Steve Cole: Thanks to a Mentor and Champion of Advertising Self-Regulation

How the Soon-to-Be-Retired CBBB CEO Changed the Industry

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
Mentorship should be on Maslow's hierarchy. It's the ultimate need to help us succeed, and I've been very lucky to have several great mentors in my short business career so far.

I learned the ropes of politics and policy with Art Torres, then one of California's top-ranked Hispanic elected officials. At P&G, I was fortunate to develop a close mentee relationship with then-CMO Denis Beausejour, someone I still lean on for professional and personal advice. And in the past couple of years, I've had the most extraordinary opportunity to learn and work hand-in-hand with a tireless champion for both consumer interests and business self-regulation, Steve Cole, CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureau.

After nearly 22 years at the Better Business Bureau, Steve's retiring from the CBBB. As CEO, he led 128 national bureaus that accredit more than 400,000 businesses and satisfy tens of millions of annual consumer "service requests." He also administered all of the CBBB's advertising self-regulation work, from the National Advertising Division (NAD) and CARU (the Children's Advertising Review Unit) to the recently established Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, as part of a decades-old, internationally recognized alliance with the advertising industry to promote truthful advertising

Indeed, we're all losing a mentor.

Steve and I met about eight years ago during my passionate, arguably naive crusade to turn into "the Better Business Bureau on Steroids." We connected on mutual passion for driving win-win, trusted relationships between consumers and businesses.

Two years ago, Steve invited me to serve on the Council of Better Business Bureaus' Board, and shortly thereafter, to serve as board chair. I still have that role, and it's given me no shortage of excuses to tap his knowledge, experience base and personal lessons accumulated over the years.

The best leadership lessons come from tough, sometimes seemingly impossible situations. The venerable 100-year old BBB faces many challenges, from managing "digital disruption" to keeping pace with the new age of consumer control, where "complaint escalation" has taken on radically new meaning.

Steve met the test, and then some. He modernized the BBB's branding, worked with his broad membership to put a smart five-year strategic plan in place, and brought consistency and new offerings to the web services of over 100 bureaus. He actively supported the BBB's delicate transition from "satisfactory" scores to actual letter ratings. Several years ago, along with incoming CEO Steve Cox (then CMO), he introduced the expansion of the successful International Torch Awards ceremony to recognize global leaders in marketplace trust.

Impact on self-regulation
But here's the point I really want to underscore -- especially to this audience. Steve Cole has done more than just about anyone to promote advertising self-regulation since American Advertising Federation's (AAF) Howard Bell pioneered the system in the early '70s.

"Steve is a historic leader who never sought a place in history. He took a CBBB teetering and wobbling and figured out how to make it relevant, survive and grow at a time when that seemed truly difficult -- if not downright impossible," said Bob Liodice, CEO of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA).

For nearly 20 years, he served as general counsel of the NARC board -- which sets policies and procedures for advertising industry self-regulation -- and influenced countless operational decisions that have led to continued success of the programs. He drafted the decisions of the National Advertising Review Board, the self-regulatory system's appellate unit.

As CBBB CEO, he expanded the role and scope of self-regulation. He recruited Lee Peeler, a veteran FTC lawyer, to lead the programs; solidified the CBBB's relationship with other key organizations; successfully pushed for a NARC board expansion to include other industry leaders such as the DMA, IAB and ERA (Electronic Retailing Association); strengthened the success of existing programs; and introduced success new ones.

"He agreed to champion one of the most complex self-regulatory issues in advertising history: self-regulation of online behavioral advertising," Mr. Liodice said. "While still a work in progress, Steve's unrelenting support led to the adoption of self-regulatory principles that will become the backbone of an accountability system that will be leveraged throughout the U.S. and, likely, around the world."

When children's food advertising was under attack, Steve helped recruit former FTC consumer-protection rock star Jodie Bernstein to lead a historic groundbreaking effort to revise the historic CARU guidelines, and create an innovative self-regulatory program to address concerns about the marketing of food and beverage products to children. This model is so successful that it has been implemented in Canada, the EU and a number of other countries.

Recently, he's helped facilitate important, timely dialogue with groups such as the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) that are pushing for self-regulation in word-of-mouth and social media.

In fairness, Steve Cole didn't check off every box. Indeed, the nation's oldest trust organization is far from out of the woods. But he pushed against the grain, endured some grief along the way, and got an impressive amount of work done -- effectively laying the foundation for his capable and committed successor, Steve Cox.

Importantly, he did so while staying true to his "consumer" passion and sensibility.

We all owe Steve Cole a debt of gratitude. His "ROI" is not as crystal clear as a click-through rate, but trust me, we're all benefiting from his industry mentorship.

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.
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