Annual Meetings

QMy annual meetings usually involve a lot of boring presentations. How can I use this time to get my employees thinking about big-picture issues and planning for the future?

Gary Lico
Norwalk, Connecticut

Too many companies treat annual meetings as pit stops -- a chance to drop briefly out of the race and recharge the engines. Great annual meetings, however, are more like green flags: They signal that a new race is about to begin. Your job, as grand marshal, is not only to wave the flag but also to explain what the finish line looks like.

That doesn't mean you have to bring up every grand plan that's ever crossed your mind. Instead, use the meeting to discuss one or two big things you want to accomplish in the next few years. For his meeting, Clate Mask, CEO of Infusionsoft, a software company in Gilbert, Arizona, takes cues from the book Built to Last, by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras -- specifically, Mask says, having a "big, hairy, audacious goal" that motivates the team. This goal could be something tied to product development, market share, profitability, or revenue growth. Whatever it is, it must capture the big picture. Little, bald, timid goals -- such as landing a particular account or trimming tech costs -- are for everyday meetings.

To get his employees away from the day-to-day stresses of their jobs, Mask holds his annual meeting off-site and builds in time for pleasure as well as work. This year, the meeting was three days long, so there was plenty of time for both. The downtime sharpened brainstorming sessions and strengthened personal bonds, he says. Plus, going off-site eliminated distractions. "If you want to inspire employees to think bigger and better, you have to create the setting for that," Mask says.

Don't be afraid to assign homework, says Steve Red, president of Red Tettemer, a 13-year-old ad agency that holds a retreat every year. In preparation, all employees read a book to discuss at the meeting. Some selections -- such as Where the Suckers Moon, an account of ad agency Wieden & Kennedy's ill-fated marketing campaign for Subaru -- relate directly to the company's industry. Others are more inspirational. Once, Red assigned Seabiscuit and used it as a starting point for a discussion about beating established competitors.

Finally, the key to a great annual meeting is to treat it not as something big but rather as the start of something big. For example, you could use your gathering to generate a to-do list for the year, making sure all the items on it relate to your BHAGs. Establish small groups that meet at least once a month to discuss how each employee is progressing toward those goals. And Mask recommends displaying the goals prominently back home, rather than leaving them to gather dust on a conference center whiteboard. "I post it up on the wall so everyone can see -- I blow it up and laminate it," he says. "If you don't see it all the time, it won't get done."


Q My company sells unique home and garden products, like a dishtowel with a retractable cord that attaches to a belt. In the past, I have done all of my own marketing, and I have had a few successes. Now, I would like to hire a professional -- someone with experience in marketing on the Web and on television, perhaps even with infomercials. What should we look for in our new hire?

Ruth Goldman
Argee Corporation
Santee, California

First of all, kudos for trying to expand your marketing efforts during tough economic times. A lot of businesses cut back on marketing just when they should be investing in it. But in times of economic uncertainty, you must be much more careful about each hiring decision you make. Bringing someone on full time is a huge expense and a big risk. And hiring a marketer is a much more subjective process than hiring, say, an accountant. "It's just one person with their own set of ideas, and it may or may not work out," says David deMartino, founder and CEO of O•ZoneLite, a Boca Raton, Florida, maker of air-purifying light bulbs.

That's why he decided to use a public relations firm instead. A PR firm or a marketing consultant can test some strategies and help you figure out what works, often for less than the cost of a full-time hire. For two years, deMartino paid $3,500 a month to a local PR firm that had experience in marketing products with medicinal properties. The firm landed his products in hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and ultimately got them on Canada's version of QVC. DeMartino still uses the firm for short-term projects -- when he launches a new product, for example. "I was dead set against it; it seemed like a big expenditure with no guarantees," he says. "But it's been the single most important thing we've done."

A final note: Once you have decided who will do your marketing, think about where your dollars will do the most good. Assuming cost effectiveness is one of your priorities, we suggest avoiding infomercials altogether. In 2004, O'¢ZoneLite spent $500,000 to produce a 30-minute infomercial and another $400,000 to buy airtime for it. The result: an underwhelming $320,000 in sales.