Attention Marketers: Watch Undercover Boss

You can learn a lot from the new reality television show Undercover Boss.

Now, more than ever, marketers need to build connections across the entire business.  Operating at peak effectiveness requires a level of 360 degree sensitivity and insight up and down the company.  Savvy marketers are able to develop the cross-functional knowledge and organizational understanding that enable them to operate effectively, earn respect and get things done.  Working this way can yield great ideas, provide an important reality-check on marketing effectiveness and help strengthen decision-making.

Undercover Boss provides tv entertainment that will stimulate important reflection about your job and company.  The premier episode featured Waste Management President and COO Larry O’Donnell on his “first day” in jobs including collecting garbage, sorting recycling and cleaning portable toilets.  Here are two of his lessons learned:

1.  Unexpected Implementation.  Waste Management apparently has a lateness policy for hourly workers who use time cards.  Punctuality is important but the method one local manager used to enforce the policy disturbed O’Donnell.  Anyone clocking in late (e.g., from a 30-minute lunch) was docked two minutes in pay for every minute of lateness;

2.  Productivity At All Costs?  Waste Management was apparently so obsessed with productivity that it did not factor in bathroom breaks for its garbage collection drivers, forcing at least one female truck driver to urinate in a small can.

In a speech to employees at the end of the show, O’Donnell remarked:  “I’m going to be a better manager because now I have a whole new appreciation of the impact that some of my decisions can have on you folks.”

The show reminded me about some of my early career adventures and the invaluable learning I gained via a six-month stint in grocery field sales/merchandising prior to my first brand management assignment.  I could have starred in the reality series “Surviving The Supermarket.”  The first episode (New Product SNAFU) would have shown what happens when you give the Grocery Manager the wrong UPC code to order a new product, and what to do when he asks about the cases of another company’s product sitting in the corner.  Episode 2 (Bad Planograms) would have immortalized this classic Grocery Manager wisdom upon surveying the mess on the shelf:   “You can’t put 10 pounds of ____ in a 5-pound bag.”


Understand the front lines of your business.  You need to know how your products are made and sold.  There’s no substitute for being an effective marketer.  Make time to understand the people that do these jobs, appreciate their challenges, know the tools required for success and look for opportunities to improve.  Remember that decisions have implications; and plans are no good unless there’s buy-in, they can be implemented, and they can be implemented correctly.  Watch Undercover Boss.  You’ll have fun and will be prompted to think differently about your own job and company.

Harvey Chimoff is a hands-on marketing leader and business-wide collaborator who builds marketing capabilities in B2B/B2C organizations that drive customer success.


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