When I was the management supervisor on the Whitehall Laboratories account for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, I was a participant in the most successful presentation designed to move a group to action that I have ever seen. Let me describe the situation so that you can feel the reality of it. We will stop at various points to draw lessons from what was accomplished.
Whitehall Laboratories was a division of American Home Products. One of the products we created advertising for was an antacid named Bisodol. It was a second-tier brand, but it had potential, we thought.
One day just before noon, I was working at my desk at the advertising agency when I got a phone call from the senior vice president responsible for marketing and advertising at Whitehall, Hank Peterson.
Hank said, “Kevin, I know there is no good way to say this, but we are unhappy with the creative product your agency is putting out. Bisodol sales are not growing. We feel it’s because of poor advertising copy, so we are putting the Bisodol advertising account out for solicitation by other agencies.”
I said, “Hank, what you’re telling me is crushing news. I need to hear more. I’ll be over there in fifteen minutes. Will you see me?” He said that would be OK. So I hustled over to their Third Avenue office to find out what was going on.
Simple enough. No animosity. We were out. Fired. Some other agency was going to get the business. Four other agencies had been invited to make a presentation. But being pushed aside on this small product meant there was danger we might lose the whole account, which was worth about $10,000,000—a pretty big account in those days.
I decided I’d better call an account team meeting to discuss the situation, so I charged down to Alan Gilburne’s office. Alan was the copywriter on the account, and a darn good one at that. We called in the head creative guru, Dave Boffey, and the head media man, John Sisk. I told them the story.
Step 1: Identify assignments. Pick your team. If you’re planning to move a group to action, you’re not doing it alone. It’s a big job. The final step is standing in front of the assembled group and motivating them, but a lot of setup work precedes it.
We spent the rest of the day analyzing the brand’s marketing plan, its sales, the media plan, and the creative approach. Our immediate goal was to identify the problem and reach agreement that we could correct it. We all concluded that the creative approach was the problem. If we could solve that, we had a beginning. Our ultimate mission would be to make a presentation that would change our client’s mind. We wanted the account back.
Finally I said, “We have two jobs. My job is to get Whitehall (the client) to invite us to participate in the solicitation process. Your job is to develop a showstopping creative approach that will win the shoot out and let us keep the account.
“Assuming we get the opportunity to present, we will be trying to persuade the entire group of client people who are in that room to rehire us. They won’t want to do it because we have already failed in their eyes.
“We have to move them to action as a unified group. So if there are ten of them, then all ten have to vote for us. That’s the only way we’ll get it. It has to be unanimous. If we do well but not great, we’ll lose. If there is a lot of discussion, we’ll lose. We are a long shot, no doubt about that. But, hey, I’m pretty sure I can do my part. Can you do yours?”
“No question about it,” they said, “we’re eager to get started.”
The next day I sat down with Hank Peterson and said, “Hank, I understand that we have been fired. We are no longer your agency for Bisodol. I am not here to argue that point.
“But an amazing thing has happened. The head of our creative department has taken this personally. He has given an assignment to five copy teams to come up with a—and I’m using his words— ‘breakthrough campaign idea for the brand.’ He’s establishing a contest. The winning team goes to dinner at Lutece.” (This was true, but it was mostly window dressing. I was working with Alan Gilburne, who was my number-one copywriter, and I was confident that he would solve the problem.)
I continued, “Here’s my question. If we come up with something that’s truly a breakthrough, do you want to see it?”
“Of course I do,” he said.
“Hank,” said I, “if I can come back here and look you in the eye and say we have an idea like that, will you allow us to compete for the business and present to your committee?” He agreed and went so far as to say that he would schedule us for next Thursday, a week hence, 10:00 a.m.
“I’m doing that,” he said, “because I know full well you are going to tell me you have a great idea no matter what you come up with.”
Since I was on a roll, I asked for the eleventh-floor training room instead of a conference room, because it was a bigger room and I hoped to generate a large audience. Hank had said we would be the last agency presenting. But his final words were killers.
“Understand,” he said, “this is a courtesy only. You have no realistic chance. You are really wasting your time.”
Meaning we could make a presentation but it would be to a mostly empty room. All the people who mattered had already written us off. In all probability, none of the bigwigs would come. I would have to correct that, and it wasn’t going to be easy. But, first, we needed content. We needed a great message, a story line.
Step 2: Make sure the message is finely honed and finely crafted so that its promise exceeds the audience’s expectation. The group must be lifted to move in the direction you want. Only the most eloquent message will accomplish that.
Or, as they say in the advertising business, we needed a dynamite creative product. It took a while. Great ideas always do. But we only had a week to come up with the idea, put the television commercial in storyboard form, and put the whole presentation together. After studying the product, the competition, talking to medical consultants, and a top-notch chemist, Alan came up with a copy claim we thought was a winner:
Bisodol turns burning stomach acid into a harmless water solution.
It was strong, it promised a benefit, and it contained both the problem and the solution. It was short, simple, and understandable. We did a quick research test to see if it played well with acid indigestion sufferers. It did. We were happy.
There is a lesson here. If your goal is to move a group to action, make sure your message is worthy of the moment you have created. If it’s competent, but not great, you are a loser. It must be startling, unique in its perspective, exciting. Otherwise the audience won’t be excited.
Next we needed a way to visualize, to dramatize, the statement. We were talking television advertising here. The visual demonstration was all-important.
Alan said, “Well, if the product does what it’s supposed to do, we could get two beakers. Put stomach acid (hydrochloric acid) into both, then put Bisodol into one of them and stir it around so that the chemical reaction takes place and neutralizes the acid. Then we could put a daisy into each beaker, with the petals sitting above the glass.”
One of the daisies would wilt and die; the other would be fine—we hoped.
We got the beakers. We got the stomach acid. We got a dozen daisies. In Alan Gilburne’s office we went through the whole thing. And, by golly, it worked.
We had a winner. One piece of the puzzle was in place. I met with Hank and told him we had a breakthrough. He said he looked forward to seeing us on Thursday.
Step 3: Decide what people you need to be present and take steps to get them there.
A great presentation to the wrong audience is like a tree falling in the forest with no one to see it or hear it—it has no significance. We had to be sure we had the right audience. We carefully handpicked the people we wanted in attendance:
Chairman of the board—William Laporte
President of the division—John Culligan
Senior vice president, marketing manager—Hank Peterson
Corporate vice president, creative consultant—Florence O’Brien
Corporate marketing guru—Ken Byrne
President of the in-house ad agency—Dan Rogers
How to get them there? “It’s impossible,” said Henry Schachte, the president of J. Walter Thompson. “The only meeting you could get all six of those people to attend would be their company’s annual meeting.”
“Good point,” said I, “but we have to try. If only half of them come, we’ll still be ahead of the game.” My reasoning was that if I could get half of that austere group to attend, the lesser lights (though still very important people) would knock down the doors to be there.
Two people on the list were a must—John Culligan, the division president, and Hank Peterson, the senior vice president of marketing—because they were directly involved in the decision-making process. But, ideally, I wanted all six because they represented power and, if they leaned our way, the others would as well.
Our team met to discuss what our options were to get them there. Here is the list we wrote on a chart:
Ask Hank (the client) to invite them
Phone each and invite
Send a notice of the meeting inviting the recipients to attend
Write a personal letter of invitation to each person and then follow up with a phone call
The last strategy won the day. Since I knew each of the people on the list, it was decided that I should write the letters of invitation. Here is what I wrote:
I am writing to invite you to attend our agency presentation for the Bisodol account on Thursday morning, March 16th, at 10 a.m., in the eleventh-floor training room.
I am writing you personally for two reasons.
First, I know you admire great advertising and recognize it is one of the factors that has helped make your company so successful. The advertising we will show is bold. It’s revolutionary. It’s dramatic. In my opinion, it’s great advertising. But you be the judge.
Second, four other agencies will make presentations, hoping to be awarded your business. I know the decision-making process is not an easy one. You would prefer it if one agency really stood out from the others.
With that in mind, I will make you a promise—on Thursday, the 16th, you will see a creative presentation that stands out above the four—that stands with the best you have ever seen. I’m not boasting, though it may sound like it. But I am profoundly impressed with the work we have done for you. It will make your decision an easier one.
Henry Schachte, our president, backs me up on that promise. He will also be in attendance at the meeting and looks forward to seeing you, if you can attend.
Since we are expecting a full room, I want to have name cards at the main table for you and a few other senior people. To that end, I will call your office on Tuesday to see if you are able to attend.
I followed up on Tuesday. All six said they would attend.
We spread the word throughout Whitehall, the client company. Before long, our meeting became the hottest show in town. On Thursday we had the six I personally invited, plus six others, a total of twelve Whitehall people—the highest number of client attendees for any of the presentations. The most any other agency got was eight.
Additionally, there were four of us from J. Walter Thompson. Dave Boffey, the creative guru; Alan Gilburne, the copywriter; Henry Schachte, our president; and me.
But before we get to the meeting, let’s look at some of the little things that would help make it go smoothly.
Step 4: If possible, unite the audience with some kind of unifying symbol so that anyone who sees the symbol knows that person was there.
We were lucky in that we had a visual symbol that was integral to the presentation. The daisy was going to be the star of the show in many ways. All of the audience’s attention would be focused on the daisy during the demonstration. One daisy would die, one would live, demonstrating the efficacy of Bisodol.
Alan suggested we pin a daisy on the lapels of the attendees when they came in the room. They wouldn’t understand the significance until later, but that was all right. “It would sort of bring them together,” he said. That was a big idea in its own right. We decided to do just that.
Alan was given the responsibility for buying the daisies and being sure they were on site on Thursday. He also was responsible for knowing how to snip the stems and insert pins so that we would have sixteen lapel flowers, plus a dozen full-stem ones, enough for the demo plus spares.
Step 5: Get there early. Rehearse on site.
We made arrangements for the Whitehall meeting room to be open for us at 8:00 a.m.—two hours before the scheduled start time. We arrived right on time with all our paraphernalia. It was important that we get everything done ahead of time, including an on-site rehearsal. Nothing was more important in our lives right now than this meeting. No sense cutting corners and letting mistakes slip in. Here’s what we did:
Set the chairs and tables up so that they formed a partial semicircle focused on the demonstration table in front
Set up the demonstration table with our beakers and stirrers, our stomach acid vial, our Bisodol bottle, our vase of daisies, a pair of scissors, a pair of rubber gloves, paper towels, and rags
Set up our storyboards on an easel
Set up another easel to display our marketing strategy, copy strategy, rationale for the demonstration, and why it would be a competitive advantage
Set the nametags on a separate table
Then we rehearsed the entire presentation. We left nothing out. Alan and I both flubbed some of our dialogue the first time and had to go over it again. The demo worked flawlessly. I practiced pinning daisies on the lapels of my three cohorts so that my fingers would know how to do it when the Whitehall people came in.
We felt confident. You may wonder why we rehearsed again. We had already gone through this a number of times in our office.
This entire process of doing a run-through on site is called “taking the news value out” of what we will do. We don’t want news during a performance; we want routine.
One of the things that causes nervousness is a physical unfamiliarity with the setting in which you are forced to operate. Little things come up that you don’t expect, such as dry Magic Markers or not enough paper on the flip chart. There is no substitute for physically doing everything in rehearsal that you will be doing for real later.
We greeted each Whitehall person with a friendly handshake, a thank you for being there, an introduction to our team, a nametag with the name printed large and bold (I didn’t want our president calling someone by the wrong name), and a daisy. I escorted each person to their individual chair, each marked with name tents.
You may wonder why both tags and tents. Name tents are easier to see when standing in front of the room, handling comments or questions. It’s important to use the name of the client in any exchange. But at the end of the meeting, nametags let your team members say thank you with a name attached to it as they shake hands good-bye.
I did the “pin the daisy” honors personally for all twelve client attendees. I didn’t want them to decide whether they would put it on or not. I wanted it on their lapels, front and center. I made a special point to show my appreciation to each of the six who had responded to my personal invitation.
Each attendee was intrigued by the daisy. “What’s this for?” they asked. “It’s a key part of the presentation,” I said. “You’ll see what it stands for as we go along. But, hey, it looks good on you, doesn’t it?” Which it did. So, as the meeting began, all twelve Whitehall people and four JWT people were wearing daisies.
Step 6: Make sure your top person has a role to play in the presentation. Otherwise, his value is diminished, he’s just a spectator.
Henry Schachte, our president, opened the meeting. Henry thanked the attendees for the opportunity to present to them. He said that Whitehall was an important client to JWT. Bisodol was an important brand. He said, “We put the Bisodol project out to five creative teams at the agency. We set up a contest. The advertising we will present to you was the unanimous winner. We are proud of this work, and we are proud of the creative team that did it.” With that, he introduced the creative team of Dave Boffey and Alan Gilburne.
Dave and Alan discussed the copy claim and the creative strategy behind it. Then they presented a storyboard (schematic) representing the future television commercial. The concept of the wilting daisy was explained and discussed. The audience liked the claim. They liked the thinking, and they liked the daisy idea, but they were not at all convinced that the demo would work.
During the discussion of the storyboard, all twelve observers, from time to time, looked back at the assemblage of “stuff” on the table in the front of the room—the two empty beakers, a glass stirrer, a vase with a dozen daisies in water, a pair of scissors, an opaque pitcher with stomach acid written on both sides, a roll of paper towels, and a pair of rubber gloves.
All that stuff had been there since the meeting began. The attendees were somewhat mesmerized by it. The anticipation was palpable. At some point they knew we were going to do something with all that stuff.