Do you have to look good (or young) to work in advertising?

high fashion in the office

Within a week of getting my first job in a big advertising agency – as the assistant to the Creative Director – one of the other assistants said to me, quite casually, “Oh, I wasn’t surprised you got the job.  [Creative Director] really likes women with short hair like yours – he thinks women with really short hair are more confident.”

She wasn’t, in case you’re wondering, trying to be catty or mean.  She was simply stating a fact as she saw it.  And as I got to know my new boss better, I decided she was right:  my short hair had been a definite plus.

At the same time, I knew the rest of my appearance was woefully inadequate for my new job. Sitting in the lobby for my first interview, I became convinced I’d never get hired, as every single person who walked by appeared to be tall, thin, perfectly accessorized and effortlessly cosmopolitan.  

I, on the other hand, have a figure that could be charitably described as more ‘Nigella Lawson‘ than ‘Jennifer Aniston’, wear the same earrings almost every day because I’m always losing half a pair, and didn’t buy my first designer handbag until I was 25.  I wasn’t completely ignorant of fashion – I’d just lived in the suburbs my whole life, where the standards were lower, and I’d just moved to Toronto on an entry-level salary, so even outfitting myself with MAC cosmetics was a serious budgetary commitment.  And the truth is that I’m not naturally gifted with a genius for fashion.

My style soon underwent a transformation:  I found out where the other assistants went for jeans, waxing, haircuts, shoes, etc.  None of us were making much money, so they had good advice on how to look polished on a budget (protip: if you base all your outfits around black, you can make shoes, handbags and other items work with multiple outfits, while still looking sufficiently cool).  I learned a whole new lingo about brands and styles and haircare products, and had a lot of fun doing it.

(At Christmas I’d give my mother, a highschool teacher, a handbag or lipstick from some super-hip new brand, and she’d get a kick out of the fact that the teenaged girls in her class would be impressed with her coolness.)

What’s fun in your 20s can pall later on

It’s now been 10 years since I’ve worked in a big agency, but I’m still working in marketing, and as I get older I wonder:  Just how long can you continue to work in this industry if you look like you’re over 45?  And if you do look like you’re 45+, do you need to start investing in cosmetic surgery and more expensive clothing in order to proclaim your relevance?

The very fact that I’m reluctant to reveal my age (42) in this blog is perhaps a clue to the answer here.  Genetically I’ve been lucky so far: Neither of my parents look their age, so most of the time I’m still passing for under 40.  

I still worry.  Sure, I’ve got a couple of pairs of Louboutins, a few DVF dresses, and my figure hasn’t changed much since that first job (thanks to assiduous dog-walking and some yoga). I still base my outfits on black and I’ve been using a hard-core anti-wrinkle cream for years. But I have little interest in spending days at the anti-aging spa, and every time I have a spare $1000 kicking around, there always seems to be some more pressing priority than syringes of Botox and Restylane.  In my 20s and even my early 30s, it was really exciting to get a new Hermes scarf or Armani skirt…these days, not so much.  

I do take heart from the fact that the Canadian population – along with the populations of most of the developed world – is aging, and being over 40 isn’t the career-killer it used to be.  I also tend to think that if you stay technologically savvy, you maximize your experience while minimizing the negative effects of age.  But advertising has always been a young person’s game, and I wonder if the day will come when I’ll lose business to some hyper-branded 30-year-old.  

(Your insights are welcome!)

Brand first. Product second.

Knowing how you’re going to fit into the marketplace should happen even before you’ve picked a name.

brand development steps

I came across this image today, over at Brands for the People, a new online brand development company which is designed to help small business owners create new brand identities for reasonable prices. 

It’s an interesting concept – and one for which I think there is probably a pretty good market – but what really caught my attention was the order in which they’ve arranged their 6 steps to creating a brand identity.

You’ll see that ‘Naming Your Business’ is the last step in the process.

As someone who’s been helping clients create brand identities for 10 years now, I could not agree more.  Too many times, I’ve worked with organizations which have spent all their time and money on creating a product/service, getting an office, hiring staff – and only then start to think about how they’re going to go about marketing their wares.  And of course it’s hard to create a marketing strategy when you don’t know what ‘story’ you’re going to tell to potential customers, or where you’re going to fit in your competitive set.

I was going to write a long explanatory piece here, but the more I look at 6-step diagram, the more I think it speaks for itself.  (The only one which might need explanation is Step 3, because what they mean isn’t so much “how does your supply chain work” but “how will we approach the way we get things done”.)

The bottom line is that before you choose your name – or lease an office, or start hiring office managers – you need to know why you’re different, why you’re better, how you’ll stand out from the competition and why people will care about what you’re doing.  Knowing all that will determine whether you name your company “Clara’s Cakes” or “Baked Nirvana”, and whether your brand identity will be home-country-kitchen or super-modern-cult.  And knowing those things will determine where your office is and what it looks like, the type of staff you hire, and even your product offerings.  

Shoppers Drug Mart is forcing you to buy their house brands. This may not be a good strategy.

You can’t buy your favourite brands at Shoppers any more, and you may not want to buy their replacements

shoppers store brands

If you’ve been in a Shoppers Drug Mart store lately, you may have noticed that many of your favourite brands are missing.  As I discovered this week when I traipsed up and down the aisles for 10 minutes looking in vain for a can of Planter’s nuts, there were approximately 16 feet of shelf space devoted to various nuts and trail mixes, but only one brand represented:  Life Brand. And this is happening throughout the store, as Shoppers’ brands (which, in addition to the Life Brand, include Quo and GOSH cosmetics, Balea Skincare, RAW Essentials, Simply Food and Nativa, among others) are knocking name brands off the shelves.

You don’t have to tell me about the advantages (for the retailer) in promoting store brands:  Better margin, lower marketing costs, repeat visits to the store, exclusivity, brand awareness in the home, etc.  I get it.  The problem for Shoppers, however, is that – unlike President’s Choice, Loblaws’ super-successful store brand – Shoppers’ products mostly aren’t all that great.  

The food products are substandard (I dare you to ingest a Nativa cracker or cookie and then want to eat a second) and not all that cheap; a box of the facial tissue won’t last you through 24 hours of a cold; and the Quo makeup always gives me a rash.

But don’t take my word for it.  “Oh, I never use any of the Life Brand medications,” one Shoppers staffer, who asked not to be named, told me.  “There have been way too many recalls on those products – you can’t trust them. And the food products keep going on sale because no one buys them.”

“I tried the chocolates when they first came out,” said a merchandiser for one of the big Toronto stores.  “They’re terrible! I wouldn’t buy them for myself, let alone buy them for anyone else.  I don’t understand why they keep trying to force us to promote them as gifts – I’d be too embarrassed to give them to someone.”

Store owners don’t have a choice

If the Shoppers house brand products are so bad – and the people who work in the stores know it – how come they continue to get more shelf space, while even big, established brands are getting pushed out?  Shoppers head office is forcing them to take the product.

Stores are sent batches of the products, whether they order them or not, and are required to merchandise it according to the pre-determined planogram.  Head office doesn’t really care if we sell it or not, since they get paid once it goes out to stores.  (It’s worth noting that in 2010, Shoppers owner-operators filed a class-action suit against Shoppers management, for similar heavy-handedness.)

Eventually, this has got to erode margins

I know what Shoppers is trying to do and why:  As a publicly-traded company which has lost revenue in recent years to changes in the way prescription drugs are sold, they’re looking to shore up the stock price – and brand loyalty – in other areas.  And replacing independent name brands with higher-margin, supply-chain-controlled store brands is a good way to improve ‘shareholder value’.

Except they seem to have forgotten a key factor in the retail process:  The consumer.  

Consumers are much more willing to try store brands than they were 20 years ago, and it’s not difficult to get them to try a new product, especially when you remove the element of choice.  (“I wanted Planter’s nuts, but I can’t be bothered going to another store, and Life Brand nuts can’t be that bad, can they?”)  

But once consumers have tried a handful of products and found most of them disappointing, they’ll eventually give up.  At best they’ll keep shopping in your store but avoid your house brand products; at worst they’ll switch stores entirely.  “I never go to Shoppers any more,” a friend of mine said to me recently.  “All their stuff is way more expensive than Rexall, and I can’t get what I need anyway.” Some store managers say that retail margins are already being affected because they have to put the house brands on sale all the time just to get them to move.

The problem is that it takes time for consumers’ buying habits to register with the people pushing the house brands.  After all, Shoppers has 1000 stores across Canada, so by the time the store-brand product rejection causes a real dent in the bottom line and the individual store owners manage to convince head office that the products just aren’t working no matter how much they’re forced to merchandise, it’ll probably look like the problem is coming from another direction.  

Will Shoppers survive this? Yes.  Are they risking long-term competitive advantage for short-term perceived gains?  Definitely.

FOLLOW-UP: The blog post Facebook didn’t want you to see

don't talk about it

So yesterday I wrote a post about how the Susan G. Komen foundation has now become inextricably linked with religion and politics, thanks to their actions regarding Planned Parenthood and Karen Handel in the past week or two.

It wasn’t a controversial post:  I didn’t take a stand on religion, politics, abortion or Planned Parenthood – only on how getting associated with controversial topics like that can have serious, long-term consequences for your brand.

Imagine my surprise, then, when this morning a couple of people let me know that the link I posted (which was automatically fed to my Facebook account from my Twitter account) was being ‘blocked’ by Facebook.  I wish I’d done a screen cap, but basically what happened was when you tried to click on the link, a notice popped up saying that Facebook had blocked the link on improper ‘terms of use’ grounds.  There was nothing wrong with the blog or my website itself, and when I posted the link to a friend’s page, it wasn’t blocked or flagged.

I don’t know what happened.  Did someone complain about the title of the post?  Did someone complain about the blog post itself?  If so, who complained?  And why?  Or did a Facebook algorithm just not like my use of ‘religion’ and ‘lethal’ in the same headline?  

Facebook offered no reason, of course, and no way to get to the bottom of it.  

A couple of people have suggested that I not write this follow-up, lest I get in bigger trouble with Facebook.  But I wrote the piece in the first place because I noticed that other people seemed reluctant to talk about it, and it gets my goat that I have to be leery of making what seemed to me an obvious – and not particularly incendiary – connection based on a topic that’s had widespread media coverage.

Anyway, go read the original blog post, and let me know:  Is it really the kind of thing that Facebook should be blocking?

Religion and your brand: A lethal combination?

religion and your brand

So, as my Twitter feed fills up with endless tweets about the vapidity that is Pinterest, I can’t help noticing that marketing types aren’t talking a whole lot about this week’s debacle involving the Susan G. Komen foundation and their funding of Planned Parenthood.

For those of you who haven’t been following the story, here it is in a nutshell:  Susan G. Komen For the Cure, the organization which brought you the ubiquitous ‘pink ribbons’, raises something like $400 million annually for cancer-fighting-related causes.  This year, they were slated to give $700k of that to Planned Parenthood, an organization which works to “…improve women’s health and safety, prevent unintended pregnancies, and advance the right and abilities of individuals to make informed and responsible choices.”  Pro-lifers in the US interpret this to mean that Planned Parenthood ‘promotes’ abortion; pro-choicers see Planned Parenthood as a vital resource for disadvantaged women who are most in need of assistance.

Last week, Komen announced it would pull their grant to Planned Parenthood.  The religious right was thrilled, because they saw it as a victory for their agenda.  But the left-wing internet blew up, and Komen not only reversed its stance but parted ways with Senior VP Karen Handel (a former gubernatorial candidate who was outspoken in her desire to defund Planned Parenthood), who was widely believed to be the architect of Komen’s initial move to withdraw their Planned Parenthood grant.

This is really all about politics and religion

Most of the mainstream media is carefully skirting the issue, but let’s be honest here:  The whole furor about Komen, Planned Parenthood and Handel is all to do with politics and religion.  And these days, especially in the US, politics and religion are inextricably intertwined.  

And here’s where Komen has just done itself a huge amount of damage.  In a matter of days, they’ve gone from a fairly neutral, non-profit, friendly-pink-everything organization to one which has managed to antagonize both the left-leaning, less religious camp (by withdrawing their support for Planned Parenthood) and the right-wing, conservative Christian camp (by reversing their decision and getting rid of Handel).

Komen has now become both political and religious, and it’s already causing huge problems for the brand.

They’ve made it okay to boycott pink ribbons

I don’t know about you, but when I saw pink KFC buckets of chicken and pink M&Ms, I had to wonder if the whole pink ribbon campaign had gone too far – should we really be eating more fried foods while telling ourselves that we’re helping women’s health?  And I had heard rumours about how the Komen foundation was more interested in selling pink stuff than they were in actually finding a cure for cancer.

But I wasn’t about to stand up and start criticizing pink stuff, because I’d look like a misanthropic luddite who didn’t appreciate awareness or research or, even worse, was somehow ‘against’ supporting women with breast cancer.

It turns out I wasn’t alone, however, and the events of the last few days have opened the floodgates.  The blogosphere is abuzz with commentary – from the leftthe right, and the alternative-living types – all of whom are not only angry with Komen’s moves this week, but who are also getting more vocal with their criticisms of Komen’s practices around inflated salaries, questionable product endorsements, and relationships with pharmaceutical companies.


A brand misstep of New Coke proportions.  Or at least Netflix.

Two weeks ago, I would have said that Komen was one of the most successful non-profit brands in the world, and in fact could compete with for-profit brands in terms of top-of-mind awareness and loyalty – they’ve raised something more than $1 billion in less than 10 years.

Today…I don’t think Komen is going to collapse overnight.  There are too many people with too much emotionally invested – and too many brands with too many runs and events and products invested – in Komen-related programs for the whole organization to implode in the next five minutes.  But if their bottom line hasn’t been cut in half in the next 18 months, I’ll be greatly surprised.  I only hope that that money finds its way to other cancer-fighting causes.