One night long ago, my business partner Ed Moed and I tore up the town after being named PR Week's best small agency of the year. Upon waking the following morning at our corporate apartment, we realized we were late for a very important date with Paine Webber (today's UBS Paine Webber).
We'd been invited to pitch Donald Marron, the CEO himself. But we were badly hung over, disheveled, and lacking fresh clothes. So, wearing the same tuxedos from the night before, we staggered into Paine Webber's headquarters a full 45 minutes tardy. The CMO was boiling mad, but she nonetheless ushered us into Marron's stadium-sized office.
The regal Marron eyed us up and down, told us to sit on his couch, and asked his secretary to serve us tea. He then told us he was looking for the right PR firm to reach the newly-minted dotcom millionaire market segment, who perceived PW as their "grandfather's bank."
We mumbled a few semi-coherent words and were thanked for our time. But as we were leaving, Marron shouted to us and the CMO: "Wait a minute! There's something about you two I like. Let's hire the ponytailed guys!"
The odd thing was, neither Ed nor I sported ponytails that day (or ever, as far as I know). But, our fashion look somehow resonated with Marron. And we ended up representing his firm until they were bought.
I've shared the Marron tale because it's more relevant than ever in light of two workplace fashion trends. According to reports, more and more Wall Streeters are dressing down, while legions of men are wearing sneakers to work. Holy informal attire, Batman!
I'm seeing the same trends in my world (as well as a reverse one I'll also relate). My 110-employees dress business casual in the office, but we'll wear jeans and T-shirts when we meet with technology clients, as well as when we visit our client MINI Cooper's corporate headquarters. (MINI, btw, has the coolest dress code I've yet encountered. Everyone sports some kind of cool black MINI-branded shirt, fleece, hoodie or sweatsuit.) On the other hand, we'll wear suits and ties when we visit our financial clients.
Fashion imagination at work
It's critical to wear the right clothes at the right time at the right place. We've actually lost pitches because our team either over or underdressed.
We've also delighted prospects by going over the top with some avant-garde, fashionista creativity. For example, right after General Electric's Jeff Immelt succeeded Jack Welch as CEO, we were invited to pitch Immelt's "Imagination at work" campaign.
As a small, relatively young firm at the time, we knew we had to take risks in order to impress the stuffy decision-makers in Fairfield. So we asked our agency president, Ted Birkhahn, to dress as Thomas Edison (GE's founder) and deliver an "Imagination Manifesto" right in the CMO's conference room. Talk about surprise and delight. We were hired on the spot.
Another time, we asked Ted to dress as Napoleon (see photo below). He led a pitch to a global French-based multinational that was ready to brand itself here in Les États-Unis. That, too, worked like a charm (and we still work for the French client).
And to help us nail the MINI business, Ted dressed as fugitive-from-justice D.B. Cooper. We were suggesting a viral campaign that would inspire MINI Cooper owners to band together to help find the notorious hijacker, who according to some reports is still alive and well. He was even wearing a parachute we'd bought for the pitch. At the end, the prospects applauded, and we were awarded the business a few days later.
I always ask a prospective client how our team should dress before making a presentation. It's that important. And I cringe when a member of our team shows up at the big pitch with a rumpled suit four sizes too big for his frame. I've also had panic attacks when a team member dresses in a way that's simply too upscale for a startup that's just received its Series A funding.
Greg Schmalz, president of Schmalz Communications, recalls a time when he bucked the fashion trend at an erstwhile employer. You see, Greg wore a suit and tie every single day. His co-workers didn't. "Many of them would mock me for my conservative attire. One day, though, I was vindicated. A key client called our office. He requested we draft a last-minute press release and hand deliver it to him at a major press conference that was about to be held. Everyone looked at me, since I was the only person properly attired to attend the event," he says. "Could you imagine if a T-shirt, jeans, and sneaker-clad staffer had handed the release to the client? It might have cost us the account."
Schmalz had the savvy, and the guts, to buck the fashion trend. So does Peppercomm's Nick Gilyard, a recent Western Kentucky University graduate and freshly minted associate. Gilyard doesn't dress like the rest of us. He'll always rock a very cool, beautifully color- coordinated suit-and-tie ensemble. He does so for a reason: "I think we try so hard to make our clients look good that we, in turn, should do our best to keep up our appearance."
Gilyard credits good old Peppercomm with enabling him to express himself sartorially. "I'm not sure where my career plans will take me, but I don't want a T-shirt and jeans to deny me entry," he says.
There's casual, and then there's casual
Gilyard's comment reminded me of a painful fashion lesson I learned when I was his age. I'd been invited to fly to a Sony national sales meeting, and to sit alongside the corporation's vice president of corporate communications.
We agreed to meet at the airport. I spied the client at the gate, and immediately knew I was in trouble. He was nattily attired in the appropriate Brooks Brothers' gear of the day: blue blazer, button-down shirt, khakis, and loafers. As for me, I was in my usual Sunday attire: jeans, cowboy boots, and a T-shirt.
I'll never forget his withering stare or the VP's words of advice, "Steve, let me tell you something. There's casual, and then there's casual. Never, ever, show up to a client meeting dressed like that again."
He let it go. But I didn't. Whenever and wherever I've gone since then, I've always been very careful to dress up or dress down according to the fashion dictates of the client or prospective customer. To do otherwise is to commit more than a fashion faux pas. It can cost you a piece of business.