To Tell the Truth

Ican neither confirm nor deny that I eat at restaurants. If you saw me in Denny’s devouring a patty melt, I have no comment. If you have three sources who confirm they bought me lunch at L.A. Farm and I ordered the dim sum, mum’s the word. If you talked to Dana, my favorite waitress at Ca’Brea, and she tells you I’m such a regular I don’t have to make a reservation, I ain’t talkin’.

I take this position out of respect for all the other restaurants that may or may not have a piece of my business, including the ones I treat badly in any other circumstance. And I am releasing the following statement through a representative:

“We do not comment on speculation or rumor concerning Jack Feuer’s dietary habits or digestive processes, so buzz off.”

Sound familiar?

If so, it’s because, with a little editorial license, you’ve read versions of the same weak demurral a thousand times in stories about ad agency reviews. It’s the corporate runaround one gets when asking the most innocuous questions of major advertisers today.

Of all the pernicious vestiges of the old communications world, this corporate code of silence is among the worst. The instinct to stonewall is the ad equivalent of an appendix—a superfluous appendage that if not removed, can become inflamed and cause severe complications.

To begin, if a company doesn’t talk about relatively uncontroversial topics when the press writes about it, chances are the client will not like what it reads. And sometimes, vague or formulaic responses can make a company look bad.

Almost a week after the press reported Gateway had hired a media agency, after a dozen sources confirmed it and the winner actually began working on the account, the computer maker’s mouthpieces still said they hadn’t made a decision. Did this make Gateway look smart? Probably not.

One of the most distressing trends in this regard is the invasion of mainstream business consultants into the review process. These guys will politely take press inquiries about the time of day, then call back a week later to say they aren’t going to give it to you.

Neither is Bristol-Myers. Sony. General Mills. Nor any client that recently ran or is in the middle of an agency search, with or without a consultant. So bizarre speculation about these reviews, or would-be reviews, is free to grow like pimples on an advertiser’s corporate face.

Certainly, businesses have some trade secrets they should protect. But agency reviews seldom fall into that category.

When the client does talk, it looks good. Unilever and Best Buy both ran hotly contested, high-profile reviews. They didn’t volunteer any information, but they didn’t duck the press. Outcome: they got their points across, and their corporate image was burnished as a result.

But the lurking about is counter-productive for the rest. It’s time advertisers joined the 21st century, where openness can be a positive force for building reputations.

But don’t quote me. It’s just food for thought.