Free Marketing and Wire Taps

When THE EAGLE was launched in 1981 as a private, reader -funded publication, few dealers or manufacturers had heard of it and there was no money in THE EAGLE's shoestring budget for marketing. Propitiously, some managers of one major manufacturer whose ill-fated new product had been critically reported in the first edition of THE EAGLE took upon themselves the task of preventing their dealers from reading the little newsletter. Their effort served as a massive and free marketing campaign for subscriptions. The manufacturer's sales managers sought to persuade their dealers not to subscribe to THE EAGLE due to its "negative" and "anti-manufacturer" slant. Subsequently, calls were received from many dealers who said, "I don't know who the hell you are, but I want to read your newsletter." Their main reason for subscribing was, they said, that a major manufacturer was trying to keep them from reading it.

With a large enough base of readers to make some impact, THE EAGLE set upon its mission of examining the state of dealer/manufacturer relations. Interviews were initiated first with dealer owners. More than once it was asked in whispered voices if THE EAGLE's telephone were tapped. Others asked to be called at their homes, fearing someone might hear the conversation or their own phones could be tapped. The dealers, it was discovered, feared for their economic lives. Execution could be ordered, they believed, not for actions they took, but just for having "negative" thoughts or expressing them in public. Some, we also learned, were engaged in such manipulations of their vendors that they had good reason to fear retribution.

Dealer sales contracts with the major manufacturers were (some still are) cancelable with just 30 days notice "without cause." All contracts forbade making disparaging or damaging statements about the vendor. This was not legalese. Dealer owners had been duly warned and chastised even by lower level sales managers of manufacturers that they personally had the power to order a dealership termination. Dealers learned that it was wise to keep a positive and upright demeanor toward the vendors. Resentment at this powerlessness had given rise to shrewd maneuverings and crass deceptions by dealers. Such was the state of relations.

Whereas the trade magazine inquiry into dealer relations was restricted by the power of advertisers to damage revenue, THE EAGLE, a reader-based journal, also faced censorship in the form of restrictions over its sources.

Out of this reality, THE EAGLE began to find its voice in which sources were always protected and never referenced. An amorphous, collective voice was given to the dealer community so that no individual company or even region of the country (where a dealer might be ferreted out) was identified. THE EAGLE took on the voice of the dealer community and sought to address sensitive issues in a way that most manufacturers and dealers could accept. The fears of dealers and the concerns of manufacturers that had been spoken only in whispers or extreme privacy were now published for all to see and evaluate.

The issues were voluminous, dramatic and fundamental to the future of the channel, and yet, a culture of censorship and voluntary avoidance had developed over time that prevented their discussion. Without discussion, no change could occur, at least not proactive change. Among the issues that were not being considered were dealer contracts, fairness, redundancy in channel functions, the failure of dealers to "sell" products, declining margins of both dealers and manufacturers, roles and responsibilities of dealers, the purpose of manufacturer sales reps in relation to dealer sales reps, adding value to commodity products, predatory discounting, growth rebates, market saturation, hyper-competitiveness, disloyalty, portfolio management, technical service, customer service – among many others that THE EAGLE took on.

As the wraps came off these issues the intensity of feeling and hopes for change emerged. Within a year, some of the subscribers raised the idea of THE EAGLE helping them to organize a dealer trade association. There was an existing association but one issue had caused the dealers to believe a new one was needed. That issue was censorship of discussion on vital issue affecting the channel!