The stacks of Bethlehem Steel are dormant and have been for 20 years.
For more than a century, they belched smoke and fire into the sky, a symbol of the company’s ability to turn iron ore and coke into profitable steel – and lots of it.
At one time, Bethlehem Steel was one of the largest and most powerful companies in the United States. Its stock was one of 30 that comprised the Dow Jones Industrial Average along with other major corporations such as General Motors, DuPont and General Electric.
We see the silenced stacks from our office windows every morning. They are an omnipresent reminder of what can happen to organizations regardless of size. That change is inevitable. That the future eventually becomes the present – and unless you plan for the future, you may fall victim to its perils.
Many of the lessons from Bethlehem Steel’s demise are applicable to the advertising agency business. After all, the industry has been in the midst of its own revolution that started at about the same time The Steel stopped steelmaking in Bethlehem.
Where agencies once made a living on brochures, print ads and 30-second spots, their work has evolved to include apps, social media campaigns, experiential marketing and data-driven direct-marketing initiatives.
So what were some of the missteps of The Steel? And how can we avoid them?
Bethlehem Steel’s competition – both overseas and abroad – adopted a more efficient steelmaking process called continuous casting. It allowed more steel to be produced cheaper and faster.
Agencies (and clients) that remain tethered to traditional marketing strategies – or simply pumping out digital versions of conventional tactics – are bound to struggle in today’s fast-moving digital world.
Bethlehem Steel’s unions were infamous for limiting the work of union members to specific and prescribed tasks – and nothing else. And much of the white-collar management was cultivated internally, limiting the amount of external expertise that would infiltrate the organization.
Today’s workforce – regardless of industry – cannot afford to be that specialized. We all need to contribute our thinking and creativity to solve problems for our clients.
“That’s not my job” should never be heard at today’s agencies. We need to bring together people who are talented on many levels and bring a breadth of life experience to the enterprise.
Bethlehem Steel disregarded the rise of Japanese steelmakers and domestic mini-mills such as Nucor. After all, what type of company could compete with the likes of an integrated behemoth such as Bethlehem Steel?
Today, ad agencies are competing with more than other agencies. The business has become fragmented.
How does a full-service agency prosper in an environment of digital agencies, media buying firms, increasingly capable in-house groups and virtual teams for specific projects?
Staying relevant requires that agencies focus on high-level strategy, brand stewardship and creative solutions in partnership with clients.
It’s not realistic to think that all of a client’s needs can be met inside the walls of an agency. Today’s “competitors” often become tomorrow’s collaborative partners.
Bethlehem Steel projected an almost arrogant demeanor following the post-World War II industrial boom.
Its new corporate headquarters in 1972, Martin Tower, was shaped like a cross to double the number of corner offices compared to a typical four-sided building.
Doorknobs featured carved company logos. Each of the 21 floors housed a different department, and many featured walls displaying portraits of previous departmental vice presidents.
Too much self-importance and conceit take away from a company’s primary focus: its customers and their objectives.
Partnership and collaboration with clients demand that we view one another as equals. We both bring ideas and perspectives to the table.
Confidence and pride are acceptable. Hubris and conceit are not.
Today, the Bethlehem Steel site has been reborn as a stunning backdrop for a jaw-dropping arts complex that hosts more than 200 entertainment acts each year and draws more than a million people to the city’s South Side.
The complex includes the new Hoover-Mason Trestle, an elevated “highline-style” walkway that takes visitors along the base of the rusting stacks.
If you close your eyes, you can still imagine the roar of thunderous machinery and the voices of thousands of steelworkers forging the steel that would build America.
Those echoes should contain a lesson for agencies and other businesses. As George Santayana, the famous Spanish-American philosopher observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
That reminder of the past is visible every day. It’s up to us to listen.
Michael Drabenstott is a managing partner at Lehigh Mining & Navigation, a nationally recognized advertising and public relations agency based in Bethlehem. He can be reached at 484-821-0920 or drabenstott@LehighMiningAndNavigation.com.