CEO's not afraid to play the fool

June 06, 2007|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Columnsit

The mediasphere is more crowded and cacophonic than ever, so Bethesda-based hotelier Marriott International did what it had to do to advertise its new venture last week. It got patriarch Bill Marriott on stage, told him where to plant his feet and upended a bucket of green slime over his head.

"It hit me in the back of the neck and went down my collar and into my undershirt and down the front of my jacket and all over my tie and shirt," Marriott said on the phone yesterday.

And some people think he doesn't earn his multimillion-dollar pay.

In fact, J.W. Marriott Jr. has perfected the art of being a CEO pitchman. Equal parts clown, maitre d'hotel and corporate royalty, he affects a ruffled dignity that draws attention without making shareholders worry he's off his rocker.

His slime stunt, to promote an agreement to open Nickelodeon-themed resorts, was covered by The Washington Post, Business Week, Bloomberg News, the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and CNN.

"Look at that! That's green slime they dropped on him!" observed Ali Velshi, co-host of CNN's In the Money.

Slime is the official corporate substance of Nickelodeon, the kids' TV network owned by Viacom. Nickelodeon Resorts by Marriott will offer stage shows with SpongeBob SquarePants and other Nick characters, plus Nickelodeon stores, the NickToons Cafe, a Nickelodeon photo operation - you get the idea.

Carnival-barker CEOs have been around at least since Henry Ford started hawking Model Ts. But CEOs making fools of themselves to promote products are relatively rare. (Donald Trump doesn't count; you have to realize you're a buffoon to qualify.)

Frank Perdue took great advantage of his gallinaceous mug to sell chicken meat.

Southwest Airlines' Herb Kelleher, among many famous stunts, once staged an arm-wrestling match with another businessman who had claimed the rights to Southwest's advertising slogan.

Bill Marriott, 75, may have been doing it longer than anybody. Part of his schtick is that he's a reluctant showman, that the marketing people have to push him into public humiliation.

"You're asked to do some dumb things from time to time," he complains.

But this has been going on at least since the 1970s, long before any of his present public relations folks were probably around. One gets the idea that maybe he's directing more of the Larry, Moe and Bill routine than he lets on.

In hotel grand openings over the years he has climbed into a kayak, ridden a cherry-picker aloft, posed with a lion and, for an event in Kansas City, helped re-enact the legend in which William Tell shot an arrow through an apple on his son's head.

Marriott played the son. "He was a good archer because I'm still alive," says the innkeeper.

The lion incident was near Chicago. "They fed him real good" before the show, so he wouldn't eat anybody. "All of a sudden he got loose and ran offstage and out through the door."

Getting slimed, Marriott says, was less hazardous than sharing the bill with a 400-pound feline or a Swiss archer.

Switching from the CEO's desk to the business side of a video camera is not easy. Many are the car dealers who have proven that. Dave Thomas did a good job with Wendy's, maybe because he played himself and came off as believable. But Remington's Victor Kiam (I liked it so much, I bought the company!) always sounded as if he was reading a script.

When they succeed, however, pitchman CEOs add a refreshing bit of humanity to a corporate brand. Bill Marriott has always been more candid than the typical CEO. Deeply involved in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he once talked to 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace about the special undergarments that many Mormons wear, which Marriott believes protected him from being burned on one occasion.

And now, since January, he has a blog.

Company lawyers worried about it at first. "They wanted to make sure I didn't give any forward-looking statements [on finances] or any of that stuff that goes to the SEC," he says. But he went ahead, perhaps out of the confidence that comes from owning a big chunk of the company his father founded in the 1920s.

Besides, he says, the blog (www.blogs.marriott.com) is only about hotel openings, getting slimed, company awards and "my pilates instructor."

No market-moving news there. But the very existence of the blog, and the rest of the Bill Marriott publicity machine, may be boosting the company's profits and stock price. Sometimes it's good for a CEO to tell off the lawyers, get out of the office and walk under pails of green goo.

Jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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