This article was based on Episode #16: Bonnie Rothman’s Story, please watch the complete episode here!
Morgan (Host): Hi, everyone. Welcome to the latest edition of client horror stories, and I’m very excited to have here Bonnie Rothman with me today. This interview has been long in the making with a lot of back and forth because we’re both busy, but I’m happy to finally have you here, Bonnie.
Bonnie (Interviewee): It’s great to be here, Morgan.
Morgan (Host): So let’s jump right into your story, and I’m sure that there are a lot of lessons and ideas that will come out. Tell us about the challenging experience and what you’ve learned from it.
Bonnie (Interviewee): Wow, that’s a lot of questions. I work with a lot of high-growth companies, and you know, the stock and trade are really helping founders, and sometimes with or without marketing teams, tell their stories. I’ve worked with a lot of exciting businesses at numerous stages of their growth, and I think that one of my favorite stories is from one of my favorite clients of all time.
They were a very, very well funded and super cool company whose brand promise was a home chef delivery service. So instead of a meal kit, you would subscribe just as you would to Blue Apron, and a chef would bring the recipes of the meal that you chose to your door, prepare everything, clean up, put the meal on the table, and go. It was such a fabulous promise; the company was based in New York City, and they were testing in New York City. They had a lot of funding; they had a big staff; they had a marketing team and a fabulous CEO. They also had really cool offices, really cool promises, and they had kitchens.
They were based in Soho, but they had kitchens in Chelsea, where the meals were prepared, and they were recruiting lots of personalized chefs, and business was growing. By the time they came to us, they had cycled through numerous communications agencies. We do storytelling through public relations and lots of messages, and we were brought on board and the CEO of the company, who was a Silicon Valley guy now living in New York. said to us, “You’re our third agency and you’re by far the best!” Because every week we would come in, we have team meetings, we would work on messaging, or we would work on projects, or we would work on events, and along the way, we did lots of fun things for them.
There’s a rumor in New York City that, like a lot of people, never turn their ovens on. So we surveyed New Yorkers to find out what they put in their ovens, and we got responses like shoes, books, and you know, laundry detergent, things like that. When we conduct surveys, what we want to do is sort of confirm a previously held belief that’s completely outrageous, which is a nice tactic per survey. We did some really good work, we did the survey, and found that lots of people stored shoes in their ovens, men, and women, surprisingly enough. We got a lot of nice press for them, and that was just one of the many, the many activities that we undertook for them. And the CEO said, “What can we do for an event and how can we really elevate the brand?” So we came up with the idea of having kitchen sides. In our business, there’s a tactic called desk sides where you trot around, and you meet with reporters and influencers at their desks. So we said, “We’re going to have kitchen sides. We’re going to go to influencers’ homes with our chefs and we’re going to have this experience.” So that was all bubbling along, and the influencers loved those cute little takes.
They got these personal chefs to come to their homes. Then the CEO said, “What else can we do?” We said, “Well, why don’t we find the sort of the ultimate customer for you?” So we decided that Allison Williams, Brian Williams’s daughter, who was then in girls on HBO, series girls, would be the perfect spokesperson. So we’re negotiating with her, I forget who was her agent in Hollywood, and we’re in the mix, and we’re this close to signing her to do publicity for us. Then we came in for a weekly call, and again, the CEO was so excited and said, “Oh my God, everything is going great. I have great news. We’re expanding to Chicago, we’re expanding to LA, and now I have a team of people were we used to work with really big brands.” We’re starting to feel like this is going to be this acceleration point, and we’re going to help this company go, you know, charge into other markets.
We’re gonna have the opportunity to secure celebrities in every market to do these kitchen sides. We’re planning, planning planning, and the next week we decided to have our team meeting by a call. Ten minutes before the team meeting, I got a call from the CEO, and he said, “I just want to tell you, we’re not going to be having our team meeting because we’re shutting the business down.”
We were stunned. He might not have been, but we have absolutely no clue that the business was in trouble because he was working with his investors. Just like what you and I were talking about prior to recording, you know, the investors decided that the business, I can only assume because we didn’t have a debrief, they decided that the business wasn’t making money fast enough, or maybe the customer acquisition price was too high because as you can imagine, creating that supply chain and funding the individual chefs was just a lot of bells and whistles to make that worked.
So the business shut down, and we were blindsided and disappointed because there was no question that the stories that we were telling for this brand were differentiated, we’re exciting, we’re making internal people happy, we’re getting attention from the media, we were helping to redefine this category, but at the end of the day, communications can only take a company so far if other things within the company are broken. So that was really disappointing because we were doing so well.
Morgan (Host): This is an intense story, and I like to build it up. By the way, I know you professionally do storytelling, and hearing this. I’m, “Wow, she’s telling the story in an exciting way.” So it makes me want to hire you. One of the great things about your story is I think there are a couple of interesting lessons that we can get from this. Everyone listening, or the target at least for this podcast, are younger versions of ourselves. People 15 years younger than us who are starting their own communications marketing.
Bonnie (Interviewee): I’m only 25. So.
Morgan (Host): So those 10-year-olds are very precocious. I think that there are a few great lessons from this. One lesson is that it’s so easy to really obsess on your one role, just marketing, user acquisition, or communications when really you need to always have your pulse on the core of the business itself. Even if the CEO is devastated, he knew the financials; he knew what was happening, so it couldn’t have been much of a surprise to him. So one interesting challenge is how do you befriend the leadership of the company so that you can get this deeper understanding of what’s happening in order to prevent yourself from being blindsided by this?
Bonnie (Interviewee): I agree. You know, I felt that we had a really good report, which was why I wondered r if he was blindsided because, in that particular instance, he wasn’t a liar; he was a business guy. The timing of week A’ we’re expanding to Chicago and LA, and week B; we’re shutting our doors. If something happened, I think that even he didn’t know about it.
He came from marketing, so he was smart enough to know that if he told his communications company that they were expanding into markets, our next step is, “Okay, let’s build a timeline. Let’s figure out what the landscape is in these markets and let’s see how we could replicate what we’ve done so successfully in New York and these other markets.” So it would have started a wheel of work for us. So I think I agree that it’s really important to really know what’s happening in the minds of your clients.
I mean, I worked with another startup founder in the very early stages to help him articulate his story. My job was that his story felt all over the place, which is frequently the case at the beginning stages. He had some funding; he had a great idea; he had great boosters and great supporters. So I helped him get his story started. It was a workplace development company that gets people into sort of these middle-income jobs, like working on the factory floor in Robot Repair or auto mechanics using virtual reality to train, so that it’s a lot safer there and they get instant feedback. I mean, it’s a really brilliant concept, and this was a guy with a vision who had success in another area of ed-tech.
So it was a fabulous promise, and he was a fabulous founder. As we got closer to one another, at one point, I said, “Okay, you’re going to be rolling out in this particular state, and here’s what the communications plan is going to look like in that state.” But he kept pushing back and kept pushing back, so I talked to the people in the state, and I had all the communications materials ready to go, then I said, “I think we can get moving and we need to tell our story locally in order to move up and to get the story nationally.” He said to me, “I don’t even know if this is gonna work.” I was like, what? Like, I had no idea. As it turned out, within like two months. It was working, he got more funding, he used the story, he got well established, and the company was named one of the Fast Company’s most innovative this year. They were doing great, but it’s what I’ve seen when I work very, very closely with founders; they have this moment, which I call founder flounder.
They have this deer in the headlights like, “Oh my god, is this gonna work? and am I ready?” Since I’ve been there so many times, I usually have a sense of when it’s going to work, and in the case of the workplace development guy, there was like no question. Maybe he had a bad meeting the day before. Like there could be all sorts of reasons for that doubt. But it took my breath away a little bit in that particular case because he’d seemed so confident, and then you see the founders exposing their fears, which happens to many entrepreneurs. And I was a sort of communications counselor who’s helping them tell their story, and founder stories for high growth startups in any business, in general, is one of their biggest assets. So we tend to get very, very close in our exploration of that. I find myself having to be prepared for that. “Oh shit! This not going to work” moment and to help talk them out of them.
Morgan (Host): Oh, yeah, I love that. I love your phrase, the “founder founder,” because it reminds me of the Joseph Campbell ark of the hero that right before the win at the end, there’s always that dragon that reappeared just when you think the dragon is dead. Before the big moment, that scary thing will happen; I love it! And I think the part of the trick here is for them to open up to you emotionally; you need a level of trust, a level of time together. Personal rapport, personal connection, and there’s no button you can press to make someone be able to open up emotion with you because it’s just the hard work of relationship building.
Bonnie (Interviewee): It really really is, and I think as a service provider, which we are, of course, like we all say that oh, we work as your in-house team or some of your partners. But at the end of the day, we are an agency, so you want to be able to get there really fast. You want to be able to build that trust really fast. I’ve had that with clients. I’ve had the CEO hotline on Sunday afternoons, one of my clients like it was like Sunday afternoon 3:30, oh here’s the CEO calling me again.
And that’s something that had nothing to do with communication, but maybe it was some internal questioning that he was having or something that was dogging him on the weekend. But I sort of know that I’ve gotten to that place, not that I encourage my clients to call me at 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon. I would much much prefer those Sunday afternoons to myself, but it can happen. Some clients will not allow themselves to be that vulnerable, and I think you have to say that that’s okay. Yet as communications counselors, we get really intimate down to telling our clients what to wear, if there’s food in their teeth because we’re, you know, helping them with their presentations which is why it is an intimate role working in communications and helping someone tell their story.
Morgan (Host): Agreed, so going back to the original story within the story. It reminds me of Hamlet because there is a play within the play. So back to the original story, the first lesson we can get from this is that we have to build this trusted personal relationship so they can let you know and understand what’s really happening, so these things don’t blindside me. A second lesson from the original story is that things can change really, really fast. That’s something I didn’t appreciate 15 years ago, but things are going amazingly, and then it’s the next day and sometimes the exact opposite, as well.
Bonnie (Interviewee): Yes, and I think that even more so today than 15 years ago, and particularly with COVID. I think the lesson that we can all pull out COVID is that we couldn’t stay the course; I mean, who could? You have to be prepared strategically and emotionally to change gears. And when that rapid change happens, things are swirling, there’s a lot of confusion and doubt, and if you are able to be the voice of reason and say, “Here’s our action plan, here’s what we’re going to be doing. We’re going to test it for X amount of time”, and set a super clear direction because sometimes at the beginning of an intense change, you can’t even set clear goals and you don’t even know what they’re going to be.
Particularly after COVID, you know, during COVID, you can have a sense that this change will help, but you got to be ready to step in and be cool, calm, and collected. My 3:30 Sunday calling client, we had that situation during COVID where we had one strategy in place for them, which was laying heavily to communicate. This was an organization, and they did very interesting surveys.
The surveys became instantly irrelevant the minute that COVID hit, so we turned to the marketing team and the CEO and said, “Okay, we’re going to double down on thought leadership for you. We’re going to level up your positioning or you’re going to tell a different kind of a story where you become more of a leader and a guide, and let’s see if it works.” And it did, a ghostwrote 15 stories for him, and he wound up in the New York Times, in the Wall Street Journal, and on lots of TV shows. We had no idea; we sensed that the tactics and it tactically would work, but in terms of what he was talking about, resonate. Things weren’t in flux, so we had no idea, but we just kept iterating and trying to create a level of confidence.
Morgan (Host): That makes sense. The third lesson from your original story as well is this; I think when you’re really excited about a project or a client, there’s this instinct to just like, obsess over it, and do only that. But from the business point of view for any agency of any sort, it’s always really risky to have that one well client. When it’s something you’re really excited about, and it’s going well, it’s hard to stop yourself from jumping all in. But cases like this are also a good reminder saying when all your eggs are in one client basket, that’s a red flag.
Bonnie (Interviewee): Yeah, absolutely. I completely agree that you can’t have X percent of your business coming from one client because you’ll be vulnerable. I mean, the business could shut down like tomorrow or a week after saying that it was expanding. These things happen all particularly if you work with high growth companies and even if you work with small companies. We worked with a big multinational company, and the whole management team got laid off. So as communication, there was a shift, and they brought in a new CEO for the global company, and then there was a reevaluation and shifts. So we were working with one division and then expanded our business through the team at the one division.
But the president and the CMO, both of whom we were working for hand in glove with, both got laid off. That’s because they wanted to bring in new people, and that’s frequently a reason why if you’re a service business, your business could be in jeopardy. So you have to be prepared for that always.
Morgan (Host): Make sense. I think these are the three main lessons that I can I extract, at least in real-time, from your great story. Are there any other lessons that you learned or things that you changed in how you do things as a result of this chef experience?
Bonnie (Interviewee): Well, I think the lesson from the chef experience is that at the end of the day, there’s a saying in our business that is like, “The minute you get a client is also the minute that you’re gonna start to lose them. You could lose them in a variety of ways.” So our take is to really be able to say, no matter what happens, that we did a great job. And what does that look like, you know, make sure that you have really good client relationships and they trust you?
That you’re constantly bringing them ideas strategically, that makes sense, and that excites you. When we were negotiating with this Hollywood agent, that was something that we had experienced doing, we enjoyed doing, and we knew that we were doing well with our client in that engagement. Also, be a good partner no matter what; I mean, when they said they were shutting their doors, we’re like, “That sucks. Let’s go have a drink.” You know, like “I’m really sorry” so that even if the business is floundering, you can walk away knowing that you held up your end of the agreement in a way that makes you feel good about the work that you were delivering.
Morgan (Host): I think that is a great lesson and a positive and optimistic way to end the story. A simple reframing or a variation of the point is that you need to always turn lemons into lemonade. So even if it’s falling, you can still have the relationship and always have our integrity, and as a result, the founder will have another company in a few years, and you did a great job. So maybe this didn’t work, but in five years, he gives you a call for something else.
Bonnie (Interviewee): Correct, I mean, I think it’s all about building that relationship, trust, and delivering on your promise as best as you can. So that I’m having a good time, I mean, you know we’re creative people, so a lot of the excitement is on the ongoing creative output. I mean to us, that’s the most satisfying thing.
Morgan (Host): For me, too, as a creative guy, I think one of the biggest challenges for any creative person in business is how to take the lemons and make lemonade. How do you like the part that’s not fun? The bureaucracy, the paperwork, dealing with difficult people, how do you turn it around and make it fun.
Bonnie (Interviewee): Yeah, well, you have to accept that there’s some pain along the way and just try to mitigate it. I mean, if somebody gives you mountains of paper works, you figure out a fun way, maybe you learn a new skill that makes your mount of paper look prettier than the others or animated or something added you know, I don’t know, just give them packages that make them happy.
Morgan (Host): My general strategy is I try to make everything a game because if it’s a game, then that’s fundamentally more fun, and you can gamify or optimize it. It’s what I do in boring conversations, like how do I make it fun. Bonnie, thank you for coming. Great story, we got a bunch of great lessons, and I hope everyone watching this takes these lessons to heart. Thank you, everyone.
Bonnie (Interviewee): Thanks for having me.
This transcription belongs to Episode #16, please watch the complete episode here!