I had a subtle yet red-faced moment recently. (I was red on the inside.)

I was in a marketing meeting with a client that included staff and two outside consultants. One was Ken Smith (www.smithmedia.com), who handles the video responsibilities of the client’s work. I attended because I was responsible for the client's editorial content and public relations efforts.

The client had asked for a plan for a new campaign in 2016. He asked to have it by the next scheduled meeting. I thought about the direction and how we should implement it and provided both ideas and some warnings about possible missteps. I spent hours on it and was pleased with the results. Writing a solid plan is a métier of mine. I presented the plan with a headline and four pages, I hoped, of solid content.

Ken also presented his plan. He is a friend, we are not competitors, and we have worked together with this major client for four years (we have no financial connections with each other). His plan, from a visual standpoint, was a Rembrandt, while mine looked like the doodling of a grade schooler with a pencil and a sheet of paper.

Let’s step back a bit. I’m fond of telling people that black ink on white paper is beautiful. It’s my way of expressing that all that fancy stuff doesn’t matter. It’s the content that drives everything, and anything else is just fluff. Given my old-school reportorial experience in Washington, D.C., and Cleveland, that might have been true.

It isn’t anymore. Even today, I suspect, all would-be reporters (if there are still jobs for them) have to learn how to use a camera for still shots or rudimentary video skills as an add-on to the story when it goes digital.

Those of us of a certain age group grew up with the idea that the nuts and bolts always win out, whether it’s talent, the deal or pushing forth a plan. That kind of thinking is less true in today’s world. Appearance does matter. Maybe it always did, more than I thought. I don’t think it gets you to the finish line, but you might not be a contender if the potential customer doesn’t even consider you.

Ken’s plan had graphs, photos and charts, and the plan had depth, too. (Ken’s a smart guy with lots of talent.) Mine had none of that when looking at it visually. Was I worried? Not really, because the client has been a longtime recipient of my work, and he’ll see the merit of what I wrote. But I did wonder, what if this were the first report I ever gave to a client who was, regardless of the reason, more prone to visual appeal and lacked the real-world expertise and success I had constantly demonstrated? What if he or she was a 28-year-old and couldn’t remember the last time he or she read something without some artwork that served to break up the content? Can you say “infographic”?

Interestingly enough, I had to prepare a renaming campaign for another client. Visually, it’s not where I want it to be, but Ken’s plan certainly made me try to spruce up my renaming campaign.

If you’ve gone this far, you know what I’m about to suggest. How do your operations appear? Do your main office and branches have that orderly, clean, “professional” look that says, “This is a business”? I suspect that’s true of most HARDI members — certainly those I’ve visited.

However, I can tell you one spot where many are still stuck in the late 1990s: your website. (I’m guilty of this, too.) Most distributors need help on this. You probably think, as I do, “Well, I don’t do much on the internet," or, "We're a business where appearance ranks way down the line.” Maybe. But that “maybe” might turn into mush when dealing with a new customer or a younger buyer.

There are, of course, other parts to the website: content; ease of operation; and, most importantly, utility. Does it allow me to do what I want to accomplish?  This function remains a sticking point for most distributor websites.

Beyond the website, what about proposals and reports? Do they have charts, colors, graphs and numbers supported with superior writing and the absence of passive sentences?

Frankly, when John Politisky and his team at Speakeasy Creative (wespeakeasy.com, cover story, Distribution Center magazine, October 2015) analyzed all the Top 50 Distributors’ websites, with most not receiving a top grade, I was mildly surprised that no one contacted John for a review. He had promised an honest, brief appraisal. Maybe the Top 50 thought it was a sales ploy. It wasn’t, which is why I asked John to participate and got much more than I anticipated.

Naturally, the starting point for all of this is your marketing person and everyone who has an investment in how well the company does.

What I’m finally suggesting is that appearance and presentation have a place, even if this comes from a fellow who thinks black letters on white paper are beautiful. But you had better not run into a Ken Smith as a competitor on a bid or a project. It could get ugly. For you.

You might want to make the same consideration when you examine your business. While beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, it probably wouldn’t hurt to add a little shine to it.