June 08, 2009

Gliebers Dresses: Chief Creative Officer

Pepper Morgan looks seriously out of place at Gliebers Dresses.

She appears to be twenty years younger than the rest of the Executive Team. And get this ... she actually wears the merchandise she presents online and in catalogs.

The walls of her office are filled with free-hand drawings of spreads that will appear in upcoming catalogs. You'd almost think she was an old-school cartoon animation expert. Her desk is littered with drawings on scraps of paper. Her desk is also covered with flight itineraries.

"My daughter (Sonora) says I spend more time on an airplane than I spend with her. She's probably right, though I got to see her score a goal in a soccer game last Saturday, so that was 'kewl'!!. And it was hilarious to tweet her goal on my iPhone and then have other Moms at the game re-tweet the goal to their followers. Her goal went viral around the soccer field in a matter of seconds. That's the power of social media!"

In person, Ms. Morgan is more outspoken, more opinionated, and far more interesting than she comes across in Executive meetings.

"I've learned to pick and choose my battles at Gliebers. I'm different from these people in three ways. I'm a generation younger than most of the long-timers. I spent my formative years working on the Anna Carter catalog and website, so I'm speaking Portuguese when these folks are speaking Spanish. But most important, I believe in the customer. These people believe in the catalog."

What does it mean to 'believe in the catalog'?

"At some point in your career, you make a decision. Are you working to serve the customer, or are you working because you adore your niche? At Anna Carter, we were thoroughly dedicated to serving the customer. If she wanted us to advertise dresses via banners hanging from a blimp, we'd do that for her. At Gliebers Dresses, we are thoroughly dedicated to producing a catalog twenty-four times a year. We don't generate sales to achieve a profit, we generate sales to fund catalog research and development activities. These folks have a passion for producing catalogs."

Is that necessarily a bad thing?

"I'll give you an example. We use the same images of Patty (the best selling model in the catalog) over and over again. Some of the images go back to 2002. Sure, that saves us a few pennies in catalog and online production expense. But come on!!! As best I can tell, the customer has seen Patty an average of twelve times per catalog, twenty-four times per year, for seven years. That's more than 2,000 images of Patty being shoved down the throat of our 55-60 year old customer, not counting e-mail campaigns."

"And we cannot get rid of Patty. I tried to introduce Roxy (a younger, more contemporary model) two years ago, but the same items sold 15% worse in the catalog when Roxy wore them. Interestingly, Roxy's items sold 10% better online, but nobody cared. Roxy only got four in-home dates, and then Glenn and Meredith sent her to the creative scrapheap. Are we going to keep shooting Patty when she's 77 years old and craving elastic waist slacks? How far do you allow your traditional customers and your leadership to take the creative treatment of your brand? After all, I thought it was my job to determine the creative direction of this brand."

I asked Ms. Morgan to talk a bit about the future of creative.

"I think we're currently in a state of transition. We left analog marketing back in the 1990s, but Web 1.0 e-commerce didn't do creative professionals any favors. Copywriting became writing copy for Google. Where's the fun in testing 'Sundresses on Sale' vs. 'Sundresses with Free Shipping'? Now to some extent, copywriting moved into blogging, but marketing took ownership of blogging, something that we creative people should be really good at, right? So that stinks. All of it is boring, all of it lacks creativity."

"Have you ever tried to do something clever with e-mail marketing? Can I be creative, or do I have to worry about using 18 fewer pixels in a pre-header, whatever that means? When did our days shift from selling merchandise to focusing on pre-header pixels? And we focus on stuff like pre-headers so that 1 in 700 people buy from an e-mail instead of 1 in 770? And then somebody will say that they improved e-mail ROI by 10% because of a steely-eyed focus on pre-header pixels --- even though only 1 in 700 are responding anyway. 699 out of 700 recipients don't purchase. How much time are we really wasting for something that 699 in 700 won't buy from, time that could be spent actually selling merchandise or listening to the customer? Honestly, the e-commerce revolution caused marketing and information technology to take accountability for so many of the activities that used to be done by creative people. And now marketing and information technology are executing those things at a sub-optimal level."

I asked Ms. Morgan once again about the future of creative.

"I think the future is a fusion of video and social media, the injection of humanity into the utterly sterile world of e-commerce. My job will be to generate great content, stories and videos about how we complement the lives of a busy middle-aged fashion-focused woman who cannot afford Neiman Marcus but wants to look as good as the Neiman Marcus customer."

"My team will produce the content, we'll engage and interact with and participate with customers online. We may even introduce an entertainment channel with original programming. This content will be available on our site, but more likely, we'll widgetize it so that our biggest fans can distribute the content wherever they want ... and by doing that, we bypass marketing and information technology. Social Media will be an inexpensive distribution channel. Social Media has already replaced the Post Office, we just don't know it yet. Why spend $0.80 telling a story in print when your fanatical customers will spread the story for you without cost via Social Media?"

I suggested to Ms. Morgan that her vision was unique to the catalog industry.

"Probably. But that is where creative is heading. There isn't going to be a difference between creative and marketing in the future. Campaigns will be eliminated, everything will be personal, and not personal like a 'Dear Kevin' line in an e-mail campaign. Each customer will have to decide whether they want to volunteer to do our marketing for us. 99% of customers don't want to do anything. 1% of the customers will do our marketing for us, without cost. My job is to give that 1% of the customer file something compelling to share with others. For us, 1% of our customer file will replace the post office. For other brands, 1% of the customer file will replace television advertising or radio advertising. That's a tough transition for a marketing professional. It's an absolutely invigorating transition for a creative professional. Our time is coming."

I asked Ms. Morgan why she was so biased against e-commerce?

"I'm not against e-commerce. I'm against unimaginative, rule-based online shopping. If I want to do something revolutionary in the catalog, I simply go do it. If I want to do something revolutionary in e-commerce, I have to have the information technology department code it for me. Have you ever tried to work with the information technology department? You never get what you want, it takes eighteen months to give birth to an idea assuming it gets prioritized in the 'book of work', a bunch of techies mock you for not understanding e-commerce conversion best practices, and the whole world has moved on by the time your watered down idea is implemented. And once your watered down idea is implemented, you're mocked because your idea didn't perform, you're mocked because your idea is now behind the times. Why would anybody want to go through that? Worst of all, those information technology folks know that they can bury the requests they don't like. That's not an optimal way to run a business."

"And then you have the algorithms. These things suck the romance out of shopping. Just last week, our cross-sell algorithm said that customers who loved our Sweet 16 dress line also loved Wedding dresses. What's up with that? You should have read the hate mail we received, Moms chewing us out for recommending that sixteen year old girls consider marriage. And yet, bow-tie-guy (Boris Feldman, CRM Manager) says that customers who buy our Sweet 16 dress line do eventually buy Wedding Dresses. You end up having to make a decision. Do you let the algorithm decide what you do, or do you let common sense decide what you do? Right now, the triune god of algorithm/lowest-price/free shipping has complete control over e-commerce."

I asked Ms. Morgan why she never shared these opinions in the Executive meetings?

"I do my work behind the scenes, jumping on every single chance to align my work with projects that hint at the future of e-commerce. You don't push a company forward by belittling the CEO just because he doesn't know the difference between a widget and a tweet. You don't make progress by humiliating the marketing executive for always taking the easy way out and renting names from a database. You don't innovate by telling the web development team that the website looks like it is optimized based on feedback gathered at a Shop.org conference in 2002. There are many times, even when you're talking, Kevin, where I'll side with my Executive team partners, trying to build support. I want for all of us to succeed. It's hard to succeed when you're a contrarian."

I wondered if Ms. Morgan's vision is achievable?

"I think it's achievable, but things are going to have to get really bad before it can be achieved. Right now, nobody has the stomach for shifting resources from things that used to work well to things that are unproven."

I asked Ms. Morgan about all of the hand drawn images in her office. Didn't the hand drawn images reflect the kind of old-school cataloging and e-commerce that she was rebelling against?"

"Maybe it is easier to see the future in other disciplines than it is to see the future in your own area of expertise. I love drawing on paper. I don't like drawing on the computer. This is the way my mentors taught me how to do my job. It brings me peace."

A lot of folks at Gliebers seem to uncomfortably straddle the peace of the past and the uncertainty of the future.