This week, leaders from across the promotional products industry are in Washington for the PPAI North American Leadership Conference. The annual conference, which opened Sunday night with a welcome reception at the International Spy Museum and continues through this afternoon at the Hotel Washington, explores the most relevant, top-of-mind business issues and ideas impacting the promotional merchandise field.

This year, NALC opened with a keynote speech from legendary Bob Woodward, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who, along with Carl Bernstein, uncovered the Watergate scandal in 1973.

The Icon’s Keynote

In his keynote session, Woodward shared anecdotes from his storied career – from his earthshaking expose on Richard Nixon to his interviews with Donald Trump and the war in Ukraine – and so much in between. Woodward has had a front row seat to much of the last 50 years of history, and brought those observations to NALC.

From the top of his keynote, Woodward noted that he appreciated that he was not being asked to speak broadly on his career and journalism, but rather, to answer the question, “How have Washington politics changed?”

Woodward gave a multi-faceted answer. Part of it is how the media has changed. “Our standard is there should be firsthand witnesses, participants and documents,” he says. “We now live in the post-truth era. What is the post-truth era? Are we done with truth? Emotions, a fixed set of beliefs, drives politics.”

For a journalist, certain things are important, one of which dovetails nicely with what his promo audience offers.

“I have been given high-quality pens, good pens, with a corporate logo, and that’s something useful,” says Woodward. “In the news business, I think we’re consumed with speed, the internet, and my position is that we have to give something to people that is useful. News that really tells you something that’s not available elsewhere. The same in your business. Utility, quality and can you trust it, and in any business, that’s the key.”

Another is understanding. Woodward shared a lesson on reporting from British novelist Graham Greene, who emphasized the importance of not despising people on the other side. Understand them and listen to them. Listen to them even if you can’t stand what they’re saying. Understand the counter argument.

“I think that is true,” says Woodward. “What is the political culture that we have now and back in the Watergate era? At the end of his speech announcing that he would resign, Nixon said, ‘Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.’ In doing that, you give them leverage over you. It’s poison.”

Woodward framed U.S. politics against the situations that exist in other countries, like in Russia, where Alexei Navalny, a critic of Vladimir Putin, sits in a jail cell, and in Ukraine, where citizens shelter from rocket and drone attacks.

“The First Amendment works in our country,” says Woodward. “Think about it: You have your association. You can do what you want. It’s a kind of freedom that doesn’t exist in Russia. Think about the contrast of that punishment cell or the underground bunker in Ukraine. They don’t have that empire of liberty we live in.

“So, to the question, how has Washington politics changed, I have three emotions or thoughts: Number one is gratitude. Number two, gratitude. Number three, gratitude.”

Promo Thought Leaders

Following Woodward’s session, NALC turned its focus to companies and professionals within the promotional products industry. Kevin Walsh, CAS, PPAI board chair and president of supplier Showdown Displays, and Jim Thomsen, Showdown Display’s vice president of customer success, spoke on building a strong employee experience within their organization.

Through video clips and audio from a “talk like a pirate”-themed option on the company’s phone system, the two shared how the Brooklyn Center, Minnesota-headquartered supplier’s approach increased employee retention and engagement while delivering an engaging customer experience that has helped fuel its growth.

NALC also examined social media on its first day of sessions. In a panel discussion, Josh Ellis, PPAI Media’s publisher and editor-in-chief, was joined onstage by Jenna Quaranta, vice president of sales and business innovation at KNOSS Apparel, and Josh Pospisil, MAS, national account manager at Hirsch, to discuss curating a brand online. Quaranta and Pospisil, both recognized in PPAI Media’s #Online18, shared how they built and cultivated their personal brands online.

Risk Assessment

After lunch, the discussion at NALC shifted to geopolitical issues. Isaac Stone Fish, founder and CEO of Strategy Risks, who last year shared his insights on trade with China at PPAI’s Product Responsibility Summit in Newport Beach, California, brought his assessments of the risks associated with doing business in China to D.C.

Stone Fish made it clear the current temperature of U.S-Chinese relations can best be described as a “pre-war period.” He says that the risks are high enough that we need to talk about them and prepare for them. There are concrete steps companies doing business in China can take now to ready themselves for a potential conflict without risking existing relationships in the country.

“The U.S. government does not want you to trade with China,” says Stone Fish. “Most of your customers would prefer you not trade with China. Your wallet, on the other hand, appreciates that you maintain those links.”

While the promo industry at large is making concrete steps to find alternatives for China sourcing, the transition is a gradual one. Stone Fish advised the audience on what to look for, where some of the greatest risks and challenges can be found and the political reality on the ground in the country. The Chinese citizens promo companies work with – their business partners, vendors and employees – are most vulnerable, and Stone Fish emphasized the importance of keeping them at arm’s length from discussions on exiting China or any practices that would run afoul of Chinese law.

“It’s hard to overstate how unpredictable the times are now,” says Stone Fish. “It’s possible I could come back in a year and say, ‘Hey, peace in our time,’ and the U.S. and China have signed a comprehensive trade pact. Or I can come back and World War III has already begun.”


Kate Sharum Daniels, industry partnerships director at Oracle NetSuite, took the NALC stage to speak on sustainability opportunities for the promotional products industry. She says, “I want to draw a clear link between the access to capital and cost of doing business with corporate environmental responsibility.”

In her session, Daniels spoke on when it comes to aligning with the growing number of rigorous ESG standards, businesses who resist increased monitoring, management and reporting on their performance will find difficulties in attracting and retaining young, passionate, valuable talent; securing a lower cost of capital; and ensuring their own success in the context of increasingly discerning distributors and end consumers.

Near the end of NALC’s first day, PPAI President and CEO Dale Denham, MAS+, held a pair of one-on-one interviews with promo industry innovators. The conversations were wide-ranging and examined their histories with promotional products and business philosophies.

First up was Marc Katz, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Custom Ink. Katz shared his personal story and the story of how his company got its start, what it’s like running it today and his relationship with promotional products.

“You won’t wear or use a customized product from a company you’re not proud to be associated with,” says Katz. “And you have to like the product and its quality.”

Denham’s second one-on-one interview was with Joshua White, head of strategy and general counsel at distributor BAMKO. Among the questions in their discussion, Denham asked White about his recent article in PPAI Media discouraging the use of noncompete clauses with industry employees, “Have You Considered Not Being Awful.”

“People are using noncompetes to solve the wrong problem,” says White. “The answer isn’t bullying people and trapping them into contracts, it’s to not be awful and make people want to stay. My belief is that it’s not hard, with the right work and intentionality. You may lose people you invested in, sure. There’s a price we pay to pass through the gates of optimism.”

The Big Finish

NALC’s first day closed with a sneak peek for NALC attendees of the PPAI 100, PPAI’s research-backed industry rankings that go beyond top-of-line revenue numbers to weigh the many factors relevant to corporate leadership. PPAI 100 is the highest recognition the Association bestows on its member companies.

Read more about attendees’ reactions here.