The Street Team From Hell

You’re walking down a busy street to an appointment when you start to see them.  Five or six twenty-somethings in matching red t-shirts with some consumer product company logo on the front.  They’re handing out samples of . . . whatever.  Mini shots of a new energy drink.  A snazzy looking nail file branded with the logo of a new spa.  Or, my favorite, squeeze toys that look like SpongeBob bearing the slogan “squeeze me”, which is also on the t-shirts.  Maybe you stop, maybe you don’t, but you definitely learn about the product they’re hawking.

Street marketing, guerilla marketing; it goes by many names, but the concept is the same.  A young, hip, and super-friendly group of “brand ambassadors” hits the streets with a cute hook and a product to show off.  They’re smiling and engaging, and by deploying them at key areas marketers can blanket a city with buzz for relatively low cost.

In the beginning, when it was more novel, just about every brand ambassador you came across was a pleasure.  Many were actors who were naturally very outgoing and personable.

When I ran Paint The Town Red / Global Events, we did a number of these projects for clients as part of broader event marketing initiatives.  Every time we brought in specialists to manage and oversee the street teams.  (I highly recommend the Michael Alan Group, authors of Guerilla Marketing for Dummies, and Encore Nationwide).  But it seems so simple, that many event companies figure they can just wing it and pull their street teams together on their own when the need arises.

After all, how hard can it be?  Turns out it’s actually harder than it looks.

Last week I was walking through Times Square when I saw the street team from hell.  There were three of them on a corner wearing these turquoise t-shirts promoting a new type of hair care product (I’ll show mercy and not mention the brand by name).  One woman is leaning against a street lamp smoking a cigarette.  Another woman is so overweight her shirt can’t fit over her stomach, and you can see a roll of fat in the front and a dragon tattoo on her lower back.  Yum.

The third one, a guy, has earrings in his nose, lower lip and eyebrows.  I kid you not.  And he’s the good one!  He’s actually trying to hand out the product sample.  He’s not really talking to anyone, mind you, but he is extending his arm.  (Hey, if you happen to get close enough, he’ll actually give you the sample!)  This was, hands down, the scariest street team I’d ever seen.

Is it difficult to pull a street team together?  For the first couple of dozen brand ambassadors, maybe not.  But when your client hires you to hit ten cities, you need a very deep bench, and you can’t check on all of them out in the field.  The companies who are good at this stake their reputation on every single ambassador they send out.  The ones who are winging it, well, not so much.

What’s amazing is that some leading companies who so obsessively guard how their brands are shown to the public wouldn’t want to pay top dollar for street teams introducing their products to the world.  They can’t possibly monitor all of these ambassadors out in the field, so wouldn’t they want to have agencies with the best street team training and management protocols in place?


Though this street campaign had nothing to do with me, the professional event planner in me simply couldn’t just walk by.  Hey, it was a black eye on our profession.  I was wearing a suit and dark sunglasses, so I stopped in front of them and said, “Excuse me.  I’m the VP of Marketing for (company who will remain nameless) and I am paying for this sampling campaign.  Is this really the best you can do?”  I couldn’t resist.

Smoker girl quickly stubbed out her cigarette on her heel, grabbed some product and walked toward pedestrians with a big smile. Jenny Craig immediately struggled to pull the shirt over her belly.  And the pierced kid said “no, sir” (OK, being called “sir” freaked me out).  He jumped up on the base of a street lamp and, PT Barnum style, began verbally teeing up takers from 20 yards away.

My work there was done.

By |2010-05-05T10:48:29-04:00May 5th, 2010|Articles, Industry Insights|8 Comments

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  1. Larry Hess June 16, 2010 at 1:19 am

    Hello Randy!

    I guess you never heard the saying, “if you do not have anything nice to say, do not say anything at all.”

    While it is true there are some “interesting” web-sites out there with some posts on my company….they are just in fact an opinion and not the truth. Anyone with a computer and access to the internet is free to write whatever they want, true or not. I think you may have even written in before with the same thoughts to other discussion boards.

    What is funny about your post, is we do not work directly with brands. We work with agencies only. So on that fact (and that is a fact), I find your post hard to believe.

    However, I am willing to talk about it with you. Let me know who you really are and which “brand” you worked for and I will be glad to state the facts. If you are right, I will gladly admit an issue. You can do it here or send me a private email or call me.

    Your move Randy……

    Larry Hess
    Encore Nationwide

  2. RandyS. June 15, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    I would hardly recommend Encore Nationwide. All you have to do is search “Encore Nationwide Fraud” on Google to see how this company is run. For the record, I do this for any company I hire or work for. Also for the record, I hired Encore in the past several months and we (Fortune 500 brand) have never been treated so horribly then we were by Encore – especially the owner, Larry Hess.

  3. Anna May 19, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    I just wanted to say THANK YOU! It is SO true! I have been in this industry for 7 years working as brand ambassador, team lead, event manager and all I see is how the client wants to pay less yet get more and with each year it gets worse! You really do get what you pay for! I have turned down jobs because of the insulting rate and then later on see the team that was hired on that budget… But who’s responsibility is it to fight for a fair pay for the event staff? I worked jobs where we passed out enough product to get Greece out of its economic crisis, yet we were getting paid pittances. How is that fair?

  4. Carisa May 19, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    Can I hire you to randomly bump into a few clients of mine and strike up a conversation with them about this very topic? Everything is so true; especially the part about the companies that don’t want to pay what it takes to have an exceptional group of Brand Ambassadors.

    It’s a constant battle with clients who want to see more “efficiencies” on pricing as they scale up. They don’t realize the increased costs of maintaining quality through the expansion from 10 cities to 25 then to 50 and beyond are REAL costs if they want it done right. Yeah, I’m sure they can take a 25 to 50 city campaign to any eager/random/start up agency out there for less and I’m sure there are plenty of very naïve agencies out there who will take them up on it and try to run with it. But without the infrastructure and the time (that they are ultimately paying for) the program will flop and/or the agency will go out of business.

    Take it from someone who has been the queen of mandating random “secret shopper visits” on street teams, brand ambassadors, brand advocates, student reps (whatever you want to call them) and the like for the last 15+ years.

  5. Sara May 18, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    Awesome, awesome, awesome.

  6. shantala May 18, 2010 at 7:51 am

    great post…excellent rant! I feel the same WAY!

  7. Cal Gillaum May 7, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    I believe this was a great wake up article for use in educating street teams on the need to present yourself as if you were screening VIPs.

  8. joe May 6, 2010 at 10:04 am

    So true Howard! I love your blog; this post had me thinking and laughing.

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