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Counselor Senior Editor Michele Bell's slanted view of the world.

Meet Lion Circle, the Supplier Family Business of the Year!

Filed under: ASI Shows, Editorial, Fun, Interviews, Travel

Hi Everyone!

Carollo FamilyIn my last blog post, I shared with you the full version of the article I wrote on Brown & Bigelow’s Cindy Jorgenson, this year’s Counselor Woman of Distinction. Well, this time around, I’m sharing the full article on this year’s Supplier Family Business, Lion Circle. The Chicago-based company is owned by the Carollo family, and Rich, of course, is the second-generation sibling you all know. Hands up: Is there anyone in the industry who doesn’t love hanging out with the gregarious Mr. Carollo? I tell him he’s like my brother from another mother (to which he retorts that I’m his “sister from another mister”), despite the fact that we only met two years ago at the SAAC Show. But oh, what a meeting it was. I had e-mailed him to ask if we could get together so I could interview him for a Counselor article… What followed was an impromptu mini bar tour bender, which was an epic meeting of the minds second only to when Janis Joplin encountered Jim Morrison for the first time. When those two Dionysian heathens met, Janis threw a bottle of bourbon at the Lizard King for being a degenerate disgrace. In our case, Rich ended the night by saying goodbye to me in his own special way — hurling a green wax apple at my head. I’ve adored him ever since…

The company that Rich and his family run is truly one of the best in the business, not the least of which is because every year for the last seven it’s dominated the “Fan” product category in the Counselor Distributor Choice Awards and its products are Made in the USA. Love that, and love the gracious Carollo clan even more.

Cheers to the Carollos for deservedly winning this year’s Counselor Supplier Family Business of the Year award, and read on for the unabridged article I wrote about them in August’s Counselor.

— M

It’s the classic tale of the American Dream, which is fitting, knowing that Lion Circle is one of the few suppliers in the industry whose products are manufactured in the U.S.

In 1963, straight from the U.S. Army, Phil Carollo started out in the shipping department of Lion Match Corporation of America. He understood early on in the job that it was more cost effective to ship to multiple drop points along the way, saving the company money and becoming more efficient for clients. This basic shipping philosophy would make him the top salesperson for the company in less than three years, even though he wasn’t in the sales department. When the owner was ready to sell the business and retire in 1975, Phil was reluctant to purchase the business. He had four small children all under the age of eight at home and no spare funds to buy into a business of this magnitude. But the owner loved Phil’s tenacity and assisted in finding a partner to help shoulder the debt.

Cut to 1984 when Phil – now the company’s sole owner – changed its name to Lion Circle, and saw he first of his four children, Philip Jr. (Jay) come aboard full time. Like his father, Jay also started in the shipping department, learning the business from the ground up. They were focused on becoming more efficient and decided to invest in some paper lamination equipment to provide a different type of matchbook to their customers. Jack was the next to join in the shipping department full time – an area he now oversees, with Jo-Ann and Rich coming to work during the school breaks over the summers, between high school and college.

But by 1988, the match business was declining, due to anti-smoking campaigns. Almost by divine intervention, Phil had gone to Mass and noticed the old church fans in the pews. At the end of the service, he had a new plan of what he could do with his existing equipment. In a stroke of perfect timing, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the reintroduction of church fans as an advertising vehicle just a few weeks later.

Today, Rich – the gregarious Carollo sibling everyone knows in the industry and who was on Counselor’s Hot List in 2012 – leads the day to day operations within the organization with oversight from Phil. Jo-Ann now spearheads the company’s internal operations, human resources and financial responsibilities. Currently, all four of Phil Carollo’s adult children are working in the family business full time.

“The best part of the business is having all my children working with me,” says Phil, the patriarch. “I’ve watched them all grow in different directions, but each of them has something to contribute to the business that’s been such a significant part of my life.” And the toughest part? “Having all my children working with me,” he laughs. “Sometimes it’s hard to get us all focused on the same page. Also, we spend a lot of time together during work and after hours. Our spouses and kids became sick of hearing about all the work issues when we are all together, so have an unwritten rule not to talk about work during the weekends or dinners unless absolutely necessary.”

With the second generation fully engaged, Lion Circle continues to grow and thrive as a family business, experiencing 10% growth for the last four years, with YTD sales stronger than those in 2013. The company has won the Counselor Distributor Choice Award in the Fan category for the past five years, and its new growth is coming from acquisitions as well as new business development. The HaPi Line was integrated in 2007, adding more paper products and promotional head wear; Sam Line was purchased in 2012, adding magnets and plastic substrates.

The third generation of Carollos — seven grandchildren, ages 10 to 18 – is following their parents’ lead in the company. “Most of them have been in to help at one point or another,” says Jo-Ann. “When we were kids we used to glue matchbooks in catalogs for samples over summer and holidays – getting paid 5 cents per catalog – and sweep the floors and make buttons. Our kids do the same – cleaning, sweeping, paper shredding, gluing sticks to fans, adding tassels and light assembly work.”

Rich points out that as the second generation is “still relatively young,” they’ll continue the commitment to make Lion Circle a successful family business for generations to come. “My dad will continue to direct the business and tell us all the crazy new products we should be developing based on a TV show he saw or an idea he had while walking on the beach in Florida. And because our kids will be graduating college in 10 years, I would think a few of them might choose to join us.”

PPPC’s Show is Bang On!

Filed under: Editorial, Fun, Travel

Well, hey there, Everyone!

Lest you think I’m way too sassy and salacious for a Monday morning with that headline, understand that my Canadian friends tell me the phrase “Bang On” means “spot on” or, in the case of this year’s PPPC National Convention, just perfect.

With events like its first-ever industry hockey game and networking event that raised nearly over $9,000 for Operation Santa Claus, which supports Canadian troops deployed overseas, a packed awards ceremony and steady show floor traffic throughout its three days, PPPC’s 58th annual national trade show and convention – the eighth largest trade show in Canada – lived up to its reputation as the premier event for the Canadian promotional products industry.

“PPPC’s 2014 Annual Convention and Trade Show was an outstanding success from Day 1 on January 27 right through to the well-attended ‘Client Day’ on Friday, January 31,” said Ed Ahad, PPPC’s president & CEO. “Members came in from across the country to play in the inaugural NPPHL Charity hockey tournament and networking event, to celebrate success and creativity in the Awards Show, and to showcase new products and effective marketing solutions on the show floor to distributors and their clients. It was great to see the activity on the show floor with members working together throughout the three days of PPPC’s flagship event. We were especially proud to introduce the new PPPC-owned IT solution and state-of-the-art search engine, ‘Promocan, Powered by PPPC,’ to the membership. It will prove to be an invaluable tool for members for many years to come.”

Held at the Metro Toronto Convention Center, the show draws exhibitors and attendees from areas throughout Canada, in addition to some participants from the U.S., who continue to eye Canada’s $3+ billion promotional market as one full of opportunity, particularly in the areas of finance and energy.

“I have never been a ‘product’ person at this show,” said Michelle Merrifield, vice president of operations at McCabe Promotional Products. “It’s more about connecting face to face with supplier partners and distributors. This year’s PPPC national show was filled with optimism — what a great venue to connect and build stronger relationships with old and new colleagues alike.”

Danny Braunstein, vice president of sales & marketing for Talbot Marketing, agreed. “The PPPC National Convention and Tradeshow is a week I look forward to every year,” he said “The event is more than just an opportunity to catch up on the latest and greatest product offerings, it is a time to celebrate camaraderie, creative achievement and our unique Canadian industry. This year was particularly special for our organization as our President Steve Levschuk was inducted into the PPPC Hall of Fame.”

At the association’s 34th annual Image Awards ceremony, hosted by Spector & Co.’s vice president of sales & marketing, Marc Giroux, Levschuk was welcomed on stage by a congratulatory video from hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, a friend of Levschuk’s — one of the evening’s many highlights. During the ceremony, Leed’s received the Gold Award for Supplier of the Year and Shippam & Associates were named the National Distributor of the year. Click here for a full list of Image Award winners.

Founded in 1956, Promotional Product Professionals of Canada is the national grouping of suppliers and distributors of promotional products for business gifts, rewards, incentives, premiums and specialty advertising products. Its mission is to lead, inspire and advance the $3.5 billion industry through the strength of more than 7,222 companies involved in the business and their 24,000 people across Canada. PPPC’s 2015 national convention and trade show will be held from January 26-30. For more information go to www.pppc.ca.

Finally, a personal thanks to Carol Phillips, PPPC’s editor & director of publications, for being such a warm, gracious and hospitable host. Fred Oesen may be the Canadian promo industry’s Prime Minister, but you are the Ambassador. ; )

And now, a (rogue’s) gallery of some of my favorite industry legends, characters, tipsy gypsies and hurricane-force hell raisers. Love. Them. All.



Hands up: Who doesn’t think Steve Levschuk, owner and president of London, Ontario-based Talbot Promotions, is the classiest, nicest guy EVER? Here he is with his wife, Teresa, and children Stephanie and Adam being inducted into PPPC’s Hall of Fame by Susan Heslop (far left), chair of PPPC’s Hall of Fame Committee. It is such a well-deserved honor for Steve, someone who is respected as a consummate gentleman and industry pro not only in Canada and the U.S., but because of his work with WAGE (the World Advertising Gift Exchange), on a global level as well. Our own Freddy Oesen (or, as I call him, “The Prime Minister”) nominated Steve for the honor, and we couldn’t agree more. Good Lord, is there anything Alex Morin can’t do? From being a shining example of Debco’s phenomenal customer service and sales skill, to killing it in the NPPHL charity hockey tournament, to singing – quite well, I might add – Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” song at the start of the Image Awards, he is the definition of a Renaissance Man.
During its first-ever National Promotional Products Hockey League & Party at South Fletcher’s Arena in Brampton, industry pros gathered on the ice to play rapid-fire games to raise money for Operation Santa Claus. And raise money they did, collecting an impressive $9,100 for members of the Canadian Armed Forces stationed overseas. For those who didn’t play hockey, the sports bar was the perfect place to network and enjoy cocktails and snacks while watching the games. Here’s Will Andrew, president of Polyconcept apparel company Trimark, holding one of its 10 (that’s not a typo) Image Awards.
Here’s my pal Jonathan Isaacson, owner and president of Counselor Top 40 supplier Gemline, during one of our great “catch-up” conversations. On a scale of one to 10, his sarcasm – as Nigel Tufnel said in Spinal Tap – “goes to 11.” A true example of someone who’s a prolific entrepreneur, Craig Morantz – who founded Aware Marketing at an absurdly young age and then sold it to Leed’s, where he became a vice president of Polyconcept North America – is now a marketing and branding consultant with pointed, enlightening insights and a weekly blog worth your time: www.gotomarketguy.com. Craig and I have been friends for years and is one of the few people I know who don’t get offended when I call him a “solipsistic smartass.”
Oh Lord, here he is – the straw that stirs the industry cocktail, BIC/Norwood’s Dave Saracino (left), the Frank Sinatra of our ring-a-ding-ding business. Shown here with his kinder, gentler colleague, Rob Babb, to say that Dave is a legend in certain circles (read: bars) is putting it mildly. Hand to God: Bartenders far and wide throughout the U.S. – and now Canada – know how to make a “Saracino” (for the uninitiated: vodka, club soda and a splash – “a small one,” the man himself says – of cranberry juice). Cheers to you, Mr. Saracino! Here’s me with three of the best guys ever: (from left) Pioneer Balloons’ Mark Jenkins, the current PPAI chairman of the board; Bob McLean, PPAI’s executive vice president; and Paul Bellantone, PPAI’s president/CEO. One of the best chats I had while at PPPC was with Mr. Bellantone, as we hung out at the bar at the Prestige party.
Here’s Paul Bellantone, whose raffle ticket was randomly chosen at PPPC’s hockey mixer, gamely trying to get his puck into the net during a winner-gets-a-prize shoot out. He didn’t win, which he attributed to being from balmy Dallas, TX. “What do I know about hockey,?” he laughed. My boys!!! Do you know Greg Livings and Brian Starke, the owners of Bravo Awards? Of course you do. The coolest of the cool, with the hippest on-the-down-low, speakeasy-esque party at the PPAI Vegas Show, these guys have the distinction of being the first two people I ever met, nearly 15 years ago, from the Canadian promo market. Why do I have such an affinity for Canada and the PPPC Show? They’re why. Love them to the depths of my soul, and have even vacationed with them. So much fun it should be illegal…
The show floor on Day One of PPPC’s national convention.
Kippie Helzel – or, as I call her, Frau Fussy (my girl is Type A!) — from Keystone/CPS. Kippie is a huge supporter of the Canadian industry and she and I once, famously, took a little jaunt to Amsterdam together. Because we have an appreciation for fine and varied tulips… Here’s (from left) Jack Julius, Steve Levschuk and Danny Braunstein from Talbot Marketing, one of the companies on Counselor Magazine’s Best Places to Work list.
iPROMOTEu owner/CEO Ross Silverstein (right), a member of Counselor’s Power 50 list, and his stalwart consigliere, Pat Caccamo, at the PPPC Image Awards dinner. Trimark president Will Andrew, with Bill Horst, Trimark’s marketing manager who won a Gold Image Award for the company’s 2013 catalog design that he and his team oversee.
The Leed’s Canada team on stage, accepting their award for the PPPC Supplier of the Year and a shot of the crazy amount of awards (right) the Polyconcept group (Leed’s and Trimark) won throughout the evening. They’re just FABULOUS.
The multiline rep extraordinaire of the Canadian marketplace, Mr. Paul Omstead of West Point Marketing. Not only is he like the Mayor (and much, much less problematic than Rob Ford… ; )), but his sartorial style is in a league of its own. At the super-cool Prestige party, held after hours: The one and only Carol DeVille, owner of The Branding Company (Fact: she could melt glass, her charisma is so incendiary); BIC/Norwood’s Dave Saracino and Talbot’s Danny Braunstein.
Michelle Merrifield, vice president of operations for McCabe Promotional Products, shown here with the delightful Mark Wingrove, BIC/Norwood sales manager for the Canadian market. Holy Hell, do I adore Michelle. Known as “Mama Bear” to her nearest and dearest in the industry for her fiercely protective and loyal nature, she is one of the coolest, smartest chicas I’ve met in quite some time. Snap. Snap! SNAP!!! That’s me trying to get your attention away from Mark Trotzuk and his freakin’ hypnotizing eyes. The owner of Boardroom Custom Clothing, Mark is featured prominently in the new “conscientious capitalism” documentary Not Business As Usual, which showcases companies that prove you can be successful in business while showing a responsibility for the environment and the future of our society. He’s special, this one. Click here to watch the documentary: http://vimeo.com/83898645.
Chuckles in the House!!! Have I told you lately how much I heart Chuck Fandos (left), president of Gateway/CDI? With his permission, I’m relaying this story: At the PPAI Show, Chuck suffered an attack of Bell’s Palsy, a temporary (thank God) affliction that affects the face muscles in a stroke-like fashion. Be-YOND scary. Chuck is just fine today and is “80% of the way” being back to completely healthy, but he magnanimously and graciously allowed me to show these photos so – in his words – if you’re stricken suddenly with Bell’s Palsy as he was – you’ll know what the symptoms look like. There are no words for the credit I give him for not only being seen out and about, but giving me the OK to show his photos here. You are truly one in a million, Chuckles. Next to him is my sista, Jo-an Lantz, executive vice president of Counselor Top 40 distributor Geiger and PPAI’s Paul Bellantone, at the fantastic Facilis party. Chuck Fandos and Jamie McCabe, owner/president of McCabe Promotional Products. Take a good, long look at Mr. McCabe… His joie de vivre is infectious, as his capacity for fun is prodigious. For some reason, the sound of Jamie’s voice just makes me laugh and he’s got one of those personalities that fools ya because you think he’s all rock star fun and then you hear him talk about business and are like, “WOWZA, this guy is wicked, wicked smart.”
Jamie McCabe (right) with Keith Addis, sales manager at ESP Canada. Note that Jamie, is holding a famed “Saracino” in his hand.
Fact: Cocktailing with Mr. Saracino and Mr. McCabe is like shopping at IKEA – it pulls you in, looks deceptively easy and will eventually lead you to require the assistance of at least three friends to get you home.
Rule of thumb: One Michele is usually trouble, but two? Batten down the hatches! Here’s me with the ever-impressive Michelle Merrifield.
Know how you can tell the difference between US distributors and Canadian distributors? US distributors don’t get their drink on and then go – wait for it – AX THROWING. Made of hearty stock, Canadians are like Vikings! Love it! Witness my pal Jamie McCabe, owner of McCabe Promotional Products – and, from what I can tell, the Canadian industry’s reigning Keith Richards – hurling an ax as his team, suppliers and select friends look on. Ash City’s Chris Turner shot this video, and all I can say is that he is a brave, brave man. What a fitting final photo… Here’s me and my colleague Carmine Rauso, executive director of distributor sales at ASI with The Prime Minister of Canada, as I call the Honorable Mr. Oesen. So beloved and respected is our Freddy that walking with him through the PPPC show floor was like getting a lesson in the living history of the Canadian promo industry for the past 50 years. And I also have to confess: It Cracks Me UP that Canadians who’ve spent evenings cocktailing with Freddy have coined a term for what you have the next morning: A “Fredache.”

Danke Schoen, Dusseldorf!

Filed under: Editorial, Fun, PSI Shows, Travel

Happy New Year, Everyone!

As we’re deep into show season, I just returned from the fabulous PSI Show in Dusseldorf, Germany, held from January 8-10. Now in its 52nd year, attendance at the PSI Show grew 18% from last year’s event, due primarily to the event staff giving distributors free access to attend. With a total of 16,228 trade visitors (up from 13,772 in 2013), the largest ad specialty show in Europe was both re-energized and revitalized. Yes, some of the largest European suppliers (PFConcept, MidOcean, Senator) have stopped exhibiting at the event, but with a total of 852 exhibitors (down from 962 in 2013) from 33 countries, the latest global trends and innovations in promotional products were fully on display.

“Yes, the show is smaller from an exhibitor standpoint, but I’ve been exhibiting at this show for many years and this is one of the most successful,” said Rene Adda, owner of the Paris-based supplier Lexon. “Because some of my larger competitors aren’t here, I’m getting much greater traffic.”

Albert van der Veen, CEO of Xindao, one of PSI’s largest exhibitors, noted that the number of catalogs sold (in Europe it’s common for suppliers to charge for their catalogs and samples at trade shows) to attendees on the first day of the show doubled over last year.

“After two challenging years in the international markets, characterized by sometimes severe drops particularly in Western Europe, this year’s trade fair was buoyed by a renewed, forward-looking sense of optimism. That was the basic tenor heard at PSI 2014,” said Michael Freter, PSI’s managing director.

Interestingly, more than half of PSI’s visitors came from outside of Germany, with a tenth of those from outside Europe. “This partially results from the enhanced international marketing activities we engaged in collaboratively with our partners ASI and Sourcing City in the PromoAlliance,” Freter said.

The 53rd annual PSI Show will be held from January 7-9, 2015. For more information, go to www.psi-network.de or e-mail me directly – it’s an AWESOME show, and I’ll be there next year for sure!

Now, enjoy the gallery of photos from the event and my escapades abroad!

Cheers, and more in two weeks from the PPPC Show in Toronto,


The night before the opening day of the 52nd annual PSI Show in Dusseldorf, Michael Freter – the show’s managing director – graciously invited me and some clients, colleagues and strategic partners to a fabulous steakhouse called Gehry’s, in honor of the architect Frank Gehry, who designed the buildings in and around it. From left to right: The lovely Petra Kolvenbach; PSI’s Michael Freter; Reed Exhibitions’ director Hans-Joachim Erbel (he goes by “Hi-Jo” to his friends, and he once, to my endless amusement, drank champagne out of my high heels… Love, love, LOVE him!); Ismail Sezen, a new fun friend who oversees PSI’s interests in the Turkish promotional market; Alistair Mylchreest, CEO of Sourcing City – one of the three companies, along with PSI and ASI — that make up PromoAlliance, a group formed to promote, on a global stage, the effectiveness of promotional products; Liz Young, Sourcing City’s supplier services manager; and Charlie Taublieb, decorator (and character) extraordinaire. Great food, excellent wine and fabulous company! Hi-Jo Erbel, one of my favorite people ever, and PSI’s Ismail Sezen. Want to learn more about the promo market in Turkey? Ismail is your guy!
Part of the PromoAlliance family, Alistair Mylchreest and Liz Young are two people that, upon meeting them, I immediately felt like I’d known for years. Both single and the owners of cats, if you see Liz and I together, feel free to call us “The Bronte Sisters.”
I so enjoy catching up with PPAI’s Paul Bellantone (center) and SAGE’s David Natinsky (right) each year at the PSI Show, which is amusing to me because I often see them more often outside of the U.S. than in our own country. Such great guys, it’s always a pleasure to see them. And brace yourselves: With them is Pioneer Balloons’ Mark Jenkins (left), the incoming chairman of PPAI and someone for whom the Hunter S. Thompson descriptor “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” was meant. I don’t know Mark well, but as I have an affinity for unconventional, off-kilter personalities I find him to be an utter delight. Fact: In our first-ever e-mail exchange, never having been formally introduced, he signed his note “BD.” When I asked him what that meant, his reply made me do a spit-take and COL (Cackle Out Loud): “Big Daddy.” Can. Not. Wait. for his reign to begin. Have I mentioned that no one does design like the Europeans? Seriously – the way Americans mastered the art of fast turnaround, European suppliers have this preternatural talent for clean lines, sublime textures and a sense of aesthetics that brings me to my knees. Leading the list of the best of the best is Paris (of course)-based Lexon, my first stop at every PSI Show, where I worship at the altar of owner Rene Adda’s jaw-droppingly beautifully designed products and his coffee table book-quality catalog. Doubt me? It’s not every supplier who’s had a product (in this case, Lexon’s rubber “Tyko” radio) on the cover of Time magazine’s “Design” issue and inducted into the Louvre’s Fine Design exhibition.
Quick poll: Who doesn’t adore Steve Levschuck, CEO of Toronto-based Talbot Marketing??? As the Canadian member of WAGE (the World Advertising Gift Exchange), Steve is another industry friend I’m accustomed to seeing on the international trade show circuit (Sourcing City’s show in the UK, the Hong Kong Show, PSI in Dusseldorf), but I’m most excited to see him inducted into PPPC’s Hall of Fame at its national convention at the end of this month (www.promocan.com). SUCH a well-deserved honor for Steve, one of the most respected – and sweetest – people in the industry. ASI’s president and CEO, Tim Andrews, greeting guests at the PromoAlliance reception at the PSI Dusseldorf Show. A partnership between ASI, PSI and Sourcing City, PromoAlliance promotes the global ad specialty industry and offers networking opportunities, and reciprocal trade show and education initiatives for its members. For more information go to www.promoalliance.com.
Here’s me and the international aficionado for apparel decoration, Charlie Taublieb. Charlie showed me how to silkscreen my own shirt, and then put foil embellishments on it… Sooo cool!
(From left): Tim Andrews; Marcus Sperber, the owner of Bavarian-based Elasto-Form, one of the larger suppliers in Europe; Reed Exhibitions’ Hi-Jo Erber; and Matthew Cohn, vice chairman of The ASI Show!. I’ve written often about the elaborate and wildly impressive booths at the PSI Show, many of which serve food and drinks all day. Well, there is nothing at the PSI Show quite like the Elasto-Form booth, which is created to look like a Bavarian brauhaus, complete with a traditional Bavarian band and the executive team donning lederhosen (for men) and dresses like the St. Pauli Girl for women. Marcus told me that during the show, 500 gallons of hearty Bavarian beer are served to booth visitors. Yes, you read that right… 500 GALLONS of beer. Oh my, here he is, one of my Favorite. People. Ever. Meet John Lynch, the CEO/owner of Krakow-based Lynka Promotional Solutions. John (nicknamed “Lech”) and I have been friends for 15 years, as he’s a Jersey boy who moved to Poland 20 years ago when the remnants of Communism were still very much prevalent. He opened a promo business there, and in short order grew it to become the largest in Poland and one of the largest in Eastern Europe, in addition to being named Entrepreneur of the Year in Poland a few years back. And did I mention that he’s met the Dali Lama? John sits on my Editorial Advisory Board for Supplier Global Resource magazine, and there is not one thing I don’t love about him. Also, he’s one of the few people to give me a nickname: Tinker Bell. Having graduated high school with Jon Bon Jovi, the charismatic Mr. Lynch’s motto is, “Keep the Faith.”
A traditional Bavarian band is called a “Blaskapelle” and the one that performed in the always-packed Elasto-Form booth were rollicking. In addition, Marcus Sperber, Elasto-Form’s owner and uber-gracious host, brought in two suckling pigs to be roasted on the spit right in the booth, complete with Bavarian side salads and pretzels bigger than my head.
Xindao’s DJ van Styrum with Polyconcept’s Jim Epstein, at an EPPA (European Promotional Products Association) reception during the PSI Show. Xindao CEO Albert van der Veen with Jim Epstein, Polyconcept’s chief business development officer and my favorite industry finance wonk. I always tell Jim that for him, spreadsheets and M&A data is like porn. He is so numbers-nerdy, yet so freaking fantastic.
(From left): Lynka’s John Lynch and Joanna Kocab; MadetoOrder’s Rod Brown; and Lynka’s Global Accounts Manager, Matt Lynch, at ASI’s cocktail reception on the PSI show floor. Joanna, who just moved to Poland from the New York City and started with Lynka days before PSI, is a dynamo – smart, energetic and chock-full of innovative marketing concepts for the company. Love her! ASI president/CEO Tim Andrews gives a presentation to guests at ASI’s cocktail reception on the health of the North American ad specialties market and the results of the latest iteration of ASI’s Global Ad Impressions Study.
Two graduates of The Wharton School of Business, ASI’s Matthew Cohn and Lynka’s John Lynch refused to show me their alma mater’s secret handshake or school fight song, no matter how much I begged. Do you know Rod Brown, owner of the CA-based distributor MadetoOrder? Of course you do. He’s the gadfly who’s almost as well known in the international promo arena as he is in North America, and the man who’s built one of the smartest companies in our industry with the sharpest team (I’m looking at you, Sandy Gonzalzes and Tad Webster!). Rod is another industry celeb, like Talbot’s Steve Levschuk, who I often see at events overseas and it’s always such a pleasure.
The wonderful folks at Xindao invited the ASI team to join them for dinner at a traditional, centuries-old German brauhaus – Brauerei Schumachers — that served beer from wooden barrels and huge trays with heaping piles of ham, sausage, schnitzel and bratwurst. It was, in a word, amazing!
Meet Ryan McSorley (left), Xindao’s head product designer and Albert van der Veen, the company’s CEO. I’ve known of Albert for years, but only recently have I gotten to spend time with him on a social level at industry events. Wacky Fact: He has, hands down, the most piercing blue eyes I’ve ever seen – the kind that, when he’s looking at you, you swear he’s scanning your soul for every secret you’ve ever kept. The first time he introduced himself to me, it took a full 10 seconds for me to remember my own last name. Kid. You. Not. I was lucky enough to sit through a presentation of Albert’s at this year’s PSI Show, and it was as impressive as he is. If you’re looking for a company whose commitment to innovative product design, eco-responsibility and employee motivation is 100%, look no further than Xindao (www.xindao.com). I love, love, love the fact that the company pays for each employee to do two days of volunteer work – for a charity of their choice — each year, but they also allow their design team – truly, the best I’ve seen – one week per year to use their considerable creative talents to tackle one societal issue they think they can make better. See? Inspirational and innovative. They are the cat’s meow. Each year at the Xindao dinner at the PSI Show, Han Van Houten, the company’s marketing manager, acts as the de facto “Master of Ceremonies,” and hoo boy – does he do a fantastic job. His energy level is that of a pre-teen after 10 Red Bulls and he reinvigorates the team after a long day on the show floor by spotlighting the top catalog pack sellers, among other notable achievements. Watching him perform for his team has become a highlight of the show for me, as he may be one of the funniest people I’ve met so far in Europe. The really impressive part? He does it all extemporaneously – truly, a master of entertainment!
Xindao’s Bjorn Eriksson and DJ van Styrum, two of the hosts at the amazing annual dinner the company holds during the PSI Show. A moment now, about Mr. Ryan McSorley, who has the distinction of being my one of my Favorite. People. Ever. Ryan and I met at last year’s PSI Show briefly at the Xindao dinner, but it was at this year’s event where I really got to spend time with him (another, more accurate way to say that would be that I kidnapped him and made him drink with me for hours at the Irish Pub… Just sayin’). A nice Irish boy who’s the company’s head designer, I stand in awe of his talent. If you’re a rabid fan of design like I am, it is a rare pleasure to discuss with someone who shares your obsession the finer points of Alexander McQueen vs. Vivienne Westwood, the practicality of Mies van der Rohe furniture design, the lasting influence of Frank Gehry, whether designers who create capsule collections for mass retailers like Target are sell-outs (looking at you, Rodarte) and affects architecture and fashion have on product design. Ryan is based in Shanghai and will be at the Hong Kong Show in April, so if you’re there, take my word and search him out in the Xindao booth – he’s so talented and charismatic, his aura has an aura.
ASI’s Tim Andrews and Matthew Cohn get festive at the wild, beer-soaked Elasto-Form party. The Sourcing City Girls!!! As fun as they are smart, Tanya Cooper, Nikki Williams and Liz Young are the UK sisters I never had! They are truly my international partners in crime… A-DORE them!
Best surprise of the trip! My pals Michelle Armstrong (left) and Heather Smartt, Polyconcept’s Shanghai-based sourcing experts extraordinaire, came to the PSI Show and we were able to enjoy some quality time. Looking forward to a cocktail (or five) with them at the Hong Kong Show in April! Here’s me and Charlie Taublieb, a well-known apparel decorating consultant who’s based in Colorado but who travels all over the world giving demonstrations on the newest apparel decorating techniques. Quite the raconteur, Charlie has the best stories and has a character as colorful as he designs.
The perfect way to end the PSI Show blog, a fond farewell from Liz Young and Alistair Mylchreest, my BFFs from Sourcing City!

Dogs & Beer Floats & Big Wheels… Oh My!

Filed under: Editorial, Fun, Travel

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

As today is ASI’s annual holiday party, spearheaded by the wildly clever and imaginative Stephanie Cohn-Schaeffer who each year comes up with a different fun theme, during which ASI’s owners and management recognize and laud the accomplishments and contributions of the company’s 500+ employees, I was reminded of the first-ever Counselor Best Places to Work conference, held last month in Santa Barbara.

Staged at the beautiful Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara, the event drew attendees and speakers from the list of winners on this year’s Counselor Best Places to Work contest, many of whom use creative and innovative strategies such as in-office dogs, Friday beer parties, visiting masseuses and cocktail cruises around the Statue of Liberty to motivate their valued staffers.

It was a testament to how savvy theses owners are that they recognize that it just makes smart business sense to continually find ingenious, unique ways to recruit, retain and reward employees. Why? Because study after study shows that businesses that do just that are more successful and have higher profits.

At ASI’s event, Glenna Fulks, our intrepid and uber-efficient event planner, trotted in a dog to hang out with attendees, arranged for a beer tasting of brews local to Southern California, had Big Wheels shipping in for fun CEO-style races. Between those events and the TED Conference-like, rapid-fire 20 minute Q&A sessions with execs from companies on the Best Places to Work list, the agenda was chock-full of valuable information (so attendees told me) to use as employee motivation tools. ASI believes in the concept so much, that they’re doing the event again next year, in Chicago on July 18th, right after the ASI Show.

See below for lots of fun photos from the event, and more in the next few weeks from the Activate! national sales meeting on Amelia Island and the PSI Dusseldorf Show, both in the beginning of January.

Cheers and Merry Christmas!

(From left): The ever-charming Mark Shinn, owner of Incentives West; Glenna Fulks, ASI’s director of events; and Andy Cohen, editor of Counselor magazine enjoy cocktails before dinner at the stunning Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara. Kathy Bistocchi, married to industry character Michael Bistocchi, vice president of CleggPromo, shown here with ASI’s creative director, Jake Krolick.
Dinner at Casa Blanca in Santa Barbara with industry pros who attended, and spoke at, ASI’s first-ever Counselor Best Places to Work conference, featuring top companies in the industry who, as voted on by their employees, were named as one of the industry’s most innovative, inspiring, motivating places to work. One of the reasons I love attending events like this is that I always try to meet new friends. Here are two that were fabulous, on a multitude of levels, Wendy Eiden and Greg Armstrong from Counselor Top 40 distributor AIA Corp.
My old pal Michael Bistocchi (aka, The Mouth that Roared), shown here with my beloved Larry Cohen, CEO of NYC-based Counselor Top 40 Axis Promotions. Larry made the trek across the country to join us for the Best Places to Work conference and we’re thrilled he did because his panel discussions was fantastic. (Ask him sometime why his staff is 99.9% female. Hint: Because he maintains that they’re better collaborators!) Please take a good long look at this photo. This is the precise moment when, in hindsight, I should have put my drink down and head for the hills. But no, no – give me an unlimited supply of cocktails and fun boys and I’m all in til the wee hours of the morning. The consequences? I hangover that could have dropped a rhino the next day… Here’s Mitch Mounger, CEO of Sunrise Identity (All Hail Mitch!) with my two new partners-in-crime, Overture Promotions’ John Pipikos (center) and Tej Shah.
The inimitable Mitch Mounger (love, love, love him!) and my new industry favorite, Tej Shah, who is as hilarious and entertaining as he is whip-smart. Yep, that’s Larry Cohen, and yep, he’s riding a Big Wheel. Few things make me giggle like the sight of the CEO of a multimillion dollar company racing on a toy motorcycle with the gusto of a feisty toddler.
ASI’s Chief Revenue Officer & Publisher, Rich Fairfield and Counselor Editor Andy Cohen give Mark Shinn some support during the Best Places to Work morning Big Wheel races that kicked off the event. The lovely Cathy Sapiro from Catalyst Marketing in Seattle was part of the winning Big Wheel races team.
ASI SVP/editor-in-chief Melinda Ligos, shown here pushing Tim Andrews, ASI’s president/CEO, as Rich Fairfield looks on. Counselor editor Andy Cohen interviews the Best Places to Work keynote speaker, Greg Harris, owner of Quantum Workplace, the independent organization that surveys the employees of industry companies on ASI’s behalf and analyzes the results to create the list of top companies.
Andy Cohen, Allison Robbins from the Las Vegas-based supplier Crystal Impressions by Seaena, and ASI’s Jake Krolick, celebrating Allison’s company being ranked #1 on this year’s Counselor Best Places to Work list. Overture’s Tej Shah, John Pipikos and ASI’s director of distributor sales, Carmine Rauso, at the James Joyce pub in Santa Barbara. At each event I attend, I give my own personal award to the person whose stellar partying performance is, shall we say, Keith Richards-esque. (Mitch Mounger and Larry Cohen are both former winners!) At this event, the Golden Vodka Bottle Award goes to… Tej Shah and John Pipikos, whose charm, wit and epic antics left me in stitches.
(From left to right): The delightful Julie Sessler, with Tina & Keith Ritschard, co-owners of RBS Activewear Inc. in Wisconsin, and Kellye Santos, vice president of customer service & operations, and my new favorite live-wire from Counselor Top 40 distributor Safeguard Business Systems Inc. When I said that I love meeting new industry people, these are exactly the kind of folks I was talking about… So delightful, gracious and too, too much fun. And poor Keith Ritschard had to endure listening to me for 12 hours calling him “Keith Richards.” Here’s me, with my new pals Keith and Kellye.
All Hail the Canadian Contingency! How awesome that Laura Hansen, owner of Image Group Inc., and Mr. Social Media himself, Mark Graham of Right Sleeve Marketing, made the trip all the way from the Great White North to share their insights on running an innovative workplace (tip: Clamato cocktails, free-range pooches and cutting-edge videos are just some of their strategies…). After the Best Places to Work conference, myself, Andy Cohen, Jake Krolick and Carmine Rauso hosted a pub crawl through downtown Santa Barbara. My favorite moment, hands down, was then Mitch Mounger and Larry Cohen just had to try some God-awful clove-flavored (I’ll give you a moment while you gag…) liqueur. After doing a few shots and claiming it was “delicious” – despite the bartender insisting it was “horrifyingly awful,” Larry and Mitch just had to know where it was produced. “I dunno,” the bartender, with a wit as dry as the Serengeti said. “Someplace sad and poor.”
Here’s Andy Cohen and his favorite industry BFF Mitch Mounger, with Melinda Ligos photobombing the bromance moment. The jaw-droppingly beautiful Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara, with stunning views of the Pacific.
Have you met my pal Craig Reese, SVP and partner of Counselor Top 40 distributor Jack Nadel Int’l.? Craig and I have been friends for 15 years and he remains, to this day, the bearer of my favorite nickname I’ve ever bestowed on someone: “The Porkchop.” Why? Because one year in Hong Kong, some lascivious, cougar-esque harpy who used to be in the industry looked at Craig up and down in such a devouring way that it prompted this bon mot from me: “Jesus, Sweetie… That woman is looking at you like she just came off a hunger strike and you’re a goddamn porkchop!” Hence the nickname, which I encourage all of you to use the next time you see Craig presiding at the PPAI Vegas Show or the SAAC Show.

ASI’s 2013 Power Summit: Rocky Mountain High

Filed under: Editorial, Fun, Travel

Hi Everyone!

Hope you’re all doing well and reveling in the awesome Fall colors!

Recently, ASI hosted its 7th annual Power Summit, in stunningly picturesque Park City, Utah. Having been to all seven Power Summits, this one was something special… From the amazing panelists and speakers, to the networking activities, to the locale, it was quite the experience. You know, each year, Park City is overrun by A, B and C-list Hollywood celebrities for Robert Redford’s famed Sundance Film Festival. I would dare say that our group had its own fair share of industry luminaries who made an appearance for the event, as you’ll see from the photos and short videos below.

A few notable shout-outs: A big thank you and super-huge kudos to the four distributor contestants — Kaspo Inc.’s Matt Kaspari, Bob Lilly Promotional Products’ Tommy Lewis, Tagsource’s Tonia Allen Gould and P.O.P Solutions’ Nicole McNamee — who agreed to participate in this year’s Marketing Smackdown panel, and to HALO’s SVP of Marketing, Terry McGuire (hoo boy, do I LOVE Terry… Nobody, but nobody, in the industry sends me e-mails that make me LOL like he does…), who moderated the session. These gutsy folks were given a marketing scenario one hour before taking the stage to do a presentation in front of the 200 industry pros in attendance, and then were judged — through text voting — by the audience. They weren’t allowed to rely on help from their home offices, and had to pull a comprehensive promo products-based presentation together, keeping in mind budgets, target audiences and social media add-ons. It is a wildly stressful thing to do, and they all did it with panache, talent and style.

Finally, I always like to give my own personal award at fun industry events to the industry celeb who was the King or Queen of the Party — the one who kept all the wackiness and merriment going. At the Power Summit, I give a special nod to The Fabulous Hersh Boys — Brett and Glen from Admints/Zagabor — who had the party to end all parties in their suite. What I love about them (other than Glen’s heavy Grey Goose pour) is that their graciousness knows no bounds and they are deeply decent guys — they invite clients, colleagues, competitors, everyone to their party, living by the motto, “The more the merrier.” They are just The Best.

More soon and enjoy the photos and videos!



On our first night in Park City, Utah, ASI’s senior vice president and editor-in-chief, Melinda Ligos, bought a “jackalope” — a mythical, furry, woodland creature said to scamper through the rustic mountain terrain — at the gift shop at the fabulous High West Distillery bar & restraint where we had dinner. Because the aforementioned jackalope is tiny with beady little eyes, we naturally named him “Joe Haley.” So, here’s me with Joe the Jackalope… The lovely Jill Stirnkorb, (shown here fifth from left in the back row, in the gray tank shirt) vice president of inside sales for Counselor Top 40 supplier Norwood & BIC Graphic N.A. shared this photo of her mountain biking group. One of the most popular activities we’ve hosted at an ASI event, more than 50 mountain bikers of varying skill levels careened through the mountains of Park City and loved every minute of it.
Here’s me with two guys I’ve been friends with for over 15 years — Jerry McLaughlin, CEO of Branders.com (left) and Michael Bernstein, CEO/chairman of the board of Polyconcept. They were gracious enough to succumb to my haranguing and agree to be speakers at ASI’s Power Summit. Surprising to precisely no one, they both killed it. Meet Sal DeSpirito, executive director of ASI’s distributor marketing efforts and the Charlie to our Angels. Fact: If you find yourself within a five-foot radius of Sal, There Will Be Shots. Consequently, we heart him at ASI. From left: Erica Matus, assistant marketing manager; Ji Kim, executive director of supplier marketing and me, the patron saint of Patron.
Three of my industry favorites (from left): Norwood/BIC’s Dave Saracino, the straw that stirs the industry cocktail (and, for the record, the only man I know who has a drink named after himself — “The Saracino” — widely known in bars seedy and swanky alike across the country); the stunning Lori Bauer, Norwood/BIC’s vice president of national accounts; and David Nicholson, president of Polyconcept North America and this year’s Counselor Person of the Year. Hit Promotional Products’ David Walker (far left) and CJ Schmidt take in an early-season football game in the pub at the Montage Ski Resort, while Shumsky’s Jill Albers looks on.
My favorite gal pal and partner in crime, Jill Albers, director of business development for the Dayton-based distributor Shumsky, and Josh Ebrahemi, top sales rep and partner at Counselor Top 40 distributor Jack Nadel Int’l. Both Jilly and Josh were on my “What Motivates Young Reps” panel, along with SnugZ’s Brittany David and ASI’s Krista Taylor, and they were just the cat’s meow. Oh Lord, it’s Rich Carollo, vice president of sales and marketing at Lion Circle, someone whose cartoon-like facial expressions just CRACK. ME. UP. Love, love, love him…
Jilly Albers and Jake Krolick (“Jakey,” as he’s known back at the home office), ASI’s creative director of marketing. To say Jakey is one of my favorite colleagues is an epic understatement, as he is as supremely talented as he is fun. If you were at the Power Summit and saw his on-stage interview with hipster videographer Devin Graham (whose crazy-cool videos have garnered billions of hits on YouTube), you’d know why. Their session was one of the highest rated in seven years of Power Summit events! Jake, who never met a band jam he didn’t like and will — mark my words — one day end up doing marketing in the music industry, strikes a very rock star pose.
Jim Franklyn, partner and vice president of marketing with the distributor Inkhead Promotions, makes friends with one of the two “house dogs” — Monte — that are allowed to roam around the Montage Resort. Both furry residents are Bernese Mountain Dogs, known for their ability to withstand cold temperatures and for their gentle dispositions. Two traits they do not share with the author of this blog… A moment now, about my beloved Michael Bernstein… Little known fact about me: I loathe, loathe, loathe — to the depths of my soul — public speaking. Seriously. Right before I go on stage, there’s always one moment where I fear I’m going to hurl right on my Jimmy Choos. But no matter where I am, I text Michael before I have to speak in front of a crowd and ask him to talk me off the ledge, which he always does with some heart-felt, tender, reassuring comment that goes something like this: “Stop being a dumbass.” At the Power Summit, the panel discussion I moderated was at 9:00 a.m., and, as Michael’s not a morning person, I didn’t expect him to make it. Yet, he showed up, gave me all the moral support and encouragement I needed, and calmed me down like he’s my own personal Valium. In case I’ve been vague, I just adore him.
Here’s Tonia Allen Gould, owner of the CA-based distributor Tagsource, published children’s author and panelist on this year’s Marketing Smackdown session at the Power Summit, with Ares Logistics’ vice president of sales, David Bronson. Counselor editor Andy Cohen (left), ASI editor-in-chief and SVP Melinda Ligos and Counselor senior editor Dave Vagnoni, with Joe the Jackalope on our first night in Park City, UT.
At the St. Regis resort in Park City, the sommelier staff stages a spectacle every evening that involves select guests being chosen to slice open champagne bottle with a very sharp and shiny saber. From left, here’s ASI’s Sal DeSpirito, vice president of user experience Rob Watson, Melinda Ligos and Jake Krolick familiarizing themselves with the business end of the weapon. Sal, reenacting something Jakey’s wife wants to do each time he brings a band back to their house to crash after playing shows in Philly.
Jake Krolick, getting a tutorial from Pierre, the sommelier at the St. Regis, on how to slice open a bottle of bubbly without losing an appendage. ASI’s supplier sales rep extraordinaire, Krista Taylor, and the omnipresent ASI Power Summit mascot, Joe the Jackalope. For those of you who attended the event, you witnessed Krista’s brilliance on stage as a panelist during my “What Motivates Young Sales Reps” session. As ASI’s Employee of the Year in 2011 and a rep who’s grown her base by 111% in four years, my girl is as whip-smart and talented as she is fun. She is one to watch…
ASI’s president and CEO, Tim Andrews, gamely poses with Joe the Jackalope. Tim’s one-on-one Q&A with Polyconcept chairman of the board Michael Bernstein was one of the highlights of the Power Summit, as evidenced by attendee ratings and comments. ASI supplier sales rep and industry vet Mary Sells, shown here with Melinda Ligos and a furry friend.
One of my oldest, dearest and craziest friends in the industry, Gary Semrow, vice president of American Ad Bag. Gary spends a lot of time in Park City, so he graciously turned myself, ASI’s Erica Matus and Jake Krolick on to this awesome dive bar (All Hail Dive Bars!) called the “No Name Saloon.” It had attitude and sass to spare, and I’m fairly certain Jake and I graffitied our names on the wall… The uber-amazing Erica Matus, ASI’s assistant marketing manager. Such a fabulous personality does she have, and so fun is she that hanging out with her was one of the highlights of the event for me. She is awesome in at least 10 different ways…
Holla! The Pittsburgh Mafia’s in the house! Here’s Polyconcept’s Michael Bernstein and Jeff Brown, with Vantage’s Ira Neaman (“Yoda” to you and I… Knows everything about apparel, he does…), with Jilly Albers. Tommy Lewis, sales exec with Bob Lilly Promotional Products and this year’s winner of the Marketing Smackdown — in which four distributor execs present a marketing campaign that they’re given only one hour to create and the winner is selected by real-time audience text voting — and Ira Neaman.
Sweda’s always-radiant Kellie Claudio and one of my faves, Scott Pearson, who did an outstanding job on the “Domestic Manufacturing vs. Overseas Sourcing” panel at this year’s Power Summit. A special overseas guest, here’s the very charming Adrian Ferrand, owner of BrandInc., one of the largest distributors in the U.K., with Shumsky’s Jill Albers. Upon chatting with Adrian during the first night’s meet-and-greet cocktail party, I knew he was just the type of person I like to spend time with and immediately decided he’d be sitting at my table with my other favorite industry crazies for dinner. He is impressive and wickedly fun in equal measures.
Awww, here’s me and one of the most delightful guys ever, Mr. Jim Hagan, president of Sweda. You, Young Man, always make me smile… Separated at birth? Andy Cohen and the gift that keeps giving, Mitch Mounger, owner of the Seattle-based distributor Sunrise Identity. Take my advice: Don’t even consider having an industry party without Mitch being there…
Inkhead’s Jim Franklyn and Branders.com’s Jerry McLaughlin, who did such an amazing job on their panel, “The Fastest Growing Sales Channel: Will E-Commerce Overtake Traditional Promo Sales?” (From left): Sunrise Identity’s COO, Mark Lynch; Michael Legel (love, love, love!) and Trevor Colley, Logomark’s new CFO. Henceforth, we will all be referring to him as “the quieter Trevor.” ; )
This photo — courtesy of David Bronson, vice president of Ares Logistics and industry vet — shows jaw-dropping views of the Montage Resort property where the 2013 ASI Power Summit was held.
Rich Fairfield, ASI’s chief revenue officer and publisher, attempts the time-honored tradition of slicing open a champagne bottle with a sword, under the watchful eye of the insanely suave and tres French sommelier at the St. Regis in Park City. He did great, but we initially all took about 10 steps back when Rich wielded the sword… Click here to see PromoShop’s Kris Robinson (“K-Rob” to his nearest and dearest) belt out “Rocky Mountain High” — which is funny on a multitude of levels — during the Great American Cocktail Race at ASI’s Power Summit in Park City, Utah.
Click here to see me interviewing Michael Bernstein, Polyconcept’s chairman of the board and my beloved BFF, who had just finished a 30 minute, one-on-one Q&A with Tim Andrews. Watch til the end of the 90 second video, when I giggle like a silly Tween…

ASI Chicago After Dark: Putting the “She” in Shennanigans…

Filed under: ASI Shows, Editorial, Fun, Travel

Hello, Everyone!

Hope you’re all having a sizzling summer and finding time to enjoy some joie de vivre!

I’m just back from the ASI Chicago Show, where, as I’ve done for the past few years, I went in early to spend the weekend at my pal Sharon Biernat’s house in the city, along with my girls Jilly Albers from Shumsky and PPAI board member Natalie Townes. To say we have a time is putting it mildly, and we always seem drawn — no matter which swanky bars at which we start our evening — to the dual divey wonders that are The Lodge and Shennanigans. It’s like being pulled by some unseen magnetic force into ribald mayhem.

As always with this blog, I’m focusing on what happened after show hours, which is evidenced in the photo array below.

More next week and hope to see you all soon! (ASI’s Power Summit in Park City? I’ll be there! www.asicentral.com/powersummit).



(From left to right): Oh good God, it’s Mitch Mounger (all hail Mitch!), one of my favorite people ever, with my girls Jilly Albers from Shumsky and Natalie Townes. Hand to God: Mitch has the same affect on me as nitrous: the minute I’m in his presence, I start giggling. The lovely Natalie Townes with the 2013 Counselor Person of the Year, my friend and yours, David Nicholson, president of Polyconcept North America. For those of you who know me, you’re aware that I bestow my nearest and dearest with nicknames… David’s is Don Draper, after the suave, charming — yet utterly mysterious and enigmatic — creative director on Mad Men.
At the Counselor Awards banquet, held at the Art Institute of Chicago, here are some key ASI staffers involved in the event’s planning and execution. The hot color of the evening at the Counselor Awards banquet — as evidenced on the most stylish dresses, was tomato red — as shown here on ASI editor-in-chief/SVP Melinda Ligos (left) and Natalie Townes.
There are dive bars, and then there are Dive Bars… This one, found by my pal Joe Haley, ASI’s managing editor and star of The Joe Show, is called The Billy Goat Tavern and is located under (like catacombs!) Michigan Ave. Curiously missing from the Zagat’s Guide of Chicago’s five-star establishments, this gem serves Schlitz on tap in a bar that resembles a row home basement from the 50s. Some of my favorite ASI characters felt right at home. Here’s me and my pal Tim O’Boyle — who runs the PCNA company JournalBooks — with David Nicholson and Melinda Ligos photobombing us.
You know how fan-freaking-tastic when two of your favorite people — who’ve heard so much about each other — finally meet? That’s a little what it was like when ASI’s creative director, Jake Krolick (“Jakey” to you and I) met my beloved Michael Bernstein, CEO of Polyconcept. The two of them have such a deep adoration of music that it was like watching Lester Bangs converse with David Fricke. Have you met the Fabulous Biernats, Sharon and Bob? One of the best couples I know, Sharon and Bob (All Hail Bob!) live right in downtown Chicago and graciously open their home to myself, Natalie Townes and Jilly Albers, the weekend before the ASI Chicago Show every year — which is akin to opening the doors of your home to three hyperactive ferrets who run around in circles and have a taste for vodka.
Oh Holy Hell, it’s the effin’ Lodge. Yes, I know it’s a hole in the wall, and yes, I know it smells like old Schaffer (“the beer to have when you’re having more than one!”) and that peanut shells stick to your shoes and the clientele is hardly the beautiful people, but I’m here to tell ya: I always — and I do mean always — have an epic time at the Lodge… Right down to the “Sweet Caroline” singalongs with the guys who look like they belong to my Pop-Pop’s VFW hall. My girls Natalie Townes and Sharon Biernat, at the Chicago landmark that is The Lodge.
Two of my favorites at ASI — Jakey Krolick (far right), our creative director, and Andy Cohen, editor of Counselor — with their two BFFs, BrandFuel’s co-owner Danny Rosin — this year’s winner of the Bess Cohn Award winner for humanitarian and charitable works — and Mitch Mounger, owner of Sunrise Identity. Sharon Biernat, sales rep extraordinaire with the Skokie-based distributor Creative Promos (left), shown here with PPAI board member Natalie Townes, at the rooftop bar of the Ritz in downtown Chicago. Along with Shumsky’s Jilly Albers, these ladies make my world a much more fun place to be.
One of the many things I love about Sharon Biernat is that at the townhouse in downtown Chicago that she and her husband, Bob (All Hail Bob!), own, she keeps a box of musical instruments so her party guests can indulge in all their rhythmic impulses. Here’s Joe Haley playing a tambourine in the courtyard of Sharon’s house, though from the expression on his face, you’d think he’d just been stung by 1,000 bees. Here’s ASI’s creative director Jake (“Jakey” to you and I) Krolick (right), with Yann Perrin, who oversees ASICentral.com, expertly hiding from my camera like a celebrity shunning the paparazzi.
I would put Sharon Biernat’s skills as a hostess right up there with Martha Stewart’s any day of the week — though Sharon’s even better because she makes treats like “Booze Pops” (frozen Sangria on a stick) for her lucky house guests. Here’s ASI’s Joe Haley (left) and Jakey Krolick enjoying a taste test. ASI’s Jake Krolick (left) with BrandFuel’s Danny Rosin. Everyone in our industry has that one person who they Can Not WAIT to see at events, and to whom they feel a special connection and bond. Well, Jakey and Danny — drawn together by their rabid love of music — are like two teenagers when they’re together, eagerly sharing bands and songs they want the other to know about.
Me with BrandFuel’s Danny Rosin (left) and Jakey Krolick. A word now, about Mr. Rosin: I’ve long adored him for his prolific ability to party, but he won my heart with the acceptance speech he gave at this year’s Counselor banquet in Chicago when he was presented with the Bess Cohn Award for charitable and humanitarian efforts. “The two most important days in your life,” he said to the guests in attendance, “are the day you’re born and the day you realize why you were born.” For Danny, who received a standing ovation and is simply beloved by the industry, that day came when he founded Band Together, his Raleigh-based charity which stages a huge music festival every year and donates the proceeds — $3 million to date — to local causes. Click here to read my Counselor article about him and click here to read more about Band Together. (From left): Jonathan Irvin, a super, super guy who — along with Roger Burnett — is spearheading iClick’s initiative for decorators; the lovely Natalie Townes and Danny Rosin at the Zebra Lounge in Chicago. The bar was fabulous, but way too small for the likes of our loud and loony ever-growing merry band of misfits and libertines.
ASI’s Yann Perrin (left) and RightSleeve’s Mark Graham, at the Zebra Lounge in Chicago. As Yann (who’s French… J’adore!) oversees the team who handles ASICentral and Mark, a founding member of PromoKitchen, chatted incessantly about all things social media, I nearly gave myself a brain injury from all the eye-rolls. “You are my favorite Luddite, Michele,” Mr. Graham often tells me, laughing. He’s not wrong… Alistair Mylchreest, CEO of the UK-based company Sourcing City — a member of PromoAlliance along with ASI and PSI — and Shumsky’s Jill Albers at the Zebra Lounge. We are always so thrilled when Alistair makes the trip across the pond to one of ASI’s events because he’s enthusiasm, knowledge of the European promo marketplace and sheer sense of fun add so much. And truly, without question, he wears the Best. Shirts. Ever.
Here’s me and the stunning Cindy Jorgenson, vice president of sales for Counselor Top 40 distributor Brown & Bigelow. This show was an anniversary of sorts for Cindy and I, as it was about eight years ago when she cornered me outside of Shenanigans, introduced herself and pointed her finger in my face, saying, “You’re Michele Bell… I love your shoes and we’ve got lots of mutual friends, so let’s go drink!” And with that, we’ve been dear friends ever since… She is as whip-smart and talented as she is hilarious and gorgeous. Let’s call these three lovely ladies, all ASI staffers, “Michele’s Angels” because without their help, the seating and prep for the Counselor banquet wouldn’t have gone nearly as smoothly and I would have been hiding under a table rocking in the fetal position. (From left): Kim McCunney, Erica Matus and Tricia Walter.
Polyconcept chairman Michael Bernstein, shown here with PCNA COO Sharon Willochell, who was named the 2012 Counselor Woman of Distinction. The more time I spend with Sharon (code name “Wonder Woman” for her ability to do it all with grace and equanimity) the more I like and respect her. Young girls should be required to meet Sharon as an example of how they can “lean in” and be anything they want to be. Michael Bernstein (left) and Patrick Tornqvist, the president of OSML. I’ve met Patrick a few times over the years at international shows like PSI Dusseldorf and the Hong Kong Gift Fair, and he delighted me by accepting my offer to come visit ASI’s Chicago show and attend the Counselor banquet. He is just awesome, and his other company, Xindao, has some of the most beautifully-designed promo products I’ve ever seen. Check them out here.
(From left): JournalBooks’ Tim O’Boyle (am I the only one who misses the longer, Ringo-esque hair?), left, and Will Andrew, CEO of PCNA’s apparel company, Trimark. (From left to right): PCNA is known for its stellar sales team and here are two reasons why that is: Rick French (left) and Scott Anderson (who does a killer impersonation of Gateway/CDI’s Conrad Franey, BTW… Go ahead, ask him the next time you see him…), with their colleague Kim Daugherty, a partner development representative at Leed’s.
Do you know Larry Cohen, owner of Counselor Top 40 distributor Axis Promotions, based in New York? Of course you do. There is precisely nothing that I don’t find endearing and charming about Larry, and his trademark smirks (and there’s quite a menu of them — snarky, mischievous, exasperated, ponderous) amuse me to no end. Here he is with Amanda Novelline, one of his Chicago-based reps, at the Wit Hotel’s rooftop bar in Chicago. Sigh… I just love, love, love these two… Sweda’s president/CEO Jim Hagan (left) and his consigliere, Scott Pearson, Sweda’s vice president of marketing, sourcing and being fan-freaking-tastic.
There’s a reason I look so gloriously happy in this photo with the ever-elusive, semi-reclusive Mr. Michael Bernstein. When I do get to see him throughout the year, I’m reminded of why he truly is like the brother I never had. Unequivocally, Favorite. Person. Ever. Here’s me and ASI’s president/CEO Tim Andrews at the Wit Hotel’s trendy rooftop bar in Chicago after the Counselor awards. Love, love, love this photo as my utter delight to be with him is so genuine… And not just because he bought me a margarita maker for my office.

I Got Your Back, Marissa Mayer!

Filed under: Editorial, Fun, Personal

Well, hey there!

Hope you’ve all been doing well! For me, it’s been a particularly crazy time in Michele World, what with lots of travel in January (Orlando for the ASI Show, then directly to Dusseldorf for the PSI Show, then on to Paris for, well, nothing — j’adore Paris!) and caring for my Mom, who’s had some health challenges in the past six weeks.

Now that everything has settled down, I’ve watched with perplexed fascination how everyone has fire-hosed their rage and indignation at Marissa Mayer, the adroit CEO of the once-heralded, now beleaguered Yahoo! Mayer and the head of Yahoo!’s HR department, for those of you as out of the loop as I’ve been, dared to ask Yahoo!’s telecommuting employees to start coming into the office every day to, ya know, work (a move soon after adopted by Best Buy’s management, incidentally). The reaction to Mayer’s announcement? Like she took all telecommuters — not just those at Yahoo! — and demanded the marrow be syphoned from their bodies. And to say she’s been vilified in the media is putting it mildly.

At ASI, our telecommuting policy is at the discretion of each department head. Melinda Ligos, who oversees the Editorial and Education departments, takes an extremely tolerant stance towards telecommuting: “As long as people get their work done, it’s fine with me.” Yet even she saw the LOL value in this cartoon she sent my way, whose message is brilliant in its simplicity.

Of the five magazine editors here at ASI, I’m the only one who’s in the office every day. That’s not to say I’m working harder than my four colleagues who work from home a few days a week, as I certainly am not (a point with which CEO Tim Andrews would enthusiastically concur). In fact, the argument could be made that they’re better, more disciplined workers because they can function in a less restrictive environment. Libertines like me don’t fare well without parameters, rules (not that we adhere to them, but we need to bump up against them) and schedules. If I worked from home I’d be well-versed on the daily Law & Order line-up on TNT and rationalize my way towards mid-day naps and drinking (“but Spaniards do it, and they’re lovely people!”).

Here’s the thing, though, which was Mayer’s point: Her decision wasn’t a referendum on the productivity of people who work from home — for sure, they’re just as, if not more, productive than those who work in the office. (Though one of my colleagues who shall remain nameless — *cough* Joe Haley — uses air quotes every time he says someone is “working from home.”) But there’s no doubt that people who work from home are at a distinct disadvantage.Yeah, I said it. Being physically present in the office, able to look colleagues in the eye and engage with them in meetings, makes all the difference over the colleague who’s calling in via speaker phone, Skype or video conference. You can defend your position, advocate for policy changes and influence co-workers with greater effectiveness being in front of them. Working remotely robs you of the critical ability to metabolize colleagues’ reactions in real-time, read social cues and gauge group dynamics; seeing co-workers face-to-face encourages collaboration and adds to the energy level of the group. And in that regard, Mayer is spot-on.

Cheers, and hope to see you all soon!

— M

Planes, Trains & Customs Searches: My Travel Wish List for 2013

Filed under: Fun, Personal, Travel

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

As we wrap up one year and prepare to start the next, I’d like to take a moment to give the airline and hospitality industries a little gift (she says with snark): my now-annual list of Things That Make Me Cringe when traveling.

Throughout my 15+ year career at ASI, during which I’ve been able to travel throughout North America, Europe and Asia, I’ve stayed in the best (the Peninsula and the W in Hong Kong, the Fontainebleau in Miami), trendiest (Mon Hotel in Paris) and skeeziest (the Foreign Businessmen Club in Guangzhou, China, which smelled like something my cat, Monkey, does in his litter box) hotels, and traveled well over 250,000 miles. So here’s what I’m hoping will change if I bitch loud and often enough.

1. Pillow Talk. I know this will sound trivial and entitled, but hear me out. I’ve noticed an inverse correlation between the quality of a hotel and the pillows they offer. Meaning, the swankier the hotel, the more craptacular the pillows. For example, in October, I stayed at the Crowne Plaza in downtown Dayton, OH. Was it a five-star hotel? Absolutely not. But, wowza, those pillows were to die for — fluffy, firm and abundant. Cut to the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair, London, where I stayed in September. Located in the chi-chi area of the city where the “young Royals” party at clubs like Mahiki, the Westbury is most definitely a five-star hotel. It also had pillows so thin I could’ve rolled joints with them.

2. Let There Be Light. For those of you who know me, you have no doubt heard me rail on more than one occasion about the horrendous lighting in hotel rooms, which cause me — I’ve been told — to emerge from my room with make up so heavily spackled on that I resemble “a hooker from Bangkok” (thanks, Ron Ball!). I’m now expanding this gripe to include the overall electrical issues in hotel rooms. In this day and age where everyone has roughly 8.5 gadgets that need to be plugged in, how is it that hotels can seriously get away with only having one outlet for use? And why are they never located next to the bed? Am I the only one who needs to sleep next to my BlackBerry while it’s charging? Anyone? (Crickets… Crickets…)

3. Are You Talkin’ to Me? Oh, cab drivers… How I have a love/lament relationship with you. Love, love, love how you’re always there when I need you and, for the most part, are cheery, chipper people always happy to make small talk. But here’s where you lose me: With everyone’s smartphone now fully equipped with GPS and Google Maps, you’ve pretty much taken a laissez-faire approach to your job as nine out of 10 cabs I took in 2012 saw the driver ask me for the address of and directions to my destination. Really? Be prepared. In 2013, every time you ask me to do your job, I’m handing you a red pen and a Counselor article to edit.

4. Come Fly With Me (Or Not). Hands up: Who loves the airlines? To answer that question, I’m going to defer to my pal Dana Zezzo, marketing and social media guru for Jetline and the industry’s favorite road warrior. To put Dana’s travel schedule into perspective, he estimates that he’s flown 85 segments in 2012 alone — more than once a week. However, he still gets relegated to middle seats, even though he has “Gold” status with United. “When your flight arrangements change because of airline delays or plane changes, everything you’ve done to pre-select your seat or get upgraded means nothing,” Dana says.

So, here’s my advice to the airlines: If you want to keep frequent fliers like Dana Zezzo and, to a lesser extent, me — both of us with our big mouths and social media pulpits — happy, try taking a page out of Zappos’ customer service playbook.

5. WTF, TSA? Let me state up front and categorically: I understand and respect what the TSA does and why they’re stationed at airport security areas. Truly, I do. Here’s what I don’t get: the maddening inconsistencies. In the U.S., you’re required to remove your shoes when going through security. In Europe, if you shuck off your footwear, they’ll look at you like you’re having a psychotic break. In China, you have to walk through a device that scans your body temperature before you enter the country, lest you have a fever. In the U.S., I’ve sat next to people on planes who I’m fairly certain had typhus. I’ve been stopped at U.S. airports for having lipstick, perfume and water in my carry-on bag, but waived through with lighters, corkscrews and a Swiss Army Knife that was a self-promo item from a distributor. Not too long ago, a TSA agent in Philly insisted on searching my ponytail. I’ve been frisked in Florida and had my bra set off alarms in Frankfurt, Germany. And I was once detained in China for bringing an apple (yep) on a train from Hong Kong. Surely there must be a way to implement uniform travel safety requirements that make sense. Because, ya know, my red Chanel lipstick isn’t a threat to anyone except the bartender who’s got to scrape it off my Grey Goose glass at the end of the night.

Cheers and hope you all have a fabulous 2013! More in the next few weeks, with tons of photos from the ASI Orlando Show, PSI Dusseldorf and PPPC Toronto!

— M

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