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Vote with your clicks, with your sponsorship, with your bookstore dollars. Vote with your conversations, with your letters to the editor, by changing the channel. –Seth Godin

For the last few years I’ve been a huge fan of the Under Armour brand. There was something about their marketing, their spokespeople, their attitude, and the apparel itself that spoke to me.

I read news stories about how Stephen Curry, one of the NBA’s biggest stars and the face of the Under Armour brand, had been half-heartedly pitched by Nike—they mispronounced his name, which sounds like “Steph-in,” not “Steph-on”—before choosing Under Armour as his endorsement partner. And I ate it up.

I even read stories about how the company’s founder and CEO, Kevin Plank, started the company by selling sweat-wicking athletic t-shirts out of the trunk of his car. A true boot-strapper, an American success story, taking it to Nike. What was not to like?

I bought so much Under Armour gear you would have thought I owned stock in the company (which I do).

Fast forward a few years to last week, when a story broke about the CEO, Kevin Plank, and his comments as a new member of President Trump’s American Manufacturing Council. Plank told CNBC: “To have such a pro-business president is something that is a real asset for the country.”

That was, apparently, a mistake.

Plank has since faced backlash from Curry* not to mention two other big names under the Under Armour flag: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Misty Copeland. Under Armour eventually released a statement clarifying Plank’s and the company’s position, but the damage had been done. [EDIT: Since posting this on February 14, the story continues to evolve. Under Armour’s CEO, Kevin Plank, took out a full-page ad in the Baltimore Sun on February 15 to write an open letter to Baltimore, where UA is headquartered, clarifying his previous statements about President Trump.]

*Curry said he agreed with Plank’s comments, if you take “asset” and “remove the -et.”

I started writing this piece a few times, including the day after Pennsylvania-based construction supplies retailer 84 Lumber aired a controversial, seemingly pro-immigration ad during the Super Bowl. Its CEO, Maggie Hardy Magerko, a Trump supporter, then came out and said the commercial wasn’t necessarily promulgating a pro-immigration message, so much as a vaguer, “that through struggles we will do anything we possibly can to make [the world] a better place for our children” message. In other words, 84 Lumber paid at least $10 million for a Super Bowl ad, the result of which is a lack of understanding of what it meant.

I could have written this piece even earlier, following the #DeleteUber movement in late January, when the on-demand taxi app caught flack by undermining a cab driver strike at JFK Airport in New York, in response to President Trump’s short-lived executive order on immigration (a.k.a the “Muslim ban”). Consumers were outraged that while cab drivers staged a work stoppage to draw attention to the ban, Uber was still sending its fleet to the airport—and charging higher rates, a.k.a. “surge pricing”—during the ban to capitalize on the lack of competition due to the strike. In response, hundreds of thousands of Uber’s (ex-)customers deleted the app from their phones.

When I heard about #DeleteUber, I rolled my eyes as I often do when I catch wind of this sort of slacktivism. Will it really make a difference?

Uber isn’t a publicly traded company, so we don’t know whether the company’s value took a hit (more on that later), but #DeleteUber certainly had a ripple effect:

  1. Uber’s biggest competitor, Lyft, smelled blood in the water and pledged to donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union over the next four years. (The ACLU was in the news at that same time for its lawyers storming American airports to offer pro bono council to Muslims affected by the ban.)
  2. Uber set aside $3 million for a legal-defense fund to support drivers.
  3. Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, facing consumer and employee pressure, stepped down from President Trump’s economic advisory council.

So, did some silly slacktivism campaign actually move the needle in any significant way? Hell yes.

My friend Elliot has taken to calling this “commercial activism,” a.k.a. voting with your wallet. Perhaps the most prominent recent example is Nordstrom, which announced it would stop selling Ivanka Trump’s clothing line. (President Trump famously replied to this news via Twitter.)

Nordstrom said sales of the eponymous brand have plummeted over its past fiscal year, and that this was purely a business decision. If that’s true, and people are exercising commercial activism in response to a president whose beliefs and policies oppose their own, then we’re seeing something special here. And we should expect a lot more of it moving forward, regardless of who (or even which party) is in the White House.

Brands like Patagonia pride themselves on doing the right thing, particularly from an environmental perspective, by encouraging people to “buy less” of their clothing rather than wastefully replacing their coats after a few years when all then need are a few minor repairs. (I know this to be true from personal experience: I once brought in an old Patagonia coat to one of their retail locations to be repaired; instead, they offered to take my old coat and let me select a new one right off the rack.)

While it’s a unique and interesting time from a business perspective to think about how brands might align themselves politically to put themselves in the best possible positions financially, for me it raises lots of questions.

For example, would (or should) a left- or right-leaning CEO or brand intentionally manipulate its marketing messaging against its own core beliefs if they thought it would help them sell more widgets? If they did, is that unethical?

And circling back to my earlier example, should Kevin Plank’s (the Under Armour CEO) comments dictate whether I continue to buy Under Armour’s products if I don’t agree with Plank’s political views? What if Plank supports Trump, but his employees—including the spokespeople who came out against him—mostly don’t? Should I simply ignore the CEO’s comments, because by boycotting him I’m affecting his employees, who had nothing to do with those comments?

I’m not sure how I feel about Under Armour at the moment. As The Rock said in speaking out against Plank, “a good company is not solely defined by its CEO.” But do I want to put money in Kevin Plank’s pockets, knowing that he may use a tiny fraction of it to support a political candidate I don’t like? And if I decide to buy Nike, or Adidas instead, must I research those companies’ executives’ campaign contribution history? Or do I just stick my head in the sand and simply buy whichever products I like best, regardless of my (or the company’s) political leanings?

Regardless of how (or whether) I’ll personally take action moving forward, my takeaway from the last few weeks is this: brands absolutely care what consumers think of them, perhaps more now than at any point in history. Companies exist to make money, and if consumers decide—for whatever reason, political or otherwise—to stop giving them money, they will notice and they will react.

As the Seth Godin quote at the top of this post suggests, we as Americans don’t just vote in November. we vote with our money–and our social media, and our Google search history, and what we watch on TV–all day, every day. I don’t know about you, but I plan to make my votes count.

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In this episode of The Profit, “The Soup Market,” Marcus Lemonis visits a Milwaukee-area soup shop.

The store has been reasonably successful, but with grand plans to expand its footprint from 5 stores to 50+, and a co-owner who died unexpectedly, owner and soup chef (“soupier”?) Dave Jurena needs Marcus’s help.

Within a few minutes of stepping inside one of The Soup Market locations, meeting Dave in person, and tasting a few soup samples, Marcus already has a few thoughts. The inside of the shop, he says, looks like a hospital cafeteria. The soups themselves are a little thick, not the light fare he expects when ordering soup. And he’s concerned that the calorie count of these thick soups isn’t posted anywhere, nor does Dave care to know how caloric his soups are.

Marcus also hates the sloppy presentation of the soup and bread on a plate, thinks the bread smells like it’s not fresh, and is concerned the shops aren’t collecting data at the point of sale for which soups sell best and worst. Dave estimates soup makes up about 60% of the shop’s revenue, but doesn’t know what the second-best selling item is.

Marcus asks Estephanie, one of the shop’s young, friendly assistant managers, to step outside to ask her a few questions without Dave hovering. When he asks Estephanie who she reports to, she squirms and says, “Dave…?” It’s obvious to Marcus, and the audience, she’s hiding something. There’s clearly an underlying issue, but it’s above her pay grade. No one can blame her for not getting in the middle of whatever it is. Estephanie grudgingly mentions someone named Grace, but says she’s unsure of Grace’s role at the company.

Next, Marcus pokes around in the kitchen at another TSM location, getting to know some of the other employees including Kevin, who is introduced as the director of operations. Kevin, in front of Dave, mentions Grace as well. Dave quietly says to Kevin, “Don’t mention Grace,” and then tells Marcus Grace will be leaving the company soon. Dave is red-faced and clearly uncomfortable talking about Grace.

Marcus smells something fishy–besides the cioppino. Unwilling to let the Grace thing go, he also asks Mayra the kitchen manager, outside of Dave’s earshot, who she goes to if she has a kitchen problem. “Grace,” Mayra says without hesitation. When Marcus asks if Grace reports to Kevin, Mayra says, “I really don’t know,” with the same awkwardness we saw from Estephanie and Kevin earlier. He revisits the issue Kevin, who describes the relationship between Grace and Kevin as “brother-sister,” and “dysfunctional,” before Dave interrupts them.

Upon visiting a third store, Marcus is confused to see Dave’s wife, Jill, again. He had met her at the first store that morning, but since she’s not technically involved in the business he thought it odd to see her twice in one day. When he asks Dave why she’s here, he says it’s “to support me.”

“Is that really the reason?” Marcus asks. Dave says: “And to keep Grace away.”

When Marcus prods, Dave is as cold as gazpacho and says three or four times, “I’m not going to talk about it. Next subject.” Marcus won’t let it go, and finally Dave says, “I wish you would go. I have no interest in your services,” and storms out.

Marcus reaches Dave on the phone an hour later. Dave explains there was a “blow-out fight” between he and Grace, and they mutually agreed to part ways. Marcus is satisfied, for the time being, and agrees to set the Grace thing aside. For now.

Marcus and Dave go over the numbers together. We see the little cartoon infographic we get every episode, this one specific to increasing the margins on a cup of soup–though Dave himself doesn’t know how much it costs him to make a cup of soup–from 52% to 70%.

And finally, here’s Marcus’s offer: factoring the $85,000 TSM is in debt, Marcus is willing to pay $315,000 for 50% of the business. Before agreeing to take Marcus’s money, Dave wants to know “what that looks like” in terms of how Marcus intends to spend money when it comes to improving the look of the stores, which Marcus hates. Marcus says no, he’s 100% in charge and won’t agree to any such conditions before making the deal. Dave, who pretty much has no choice, agrees. And with a handshake, Dave and Marcus consomme-d their relationship.

Marcus has Dave to bring a few of his soups to a lab to test their nutritional content and, surprising to no one, they are found to be heart attacks in a bowl. (As if this episode didn’t already smack of Seinfeld, the lab scene calls back Jerry, Elaine and Kramer having the “no-fat” frozen yogurt tested.) Marcus suggests tweaking some of the recipes to make them healthier. Dave wants no part of it, suggesting Marcus should stick to business and let Dave stick to soup.

Later, who makes an appearance at the store but Grace. She blows past the counter and walks to the back room. Marcus tries to stop her, pretending he thinks she’s a customer, but he knows what’s up. Her explanation is, “I’m Grace,” and she keeps going. Since Dave isn’t around, Marcus takes the opportunity to ask her what the deal is.

Grace says she is “kinda freaked out, I’m shaking right now.” Grace tells Marcus she is the director of operations–not Kevin–and that Dave requested she be invisible during the episode. She very much still works at TSM and still draws a paycheck. After a little more Marcus-style prodding–he’s like the Howard Stern of small business reality shows–Grace finally says she thinks Dave’s wife, Jill doesn’t trust her, and that she has become a problem in the Jurenas’ marriage, though nothing has ever happened between she and Dave.

The plot thickens–much like Dave’s African peanut soup.

As Marcus leaves the store, Dave’s wife, Jill, is skulking literally around the corner from the store. Is she keeping a lookout for Grace?

Marcus confronts Dave about Grace. Again. Dave says she’s a great worker who really stepped up when his business partner died, and that he developed feelings for her. He says he told his wife about it, and that nothing actually happened between he and Grace. Marcus considers walking away, but decides to power through for the sake of the employees. What a guy.

Marcus forges a deal with a pretzel company to supply TSM with a better bread option. And Dave even agrees to make a healthier soup to appease Marcus. Marcus is simply inspiring, not unlike chicken soup for the soul.

Marcus goes home to Chicago, then comes back two weeks later for the grand re-opening of one of TSM’s locations, having spent $60,000 renovating the shop and installing a point-of-sale system. People are lined up at the door. Dave gives an emotionless speech about how excited he is for the re-opening, and everyone files in for free soup. Dave’s wife, Jill, says she’s very proud of Dave. But wait…

Marcus spots Grace hanging around outside the store. Marcus brings Dave outside to take one last shot at ironing things out between Dave and Grace. He mediates, Dave apologizes, and Grace accepts. But Marcus is still pissed that Dave, against his wishes, excluded Grace from the opening. Marcus is again questioning his decision to partner with Dave. Perhaps he should have chosen salad instead.

Ten days later, while back in Chicago, Marcus gets a call from Grace. Grace says Dave fired her for insubordination, and when she refused to leave, Dave had the police escort her out. She also reveals that two years ago she filed a sexual harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after Dave made a sexual advance toward her. While that’s messed up, and Dave is now coming off like a scummy weirdo, I kinda feel like this is something Grace might have mentioned to Marcus a little sooner.

Marcus goes back to Milwaukee to confront Dave and sees that the new menu board, fresh produce display, and POS system are gone. The pretzels are missing, too, and TSM is now selling ice cream.

Marcus, now stewing, questions Dave, who tells him he doesn’t like any of the ideas Marcus implemented. They bicker, but it’s all beside the point. Marcus whips out his trump card, the paperwork from Grace’s EEOC complaint. Dave goes back into red-face mode, says the complaint is “being taken care of,” and that he doesn’t think he and Marcus are a good partnership. Marcus, class act that he is, wishes Dave good luck, shakes his hand, and walks out. After taking about a $100K hit on this failed investment, Marcus may be eating ramen tonight.

“I saw his true colors,” Marcus concludes. “I’m outta here.” I can believe he walked away from the deal. What I cannot believe is that he didn’t even attempt a soup-related play on words to end the episode. Personally, I would have gone with, I ultimately decided that Dave’s bisque was simply not worth the risk.

This was an entertaining hour of TV but it leaves me with one question: had Dave been more flexible and cooperative with Marcus, would Marcus have been willing to stick out the partnership despite Grace’s sexual harassment claim? How much of a role did ethics play in Marcus’s decision to walk away, and how much was simply because Dave was a pain in the ass to work with?

What do you think?

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As a business development manager at Warc–a service devoted to helping advertising professionals create, buy and sell effective advertising*–I spend eight hours every workday talking to prospective clients about how insights (i.e. research) is the first step to building strategic ad campaigns that drive sales.

*Sorry for the elevator pitch but I couldn’t help myself!

My day job, combined with my friends Gil and Elliot’s recent interest in advertising, got me thinking about why I’m loyal to some of my own favorite brands.

*As savvy consumers, Gil and Elliot have begun to take notice of contemporary advertising platforms like product placement, native advertising and highly-paid YouTube celebrities, a.k.a. YouTubers.

And where better to start than a product I buy quite a bit of: beer.

I’d consider myself a bit of a beer snob, but I didn’t start that way. Ten years ago, then in my early 20s and always on a budget, I generally drank whatever was cheapest. My first question when I visited a bar was, “Do you have any specials?”

It wasn’t until a trip to visit my uncle Frankie in Arizona back in 2007 that I started to form a connection to one beer in particular.

When I got off the plane, happy to trade my heavy winter clothing I’d brought from New York for a t-shirt and jeans, Frankie picked me up from the airport and brought me to his favorite local sports bar, Zipps, for some wings and beers.

As I reviewed the bar’s domestic beer selection, Frankie suggested a beer I’d never heard of from a brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado. The beer was called Fat Tire.

“Do you mean Flat Tire?” I asked.

“No man, it’s Fat Tire,” Frankie replied.

I ordered the beer with the odd name, and I liked it a lot. It wasn’t too fancy, just a simple, drinkable amber ale. It had more flavor than the cheap, light beers I was used to drinking.

Frankie and I had a great weekend together. Frankie is just six years older than me, so our relationship growing up had been sibling rivalry-esque. But on my visit we had a chance to hang out for the first time as adults. I was glad for the chance to bond with my uncle and, of course, try Fat Tire.

fat-tire

I was disappointed when I returned home to New York and learned that New Belgium, the brewery that produced Fat Tire, didn’t distribute its beer in my area. I would continue to look for Fat Tire every time I visited Arizona, Las Vegas, or the West Coast. I enjoyed the thought of having a “go-to” beer when I traveled to the other side of the country. If a bar, restaurant or casino was serving Fat Tire, I ordered it.

When I got married a few years later, I was excited to learn that Fat Tire was available in Virginia, the state where my wife and I tied the knot. I made sure we were serving my favorite beer during the cocktail hour and reception.

Since that first visit to Arizona, I’ve tried many, many new beers, and have developed a fairly sophisticated palate when it comes to craft beers. Have I had better beers than New Belgium’s Fat Tire? Sure. But I still consider Fat Tire my favorite beer. It’s not because it’s the best beer I’ve ever had; it’s because I associate it with that positive memory of my visit to Arizona, the subsequent visits to see family Out West, and my wedding.

So, what does this have to do with advertising? What can an advertising professional–for example, someone at an ad agency whose job it is to figure out where and when to advertise on behalf of its client, a craft brewery–take away from my story?

Bud Light and Coors Light, which fall under the massive conglomerates Anheuser-Busch InBev and Molson Coors, have been associating themselves with the things Americans love for many years or years, particularly when it comes to sports. It’s just about impossible to consume an American sporting event–watching on TV or online, listening on the radio, or in-person–without seeing several ads for these beer brands. And whether you consciously notice it or not, you’re associating the (hopefully) positive experience of watching your team play with the brands that advertise alongside it.

Of course, an independent, employee-owned brewery like Fat Tire, or the many even smaller breweries like it, don’t have the budget to flood the airwaves with commercials to raise awareness for their beers. But when my wife and I attended a small music festival in Charlottesville, Virginia, a few years back, New Belgium was there with a sponsored tent and pouring four of its beers I’d never had before including a tasty summer brew, Snapshot. I’ve purchased Snapshot and other New Belgium beers since then, and I always associate their beers with positive memories.

As it turns out, New Belgium didn’t have to spend millions of dollars on a 30-second Super Bowl commercial to create an opportunity to earn my business.

Now, let’s be realistic: I don’t stand in the beer aisle at my local grocery store and stare blankly into the cold cases while I replay the Fat Tire-related highlights of my life every time I buy a six-pack. But on some level, I’m thinking that when I’m buying that beer, a positive feeling will come along with it.

The craft beer business these days is brutally competitive. While there are more tiny breweries making great beer than there have been in any point in American history, it also means they’re all vying for market share (from beer snobs like me) and, unfortunately, they won’t all get it. But with the limited marketing dollars they may have, I’d advise them to make their presence felt at local events. As Peter Sims suggests in his book, Little Bets, if you can cheaply and quickly test an idea, it’ll allow you to tweak a good idea until it’s great–or rule out a bad idea all together. Maybe that means hosting a beer tasting at a local food truck festival. Or sponsoring a tent and selling your best beers at a small concert. Or just pouring small cups of cold beer to sweaty volunteers on a hot day at a charity event, even a summer 5K.

Small craft breweries will never realistically compete with AB Inbev and Molson Coors. For most, the best case scenario is to gain enough national attention to get acquired by one of the “Big Beer” companies. Even the biggest American craft brewery, The Boston Beer Company (which brews Samuel Adams) isn’t close. As its founder, Jim Koch says, Budweiser pours more beer down the drain than his brewery produces in a year.

But if you can start small and local, and connect your beer brand with something positive that your prospective consumers can look back on and smile, you’re off to a pretty good start.

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When my wife and I arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, after a full day of traveling from our safari lodgings to a boutique hotel in the Camps Bay area of the city, we were surprised to learn we had been upgraded from our original room to a suite for the first four nights of our stay. However, we are also surprised to learn the suite wasn’t available on our fifth and final night, so we would have to move rooms.

Tired, hungry and cranky, we asked if there was anything that could be done to avoid having to move rooms. (We’re not the neatest unpackers, and didn’t want the hassle of having to pack up, unpack, and pack again a day later.) We asked if it was possible to cancel the last night’s reservation–we were thinking if we had to pack up everything anyway, we might try to find a hotel room in another part of the city for our final night in Cape Town.

The front desk staffer said he would call the owner, an American gentleman, about our situation. Shortly after, the same staffer found us and explained that no other rooms were available for our last night, and we would indeed have to move rooms our fifth night. He was nice and polite, and by then we’d settled into our room and were in better spirits. We said sure, it was no big deal, and the matter was over in our eyes.

About ten minutes later, while getting ready for bed, I received an email on my phone from the owner of the hotel, which I’ve included below. (I took out a handful of text from the original email to redact any personal information, about us and him, or impertinent comments.) We’ve decided to take the high road and not “out” him by revealing his name or which hotel in Cape Town he owns. But the email itself is too good not to share; it’s truly a master class in how not to speak to your hotel guests. Enjoy.

Oh, and despite this insane email, the hotel was actually really nice and we stayed all five nights.

Hello Bobby,

I just received a call from our night manager sayin that you are unhappy about having to move rooms for the extra night you added to your stay.

I probably should have spoiled the surprise at the time which you have done yourselves now.

I wanted to do something nice at the time upgraded you to our largest and most expensive suite. You added the extra night on and only a different room was available.

I feel really put out. Rather than a thanks for the upgrade you want to leave the last night you added on because you have to change rooms.

I turned away a guest who stayed with us twice before yesterday as we didnt have the [fifth and final night] available. We are not a 300 room Westin and I am now really upset with this and I have so much work to do just too upset to deal with guests full stop.

There will be no refund for the [fifth night] if you decide to leave. In fact I would rather you left and upgrade some other guests as your wife played up and is giving us difficulty after what I did. This is such a slap in the face. Do I dare ask who you are voting for?

It will be a long time before I do this again for a pair of American guests. I cannot keep up with our enquiries and I am very very put out to have my time wasted like this as well.

I dont care if you like this message or not. Let me make this clear! Yes I do take it personally as [this hotel] is my baby!

[Signed owner’s name]

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About five months ago I embarked on a new career path: sales. Up to that point I had no sales experience except for a few miserable months selling knives.

To get myself prepared, I watched my favorite movie about sales, Boiler Room (which, incidentally, is based on Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Wolf of Wall Street).

There’s a scene in Boiler Room when Seth, a young hotshot stockbroker played by Giovanni Ribisi, is sitting at home one Saturday morning eating breakfast when he gets a call from a guy named Ron, who’s trying to sell him a subscription to the Daily News.

Ron weakly gives his elevator pitch, mispronouncing Seth’s last name–though how does one mispronounce “Davis”?–and Seth says “not interested.” But before Seth lets Ron hang up, he gives him another shot at the call. “I get the same half-assed sales call from you guys every Saturday morning. If you want to close me you should sell me. Start again.”

Ron gives a stronger pitch (albeit clearly reading from a script), “feature-dumping” all the reasons why the Daily News is the best daily newspaper in the city, and even handling some objections from Seth.

At the end of the call Ron asks for the sale. Seth’s response: “Nah, I get the Times.”

As a new sales guy I’m hardly in the position to critique the technique of another sales guy, but on Thursday I was the recipient of a sales call from a rep at an online stock trading site where I’ve done a small amount of business in the past.

This wasn’t a typical cold call–i.e. a sales call in which no prior business relationship with that person exists–because I was already a customer of the site. But, it was most certainly a sales call in that the site makes its money when its customers make trades, and I was making none.

So the guy calls me on my cell phone in the middle of the workday, but I pick up–it was an area code I recognized. He introduces himself and asks “How are you?”–a surprisingly simple way to gauge the mood of the person on the other end of the phone, so you know how much time you’ll have to make your pitch.

He sounds a little “junior.” He explains that he’s noticed I haven’t been very active on the site lately. He’s right. I tend to pick stocks with little more sophistication than those people who fill out a March Madness bracket based on the mascots of the teams, and nothing has really inspired me to make a trade lately.

He goes on to ask me about my financial goals–am I saving for retirement, or do I just hope for a certain percentage return on my investment?–and shares some benchmarks based on other customers of the website. I’m reticent to share my financial goals with someone I don’t know so instead I ask, what does my account look like relative to those benchmarks he mentioned?

Now on a call like this, he’s probably making them at scale–he might make a couple hundred in a day. Most people won’t pick up, and the ones who do won’t talk to him for more than a few seconds. So it doesn’t make sense for him to learn everything about each customer he’s about to call, because it’s just not efficient to do so. I get it.

He takes a second to look up my account and shares some metrics. Fine. So, I ask him, what do you think I should do?

When a customer asks a salesperson this, the salesperson should be licking his chops. You better have a good answer. But this guy couldn’t give me anything specific. Again, because he probably didn’t think I’d pick up the phone, and because he was inexperienced, he certainly didn’t think I’d actually ask for his advice on how to invest my money.

I said, “If you have some ideas on any specific moves you think I should make, I’m all ears.” At this point, honestly, I just wanted to hear his reaction. He didn’t name a single stock, or type of fund, or anything he thought I should invest in. He agreed to follow up with an email (which he hasn’t yet) with some more information.

Obviously this guy wasn’t an experienced stockbroker–they had him calling down a list of people who weren’t using the site–but he’s got to go into the call with the mindset that if someone does answer, and they do ask him for a recommendation (more on “recos” in a moment), that he has something smart to say. This way instead of some jerk writing a blog post about this conversation with him, they’re investing money in a stock he suggested.

Early on in Boiler Room, when Seth is being trained on how to make cold calls by a senior broker, Greg (played by Nicky Katt), Seth asks what he should do if the person he calls wants to buy stock right there on the spot. Greg says, “You wanna go into every call expecting just that.” Greg instructs Seth to yell “reco” at the top of his lungs, at which point the first senior broker to get on the phone has the chance to close the sale. (See below. Semi-NSFW.)

I realize I’m hardly a “whale”–someone who invests massive sums–when it comes to stock trading. But if I was important enough to land on this guy’s call list, then I expect an idea, an insight, something from him that keeps me from uttering the five words every salesperson dreads: remove me from your list.

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As I wrote last week, I’ve been trying to break into the competitive sports scene in the D.C. area since moving here from New York a few months ago.

So far, so good, in getting onto a softball team–though I recently learned the team is sponsored by a local gentleman’s club (I am begging you to read the reviews for this place. BTW, a business idea: a blog where people who write Yelp reviews of strip clubs are given carte blanche to just write a couple hundred words on literally anything. I’d read that.)

Okay, we got a little off track there, but onto the main event: the story of how I tried out for a local tennis team, and how things became much more serious than I anticipated.

In looking for ways to immerse myself in the community–taking the first of many steps to becoming Northern Virginia’s answer to Coach Taylor–I reached out to some of the local tennis organizations to see about either joining a team or a ladder* to keep in shape, meet some people, and play tennis with people of a similar skill level to my own.

*A ladder is essentially a list of people who can schedule matches with each other around their own schedules, rather than being scheduled by a league. After they complete a match, they report their scores to the ladder admin, who keeps track of everyone’s win-loss record. At the end of a pre-determined “season” there may be a playoff, and a winner is ultimately crowned. It’s a great way to play tennis competitively without the rigidity of a league situation.

During the process I guess my name ended up on a few lists and message boards, and every so often someone would reach out about meeting up to hit around, or a team they were on, or suggestions for leagues to join.

On February 29 I received an email from a team captain who had gotten my information from another captain who had reached out to me (that team was in a weeknight league, but I was looking for something on weekends):

I captain an excellent team in the DC USTA 4.0 Spring league that will start in April. … The last two years we have won the league and advanced to sectionals in Newport News. … This time we hope to win sectionals and advance to nationals. It seems like you would be a perfect fit for our team being a high end 4.0/low end 4.5 so to speak.

 

Not sure whether to be flattered as a “high end 4.0” or offended at being called a “low end 4.5,”* I wrote back, expressing interest. We agreed to meet the following Sunday morning so he could get a better sense of whether I could play.

*The United States Tennis Association (USTA) rates players based on skill level. I haven’t ever been officially rated, but based on my experience playing in college and asking people who know about these things, I’m around a 4.5. However, I’ve also come to realize that most tennis people in the know tend to play about half a level down from their true rating, so I should be looking at 4.0 leagues.

After 45 minutes of warming up, rallying, and playing a few points, The Captain had seen enough. My groundstrokes and serve had been solid, but my volleys and overheads were weak, having not played in a while. But I assured him it was just rust, and playing steadily would be sure to shake the cobwebs off my game. I had played both singles and doubles at a Division III college, and felt confident I could regain some of that form (albeit it was now 10+ years after graduating).

My day job is in sales, so I did my best to ask not-too-pushy questions that would get The Captain to betray his honest opinion on whether I was right for his team. Before seeing me play he said I would be a “perfect fit,” but now he didn’t seem so sure.

He told me he needed to see me play one more time to make a decision. He later arranged for me to hit with one of his teammates, but that session was rained out. And so I sat in purgatory, not knowing if I was going to make the team. (This was a very different experience from the softball tryouts I’d attend a week later.)

I reached out to The Captain (twice) via email about next steps. His reply, a few days later:

Sorry for the delay in responding. … The first thing you need to do is to join usta and self rate on the usta website. The computer will likely rate you at 4.5 as you are a former division 3 player under 36. Then click the appeal button to appeal down to 4.0. You highlight the factors in your background to make your case here, i.e., haven’t played competitively in 10 years, lost almost all of your doubles matches in Division 3, any injuries? I think the appeals committee meets on Tuesdays. If you are bumped down to 4.0 then I can consider you. There is alot of interest in our team so no promises yet. Once I find out that you are rated  a 4.0, we’ll regroup.

He was the one who reached out to me! Also, I was somehow too good (I needed to appeal to the USTA to decrease my rating) but also not good enough to be given a spot on The Captain’s team. What?

My initial reaction was to send him a scathing email–how dare he ask me to jump through these hoops just to be considered for his team! Instead I spoke to my tennis braintrust–two of my college teammates, and my father-in-law–who convinced me to “play the game.” The Captain was a little fanatical about his tennis, but maybe he was just being passionate. If I made the team, it could be a pretty cool experience competing for a regional or national title.

Gritting my teeth, I sent my reply:

Thanks for your detailed reply. … I’m happy to take the appropriate steps towards getting my USTA rating to make sure I’m qualified to join your team. But before I do, I’m hoping you can share your thoughts on whether I’m the right fit for your team.
As you noted, right now I’m a stronger singles player than doubles player–but I believe my doubles abilities will come back the more I play (I’ve also joined a ladder to get some extra strokes in during the week). Are you concerned about my flexibility to play both singles and doubles if needed? Or about my ability as a singles player? As I said I’d be happy to hit with you … this weekend as a second tryout, and if you’re still not sold on me I’ll withdraw from consideration for your team.
If you are seriously considering me for your team, I’ll go ahead and follow the steps you laid out re: getting rated a 4.0. But if you’re thinking I’m not a great fit without needing to see me play a second time, please let me know.
Thanks in advance for your candor.
If the team was not going to be a good fit for me, that was fine. At this point I wanted to know I was on the team, or to check this off my list and move on. The Captain replied:
Here is the situation. I run and play on a DC team 18+ and a [Maryland] 18+ team. Both teams are excellent. The DC team advanced to sectionals the last 2 years. The MD team advanced to state regionals the last 2 years and fell just short of advancing to sectionals. We think this year it will happen. Both teams are competitive and no one knows what will happen with either team until the matches are played. Both could advance or neither. Last year both of my DC 40 and MD 40 teams advanced to sectionals. In DC, the scoring is based on total courts won in the season so every court played counts. In MD, the scoring is based on total matches. So if a team won 3 of the 5 courts played in the match, it counts as 1 match won. You have nice strokes, but are still rusty and it will take some time to groove the strokes again and get back to your regular game. With the season starting so soon, I can’t take the risk in DC of losing any courts while working on consistency. In MD I can take the risk of losing a court in a match during this period of working on consistency because the team is strong enough to win enough other courts to win the match. As the season progresses, you will eventually be back in the groove. This enables you to get back in the game with competitive match play with no pressure. I might have one slot open on the MD team. If you are interested in the MD team, we can talk about that. Both seasons are during the same time frame starting in April. 
“I might have one slot open on the MD team.” We never once had spoken about playing for his team in Maryland! Rather than assuming this guy was baiting and switching me this whole time, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say he’s managing so many tennis teams that he mistakenly did not inform me that my chances of joining his team were slim, and that he would likely end up having me compete for a possible (but not guaranteed) spot on his team in Maryland.
As you might guess, at this point I replied to let The Captain know I was no longer interested in pursuing a spot on any of his teams. If the right situation presents itself later this spring, I’ll consider it. But clearly it won’t be with The Captain.
Whatever. I bet his team isn’t sponsored by a gentleman’s club…

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Over the last decade I’ve grown increasingly sensitive to advertising both as a consumer—now that more ads are targeted to me—and as a professional, since I’ve spent most of that time working in the advertising industry.

I’ve written before on this blog about how one form of advertising, product placement, can go from seamless—almost subliminal—messaging to get us thinking about a brand without directly being fed a commercial in the traditional sense, to something that feels so out of place and distracting that the entertainment value of the content suffers.

On my brother Danny’s recommendation, I recently started catching up on FX’s new-ish series Baskets, starring Zach Galifianakis (the show was co-created by Zach Galifianakis, Louis C.K., and Jonathan Krisel).

Very early on in the series, the first episode in fact, one brand is prominently featured repeatedly on the show: Costco.

Galifianakis’s character, Chip Baskets, is a “classically trained” clown (he studied at an academy in France—which is in Europe, if you’re a fan of this show) who can only find clown work at a rodeo in California. As he climbs the walls to avoid being gored by a bull, his co-worker and fellow rodeo clown tosses him a t-shirt gun to help Chip win the crowd over. Inside the gun are Costco branded t-shirts. (The arena sponsor signage also includes Kirkland Signature, Costco’s private label brand.)

Later in the episode we meet Chip’s mother, played by Louie Anderson (yes, you read that correctly), goes on and on about the great deals she got at Costco, parading out a number of Kirkland Signature products for the camera to capture.

Furthermore, the insurance adjuster Chip meets when he crashes his motor scooter works for—you guessed it!—Costco. Did you know Costco offered auto insurance services? Me neither!

After the first couple of episodes I texted my brother: Baskets is kinda funny but it’s also a long commercial for Costco. So many Costco labels in every shot!

His reply: Haha yea I like to think of Costco as a character on the show.

As an advertiser, I suppose that’s the best possible outcome for such an overt product placement, isn’t it?

Later episodes take place partly at Costco, either with Martha talking to her boss there, or Mrs. Baskets taking Chip’s estranged wife Penelope there to shop. “A dollar fifty for a hot dog! Can you believe it?”

In another episode, Martha was on the verge of being fired because she hadn’t sold any executive memberships to Costco. After unsuccessfully trying to accomplish this feat, Chip’s mom eventually buys Chip the membership. “You don’t have a membership to Costco? What’s wrong with you?”

Oddly enough, as I was Googling to learn more about Costco’s paid product placement, I learned that this so obviously paid for season-long commercial for Costco was actually not paid at all! As it turns out, the agreement the show has made with Costco is that no money will exchange hands, Baskets will get access to a Costco store to film, and Costco will have no creative input. So while Costco–the character on the show–may at times be the butt of the joke, it is amenable to this condition in exchange for free screen time a.k.a. advertising.

So, whether it’s paid or unpaid, Costco’s heavy presence may have had a greater effect on me than I knew–despite supposedly being hyper-aware of advertising thanks to my profession.

Just today as my wife and I made a Costco run—a perk of moving to the suburbs!—we found ourselves at the checkout line when the cashier asked me if I was the primary cardholder on my account. Yes, I said, and so he introduced me to presumably his boss, who asked it me if I had considered—wait for it—an executive membership to Costco. My default reply was to ask what it was, but of course I was already familiar with it thanks to Baskets. After getting all the information I decided to pass on it, for now, but I was, let’s say, 10% more open to hearing more simply because I had known a little bit about it before I was approached.

And now here I am blogging about it, and you’re reading it, and you’re wondering what a Costco executive membership can get you. So the next time you say, “Advertising doesn’t work on me,” think about that for a moment longer and remember: It’s not always about getting you to open your wallet right now. Sometimes it’s just about planting the seed.

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