If EchoStar had launched its "Stop Feeding the Cable Pig" campaign in 2002, there would have been little that Cox’s cable systems could have done—short of using a needle—to deflate the satellite TV provider’s nasty attacks that featured 22-foot-long, 16-foot-tall inflatable pigs bearing anti-cable slogans. Luckily for Cox, EchoStar started its mudslinging smear tactics in December 2003. That was three years after the Atlanta-based cable operator had tapped quiet, unassuming Warren Jones to establish an internal corps dubbed the CIA, otherwise known as Cox Intelligence Agents. This group was set up to merge Cox’s competitive strategy with customer retention. In other words, it was created to take on—and beat—Cox’s competitors. So when EchoStar CEO Charlie Ergen dispatched six balloon porkers—with swarms of paid protesters brandishing ham sandwiches, Dish Network T-shirts and signs declaring "Cable rates are piggish"—to cable systems across the country, Cox was ready. It had tactics in place designed to knock the wind out of any enemy, including on-the-ground preparedness and swift outreach to the local press. "We’re definitely not the same company we were back in 2002," says Jones. "In 2002, I’m pretty confident we would have remained fairly quiet and continued down the path of just talking about what’s right about Cox and our products, and really not acknowledging at all a competitor’s actions. Now when those types of events happen, we are very active. Not only from a marketing perspective but across the board—from a public affairs perspective, from a legal perspective—we will engage our competitors. And have done so. I know our competitors feel the difference in our culture." EchoStar got a surprise when its porcine anti-cable campaign rolled into Tulsa, Okla. "We found out about four days before what they were planning to do," says Jones, whose official title in Cox’s corporate marketing department is director, competitive strategy and customer retention. "We mobilized our Oklahoma team, working with our corporate team, to prepare for that and to have our responses and our main messaging in place." The Dish Network protest "was a dud," he reports. "There was very little turnout, but we were ready, and I felt very good that—had it materialized into a bigger competitive threat—we were very prepared from the CSRs up to the general manager in Oklahoma." Step 1: Mission Possible Jones has helped Cox step up to competitive challenges by promoting teamwork across all product lines. "In 1997, when I joined Cox, we were a one-product, one-market company: cable TV to the residential market," he says. "Today, we sell three products plus enhancements against multiple segments, including commercial. So the business has grown infinitely more complex in the space of only seven years." Cox began looking into its internal CIA efforts in late 2001 to better succeed in this rapidly changing competitive environment. Pat Esser, EVP and CFO, issued a challenge to what was then known as the company’s competitive readiness team—an eight-member group made up of corporate representatives from public affairs, legal, customer care, field service, IT/MIS and marketing. Esser called on the group to turn the company into a smarter, tougher and more proactive competitor. "The CIA program has helped foster a competitive mind-set among our people in an increasingly dynamic environment," Esser says. "[It] is helping us maintain our position as America’s best bundler by providing employees with the information and tools we need to keep our competitors in the rearview mirror." After six months of research, the CIA program was introduced in May 2002 as an internal brand with a Blues Brothers-like logo. (It’s never used in external marketing efforts). The program’s mission: to bring a missionary-like zeal to Cox’s attempts to understand cable’s enemies and predict their next moves. Cox kicked off its CIA campaign with posters (now collectors’ items within the company) featuring president and CEO Jim Robbins in a trench coat and fedora holding a Cox CIA ID card, with the tag lines: "Welcome to CIA Central Command," and "Only you can prevent defections. Join the CIA." A follow-up poster featured a similarly garbed group (Esser plus Cox’s three SVP of operations: Claus Kroeger, Jill Campbell and John Dyer) and the words "Only you can protect the front lines of our business." Cox SVP of marketing Joe Rooney adorned another CIA poster. The acronym stands for more than Cox Intelligence Agents; it’s also about being competitive, intelligent and assertive. "We wanted our employees to recognize that it was OK to compete, and it was actually a requirement to compete in the marketplace," Jones says. "We challenged our employees to present the Cox story, whether or not it was part of their day-to-day job. If our employee is in a grocery store checkout line and hears someone behind them talking about one of our competitor’s services, they should be empowered and willing to turn around and tell the Cox story." Step 2: Recruit, Train, Challenge The CIA program’s goals are simple: increase employees’ understanding of the competition; teach them how to better use competitive tools; empower them to take action; and give them a competitive mind-set. To spread this initiative throughout the company, in January 2003 the CIA launch team named one employee in each of the company’s 26 markets to be a "competitive champion" for that market. Although every Cox employee is considered a CIA agent, the local competitive champions were more thoroughly trained, receiving a launch kit and manual to help them implement the CIA program on the ground. The competitive champion shares information with the corporate CIA team, which synthesizes it to get an overall picture of Cox’s competitors. Besides monthly conference calls, the linchpin between corporate and local CIA efforts continues to be the "Central Command" intranet site, which Robbins calls an "instantaneous response system." The CIA’s Web-based resource center is packed with training materials and CIA agent profiles (employees can nominate each other for best competitive practices); daily news on the competition, including DBS, DSL and the telcos’ video plans; competitive briefs archives; and 18 buttons that link to hot topics including DBS advertising, internal and third-party competitive research and details on campaigns such as Cox’s dish win-back program. Cox also honors its CIA agent of the year. Stacy Do, acquisition coordinator for Cox Kansas, and Warren "Drew" Prueitt, a quality specialist in Cox’s San Diego call center (who also won the first A+ score in CableFAX Daily‘s Mystery Callers feature), shared the 2003 honors. Sue Albregts, manager of broadband and marketing for Cox Orange County, won the 2004 award. Step 3: Track and Reward One CIA program incorporates Cox’s long-standing "mystery caller" initiative, which tracks CSR performance. The mystery calls (conducted by a third party) registered a 34% improvement in overall company scores within the first 12 months of the CIA’s launch. As part of the "IntelliChallenge" training program for managers charged with overseeing the CIA program, teams from Cox systems and corporate are pitted against each other. Teams are judged by how well their three-year plans generate incremental cash flow and customer satisfaction. Another CIA program, dubbed ID-A-Dish, started in Orange County (where it generated 30,000 leads in its first round). It encourages Cox employees to identify DBS customers, paying $2 "bounties" for each address, with $5,000 awarded to the employee submitting the most leads. A Cox employee in Hampton Roads, Va., e-mailed Jones a photo of a bad dish installation and suggested that it be used in a marketing campaign, which spurred another idea: a companywide contest that started in November called "That’s Dishgusting!" More than 375 photos of ugly satellite dishes were submitted. More than 4,500 Cox employees voted for the ugliest shot, with the winner receiving a Sony 51-inch HD-ready TV set and the 11 finalists (just in time for Christmas) receiving $50 gift certificates to Circuit City or Home Depot. The 12 winning photos were reprinted in a CIA calendar featuring key competitive messages, and a collage of the "best" crappy dishes will grace Cox’s corporate cafeteria walls. While Jones concedes that CIA has been a fun campaign with a catchy name and logo—gracing lapel pins, employee ID badge holder clips, notebooks, clipboards, computer screens—he stresses that its work is deadly serious. "We believe the fun part is important to keeping it alive and keeping it vibrant," he says. "But it shouldn’t gloss over the very powerful work that we’ve done, that may not be as cute, but has certainly been very powerful to our success in the markets." The highest praise came from Robbins in his remarks to a Deutsche Bank analyst conference last year, when he said the CIA program’s efforts have established a competitive mind-set. "We are very, very nicely positioned to withstand the competition," blow-up pigs and all. Since CIA’s inception, he added, "the more competition we had, the better the company seemed to have performed."