Andy Sernovitz Thinks I’m a Dick. Maybe He’s Right?

Posted by Dave Balter on May 2nd, 2006 in

If you check out today’s MediaPost, you’ll find an article about the WOM industry and some perspective on the components that drive it. I wrote this article for several reasons, not the least of which was in reaction to some frank, and appreciated, input I received from Andy Sernovitz, the CEO of WOMMA.

The work that Andy has invested to help grow WOMMA from a fledgling idea cooked up by Pete Blackshaw, Jonathan Carson and myself a little over two years ago, to an industry shaping association with nearly 300 members has been nothing short of incredible. As a group, the four of us have enjoyed plenty of good times, overcome many challenges and worked hard to ensure the right message about honest WOM pervades the marketplace. I now sit on the WOMMA board, which is about to expand to 15 members, to help manage the broadening landscape.

But while the WOM industry has grown steadily, awareness of BzzAgent’s model seems to have outpaced many others. A huge percentage of articles about WOM include something about BzzAgent, and often some are about us entirely. But this exposure has been a double-edged sword: whenever a debate about WOM ethics emerges, BzzAgent’s name is placed front and center – despite our continued efforts to define and enforce disclosure practices.

Ironically, it wasn’t a negative story that sparked Andy’s tough feedback. It was an extremely positive feature in The Holmes Report (a PR industry trend update) that triggered the response. The article focused almost solely on BzzAgent, which according to Andy, has upset many PR practitioners in the WOM field who felt “left out” of a story published in one of their industry periodicals. Such disappointment is frustrating, particularly given that we hadn’t even been interviewed for the report, and weren’t even aware that it was coming out. Yes, a possible case of sour grapes, but BzzAgent has never intentionally marginalized other well-intentioned WOM practitioners, nor have we sought exposure at their expense.

The focus of BzzAgent for the Holmes Report seemed to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Andy gave us a call to let us know that he’s frustrated – as are many other WOMMA members and the industry as a whole. Andy doesn’t mince words [which is one thing we love about him], and he straight up let us know that our PR has minimized – invalidated, even – other healthy business models, such as viral marketing. And that my comments and focus on our model has “alienated other members” – so much so that we’re becoming a “pariah” of the industry. He mentioned that we’re “nasty” [and not in the Janet Jackson sorta way].

Tensions are clearly high. Andy subsequently told our PR guy on the down low -or maybe not – that my behavior and actions in the industry made me a “dick.”

According to the free dictionary, “dick” is defined as:

(dk) Slang


1. Chiefly British A fellow; a guy.

2. Vulgar A penis.

3. Vulgar A person, especially a man, regarded as mean or contemptible.

[I’m guessing he doesn’t mean to suggest that I’m British]. Maybe it was the heat of the moment, or perhaps he wanted to make his point unambiguous, but clearly this is an indication that emotions are high.

Like most people, I find negative feedback hard to swallow. But this one is especially tough, given that we’ve worked tirelessly to develop the most socially acceptable, ethical business model and I truly believe BzzAgent is at least partly responsible for helping major corporations create budgetary line items for WOM spends.

I’m tempted to defend myself by pointing out that the evolution of the BzzAgent media model actually embraces all of the other WOM practitioners by providing them a distribution channel for their WOM programs. But what I’m really wondering is whether Andy is onto something we may have missed.

Maybe I am a dick? Maybe the press is tired of what we do. Maybe the rest of the industry now hates us.

So, I wrote the MediaPost article in part to try to start setting our perspective straight. I don’t think BzzAgent is the universe of WOM. I don’t believe it’s the only model – not by a long shot – nor does any member of my team.

Either way, we’re eager to know if maybe – just maybe, Andy is right.


25 Responses to “Andy Sernovitz Thinks I’m a Dick. Maybe He’s Right?”

  1. Kristin M. says:

    Maybe he was just venting to your P.R. guy, one-on-one? Even so, he should know better. It got back to you and he should apologize. If only because he put your colleague in a very bad position: as a messenger with bad news. I met you (very very briefly) and you seemed like a nice person. You are probably not a dick. Don’t waste a second defending yourself. Trust me, I work with politicians. :)

  2. Gprindle says:


    Maybe you should offer to man the dunk tank at the next WOMMA conference. Not only would this let you know who your friends are but it would also help them relieve some of their frustrations. (Jono, no cutting in line, everyone wants a chance!)


  3. Hilary says:

    If everyone in the marketing industry (or advertising, or business at large) who ever called anyone else something negative – or was themselves called something negative – all blogged about it, the internet would probably explode with all the traffic.

  4. [...] The marketers are having hissyfitzz! See Dave Balter’s article here [...]

  5. Twain says:

    To quote,
    “he straight up let us know that our PR has minimized – invalidated, even – other healthy business models, such as viral marketing.”

    As an ex-VC I’d like to nominate “viral” for one of the most over-used and incorrectly-used adjectives when applied to marketing. It should describe a marketing effort where each person reached themselves has a chance of spreading that same message to others…like a virus. It should not describe any type of grass-roots marketing, ie it is not synonymous with guerilla marketing.

    So the irony is that if he said that, Sernovitz overlooked the fact that BzzAgent is about as true to the real definition of viral marketing as you can get. We do not invalidate viral marketing, we are viral marketing.

  6. Kristin M. says:


  7. Mike L. says:

    According to math for negative WOM:

    6% will tell you or your company what they hear and/or have experienced
    31% will tell friends, family and colleagues etc
    8% told 1 person
    8% told 2 people
    6% told 6 or more people

    The funny thing is, I never questioned that you might (potentially) be a dick, until you blogged about it. I’m sure you are not (a “dick”); however, the question does have some hang time. Also, I now have some question if Andy Sernovitz might be a “dick” for calling you a “dick” to um, duh, a PR person. You know what they say, for every time you hear a complaint, there are like “N” more complaints that you don’t hear about.

    Oh damn. I only hope the head of the free-world’s organization for the development of Word-of-Mouth measurement, marketing and merry doesn’t know who I am (smile).

    Remember kids… don’t hate the playuh, hate the game.

  8. Laraelo says:

    Dave, ya gotta not read the tabloids. They make you doubt yourself and what you’re about. And you gotta not listen to the naysayers so much that you start buying into their fears and jealousy. If you do, you’re knocking yourself back to square one. I imagine that you got to where you are by believing in what you were doing (even if you had some doubts along the way) and forging ahead IN SPITE of people. And look at where you are now. Who among those who lament over what you’ve created wouldn’t give their eye-teeth to be in your shoes right now?

    (Enter gratuitous pats on the back here: 1… 2… 3…) It’s just another blow-by that unfortunately came from someone you were fond of. I’m sure he’s feeling much like the word he called you at this moment. Speaking of which, time to admonish, so let’s commence and get this over with, shall we?

    ~~~~~~~~Commence the Cone of Silence~~~~~~~~

    Dave Balter! While the use of such words might be part of certain peoples vocabularies, it is hardly fit to be seen by the public in general. As the CEO, I would expect better coming from you! Handy future reference: He called me a male body part which could also be construed as British for fellow, or a mean, contemptable person.

    ~~~~~~~~End Cone of Silence~~~~~~~~

    Now, dust yourself off and get back to doing what you’re so great at. ;)

  9. cfihunter says:

    It’s always easier to throw stuff at the person in the front of the pack. If Bzzagent weren’t the “industry leader” that it is, some other company’s CEO would be being called names. If you didn’t passionately believe in what Bzzagent is, and what Bzzagent does, the company would not be the same. The way you speak about Bzzagent is, I believe, precisely what you want the bzzagents to do, that is talk up something you are involved with and make other people want it. It’s like the perfect campaign.


    OK I’m still processing this one because I have a lot of things going right now. Apparently BzzAgent is the target of some backlash from their successful PR and marketing efforts. Which is interesting, because they only have one PR guy (Joe Chernov) a…

  11. JBaileyR says:

    Regardless of whether you are dick or not (which it doesn’t seem that you are — instead I see you as a good, passionate business man), the premise of their frustration is frustrating!

    “…It was an extremely positive feature in The Holmes Report (a PR industry trend update) that triggered the response. The article focused almost solely on BzzAgent, which according to Andy, has upset many PR practitioners in the WOM field who felt “left out” of a story published in one of their industry periodicals…”

    Too bad! It is the mentality of bringing everyone else down to all be at the same level. Reality is that everyone is not at the same level. Others should seek to learn and improve, not tear down those who are suceeding. Look inward when someone is doing well or getting good press, rather than bringing them down — then the industry as a whole will improve.

  12. BradB says:

    I think the ultimate conclusion here is the Andy is clearly the “dick”

  13. Missydiva says:

    If you’re a “dick” does that make us dickies?

  14. [...] Steve Hall over at AdRants has a very funny story about a post by Dave Balter of BzzAgent concerning some name calling by WOMMA CEO, Andy Sernovitz. According to the posts, Andy called Dave a dick because BzzAgent was getting more press than WOMMA or Andy or whatever. Too funny!! [...]

  15. Gprindle says:


    Think that the proper term might be dicketts.

  16. Cdaz says:

    Let me get this straight, the head of a WORD of MOUTH association thought he could have a conversation “one on one” and keep it quiet? There’s irony here right? Right?

  17. Gina says:

    So, some people are mad because they aren’t being mentioned enough in the media, and everyone says your to blame for this? Oh waaaaaah, they are just being babies. Don’t buy into their bullshit, Dave. Obviously you are doing something right, if you are “out-pacing” all the other models. And what’s up with the P.R. guy stirring trouble, does he have manners? He could have kept that comment to himself, now HE’s the dick. (please don’t tell him i said that)

  18. BradB says:

    Cdaz’s comment is right on. A “off the record convo” with Bzz’s PR guy IN an industry all about PR. Is this guy qualified to really be the head of WOMMA?

  19. Kristin M. says:

    I disagree with BradB and Cdaz. I’m a head-of-pr person and I would ALWAYS tell my boss if a colleague said something bad about him. On or off the record. It’s my job to let the boss know what people think of him and his agency. Sernovitz totally knew that it would get back to Balter. That was a dicky thing to do.

  20. Kristin M. says:

    Oops – I mean I totally agree with BradB and Cdaz. Sorry! Must get more coffee now and put a sock in it.

  21. im_red says:

    My 2 cents: Sernovitz gets petty and you try to one-up him by posting.

    You need to write things like this, let them sit 24 or 48 hours and then tear them up.

  22. JBaileyR says:

    It seems that some of the responses would have recommended leaving it alone. After some days have passed, are you regretful of posting about the comment? It reminds me of that quote, “Insults should be written in the sand, and praises carved in stone.” I try to remind myself of that often, but generally after my insult is carved :)

  23. Kristin M. says:

    And revenge is a dish best served cold.

  24. Bill Kelm says:

    Dave, you probably remember me as the “CrispyFire” popcorn guy. I want you to know that I hold no grudges about you having to change the agenda of the ad:tech San Francisco session. The truth is that my cousin probably couldn’t have afforded even buzz marketing, and he is relying upon a tentative commitment for private label placement through Trader Joe’s to start the WOM process.

    I liked this post of yours, and I didn’t know that your were an early WOMMA frontiersman. I felt you should know about my latest blog post (which has a “ten little Indians” analogy in it) because it evolves around BuzzAgent’s business model (I know your tired of this stuff, but at least mine has an improvement suggestion for you). I hope you take my constructive suggestion in a positive way, as I believe in an ethical WOM Marketing Industry for the consumer’s sake, and I hope to see it continue to prosper without any negativity whatsoever associated with it, as I’m sure you do too.

  25. Chief Hunter says:

    Andy has a history of burning bridges. He did so with me and a couple of others when he moved from NY to Chicago and tried to publically pit a few players against each other to help build his name localy – around an event series that he ran. It backfired when a few of us got together and gave Andy exactly what he didn’t want: no exposure whatsoever. It drove him crazy. I’m a proud card carrying member of the growing group that Andy considers “dicks.” If he were a player it would be an honor. And by the way – what actualy viral or word of mouth or coconut beating marketing has ANDY ever done? What credentials does he bring to the table?