As a triathlete, I’ve gotten used to the term “transition times” to indicate how long it takes to go from swim-to-bike to bike-to-swim.
The first time I did a duathlon, before I took to swimming along with running and cycling, I ran the first two-mile section in just over 12:00, jumped on the bike and road as hard as I could, then moved through transition back from cycling clothes to running gear. As I emerged from the bike zone, my legs felt like liquid cement. I’d never really done a bike-to-run transition before. For all the running I’d done in life, including the most difficult distance race in track and field, the steeplechase, my legs had never felt that specific kind of “dead” before.
My wife stood outside the transition zone waiting for me. When she saw me trundling along with legs barely lifting and a sagging look on my face, she called out, “Keep going, honey!”
After the race, I laughed pretty hard about that moment. She was trying to be kind and encouraging, but there was also a bit of “I told you so!” in those words. I’d not done any “brick” workouts to practice the feeling of running after cycling as hard as you could. Lesson learned.
There are other kinds of transitions in life as well. Moving from one job to another can be a big of a drag. One day you’re engaged in familiar routines and the next you’re learning all-new tasks. The “new job” feeling can rob you of self-confidence quite quickly. It’s best to do some prep going into any new situation so that the shock isn’t too bad.
Transition to marketing
That said, I’d been with the Daily Herald for most of a year when the directive to transition to marketing came along. That meant an hour-long commute from my home in Batavia to Arlington Heights, a big suburb where the office sat facing I-90. The building looked like a ziggurat, with stairstep architecture from the lower stories to the top floors. Competitors in the region called the DH office the Death Star, named for the habit of consuming territory and growing circulation by reaching into towns across the Chicago suburbs. They weren’t wrong about the tactics. In many cases the strategy worked, but only to a degree. Circulation in new territories often hovered at 10% among households, whereas local papers; weeklies in particular, might reach 20-25%.
But the news coverage was exceptional, with the highest circulation-to-editorial relationship of any newspaper in the country. The brand tagline was “Big Picture.Local Focus.” That’s why I was promoted to market the company. The reach was big but the penetration, not so much.
I met with my new boss, a former Sports Editor who was bumped into marketing a few years before I arrived. He had a skydiving photo of himself on the wall. Ultimately I learned that he was extremely risk-averse. The photo was a weak attempt at showing what a venturesome guy he was. Most of the time he was reticent to try anything new. He didn’t like sticking his neck out in any fashion within the organization. I was the opposite, and felt I had a mandate of sorts to shake things up. When the President said, “We need new ideas in marketing,” I took him seriously.
So the dynamics were a bit awkward as we moved into the rhythms of working together. I was hired to cover all the regional offices, and there were several of them spread across the suburbs in Lake County, DuPage County, Elgin, and the newest Tri-Cities office where I’d been hired to work as an editorial writer.
We had monthly meetings with the Advertising and Editorial managers at each of the offices. Each had a tiny little budget of a few thousand dollars to last them the whole year. A year into the new job, I’d hear the same President that hired me stated in a full-staff meeting, “I don’t really believe in marketing.”
What they did believe in was high-profile branding. That wasn’t a terrible strategy. The regional and main offices were all located on major Interstates or on high-traffic roads where the blue Daily Herald logo could be seen by thousands of commuters a day. The paper also served as the media sponsor for the Allstate Arena, a big-time venue situated on I-90 east of our main office. Our company had an entertainment box overlooking the main stage for concerts and shows and there were ice hockey and basketball games held there as well.
That’s the stuff my boss liked to do, hang out a high-profile sporting events and concerts. He also negotiated all the pro sports contracts with the Cubs and Sox and Bulls and Bears and Blackhawks. There were all sorts of deals made, mostly trading tickets for some levels of ads.
But the Allstate Arena deal was the biggest promotional expense our company had. The specific advertising agency with whom we had a promotional contract kept asking why we didn’t budget any dollars to do media or billboards. But that’s not where the company put its money, and that contract eventually dried up entirely.
What we had left was a marketing agency tied together with the Allstate Arena deal. It was staffed by a pair of women that showed up once a month to schmooze with my boss, and I wasn’t allowed into those meetings at all. I often wondered what happened in there, because that company and those women were supposed to bring us promotional partners. But that never seemed to happen.
Then my boss went on a trip to Vegas, which is where he liked to go on vacation for some gambling and drinking. Those trips were the only other time I saw him willing to take any sorts of risk.
Unfortunately, he came down with a bad case of thrombosis in his legs on the way back, resulting in a blood clot that could be life-threatening. I felt bad for him because it seemed like he at least came back from Vegas a bit relaxed. But not this time.
That meant I was suddenly tasked with managing his contract activities on top of mine. And since I’d just taken on the specific role of Community Relations Manager (with a $10,000 pay raise, so I was playing the game right for once…) the activity around the office picked up quite a bit for me.
So it was transition time. While I’d been kind of marshaled around behind the scenes with my boss in place, now I was an open-faced sandwich ready for inspection by everyone in the organization. But again, I was prepared. I’d studied what the organization was doing with its money and where its revenue strengths and weaknesses were. In one of the first meetings held with my boss and our staff, I remarked, “You know, we’ve got an 8% profit margin, which is fine as long as we don’t lose any advertising categories.”
But life was changing fast in the media world. The revenue from job listings was quickly moving over to the Internet. The company had to institute a cutback in revenue, and did so with a staff-wide requirement to take one unpaid day per month. Frankly, everyone loved the change, and when the policy ended, people were sad to lose that “benefit” even though it was nothing more than a cost-cutting measure.
But speaking of cost-cutting, I quickly realized upon first meeting with our marketing partner that the investment we were making on a monthly basis was not delivering the ROI anyone expected. The outlay was thousands of dollars per month, and I realized that the only thing that money was doing was paying the salaries of the two women that showed up once a month with their blouses unbuttoned so that their bra and boobs showed. At least, that’s what happened the first meeting I had with them when my boss was out of action.
So I made up a cost-analysis sheet and handed it to the Advertising Department head and within a few weeks the marketing agreement was over with that firm. I felt bad cutting the women out of their sweet deal, but given the company’s overall narrow cost-benefit margins, I felt it was my responsibility.
From that point forward, the Advertising Department took over negotiations with potential promotional partners at the Allstate Arena. I felt I’d done my job helping the company transition to a better option. We’d save more than $100,000 a year going forward.
World in transition
But things in the world at large were going to get strange. Because on September 11, 2001, while I was home waiting to head to the Tri-Cities office meeting near my house, I turned on the television to see smoke billowing from one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. By then my boss was back and work and I called to tell him, “I’m driving up to the office today. We need to see how this is going to play out.”
A bit later that morning, I stepped outside my house to skies gone silent. All air traffic was halted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. My wife came home from her preschool and we wondered whether we should pull our kids out of school. Yes, life changed that day. The whole world knew it was going through some kind of transition.