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.
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.