Jeff Jacobs

PromoPath with Jeff Jacobs

Welcome to the second installment of what (we hope) will be an ongoing series of blog posts. Our aim is to explore and learn from the various career paths of promotional products industry leaders.

Our guest interviewee is Jeff Jacobs. Jeff has years of high-level promotional products experience, is very active on social media, and is currently the Executive Director of the QCAlliance.

Jeff Jacobs

PP: First things first, how did you wind up involved in the promotional products industry?

JJ: Quite by accident, really. I happened to be speaking about supporting a travel publishing project with the chairman of Michelin North America without knowing that he had an interest in changing the way brand merchandise was managed. He discussed his thought of opening a flagship consumer store in the home of the N.A. headquarters, Greenville, SC. Just a case of “right place, right time”, as that discussion ended with us starting a feasibility study for what became Michelin on Main, and a new business direction for identity merchandise.

PP: During your 12 years with Michelin, you held the position of Director of Brand Merchandise. What were the main functions of this role? In what way did you interact with promotional products companies?

JJ: The opportunity ended up being a logical progression from other roles at Michelin within the Travel and Lifestyles group. Previous assignments with publishing and licensed merchandise groups had been about a way to connect with consumers not currently in the market for new tires, and promotional products were a great connector, too. Everyone loves the Michelin Man, and we had a great time creating merchandise to connect him with his fans and communicate the brand message. Like many Global 500 companies, we looked to traditional distributors to help us develop a product that was safe, compliant, and manufactured consistently with our CSR positioning.

PP: In 2012 you become involved with the industry in a more direct way. What led to the creation of the QCAlliance? What need did you see that needed to be served in the industry?

JJ: QCA really started back around 2007 or 2008, when a group of 14 suppliers realized that there was a need for standardization of expectations in the industry on things like social accountability, product safety, and quality. It was really more like the wild, wild west when it came to documenting processes and having a transparent supply chain back then. After a couple of missteps in Europe and China with suppliers for Michelin merchandise, a global committee on quality for non-tire products was established. As part of that initiative, I approached our distributors in North America for answers on how we were going to work together to make sure it didn’t happen here. That’s when QCA was brought into the discussion for me.

PP: What’s the QCAlliance accreditation process like? How do you support supplier members?

JJ: Accreditation is really two parts, the self-assessment where a gap analysis is developed, and then the supplier moves into third-party audits of the corporate facility and the factories, domestic or off-shore. The current average for completion is 15-18 months, with the accredited supplier then able to prove, through the certification from an independent non-profit organization, that they have the processes in place to detect and deter non-compliant products from reaching the distribution channels. Interested suppliers can learn more on our website from the tab labeled “Getting Started”.

PP: When moving from one company to another what was your main motivator for making a change?

JJ: The answer is rarely the same for any two moves. For example, I spent 8 years in commercial television news, and I joke that I left each TV station for “health reasons”. They were sick of me. The reality was that I honestly thought I was moving for a better opportunity in a bigger market each time, but it didn’t always work out that way. In publishing, I worked for some larger publishers–Simon and Schuster, Macmillan, and Paramount. But, the fact is, with consolidation, I actually changed jobs 5 or 6 times without changing my desk or phone number. It was a time of great upheaval as the printed product was becoming less and less relevant and publishers were gobbling up more and more imprints.

PP: You have a really big following on social media. What got you started and what value do you see in social media?

JJ: I have been very fortunate to be able to grow followers on Twitter, but it has been slow, but sure. I started in April of 2009 – by Twitter standards, those are the “old days”. It is something you have to work at, but I can say I have truly met people from all over the world that I would not have met any other way. It’s a bonus when you get a chance to meet a few of those same people in person, you just can’t deny the magic. The most important thing to growing your following is to be genuine and reach out to engage with people. You also have to do the digital janitor work – putting people into lists, running searches for your interests, and constantly refining your followers and following. As an example, for people I am following on my account, if someone hasn’t posted in 30 days, I simply unfollow them. If people are not active, you need to move on.

PP: What advice would you give an experienced industry professional who is looking to change roles?

JJ: I think the old adage of “it’s who you know” is true now more than ever in our industry. We are in a time of great change, and networking is so important. Make that one more phone call each day to stay connected. You never know what you might learn. Be anxious to share experiences, and you just might find someone looking for exactly what you have to offer.

PP: Do your friends and family know what you do? If so, how did you explain our industry to them?

JJ: I think that is a great question! There really isn’t an elevator speech for the accreditation process we undertake with suppliers at QCA. I even have a hard time explaining it to my Mom. I just tell her I work for a non-profit. But I have experienced the draw promotional products have for people. It is such a great emotional experience when something you make connects someone with the brand you are promoting. I’ve even seen it with industry folks who should be the most cynical–after all, it’s something that they do every day. But, if the product is right, there is no one more excited than one industry pro showing that great product off to another. That’s what makes me think it works, no matter what.


Steve Woodburn

PromoPath with Steve Woodburn

Welcome to the first installment of what (we hope) will be an ongoing series of blog posts. Our aim is to explore and learn from the various career paths of promotional products industry leaders.

Our first guest interviewee is Steve Woodburn. Steve has 29 years of promotional products experience, is very active on social media, and recently became a Regional Sales Manager with Prime Line.

Steve Woodburn

PP: First things first, how did you wind up in the promotional products industry?

SW: People seem to get into this business in one of two ways; either their parents or some other relative was already in it or completely by accident. I was the latter after leaving my first career in radio. I was selling billboards and called on an electronics company that had a promotional products business on the side. They didn’t buy my billboards, but when I needed a job a few months later I called them and they hired me on the spot 29 years ago. I can assure you however that neither of my two boys will ever get into this business.

PP: Your distributor side experienced was mostly made up of medium-sized businesses. What was it like working for a corporate giant like Staples?

SW: Staples got into the promotional products business by acquiring two very different companies and cultures. Integration was not easy. Change does not come quickly to a company of that size and while they had a great infrastructure to handle the largest clients imaginable, they don’t respond quickly to the needs of smaller companies who must be nimble to survive. I learned much from working with Staples in terms of what to do and what not to do to stay relevant in business.

PP: From 2006-2008 you served on the PPAI Board of Directors. How did the opportunity to take on such a visible leadership role come about?

SW: I’m blessed to have had the opportunity to be part of a group of professionals who understand the importance of giving back. I initially worked with the local regional association in Georgia (GAPPP) and became president in 2000. I then became their Regional Association Council (RAC) delegate and rose to RAC President in 2004. I was fortunate to have been elected to a seat on the PPAI Board in 2005 and served almost three years. My experience as a volunteer leader has benefited me in so many ways including meeting scores of people I never would have known otherwise, many who remain my dear friends to this day.

PP: Your background is a bit unique, in that you’ve worked for distributors, service providers, and, currently, a supplier. Have the challenges that you faced in each sector of the business varied? In what way were they similar?

SW: The challenges we all face in this constantly changing industry are similar in many ways no matter what sector one works in. The internet has changed and continues to change the way distributors and suppliers go to market with both facing the commoditization of products and margins being squeezed. To survive on either side you must sell the value you bring to the table, be it great customer service, creativity, speedy delivery, or anything else that sets you apart. Selling on price alone creates a downward spiral that I believe is hard to ever recover from.

PP: When moving from one company to another what was your main motivator for making a change?

SW: Like most of your readers, making more money is certainly a consideration when changing jobs. However, I’ve always made a change based on a variety of reasons including the financial stability (or lack thereof) of the company, ethical lapses, management disagreements, or the chance to take on more responsibility. With one exception, every new job has led to better opportunities and put me where I am today.

PP: You’re currently a Regional Sales Manager for Prime Line. What’s been the biggest surprise about working on the supplier side?

SW: I absolutely love being on the supplier side and see it as a natural extension of all I’ve done over the years. My biggest surprise has been in seeing how both suppliers and distributors have a hard time putting themselves in the shoes of the other. Both sides have their challenges and neither is an easy gig. Empathy goes a long way in building relationships and, at the end of the day, relationships are what success is built upon.

PP: Steve, you’re active on social media and with your blog What networking or career opportunities have come your way as a result of your increased exposure?

SW: My goal with blogging and being active with social media has always been to build a personal brand by sharing my knowledge and expertise with others. I can’t specifically point to opportunities that have arisen because of my exposure, but I can tell you it puts me on a different level. One must earn respect and by being myself online, I’ve made friends and landed jobs I might not otherwise have been exposed to. Besides, I love to write and my blog gives me the chance to hone my writing skills on a regular basis.

PP: What was your most triumphant moment/sale/negotiation—when you felt you really had a mastery of this business?  Have you ever mastered this business?

SW: At one time, Xerox was a client and I received a call from them during the Vegas show in 2004 saying they wanted to send every employee in the company (63,000) a gift from the CEO to say thank you. Xerox had gone through some very tough times but had turned the corner due to their new CEO at the time and the company’s dedicated employees. We created a custom MP3 player (seems quaint now given the dominance of iPods & Apple Music) made in Xerox red, custom earbuds and packaging, and a message from the CEO embedded on the player. It was a $1.6 million sale and as you can imagine, I was on top of the world. However, I don’t believe one can ever master this business given the constant changes in technology, decoration methods, and product specs. This in turn leads to the need to always be learning and never being afraid to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.”

PP: What advice would you give an experienced industry professional who is looking to change roles?

SW: There is no perfect company so you must first assess what motivates you and why you are seeking change. Then look at the pool of potential employers and learn as much as you can about them through research and talking with others. What is their reputation in the industry, do their values seem to be in line with yours, and do they have an overall vision? Is there an opportunity for growth and promotion, is the company healthy and stable and are there leaders there who will motivate and inspire you? Understand this process will take longer than you expect, so don’t get frustrated…

PP: Do your friends and family know what you do? If so, how did you explain our industry to them?

SW: I’m usually referred to as the tchotchke guy, but for those who don’t understand our business I’ll ask them if they have a key chain, T-shirt, or pen with a logo on it (they always do!). I tell them that’s what I do, help companies keep their brand visible with useful, logoed products.