Despite the atmosphere of sexual harassment and general crudity, I genuinely liked my time at what was to become Aspen Marketing, Inc. because I liked the work. There were daily opportunities to take on new creative assignments. Some of them were large in scope while others were the kinds of smaller projects agencies take on while they’re still in a growth phase.
One of these flopped on my desk one afternoon with a note from the President, Pat O’Rahilly. “There’s a new hockey team coming to Geneva and they need a logo.” Pat loved hockey, and the Junior A league team was to be called the Chicago Freeze. I was not an expert in the hockey world, but I read up on who their likely fan base was going to be, and it consisted of families and up-and-coming players. So I designed a logo that was essentially a play on the word FREEZE by drawing a Blue Sun with skates and a hockey stick.
The logo was accepted and soon built into all kinds of materials, including a 50-foot painted version under Center Ice. Of all the things I’ve designed, that logo probably got more impressions than any other. It was on everything.
So I was in generally good favor at the time when I was asked to join the President on a presentation on the work I’d done on an Ameritech project. Those were arriving thick and fast at the time, and we’d drive up to Schaumburg from West Chicago in the limousine driven by Pat’s favorite chauffeur. I was waiting in the back seat when Pat plopped down, turned to me and said, “What’s the best running shoe?”
Frankly, he didn’t much like making conversation with underlings, and that’s where I sat on his totem pole. Yet he’d also grown to understand that I was a decent athlete, especially a runner, so I began explaining the attributes of various kinds of running shoes, when he interrupted me and said, “No, I mean, what’s the most expensive?”
I sat there for a moment, then realized his actual question had nothing to do with what shoes might work best for running. That offended me to some degree, because he didn’t really care about my relative expertise. Instead, he viewed so much in life as a hunt for trophies, and I represented a shortcut to the knowledge he wanted about expensive running shoes. His pursuit of status symbols included his ultimate desire to have a company jet, which I believe he ultimately achieved as his company and wealth grew enormously with each successive sale or consolidation with larger firms. No one knew how to rake in the dough like Pat O’Rahilly. I admired that about him even though his values and perspectives were entirely different than mine.
He could be a hard driver in many ways, and people that crossed him either got dressed down or weren’t around any longer to vex him. I was always careful how I phrased things, and made it a habit of sorts to compliment him on work projects or perspectives. But I don’t think he ever took my insights all that seriously. I wasn’t one of the Rainmakers yet, a guy that really drove the Big Bucks.
In fact, I was more often the guy that the firm turned to drive or mop up peripheral projects. That was the case with a low-budget project for a fashion and sportswear company called Grand Illusion. They only had a working budget of $5K or so to conduct a photo shoot, so I recruited members of the Aspen staff and some friends from outside the firm to serve as models. Then I hired a local photographer I knew from newspapers days, and we set out to do location shoots with samples of the clothing. It was interesting work piecing together the plan for the right people to wear the clothing. That was one of my few real immersions in what basically became a fashion shoot.
Both the guys and the gals from Aspen turned out to be great models. There were good-looking people throughout the firm, and I drew from that base to create the shots we needed. But when the first round of photos came back, the client had a complaint. “The boobs on too many these women are too big! Can’t you find some models that aren’t stacked?”
That was a bit of a problem, especially because our point of contact with the firm was an attractive woman with her own set of prodigious breasts that seemed to stand straight out from her chest. And wouldn’t you know it, she wanted to be in at least one of the photos. So we did our best to diversify the breast sizes of our models and in the end, I designed the brochure in Quark XPress software and it turned out great. I was eager to see what the higher-ups at Aspen thought of the work we’d done while keeping the budget in line, but the response was bland at best. “That deal isn’t making us much money,” was the main reaction.
There was not much to do but move on at that point. No amount of bragging about how good the brochure looked was going to change the impression of the project as a near-losing proposition.
On the other hand, I was tagged to be the prime developer of a massive project for Ameritech that would involve creating sales materials for thousands of call center employees across the Midwest. There were dozens of products, mostly landline phone options at that time, as cellular was just starting to take off for the company, and the call center employees needed to have educational material near-at-hand. So I designed a format for all the pages, pulled in all the technical information and created a “library” of products that would be ringed onto plastic mounts above their desks.
The job to create the plastic mounts was jobbed out to a local provider, a fabrication whose owner Don was an interesting character. He always looked a bit disheveled, and his assembly plant was located in a small warehouse off a state highway between cities. On the morning that we were supposed to stop by the plant to pick up thousands of the plastic mounts, it was still dark at 4:30 a.m. when we arrived. Our scheduled called for us to drive north from Chicago to Appleton, install as many of the mounts as we could throughout the call center to show how it’s done, and likely return that night.
But when we arrived at the plant, I could immediately see by the look in Don’s eyes that something was amiss. Plus, there were only a dozen or so boxes of plastic mounts sitting on the floor. It was clear that they’d fallen behind schedule somehow. Pat O’Rahilly walked up to the owner and said, “You told us there would be three thousand ready for pickup. How many do you have?”
“A thousand…” Don replied. “These take a long time to make. You didn’t give us enough time!”
He was likely right about that. Our company was always doing things last-minute. The phrase around the firm was “Always the time to do things fast. Never the time to do things right.”
Yet here we were ready to drive to Wisconsin with only a third of the mounts we were scheduled to pick up. Pat was furious. “What the fuck’s wrong with you?” he demanded.
At which point Don leaned in and put his nose right in front of Pat’s face and hollered, “Fuccccckkkk…Youuuuuuu….”
I was shocked, for sure. I’d never really seen anyone respond to someone like that in business. But after we walked out of the room, Pat turned to me and said, “You know, you kind of have to respect someone that sucks Fuck You to your face.”
And so it was that we grabbed what we could to drive to Wisconsin and get the job going. While there, one of the key account executives and managers for Ameritech walked up to me and said, “What’s the creative guy doing up here installing plastic mounts? Don’t you have people to do this for you?”
I was quick to reply. “Quality control. We want to make sure it’s done right.”
That’s right, I toed the company line for sure. In fact, I’ve always been something of a loyalist even if I’m not the happiest with the circumstances faced at work. I’d learned the hard way at the Chronicle job that a single bad word can cost you big time if it gets back to management. That’s true even if you’re not the one that originally said anything at all. Most managers (and I said that generally, yet honestly) do not like to be questioned or hear anything negative about the company even if they’re the ones that habitually complain or badmouth the place their own way.
So I sucked it up and the installations went went across multiple Call Centers across the Midwest. The fabricator got caught up in his work and my design work was greeted with appreciation by the client.
The Claustrophic Mascot
Then another Ameritech project for the Call Centers came my way. “We need to design a mascot for one of their CPE division,” our VP Vince Marinelli told me. So I got to work using Adobe Illustrator do designed the life-sized costume and sent it off to a production facility. The day it came back from the manufacturer, Vince pulled me out of my office and said, “Here, you can be the first to try it one.”
There wasn’t an instruction sheet, so we laid the costume down on the floor and I crawled inside. I was expecting a breathing portal somewhere near the face, but as I rolled over on the floor all that hit my cheeks was a layer of plastic. I started panicking. Claustrophobia hit me hard. I started gesturing to get out because I couldn’t breath. At first people thought I was joking. Then two of our women account executives shrieked, “He can’t breathe!”
Someone grabbed the suit near the knees and lifted it up so I could crawl out. My mind was racing and I tunneled my way back down through the suit and emerged flushed and a bit angry. Vince couldn’t help laughing at that point, and helping me to my feet he said, “I bet if you’d had a knife, you’d have cut your way out huh? Then we’d be out $5,000…”
Indeed, that was a great expense. But the laughter I heard during my sojourn inside was a great expense to me. Because as it turned out, there was a fan attachment for the back of the suit that someone had left on the dock. Once that was attached, the suit filled up with air and the next person into the suit walked around the office like a hero. I admittedly sulked and felt stupid for not being more careful. At that moment, the lyrics from the song Hotel California by the Eagles came to mind, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave…”
A week later, still stinging from my panicked reaction inside the suit, I wanted to prove that I was still game enough to take chances. Vince asked if I still wanted to participate in the CPE product launch at the Ameritech office. This time, he told me, I didn’t have to wear the CPE suit. “But I do need you to wear a woman’s dress…and act a part” he told me. I tried it on in the restroom. But fortunately, my shoulders were too damned wide to fit into the thing.
By then, I’d had enough exasperation and embarrassment to last me forever. I was trying to prove myself a valuable part of the team, but when stuff like that happens, it undermines the self-confidence. It’s hard not to feel a fool in the workplace sometimes. That’s one of the tarsnakes of life, I guess.