Clean up in Aisle 9

I’m exhausted.

I’m exhausted by the horrible customer service I get these days. It used to be just Rogers and Bell and occasionally the clerk at the local dry cleaner who prattled on about how life was so much better in the old country.  It was the norm for customer service to be useful and helpful. The retail experience was defined by its sole purpose from clerk to the store manager with a fairly simple construct – help customers find what they want,  ensure they get out of the store with ease and maybe a bit more than they came in for (the old school up sell).

This is big business. Really big.

The lovely people at Stats Canada tell us that 12% of Canadians work in retail and it generates roughly $500 billion dollars (2011 data).  Not surprisingly when you eliminate Auto/Grocery&Beverage/Gasoline – mass merch comes in at the top of the heap.  So with all the potential in this category to grow and generate profit why is sales execution so poor? I am honestly  just a few steps (or clicks?) removed from shopping exclusively online and I’m not alone. I rarely grocery shop in a store anymore. Like millions of others, I haven’t purchased music, videos or books in a store in what seems like a decade. Why? Because I’m completely fed up with ALL of my retail shopping experiences. I have long loathed numerous large retailers, the Bay, Home Depot, Walmart, Toys’r’us for the apathetic approach to taking my money for goods and services I can just as easily purchase online.

**Before I get the eye rolling nasty comments and ‘you don’t know how hard it is‘ response – let me just say – that I’ve worked retail sales. And it sucks.

Is it so hard to treat customers like you want them there?

I’m tired of being treated as an obstacle in the path of some front line employee.  Or worse yet, when I actually need someone, they scatter no where to be found. So I increasingly avoid specific retailers and like the rest of us, shop online.  The retail environments (i.e. stores)  simply fail to deliver me with any redeeming qualities. Bad service. Limited inventory. Frustrating policies. The ONLY two reasons I bother to shop in stores these days is simply because I’ve left an online purchase too late that I can’t wait 48 hours to have it delivered OR because I feel the need to try something on.

Are we at risk of a collapse of retail outlets?

I have to wonder. The current issue of Canadian Retailer reports that fully 75% of Canadians are comparing prices online before they purchase. So what is stopping them from the ‘click and send’ and have items sent direct to home. Numerous retailers are offering free shipping and generous return policies. Why would I bother driving to a store for a terrible experience?  I am no expert but I have to think that the leading minds in retail customer service have to be concerned about the pervasive nature of this. The fact that dominant online brands are crushing growth figures that make Wall Street and Bay Street drool, while bricks and mortar retail continue to close up. Target couldn’t make it in Canada and we continue to see others drying up in the face of the digital consumer.

What’s the fix?

The short term fix is easy. Get a handle on how to sell product. When I worked retail – we had product knowledge seminars and programs (incentive based and others) that focused on moving product. Time, energy and oversight was put into ‘how to sell’. I was a 16 year old kid who was taught how to sell and it mattered to me that our customers had a good experience (mostly because I didn’t want to get yelled at by the shopper or store manager).

Teach them how to sell, and sell they shall.

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Walking Dead – Managing Legacy Brands

I feel like I’m now at a stage in my career where I have some (maybe?) useful insights that I can pass along to others to make their journey a bit easier. My most recent presentation was about managing legacy brands and in particular the evolution of the brand where I work at the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada.

The presentation was one of my favorite ones in recent memory and got some great positive feedback from the crowd. It was a pleasure to give counsel on how to revitalize an old brand. There are some simple takeaways at the end that I hope you find some value in.

Brand management is the cornerstone of any good communications strategy and it isn’t hard to do if you keep your eyes on the road. So often we lose sight of the path forward and let our brands drift off and they become obscured, both internally to your colleagues and leadership but also externally to shareholders and stakeholders. It’s critical that you review and revisit your brand often and ensure you are aligning your products and execution to your brand strategy.

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The Real Power of Simplicity 2

Lack of Clarity Undermines Leadership

I try to use clarity and simplicity interchangeably here to convey a simple point. 

I have had the great challenge of working with leaders who obfuscate and adulterate (see what I did there?) their own messaging and I’ve wondered why.  To sound pompous? Smart? knowledgeable? Credible? Likely all of those things and more. Sometimes it’s simply etched out of insecurity or arrogance. Who knows.

Help Leaders be Better.

Strong leaders are clear. Consistent. Pragmatic. When delivering key messages about success, challenge or change; staff, stakeholders and shareholders don’t remember the complex. And that may be quite intentional but it’s not effective. It generates distrust internally and skepticism externally.

As an example I worked with a leader once who gave a keynote address with all the ‘right players’ in the audience. I brought along a journalist to cover it as it was his beat.  The leader spoke for 45 mins – way over the alloted time.  I turned to the journalist and said ‘wow, wasn’t that great?’ (as optimistically as I could). He said to me “I’ve covered this beat for 10 years, and I don’t know what the presenter was saying. And I don’t think they did either.” No coverage.  Not just then… ever. Credibility burned.

I have a long way to go before I can make any claims to be a good writer, let alone one who can write or present with simplicity clarity. I know I’m not alone however. I think often it comes from a lack of preparation. A true understanding of the audience – a major communications faux pas. Or an insatiable need to be ‘smart’ or the most credible voice in the room. So when a colleague of mine posted this to Facebook, I had to post. It is a great guide to reviewing your work and helping to write with improved clarity (below).

Write better. Write simply.

Write better. Write simply.

If you need more – check this quick YouTube post – its not specific to communications but it get’s to the point, quickly. As you would expect.

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The Real Power of Simplicity 1

One of the most influential books I’ve ever read about communications and messaging was “The Power of Simplicity” by Jack Trout.  As  impressive a work in its clarity as it was in its brevity.  It’s very well written, compelling and rewarding and leaves the reader with a simple message. Be clear. Be specific.

Maybe the greatest example of this is in the six word story – also known as Flash Fiction. Its powerful, simple and literately six words.  Often attributed to Hemingway, the piece is based on a 1910 Spokane Washington piece about the death of a child and the ensuing contents sale. Is it possible to write an entire piece that connected with its audience, moved through the passage of time while only in six words? You tell me.

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

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Kiss me, I’m Irish

Ok, ok. It’s 3 year’s old but I love it. The creative folks at Guinness sell more beer. Do they need to? The internet tells me that they sell 1.5 billion litres of beer a year, so likely not. But they continue to pump out creative excellence like the this. It’s fantastic. Compelling. Pokes fun at themselves, their consumers, culture and sheep herding.  For what? To sell beer? no. To entertain, engage, and promote brand awareness. 3 million views on YouTube tell me it worked. Tell me what you think.

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Public Affairs – GR 101 v1.1

I’ve spent as much time in my career doing government relations as I have public relations.  In theory and practice – it’s about relationships. It’s ALWAYS about relationships. Media. Public. Government. Stakeholders. All Relationships. All take time (and resources) to cultivate, nurture and build value from but most importantly – maintain.

More so than in other disciplines however, I believe that public affairs – call it government relations, lobbying or advocacy, the challenge is maximizing relationships in the shortest period of time so that you there is an authentic and sincere relationship. You don’t have to be best friends with your key political stakeholders, but be aware of what drives them, and in turn, ensure they know what drives you.

I had lunch with a colleague recently and he described how he was working to help  an organization leverage federal money for a program they were hoping to develop. I asked how often they were engaging the minister, his staff and the officials in the specific government department. He’s response was – that they “had a conversation with the a senior staffer in the minister’s office about two years ago.” I was stunned. Maybe it’s because I work in the space, but it’s not really that hard to figure out. If you don’t maintain an engaged relationship with key influencer’s, decisions-makers and those who hold the power and resources to help you be successful, how can you expect they will keep you top of mind?

Keeping in mind that the political circles in Canada can be very closed and protective.  Cracking those inner circles is like navigating a labyrinth of frustration. This is where the persistence and determination of some organizations lead to stronger results than other organizations. If you need a primer or a kick-start – hire a firm that specializes in public affairs.

It’s amazing to me how often I meet people or talk with companies or organizations who just don’t know where to begin. So, for the novice I will outline some positive things you can do to improve the success of your public affairs strategy.

Some Advice:

Have an answer to your problem. Going to a staffer, parliamentarian or senior official with a problem without an answer to your challenge will diminish their interest in helping you and your credibility.

Your answer should be negotiable. Extreme or hardline positions will not win you friends. ‘Your’ solution may not be ‘their’ solution – so the better you understand the motivations of the government as a whole and the objectives of the department/ministry you’re dealing with the better off you will be. Work together to solve the problems.

Government Officials will listen. More often than not have a mandate to engage with stakeholders. So find the right ones and meet with them. This takes time and effort but it can be very useful. I once had a meeting with officials who were using data that was nearly 2 years old as they planned for the year ahead. Providing counsel and good data is supremely helpful.

Government Officials will be protective. Canada is blessed with some incredibly bright bureaucrats be it in Ottawa or the provinces.  Senior staff are proud and often will be defensive of their own programs and initiatives because it’s what they know.  That is to say, new things you may want to bring into the mix will require a tremendous amount of energy. Even the best ideas take time to bring to life.

Political Staff are vitally important. And fiercely guarded, highly political (obviously) and almost always younger than you would expect. Do not discount their influence and role. If you are not a known commodity to them, you will have a difficult time accessing them and their elected leadership. So get out there. Be present.

Engage and be responsive. If you are asked to present at parliamentary committee – do it. If the government makes a positive or supportive announcement – send out a press release. If they ask you to attend a roundtable, go.  This is part of building that relationship and frankly, is pretty simple stuff.

So, while many believe that they should go straight to the top with their issue. Yes, by all means, send the PM a letter outlining your concerns. No doubt, the Prime Minister is deeply concerned about your issue… but really hasn’t the capacity to manage it. That is where your key cabinet minister’s come in to play.

In 2014, our organization was privileged to host Prime Minister Harper at an event where among many other things, he opened up about the stresses and pressures of the job. He noted that the demands of the role likely couldn’t be fulfilled by 6-7 simultaneous prime ministers. (44:00 minute mark below)  Its good advice and good reason to devise a strategy that includes all the right people at the right time.

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A new twist on a classic tale

I love creative execution. I’ve blogged about it before. The past few years have seen measurable leaps forward in design execution and certainly things look better as a whole. But the next evolution in advertising in my mind, remains the unexpected.  We have seen that shift in our TV programming and movies, mystery and suspense is the new thing but when combined in advertising with a different take, an unexpected twist if you will, on an old thing – it really works.

A great example is this – the Porsche Panamaera.  Billed by the car manufacture as “the only luxury sedan that combines an executive tailored interior with the performance of a sports car, it is possibly the worlds most thrilling contradiction.” The word I really like here is contradiction.  We live in a complex world full of nuance and subtlety but this advert from Porsche takes the vehicle from the elite, (stodgy even) realm of sedans into a new market of edgy, progressive and  hard lines of performance vehicles aided by an unconventional alley. A heavy metal band and a symphony orchestra.

It opens predictably with a classical intro, warm up as it profiles the limousine quality of the interior. The luxurious cabin of the Panamera is as intense as it is exquisite.  The break finds the unique roar of the finely tuned and unmistakable Porsche engine cutting the classical music into a beautiful version of Iron Maiden’s The Trooper. Maybe its because I’m a fan of both the vehicle and the band, but this really works. Re-interpretation of original works is a risky business but in this instance, and when done right it can have a thrilling, unexpected twist.

Think different. Be different. Your customers will thank you.

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Watch this amazing safety video?

I believe that even the most boring, inane content can be given life enough to be interesting, understood and even enjoyed.

As a communications professional, I’ve come to appreciate that it is exceptionally rare that you ever have a captive audience. One where the consumer can’t easily escape your message.  This somehow led me to think about some seat-back advertising and really how effective it is/can be.

When I fly, one thing that strikes me is how no one ever pays attention to the safety videos. Airlines actually force-feed you these videos; broadcasting them across the entire airplane from the comfort of your seat-back TV screen and the audio throughout the cabin. Still, people refuse to pay attention for 4 minutes as they get that final email or text out before flight attendants politely ask you to shut off your mobile devices.  This is what we’re used to…

In spite of what Bruce Willis or Wesley Snipes might have you believe, the average passenger has zero influence over the outcome of an emergency situation, except whatever we are given in the four minutes of  tedious video instruction.  Those boring corporate safety videos have always been terrible. Until now.  Thankfully some creative genius has linked the elements of pop culture and the most important (but boring) thing we can fathom while traveling.  Enter Peter Jackson and Air New Zealand.

The video’s origins date back a few years but together they have leveraged the popularity of the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit franchise with some monotonously boring content – and it works, beautifully.  As you step aboard a Boeing 777 and fly across the world you may not be able to shape the outcome of that 660,000 lb payload but you can do what you can to be safe in a 25o’ long beer can.  Watch the video – enjoy, think about how you position your content. Think differently, and you can be rewarded.

12 million people have actively chosen to view a safety video YouTube – think about that!

The lesson here – is that anything can be interesting and generate eyeballs if you are giving it some creativity and thoughtful execution. Think as much about what you want to communicate as you do about who, and how  your audience wants to receive that message. And, hey, if you don’t know? Ask them.

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How much do I like Instragram? I’m not sure. I’m curiously interested in its potential. I have an account – you’re welcome to follow me. I post a lot of nonsense and follow a variety of brands. I’m interested in it as a means to build a  brand, but im also cognizant of its potential (like so many others) as a disastrous waste of time. Without strategy, how can you measure manage and grow?  What’s your take? Are you pro Instagram in terms of building your brand? Do you have any good examples of where it has worked for you? What frustrates you about it?

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Breaking Bad Vol 1

So, I’m on the slate for an exciting line up of speakers to discuss public sector marketing.  I attended this conference last year and have now ended up on the roster as a speaker.  I have sat through sessions at conferences before and rarely do they resonate with me as a professional more than ‘this is the ultimate goal’ where do i actually start. I felt I’d share some of my own experiences in trying to help the organizations I’ve worked for recover from disastrous situations.

Over the weeks ahead I’m going to tease out the presentation here to help shape my ideas and thoughts but if you have anything you think might be of value – please do feel free to share your ideas with me.  session titled – Non-Profit Disaster Communications Recovery: the real Breaking Bad. That is my attempt at contemporary relevance. Yeah, I get it. the show is over, but its not ‘that’ over.
breakingbadAnd it works for me. This idea of ‘breaking bad’ – habits, people, processes, whatever the case is. If you’ve entered into some bad communications situations, and I know you have, the first thing you have to do is stop the madness (all credit to Susan Powter)


I’ve had a few interesting positions that have helped me focus on the task at hand.  I was hired into a situation once where within about 20 mins on the job I knew I had to fire the only employee I had.  Another situation found me with a self-professed megalomaniac narcissist president who demanded to be on the front page every day. I was the 6th Director of Communications at that organization in a 6 year span.

I went into a situation where the CEO (to whom I reported) on my first day on the job told me he expected me to ‘raise the bar’ – but never defined for me in the 2 years I worked there what the ‘bar’ looked like, where it was kept or how I’d know it if I found it.  I’ve walked into organizations with no budgets, no staff, no processes and in my time, come out on the other side pretty well.  It takes a lot of courage, persistence, vision and sometimes a methlab. (see, there’s the Breaking Bad reference coming at ya…)

The reality is that we find ourselves in these situations from time to time, but in my experience in the public sector has found me in some pretty deep messes. The most difficult thing is to rebuild a department while meeting the expectations of your new employer to ‘exceed’ expectations.


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