Season's Gratings: Insincere Wishes That Waste Time and Trees

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Two days before Christmas Eve, I sat in my office and tore open an envelope to release a greeting card signed by a media-agency CEO. Moments later, I opened another card signed by the same person. In different handwriting. Three envelopes on came the same card from the same company, signed this time by the PR person in a style suspiciously similar to the CEO's first note.

Such impersonal communications, unfortunately, appear to be the rule rather than the exception this time of year. At least I knew the people who signed, or claimed to sign, those cards. But my mailbox overflowed last month with greetings from people I've never met at companies I've never heard of. My response to their wishes for a joyous and prosperous holiday season: Get real.

Journalists are often accused of being cynics, but there's nothing quite so disingenuous as sending a press release disguised as a greeting card to someone you have absolutely no relationship with, whose name was spit out by a public-relations database as someone to flatter.

The insincere nature of such contacts is particularly glaring coming from communications companies that profess to understand the shift to personalized marketing. The messages lose meaning and devalue the real work that goes into building and maintaining relationships. This is more than a gripe; it's a marketing lesson.

"Wishing you a fantastic new year!" wrote a person whose company I`d never before heard of. "Warmest wishes," gushed another. "Hoping to introduce you to my company in 2006!" one guy scribbled, at least not attempting to mask the reason a tree was sacrificed and a stamp licked. "From your friends at . . . " was another favorite. Friends? Really?

If this happened once or twice, it wouldn't be worth mentioning. But since my assistant took time off over the holidays-the nerve!-I was forced into the unfamiliar task of sorting my own mail. And each day's pile contained dozens of these cards, filled with more exclamation points than a Larry King interview.

Every so often, I came across a card or letter from someone I know and like, who took the time to write a personal note. Those cards I valued and saved. Thank you very much. The rest went straight into the trash bin.

Another holiday ritual underscored the value of relationships: the too-long year-end lunch, complete with a glass of wine or two or-why not, I have no appointments this afternoon and the phones are silent anyway-three (no names, David Granger). One such appointment in late December was with an ad-agency boss I hadn't yet met face to face. We talked shop over the course of two hours-he even admitted where things were going wrong at his place-but also talked about our marriages and divorces, our children, career choices and lives. It reminded me why I love this job (the people), and it laid the foundation for a relationship based on trust rather than talking points. It was a genuine connection, but also smart business. And it's stunning how many people don't get that.

There are readers, I'm sure, who will consider me ungrateful, tell me I should thank anyone who took the time to pass on well wishes and proclaim their pre-printed hopes for peace on earth and joy to man. I can't do it, though, sorry. As with any business or personal relationship, I'm appreciative of all those who kept it real. As for the rest of you? My wish for the new year is that you take the time to make an honest connection, or take my name off your lists.

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