Read Time - 6 Minutes
In the history of modern satirical magazines, it can be said that Alfred E. Neuman, Mad Magazine’s ridiculous cover boy, was the genre’s Founding Father.
First published in 1952, Mad’s lineage includes National Lampoon (1969) and The Onion (1988.) Growing up (using the term quite loosely) in the 70’s, the shag-carpeted floors of our house were littered with various Lego, Matchbox cars, Wacky Packages…and Mad Magazines. The Fold-In was an ingenious regular feature. Don Martin—with due respect to the likes of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones—was the preeminent cartoonist of the time.
And, of course, Mad Magazine gave us Spy vs. Spy.
Those cold war-inspired, monochromatic, anthropomorphic bird-like beings who deployed Rube Goldbergesque devices that yielded a smorgasbord of gunshots, stabbings, explosions and various blunt force traumas in a decidely macabre—and highly entertaining—manner.
I happened to have had access to a recent copy of the magazine a few weeks ago, and I’ll blame an irresistible sense of nostalgia for reading it cover to cover. I was thrilled to see that our Spy vs. Spy friends, despite what has now been decades of abuse and sadistic behavior, are alive and as demented as ever.
But seeing them for the first time in years made me wonder. I wondered if the bombs they use—the round ones with the sparking fuse—were a figment of cartoon imagination, or if there really were ever bombs that looked like that. I wondered if they each have just one suit of clothes, or if they have several and have them dry cleaned periodically. I wondered about the root of their quarrel—was it a family affair (their resemblances are hard to ignore), or were they a couple of Jason Bournes, just doing their jobs? And I wondered about how these guys might resolve some of the issues I see polarizing our industry.
So with an oversized-brimmed-hat tip to our fueding friends, let’s weigh in on some of these issues in Spy vs. Spy manner, and hope a random grand piano doesn’t drop on us from above…
1. Right vs. Right Now
I’m old enough to clearly remember when the pace of our business—and most businesses—was set by the United States Postal Service. Mail was the currency of the day—purchase orders, checks (remember those?), artwork, presentations, product quotes, bills, etc. all came via mail. Opening and distributing the daily bundle was a vital function, assigned only to trusted personnel.
Nowadays, we get a googol of Google results in a nanosecond. And if we don’t, we move on just as quickly. The culturally-allowable gestation period for communication and thought has been reduced by a factor of several decimal places to the left.
But this era of instant gratification does not serve our industry particularly well. We are expected to deliver creativity, and to do so on the spot. The fact of the matter is it takes time to fill the think tank—my company asks for 3-4 days to put together initial concepts for custom awards. Time allotted for contemplation is directly correlated to the quantity and/or quality of the ideas and solutions provided.
As a promotional products distributor, take a daily timeout—maybe 15 or 20 minutes off the grid (gasp!)—and, with genuine empathy, think about your customers and how you can provide better solutions for them. Reset their expectations for what you aim to deliver and in what timeframe. And grant the same deliberation period to your suppliers.
By providing custom concepts and setting a proper pace, you and your customers will be rewarded with better ideas and more effective solutions. It’s up to you to recalibrate the sequence of “Fire! Ready” Aim!” that is running rampant.
2. Supplier vs. End User
Unlike our illustrated anti-heroes, most of us are a shade of grey somewhere between the extremes of shadow and light. But those extremes do exist. If you put enough people in a room, for instance, you’ll find someone destined for sainthood. And, in all likelihood, someone else who is a serial arsonist.
In our industry, the arsonist, metaphorically-speaking, is…
…the supplier who just doesn’t seem to care about you or your client.
…the end user who wields the “The Customer is Always Right” stick with reckless abandon.
…the distributor whose primary mission is to put the squeeze on suppliers.
We all know the type, regardless of which side of the fence we’re on. We cringe when we see the caller ID, and we steady ourselves for the pain associated with shedding another pound of flesh.
While you can’t control your suppliers or your clients like you can your own behavior, you can certainly operate as the fulcrum point between the two. You have an opportunity to preserve the balance with a catch-more-flies-with-honey-than-vinegar behavioral model—and to make sure others operate the same way. (See: Rule, Golden.)
If this kind of mediation fails, there is an option. You can choose those suppliers and customers with whom you don’t do business. Paying customers and supplier resources are hard enough to find as it is, so jettisoning them can be difficult to rationalize. But, over time, these associations never really improve, and only serve to increase blood pressures and decrease profits.
You are free to fire the arsonists in your life.
3. Custom vs. Stock
As a supplier of custom awards, I am admittedly biased here. With all else being equal, it seems obvious to me that custom goods—from window treatments to dress shirts to kitchen cabinets—are inherently superior.
But I did say with all else being equal. Are custom products priced the same as stock goods? Probably not. Do custom products take longer? Probably so. But it’s important to remember that promotional products are experiential goods, not consumer goods. And experiences are measured on a scale of value, not just time and cost.
Like sushi and tattoos, many promotional products should not be purchased from the bargain bin. It’s the industry’s Hippocratic Oath as distributor to give your customers the best value available. Providing tailored experiences is one way you can deliver on that promise.
4. What? vs. Why?
Perhaps saving the best one for last, the What? vs. Why? is essentially the age-old question of the balance between form and function. But think about this—and be honest…When is the last time you asked your customer “Why?” Why do you want an imprinted mug, or hat, or award or whatever?
Asking why will open doors that “What?-based” sourcing and order-taking cannot. As a knowledgeable resource, asking the Why? question may very well lead you to better solutions on behalf of your client. Or the discovery of additional opportunities. It will certainly open dialog regarding your customer’s business and objectives, rather than your own. This level of empathy will undoubtedly endear you to your client in a way your competitors are not.
The common thread among all these issues is an awareness that these are not conflicts, but opportunities. Differentiate yourself. Be genuinely helpful. Ask questions. And know that the truth, unlike our beaked adversaries, is not a black or white condition.
Photo credit: spyversusspy.wikia.com
Dave Miller is VP of Sales & Marketing at Bruce Fox, Inc. and a professional writer by virtue of the fact his company is paying him to write this blog. He believes Cracked, Crazy, and Sick were poor, poorer and poorest facsimilies of Mad magazine. The goal of his blog is to “edu-tain” (educate + entertain) promotional products distributors, with a focus on custom work. Dave also finds it very awkward to write about himself in the third person.