retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Where have you gone, Bob Garfield? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you…

Odds are many of you haven’t heard of Bob Garfield (and sadly many of you have no idea what song I just mimicked. Rent The Graduate!) But let’s get back to Garfield, who announced yesterday he was ending a 25-year run as the advertising reviewer for Ad Age magazine.

Garfield’s reviews were always worth reading. They were funny, insightful, provocative and occasionally incendiary. (Remind you of any news service you get daily?) Mostly they were great because they were honest. Garfield was unafraid to pull back the curtain on bad or overdone advertising. He would lambast ads that were far too clever and forgot to sell their products and he would gush over great advertising that was memorable and moving. Remember: “Wassup!”

A few years back I hired Garfield to speak at a Food Marketing Institute (FMI) function and he was everything I expected. He irritated some people, enlightened others and left no one feeling ambivalent. My only regret was that in the process of preparing his speech he asked me if he could do a montage of company presidents acting as television spokespeople for their companies - a role Garfield felt few, if any, played well. I asked him not to for fear of having the entire board of directors in the montage. Garfield agreed, but in the end I was wrong. It was a message that should have been heard.

What makes someone like Garfield so fabulous is honesty and the willingness to ask the question what everyone else sees, but no one asks. It’s an uncomfortable role, but essential and far too many companies could use a Garfield around simply to keep them honest. (The good news for at least some companies is that he apparently will spend his post-Ad Age life as a consultant ... “my brian is for rent,” he wrote yesterday.)

An example of asking the uncomfortable question: this past Sunday evening, my daughter and I were in our local supermarket, which serves a community with a sizable population of very observant Jews. Our local Giant store does an excellent business in selling challah, a bread that is most widely used at the start of the Jewish Sabbath on Friday nights. But on Sunday, my daughter pointed out, there was an enormous display of challah - which struck her as unusual since this past week was Passover, the holiday when Jews don’t eat bread. (One has to believe that Giant founder Izzy Cohen was not resting in peace over this mistake...)

Clearly, nobody pointed this out to the powers that be at this store. Nobody asked the question. And the betting here is that, unless there was a stunning shift in Easter Sunday dining habits, there was a lot of Challah going to waste at this particular store.

That’s why we have to question and encourage questions all around us. Because sometimes the most obvious mistake is missed by nearly everyone and we need someone to point it out.

At the risk of doing yet another a plug for “The Big Picture: Essential Business Lessons from the Movies” ... the reason Kevin and I mention it so often is that we believe the lessons have relevance. In this case, consider the lesson of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which may be the worst film mentioned in the book, but demonstrates the importance of asking the uncomfortable question in a critical scene toward the end, when Captain Kirk makes as query that everyone around him sees as impertinent, rude and disrespectful. Until they realize that he is right to challenge even the ultimate authority.

It’s the absolute right question. Ask yourself if you’d do the same or, worse yet, how you’d react if someone questioned you.

Yesterday, Kevin took note of a New York Times interview in which Andrew Cosslett, CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group, said much the same thing: “There’s a lot of perceived wisdom in most industries that haven’t hasn’t been challenged for years. The trick in business is not to care too much. Because if you care too much, you won’t ask questions and you won’t challenge because you’ll care too much about your position and what someone’s thinking about you.”

So best of luck, Bob Garfield. Enjoy the world of consulting and don’t stray far with those caustic comments. Honesty is never in oversupply.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at msansolo@morningnewsbeat.com . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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