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Hot Dogs, Lee Iacocca and The Power of Rapport

Updated: Jan 23

By Tony Vengrove

There is nothing more forbidding than a new idea. The appearance of a novel concept begs the skeptic in us to search for its fatal flaw. Most great ideas challenge the status quo and are instantly imbued with risk and complexity. Our disdain for change and fear of failure usually combine to cause a search for everything that is possibly wrong with the idea, right up until it’s blatantly obvious that the “old way” is far superior to the new idea in question. “Phew. Thank goodness we didn’t let THAT crazy idea get approved!”


Those in the business of selling ideas are not strangers to this song and dance. For people in advertising, there’s an art to setting up an campaign idea before any script is presented.  This skill isn’t just about explaining what the audience will see; it’s about building rapport.

Rapport allows us to relate to others in a way that creates trust and empathy. When presenters are successful at building rapport they make their audience feel comfortable and relaxed. The great ones get their audience on the edge of their seats; they pull them out of a doubting-mindset and into the world of possibility. Once an audience is excited to see what is possible, the formal presentation commences.


My father, who enjoyed a long, storied career as an advertising creative director, tells a great story about presenting to Lee Iacocca that showcases the power of rapport.

Presenting to a larger-than-life CEO like Lee Iacocca is a big deal for any agency. My father’s firm spent about six weeks preparing for the presentation, including several dress rehearsals.  By the time the team landed in Detroit, everyone knew their role and what they were to say.


My father sat waiting for his turn to present. As he mentally rehearsed, he began to doubt that his opening lines were engaging enough. He knew he needed a bold beginning to capture Iacocca’s attention and doubted he had the right approach.  However, he also didn’t know what he could change at the eleventh hour. As he glanced down at his storyboard, a picture of a hotdog stand in one of the frames jumped out—it was an “aha” moment.


Finally, it was Dad’s turn to present. He stood up with storyboard in hand and began to walk through each scene, frame by frame. When he got to the scene with the hotdog stand, he said, “You’ll see that we have a hotdog stand in this shot; a traditional stand with a cart and umbrella—a blank umbrella with no branding.” The entire agency team suddenly went ashen—he’d gone completely off-script and they had no idea where he was heading.

He looked up at Iaccoca and continued, “You’re from Allentown, Pennsylvania and I’m from Brooklyn, New York.  I didn’t know whether to put Nathan’s or Yocco’s logo on the umbrella.  Being a good diplomat, I decided to leave it blank.”


Lee Iacocca cracked a smile, chuckled and said, “Smart decision.”



Iacocca’s uncle had founded a regionally famous hot dog stand in Allentown called Yocco’s. (For those unfamiliar with New York City’s hotdog scene, Nathan’s is the long-time favorite.)  In doing his due diligence about Iacocca, my father was able to make the creative association when he needed it the most.


Iacocca’s demeanor quickly shifted.  He opened up and was much friendlier.  Take a guess whose campaign sold that day.


Building rapport demonstrates that you clearly understand the other person’s point of view.  What makes her tick?  What does she genuinely care about?  If you subtly weave these insights into the conversation, you’ll break down skepticism and lay a foundation of trust.

The good news is that it simply requires doing some homework to find shared interests. With so many digital resources available today, it shouldn’t be difficult to discover attention-grabbing information, which is relevant to your audience.


Identifying where your world intersects with your audience will pay huge dividends. Finding common ground showcases your willingness to develop a human-to-human relationship, which opens the doors of credibility, trust, and respect.


That’s what the power of rapport will do—build credibility, trust, and respect. Once you demonstrate that you understand and appreciate your client’s perspective, the more they’ll believe you have the capacity to understand their customer’s perspective, as well. Now you are on friendlier ground to share and evaluate ideas.


Miles Finch Innovation helps companies navigate the messy territory of corporate innovation. We’re strategic thinking partners who can help you get unstuck and identify creative solutions to your toughest challenges. We also love to train and speak on the subject of Creative Leadership. Email us or call us at 860-799-7505 to learn how we can help you unlock the creative potential of your employees.

#LeeIacocca #SteveVengrove

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