The Moose on the Table

 

By Brian Kurtz
If you go to “The Demotivators Collection” at www.Despair.com, here is what they say about “Meetings”:

“None of us is as dumb as all of us.”
Have you made decisions in your life, business or personal, where you look back on them and ask the question:
“How come no one suggested that I/we do the opposite…or not do that thing at all?”

That’s what I mean when I say it’s critical for someone to always “call the moose on the table”…the thing no one wants to say…the thing that everyone is afraid to suggest.
(I made up the term “moose on the table”…or got it from someone…after creating an image in my mind of a dead, decaying moose right in the middle of a meeting room table…and everyone is talking around the carcass with no one acknowledging it’s even there).

That’s how I felt after I made the “second biggest mistake of my career” which I promised to share with you some time ago and which will share with you today.
And feel free to read “Part One” of this series of me being a bonehead (if you missed it).
I’ve got my courage up to share Part Two…and to talk about the lessons I learned from it.
As my mentor Marty Edelston always said:
“The only things worth talking about are the things you can’t talk about
Here goes:

The early part of my career was spent becoming the world’s best list manager…back in the 1980’s, when direct mail was king, and list selection was the most important aspect of every campaign.
Some think it still is…including me…and that is an important topic for another day.
My company, Boardroom, had the best lists on the market: Affluent executives, all buyers and subscribers who loved buying and subscribing through direct mail…and they were information junkies to boot.
Note: “Information junkies” is a term of endearment…trust me on that one.
Everyone thought I was the best list manager (representing the Boardroom lists to just about every major direct marketer in the country)…but I knew that I only looked so good because I was selling a quality list that led to spectacular results for most who mailed it.
Regardless, it was a fun job since everyone used the Boardroom lists in every category: Publishers, fundraisers, catalogers, politicians, credit cards…everyone who used direct mail in the 1980’s was a prospect.

And while list rental was lucrative for the company, we also struggled in the early 80’s with cash flow. We were aggressive marketers and most of our profits were used to mail as many millions of names as we could to grow circulation and to create long term revenue.
Direct mail was (and still is) very expensive…because it scales and because it works. That’s the story called, “How paying postage made me a better marketer.”
But that story is only a backdrop to today’s story…

One day we were sent a “clearance” for use of our lists by a mailer who was selling an offer that, simply put, we would never have thought to expose our list to…by most objective measures, it was not mainstream and could be viewed as offensive.
Not surprisingly, this mailer often had trouble getting list owners to give them names for list rental.
For me as the list manager, this seemed like an easy rejection: It clearly wasn’t something I was comfortable with approving for our customers.

However, before I rejected the order, I turned the Federal Express envelope upside down to see if there was anything else in it and out came a check, from the list broker who sent the clearance, for $100,000.

That’s a lot of money for a list rental…since it’s for a “one time use” of the list…and it represented the equivalent to an amount we would receive over two weeks in list rental income at the time.

Also, with direct mail, mailings were generally not “endorsed” (like an affiliate mailing online today)–so basically, the recipient of the mailing rarely knows what list was used to rent their name.

Just before I rejected the order I recalled that we had just cancelled a big part of one of our own mailings because we didn’t have enough cash on hand to pay the prepaid postage (less than $100,000 mind you).

Based on that, I decided to discuss this one with Marty:

Should we really consider holding our nose, cash the check and allow the one time rental since this cash could help us with cash flow and help us with our immediate growth?

I also went to a couple of my mentors at the time (outside the company) to simply ask their opinion; and surprisingly, their opinion generally was, “Everyone has a right to advertise…and you are not endorsing…just letting them mail the names once seems OK.”

Looking back, I see all the reasons why I probably never should have showed the check to Marty…never asked anyone else who didn’t have the same skin in the game with our customers…and I should have followed my gut and sent the check back with a rejection.

I knew that was the right thing to do but we didn’t do that.

We allowed the mailing…held our breath…and when we didn’t hear anything negative after the mailing dropped, we breathed a collective sigh of relief.

And of course we said we would never do it again given how tense we were for a few weeks.

We were grateful we had some working capital to play with and no damage.

Not so fast…

Even though none of our customers traced the mailing to us, one of our most trusted exchange partners (a huge publisher we exchanged millions of names with) got a complaint from one of THEIR subscribers…and eventually all roads led to us when the name on their list was an exact match to the name on our list…the person subscribed to both publications.

This could have been a catastrophe on so many levels:

We could have been publically “exposed” in an industry where we were building an impeccable reputation; we could lose a wonderful business partner; and eventually we could lose subscribers ourselves.

These three consequences were all looming. And they were all huge negatives, short term and long term.

Over many weeks, we were able to handle the PR nightmare…we admitted that we made a mistake to our partner…and we issued apologies where we needed to.

We would never do anything like this again….for real this time.

You may be saying to yourself, “I would never have done that”…and maybe you wouldn’t.

But what line might you cross if you were desperate for cash and if your business depended on you making a distasteful deal?

There are actually three big lessons I took from this huge mistake:

1) Never make decisions when the need for money can take precedence over your core principles and what you know is right.

2) Never forget that as marketers we are all interconnected…this is more true today than ever since we “mail for other people” under our name (e.g. as an affiliate).

But even in direct mail, where you can “hide” for the most part, we found out the hard way that you really can’t hide there either. Every action you take might have repercussions that you can’t see due to the interwoven marketing communities we live in.

I like to say “there are no unique names, only unique lists.” But your lists are not exclusive either.

3) Always have people around you who will call the moose on the table.

And here’s a rule of thumb that you should follow with all of your marketing to prevent the mistake I made too:

Assume your Mom is a customer…and how would SHE feel about the offer you think is “not that bad” for your list?

Of course questionable offers are often in the eyes of the beholder…but think about multiple beholders, almost at a least common denominator.

Frankly, I’ve seen offers sent to lists online today that are such a disconnect to the audience that you know the mailing was made for quick cash; or fulfilling a commitment to mail (i.e. “reciprocation”); or some other reason that has little to do with servicing your customers.

I knew of one online guru who had close to 50% unsubscribes from his list—a list that took years to build based on trust and integrity—because he sent an offer to it that had no congruence to his tribe. In fact, it was a subject they had disdain for. Ouch.

If you are playing a long game, there is no reciprocation that should ever compromise how you want to treat your best customers.

Or prospects.

Or even suspects, who you eventually want to turn into prospects and then customers. You never get a second chance to make a great first impression.

To bring this home:

You never get a second chance to make a great first impression.

Be incongruent at your own risk.

And when the decision comes down to “needing the money” make sure there’s no moose on the table.

Warmly,

Brian

P.S. Marty and I spent years regretting that decision; and when the company became super successful and cash flow was never an issue, we actually accelerated our level of charitable contributions.

Maybe there was some guilt about cashing that check a long time ago for $100,000; but guilt or no guilt, we turned that huge error in judgment into millions of dollars for great causes over the next 30+ years.

The lesson was a powerful one. And my thinking was shaped early on in my career regarding what to send and not to send to my list–and what my clients send to their lists.

On the one hand, I’m embarrassed to tell this story…but it shows that even if you see yourself as a high integrity performer, you can make decisions not consistent with the legacy and company/person you want to be in the world.

Learn the hard lessons once…and come out the other side bigger and better.

Brian Kurtz spent the first 34 years of his career building direct marketing giant Boardroom Inc., working with the best copywriters and marketers ever. Founder of Titans Marketing LLC, he now teaches, writes, consults and coaches bleeding edge marketers: http://www.briankurtz.me. This article, used by permission, originally appeared in his newsletter.