Marketing Lessons From My Bosses, Part 7: Make Your Own Luck

Back in the late 1980s, I was working at the Miami News. One of the ongoing news stories of that time (and still today) was the state of affairs in Haiti.

There was always something going on: a boatload of refugees being hauled in by the Coast Guard or, tragically, drowning; another in a long line of coups; hurricanes; drug smuggling — you name it.

I was dragged in to a lot of these stories because 1. I spoke French, and could get by in Creole, 2. I had been to Haiti and done some reporting there: http://smartblog.smartmarketingnow.com/2010/01/the-trip-to-hell-costs-ten-cents/

On one particular night in June, 1988, there were rumors coming out of Haiti that a military coup was taking place. This news was greeted with a certain cynicism in the newsroom because it seemed there was always a coup d’etat taking place in Haiti. The “governments” changed so often in Haiti that residents would answer a question about their age by telling you who was president the year they were born.

The president in June 1988, Leslie Manigat, was unusual in that he was not a military man, and had been in office only four months.

My job that night was to see if I could get some actual news about what was going on, without actually going to Haiti. That meant what reporters call “working the phones.”
I grabbed some old Haitian telephone directories out of the morgue, and started dialing every government office I could find. Since the state of the telephone system in Haiti was somewhere between the state of the roads (pathetic) and the state of the Haitian air force (non-existent), I did not hold out much hope of getting anyone on the phone, much less anyone who could tell me anything newsworthy.

As it turned out, I was wrong about that.

A couple of hours went by as I banged the phones. Mostly I got no answer, which made sense since I was calling at night, long after government offices were closed. Occasionally one of my calls was answered, but not by anyone who could help me.

Somewhere around my 50th phone call, a man answered the phone and identified himself as an education minister in the current government. Great piece of luck! In fact, he said, he had a house in Miami, where he had lived as a refugee before returning to Haiti in February to join the new government. Excellent luck! And, he said, his wife was a school teacher in Miami. More luck! Finally, he added, he knew the Miami News and would be happy to talk to me. Fabulous luck!

That’s where my luck seemed to end, however. He told me that the rumors of a coup were completely false and that he, and other members of the government were hard at work in the National Palace (since destroyed in the 2010 earthquake). “There is no coup,” he told me. “Everything is fine.”

Ah well, no story. Wasn’t the first time and wouldn’t be the last that I spent a bunch of time and energy chasing a non-story.

But no sooner had Mr. Lescouflair said the word “fine” than I heard the sound of gunfire over the telephone line.

He hit the lights, ducked under the windowsill and while occasionally peeking into the courtyard from his darkened office, proceeded to narrate the revolution to me for the next hour. That narration ended as I heard his office door burst open and the command “Haut les mains!” (“Hands up!”)

“Call my wife,” Lescouflair whispered to me, and then the line went dead.

It was several weeks before I met him in person at the Miami airport. He had been clapped in the notorious Fort Dimanche prison outside Port au Prince. He claimed that my article had saved his life. They didn’t dare to kill him, he said, because the article had made him too famous. Finally, they released him and kicked him out of the country.

The story had caused some hubbub. A TV station came up to the newsroom to interview me, and I was a newsroom celebrity for a day or two. The managing editor, Sue Reisenger, had posted my story on the wall with some flattering comments written across it. She called me into her office and congratulated me. I scuffed my toe on the floor and said (truthfully) that it had been a lucky phone call.

That’s when she delivered the lesson that has stayed with me.

“Some people,” she said, “make their own luck.”

Keeping Up With Current “Events”

I wrote a blog post some time ago about marketing language, in which I wondered aloud when a “sale” had become an “event.” (I’d go find the link but I’m too lazy.) That transformation is almost complete, I think. I hardly ever see the term “sale” used any more. Everything is an “event” — the Fall Event, the Winter Event, the Red Tag Event, the Annual Event, The Tent Event, the Sign and Drive Event, the Seismic Event.

Okay, maybe not that last one. But practically everything else. In the latest mailing I received from Saks Fifth Avenue, here is what they have listed under the category “Trend and Events”:

• Fall Event
• Winter Guide Women’s Event
• Ralph Lauren Event
• Vince Event
• Prada Fall Event Vol. 2
• Prada Fall Event Vol. 1
• Rag & Bone Event
• Giovanna Battaglia Shoe Event
• Marc by Marc Jacobs Event
• Tory Burch Event
• Phil Oh Handbag Event
• DVF Event
• Alexander Wang Event
• The Next Step: Shoe Event
• Miu Miu Event
• Jimmy Choo Event
• Gucci Fall Event
• Manolo Blahnik Event

Some marketing genius will come up with a better term. Event-ually.

Arthur Ochs (Punch) Sulzberger RIP (Marketing Lessons From My Bosses, Part 6)

One of my old bosses died on Saturday. He was world-famous, and had thousands of employees. When I worked for him (for over five years) I was surely one of the least of those employees. He was a man who consorted with Presidents, and yet he often gave me his time and attention.

His name was Arthur Ochs (“Punch”) Sulzberger and he was the publisher of The New York Times. He was also the Chairman of the The New York Times Company, which is where I worked from 1980 to 1986.

The Times Company owned a whole bunch of properties, mostly because of Punch Sulzberger’s vision. They owned 6-7 TV stations, the classical radio station WQXR, Golf Digest magazine, and another dozen (more?) regional newspapers, mostly in the south.

I was a reporter, then an editor, then the publisher (!) of one of those newspapers, the smallest and the newest, The Golden Gate Eagle, near Naples, Florida.

I went to quarterly publisher’s meetings at the Ritz-Carlton in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. It was a series of eye-opening lessons in business for a then-32-year-old with a background in journalism. I got my “MBA” right there. I won’t try to recount all that I learned, but I do want to say that Punch Sulzberger was always kind to me and always — astoundingly — interested in me. I was at a crossroads. Was I going to continue in journalism with ambitions of being a reporter or editor at The New York Times? Or was I going to continue as a publisher and devote myself to business? Punch (I feel very odd calling him that. I want to say Mr. Sulzberger, because that’s how I thought of him, but he always insisted I call him Punch) did not try to push me one way or the other. He flew me to New York to interview for the news side. The then-managing editor seemed bemused. He recognized my abilities as a general assignment reporter, a police beat reporter, but told me “We haven’t hired anyone around here in years that wasn’t a rocket scientist (literally) or didn’t have a PhD in economics or wasn’t a specialist of some kind.”

I chose the business side (as I think Punch had hoped) and started on the path that brought me to where I am today, as a business-owner. Punch was always interested in me and what I was doing, was always supportive of the youngest member of his management team. He was a great man with a common touch, and I have never forgotten.

Which brings me to the marketing lesson (and business lesson) that I learned from him.

On the day he left my office, with me newly installed as a publisher in the The New York Times Company family of publications, he left a piece of paper on my desk with big block letters on it — no note, no signature. It said:

REVENUES — DRIVE

PEOPLE — TAKE CARE OF

Two imperatives I try to follow to this day.