we always expect, which let’s face it is crap.
When you go to the hotel or the airport you expect bad things. You don’t expect the fast-food place to have your stuff on time. You go to a fast-food place and you don’t expect them to get your order right. You don’t expect the dry cleaner to have your stuff ready on Tuesday when they say it’ll be ready on Tuesday. You don’t expect the hotel to keep your room if you’re late. And so that logic is what we have come to accept, which is pretty insane. In the ‘50s you go fill up your tank with gas and there’d be four guys out there, one checking your oil, one doing your tires, one doing your windshield, and the other pumping your gas. We’ve moved to this new world of you’re lucky enough if the credit card machine works. What people don’t realize is it’s actually beneficial for marketers and advertisers because now you don’t have to go out of your way to be amazing to your customers. All that you have to do now is be one level above crap. And while that sounds ridiculous, it’s actually incredibly simple. It’s doing the easiest things in the world, the simplest things in the world, and they don’t have to be that major.
What Morton’s does is when you call and make a reservation they ask you one simple question: “Are you celebrating anything for your reservation?” And if you say yes, they bring you a piece of cake. Something incredibly simple, but it makes “Oh my God, look at that.” We live in this horrendous Instagram-everything-you-eat world anyway, so first thought is: “Wow, look, they brought me a free piece of cake. That’s so cool.” It costs them what, 8 cents for that cake, but 400 people just saw it and one of them might say, “Oh, cool, maybe I’ll go there the next time I have a birthday.”
One of my favorite examples of that is about a month-and-a-half ago I was in a hotel in Dubai and I was running low on toothpaste. I get back to my hotel after a long day of meetings and there’s a brand new tube of toothpaste there and a little note from the maid that says, “Hey, I noticed you’re running low on toothpaste. I bought you a new tube of the same kind you use. I know how busy you are, I hope this is helpful."And I was floored. So I go and I immediately post a photo of the toothpaste. Fast forward, I’m checking out two days later and the head of PR implies to me that they’ve already tracked incoming calls and reservations based on my photo. A 39 cent tube of toothpaste, dude! How much is that worth? It’s not even a question of money, what it really comes down to is empowering the employees to do these things. That’s the key. If you can do that, then the employees understand the benefit of doing it. What is the benefit of the employee at McDonald’s to be above and beyond their regular job? And more importantly, it’s probably a negative because if they do go out of there way to do something nice, "Well, that wasn’t in the manual.” So where’s the benefit when they could possibly lose their job for being nice? This isn’t about the customer service people doing better, this is about the CEO empowering the entire company with the permission to do better.
ClickZ: Brands and consumers will always define the lines between good and bad motivations in marketing differently. Has the notion of marketing for good evolved throughout your career, and how would you define it today?
Shankman: You’re not creating incredible things to reap the benefits of it, but you will reap the benefits as an added bonus. You’re doing great things because it’s the right thing to do. As you create these right things to do, the more people are going to want to hear about them, the more people are going to want to talk about them, the more people are going to want to share them. But you’re doing it because they’re beneficial to everyone, and that’s key.
ClickZ: How much of marketing is cutthroat at the core, and what can brands and marketers do to turn back that tide?
Shankman: The easiest way for marketers to realize that they have to change the tide is to simply look at how much money they’re spending on marketing versus their return compared to how much money they could spend by creating better customer service versus the return. I always use this example: Where’s the benefit of me going to a bar, approaching two hot women, and going, “You know what, you don’t know me but I’m awesome in bed.” The return on that is more than likely going to be a drink thrown in my face. I’ve done a lot of research on this, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. The flip side of that is I’m sitting at the bar not even playing attention and a girl over there sees me, recognizes me, and turns to her best friend and says, “Holy shit, that’s Peter Shankman. I’ve heard incredible things about him, he’s amazing, he’s awesome, you’re both single, you should totally go and talk to him.” That’s word-of-mouth, that’s personalized belief.
The concept of marketing as we know it from PR used to be public relations. It’s changed to personal recommendations. The reason this has never been embraced by CEOs before is that CEOs have always said, “I have to come down on the bottom line. I don’t do things to be nice just to be nice.” Well, here’s the kicker: it so comes down to the bottom line. CEOs are starting to see that word-of-mouth return is actually better than marketing return. And this doesn’t mean there’s not going be a place for marketing, there’s always going to be a place for marketing. But the level of return on word-of-mouth and on customer service has increased 10,000-fold in the past 10 years for one simple reason: we are all carrying broadcast devices.
ClickZ: Do you transfer that to agencies and brands as well? Can they improve their bottom line by being nice?
Shankman: No question about it. When I ran my PR firm, The Geek Factory back in 2000, we had about 20 clients ranging from Napster to Juno. A lot of the dot-coms were ours. And once a month, we would show up at the office unannounced with pizza for lunch. We’d just go around to our clients’ office once a month, once every two months, and show up with pizza. We didn’t charge them for the pizza, we just wanted to talk about what was up, what was the latest, what were they working on. Companies have this vision of agencies where if I call them, they’re going to bill me for this. Marketing and PR firms are starting to act too much like law firms. If we go and we start talking to them and we don’t bill them, we just say hi, we’ll probably get more information from them. And if we get more information from them, that’s probably a better way to know how to pitch them. And if we pitch them better, we’re going to get more results, and everyone’s going to win. It cost us a couple of pizzas every couple of months. We became known as the pizza agency and it was awesome.
ClickZ: You argue that it doesn’t pay to be a jerk in business, so how do you wrap your head around the fact, whether it’s perceived or real, that so many successful businesses are led by jerks? Are you convinced that their days are numbered in this new era you describe in your book?
Shankman: Well, they really are. What I saw from all the stuff I did in the book research was that companies that are nicer are making more money. So what you’re starting to see is the douchebag CEOs, as I call them, are going away. It’s easier for the board to let them go because they simply can’t justify what they’re doing to the public. I think that the concept of being a jerk is definitely going away because there’s no room for it anymore.
ClickZ: What trends or sociological changes are driving this new era of collaboration and kindness in business, and where do you see this happening most?
Shankman: In terms of collaboration, I’m seeing CEOs are getting smarter. They used to live in these ivory castles where they’d take advice from two people. I’m seeing CEOs now walking the main floor. I’m seeing CEOs spending time on the factory floor, spending time with their customers. It’s so easy - what is it, 20 minutes out of your day? That’s just the part that kills me, is you have all these companies, “Oh, I don’t have the time.” Yes, you do, you really do.
ClickZ: Finally, what are the motivating factors that should convince marketers to change their cutthroat strategies and embrace a more altruistic and collaborative spirit?
Shankman: To get CEOs to understand this, again it comes back down to revenue. I’ve never met a CEO in my life who believes cool trumps revenue. If you can explain to these CEOs that there’s money to be made on this, they will listen. And more importantly, that there’s money to be saved. I think that the key starting point is to explain that here are the studies and show them that companies that are nicer are making more money. Here’s what they’re doing, it’s not costing a fortune. And by the way, you’re also saving money because you don’t have to retrain new employees. Employees aren’t going to quit, the employees are happier. And they get it, but it has to start with them understanding there’s money to be made here. As soon as they understand there’s money to be made, they will listen.