I learned about the naming of Rob Samuels to the position of Chief Operating Officer at Maker's Mark when a reporter called me yesterday for a comment.
Reacting off the top of my head I said a couple of things. Most of all I think it symbolizes Beam's intention to leave Maker's alone, at least so far as anyone can see. Rob is now in place to replace his father when that day comes.
That's all well and good, but the cynic in me wonders how meaningful a title like COO is when Maker's Mark is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Beam Global, which is itself a wholly-owned subsidiary of Fortune Brands.
You'll notice that the announcement makes no mention of who really owns and operates the company. The words "Beam" and "Fortune" appear nowhere in the lengthy press release, not even in the "About" section at the end where such mundane background facts are usually revealed. It encourages the illusion that Maker's Mark is independent, owned and run by the founding Samuels family, which has not in fact been the case in nearly 30 years.
Part of the problem is title inflation. When I started in advertising each agency had one creative director. That was the title of the person who ran the agency's creative department. Today everyone with more than six months experience is a creative director and big agencies have hundreds of them. People seem to like the way big titles look on their business cards, even if they don't mean very much.
When the term 'president' became meaningless because so many presidents were really just division heads, the actual company heads started to be called the "Chief" something or other. Now that's pretty debased too.
This is nothing against Rob who I don't know. We've never met. Considering how long and how deeply I've been involved in this business, that may tell you something right there.
So is he really just a brand ambassador? A living link to the brand's heritage, like Fred Noe is at Beam? Not knowing Rob I don't know if his personality is anything like his dad's but I doubt it. Bill Samuels is one-of-a-kind. One hopes for his sake that Rob has been given a job that will make good use of his talents and experience, and not just his ancestry.
Earlier this year I coined the term "Potemkin Craft Distillery" to describe companies that pretend to be little craft distilleries when they're selling a product they didn't even make. This isn't quite the same thing -- Maker's Mark bourbon is still made at the Maker's Mark Distillery -- but I wonder if this feigned independence will ultimately undercut their credibility.
If I catch you trying to mislead me about something, I have to assume you are willing to mislead me about everything.