A Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear

Pre-internet, companies in need of short-term help to fill mostly clerical positions relied on specialized “Temp” employment agencies. This was a highly competitive business at the time with a lucrative commission structure, especially in the New York market, where huge banks, insurance and brokerage companies had a continual need for temp workers. Nevertheless, corporate HR departments regarded the Temp agencies somewhat distastefully as “flesh peddlers”.

The owner of one of the larger agencies was a friend. Hearing me preach about the power of “thinking big, out-of-the-box and strategic”, he was skeptical such thinking could apply to his business. With the added stimulus in this case of competitiveness between friends, I took him up on the challenge. On the surface he appeared to be right. Temp agencies were locked in rigid combat exhausting ad budgets weekly in the Sunday New York TIMES Employment Section, the go-to source for job-hunters. The TIMES had a vise-grip on agency budgets, because the biggest spenders merited an all-important front-page position every 3 weeks. Front page position not only meant more temp job-hunters, but also more and better job offerings, as HR directors at large companies were more inclined to deal with agencies perceived as the leaders. Diverting ad money from the TIMES meant losing the front-page rotation, which no agency could risk. It was an endurance battle that favored the large and powerful, and locked agencies into static position.

While “Temps” was a very different environment than Revlon, P&G and other clients I had been use to, the challenge was no different: How do you break through the clutter and come out on top? Presented with such challenges I turn to another member of my “Marketing Pantheon”, and ask: What would Alexander the Nobody Do?

My friend had $40,000 in uncommitted funds in his budget. As it happened that was the full-page rate for the TIMES’ Business Section, read religiously by business executives every day. I convinced him to reserve a page, and insist upon placement opposite the NYSE stock quotations (in pre-internet days this was how most people knew what happened in the market the day before). I wrote the following ad and had it laid out in the same manner and typeface that IBM, at the time America’s most respected company, used for their newspaper advertising.

Stanton TIMES Page 5.8.86-41

The day the ad ran Stanton’s biggest competitor, a man my friend knew only by name and reputation, called to congratulate him on a “brilliant move”. Stanton’s employees were transformed, energized, confident that they worked for the best agency in the business, and HR Directors became far more respectful when my friend or his managers called upon them.

A week later we began to run a series of ads every time Stanton rotated on to the front page position of the Sunday TIMES Employment Section. Here’s the first of the series that ran, you guess which one, and its effect…

"Dear Brenda #1

“Dear Brenda #1

The campaign’s purpose was to engage job-hunters personally, establishing Stanton as a daring leader among an otherwise mundane group. It worked, remarkably well.

If you are wondering why What would Alexander the Nobody Do? Look up the Battle of Issus in 333 B.C. A 23-year old named Alexander, against all odds, in just a few hours,  led his outnumbered army to an astounding victory over Darius the Great, Emperor of Persia and lands stretching into central Asia and India. The Nobody became The Great by being smarter, better prepared and bolder. He knew Darius’ battle plan, i.e. how his competition fought, which not unlike my friend’s Temp business, was thought to be the only way to do battle at the time. He analyzed the weaknesses, and then deployed his smaller, but well-prepared forces to exploit these weaknesses. In short, he thought big, out-of-the-box and strategically!

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