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Wed, Jul

The art of oneupmanship

Learn a thing or two about boosting sales and beating your competitors from Jerry Della Femina, author of the book ‘Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor’ that inspired the TV series Mad Men.

How do you sell? Well, however you sell you could learn a thing or three from Jerry Della Femina, author of the hilarious, yet insightful memoir of ad agency life called ‘From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor’, the book which inspired the immaculate TV series Mad Men. The title, by the way, comes from one of the most famous meetings in Femina’s glorious career. 


He was asked to produce a slogan than would make ordinary Americans warm to Panasonic and, as a joke, suggested: “How about ‘From those wonderful folks who gave you Pearl Harbor?’” There was, he recalls, an awful silence broken eventually by the sound of the art director laughing so hard he was crying. That gag helped define his legend. He would henceforth be the “Pearl Harbour Panasonic guy”. Which, in a way, leads to his first lesson on the art of selling.

Selling is showmanship
You have to judge how much or how little showmanship is appropriate – and that will differ from client to client. The kind of histrionics that typified the American ad agency business in the 1950s and 1960s would seem outlandish to most clients today but every now and again they might work. But selling has to be about dreams, not just a pragmatic discussion of costs per unit where the bean counters take over. Femina cultivated his own legend – clients often told him “You’re not as crazy as I thought you’d be” – and it paid off for him and his agencies.

Know your customer
Sounds obvious but too many companies still try to busk it - and risk being caught out. As Femina recalled in an interview: “We had clients from the tobacco company RJ Reynolds who came into my office where we had this giant ashtray with beach sand in it, for people top put their cigarettes out at the elevator door. They would get down on their hands and knees and sift through the sand to see if anyone was smoking their cigarettes.” Femina, of course, made sure they found a few of their own stubs.

Pick your sales team wisely
Every company has staff – sometimes quite senior – who shouldn’t be let loose with clients. One of Femina’s colleagues always entered a meeting with his flies open. Another just had a terrible habit of saying the wrong thing. After a final lecture, the employee seemed to have reformed himself, sitting through a presentation to the Mexican Tourist Board with aplomb. But, just as the meeting was ended, he out his arm around the most senior Mexican, observed how nice the meeting had been and then delivered the zinger: “If you keep being that nice to us, maybe we’ll give you back Texas someday.” Oddly enough, Femina;’s agency didn’t win that account.

Spread the right rumours
One of the most damaging things Femina’s rivals said about him was: “I wouldn’t bother going to Jerry if I were you. He doesn’t handle small accounts.” This was brilliantly effective because Femina couldn’t deny it without sounding desperate – “I could hardly say ‘I’ll take any account no matter how small’” – and it was also beautifully vague. Any company spending less than a million dollars might consider they were a small account and write off Femina’s agency.


The other clever aspect of this rumour was that it was neither slanderous or factually disprovable. In contrast, stories that company X is on the ropes – one of the oldest tactics in printing industry sales wars – looks shabby and, if it proves to be untrue, damages your reputation.

Being number two or number three isn’t always bad
In 1962, Avis was equal second in the US car rental market with National behind Hertz. So the ad. agency devised a famous slogan for Avis: “We try harder”. This brilliant campaign didn’t just spook Hertz, it helped Avis become a clear number two. It’s a simple, memorable message that, even today, any challenger can still adapt to take on a market leader.

Excite them with your creative genius
With design becoming an integral part of the package in the wide-format business, designers could help you seal a deal when more conventional pitches – based on cost, service and delivery – don’t convince the client.
You can, as Femina says, get into a creative arms race – “where what you’re really saying is our creatives are nuttier than their creatives” – but the right creative can make all the difference. The best have a flattering way of drawing the potential client into a conversation which opens them up and tells you far more about what they’re really thinking than their response to your presentation.

But recognise that some rules still apply
Femina tells the cautionary tale of one genius who could never get to work before 3pm. And no matter that his work was stupendous, his schedule just became too difficult for the account team – and the customers – to work with. The young genius left to work for a succession of agencies where his inspirational, irritating routine inevitably led to his departure after a few weeks or months.

Acknowledge the fear
Femina tells the story of one account boss who had flown in the Battle of Britain when he was just 17. Promoted to the upper echelons of an ad. agency by the time he was in his forties, he becomes frightened he might lose his salary, expenses or his status. Asked to account for his change of attitude one day, he looked at Femina and said: “Well, for one thing, the Nazis never tried to take away any of my accounts”.


The fear of losing status – or a major account – is always with us. And it can do strange things even to strong companies. Femina recalls how they won one account with some audacious creative but, only days after, were unnerved by an apparently convincing rumour that the client had changed its mind and might use a rival. This scare prompted the agency to play safe with its work. The result? They were lambasted by the client who warned them that they had been hired for their originality not to come up with the same stuff as everyone else.

Be radical, but careful
Johnson and Johnson once invented an antiseptic cream that didn’t sting. Nobody bought it because they believed that if it wasn’t stinging, it couldn’t be antiseptic. So the scientists who had laboured to take the stinging alcohol out of the cream out some of it back in. As soon as they did that, sales picked up. Challenging customer preconceptions can pay off – as long as you don’t challenge the one preconception that they are never going to surrender.

No matter how good your sell is, you have to deliver
The least effective ads, Femina suggests, aren’t necessarily bad, they just have the misfortune to sell bad products.

Find the right person
As Femina says: “There may be six people in the room and there’s going to be a lot of discussion, but when it’s all over one guy’s going to say: ”I think we should go this way’. Or: ‘The president, I think, will agree that we should go this way.’ This is the guy you want to find.”

‘From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor’ by Jerry Della Femina is published by Canongate Books

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