As an advertising salesperson, I not only competed against the previous year’s sales numbers in my territory. The daily game included competing with other salespeople and also other print publications and radio stations in the Fox Valley.
The towns we served were St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia, and Elburn. All had their own sales zones. Mine also added Aurora and North Aurora, a larger city and its humble twin sister that sat downstream from Batavia. The challenge in selling to businesses in those communities was heightened by a healthy competitor, the Aurora Beacon News, with a far larger total circulation and thus, the main source of spending for most Aurora businesses. We also had a lowbrow competitor called the Bonnie-Buy’rr that was an all-advertising, no-editorial rag delivered by mail every week to every damned household in the area. We hated that thing.
My Jan Ulrich
I’d followed a really good salesperson named Curt that was previously in my position. He was a handsome, charming guy loved by every advertiser, especially the ladies in boring jobs where they sat behind desks all day until a welcome visit from a stud-looking guy broke up their routine.
Curt sold really well. He was self-confident and had a smooth voice that complemented his overall gig. He went into selling spirits after ad sales.
So in my new role, I was competing against Curt’s strong appeal. He was the Jan Ulrich to my Lance Armstrong, and it all came down to the power numbers. To that end, the company provided all the previous year’s sales figures, and I kept a running chart of how I did against his performance year-to-year. Those numbers were a topic of discussion in our weekly sales meetings managed by our collective boss, a Sales Manager named Bob. He was in turn managed by Roger, the Big Boss, who was Publisher of the newspaper group.
Bob’s obvious goal was to hit the total weekly sales numbers for the group. If we kept pace with or exceeded the previous years’ numbers, Bob’s job was safe. Then he could hang around town enjoying martini lunches. Sometimes he’d come back to work a little snockered. Such was life in the newspaper business in the late 1980s.
I eventually learned that my fellow advertising account executives had their own tactics for dealing with the pressures. One of them lived in Batavia, the primary zone of sales in my territory, so he invited me to stop by his house one morning during my sales calls. I walked into the house and found my golf buddies Corey, Jim, and Joe all parked on his couch drinking sodas and munching on donuts or somesuch. “What are you guys doing?” I asked.
“What we do every day,” Joe piped up. “Watching Mayberry R.F.D. and the Dick Van Dyke show. Sometimes I Dream of Jeannie or Bewitched, too. ”
“You’re kidding,” I muttered, astounded, looking around at their coats and ties hanging on the dining room chairs.
“No, for real! You should join us!” Joe replied. They all laughed.
They were serious. Almost daily they took a break before doing any sales work to watch TV. I couldn’t imagine that luxury. I was having trouble hitting my sales quotas while using every minute in the day. It made me think, “What am I doing wrong?”
The difference between our respective territories had much to do with the work involved. Both St. Charles and Geneva had healthy downtowns. Batavia kind of sputtered along. There was a True Value Hardware store and a Coast-to-Coast, but both of them advertised primarily through fliers or “inserts” as we called them, and none of them ran in our papers often. I also called on some Batavia travel agencies, a few banks, a savings and loan, some hair salons and a tonsorial parlor, a fitness business, and a little collective of antique stores. Then I had some Real Estate advertisers and a few car ads to pick up. That was my weekly routine.
There was one high-end furniture store in Batavia called Hubbard’s Ethan Allen. It was run by a family whose lead manager Bob became a friend over the years. Bob’s main concern was the positioning of his ads in the paper. His ads all looked great, being produced by the Ethan Allen company. But if his ad ran in the Sports section or flirted with the back end of the paper where the Classified ads began, I’d get a call. Then I’d have to apologize to Bob and promise to get better “placement” next time.
Salespeople had little control over where ads appeared. That was determined by the total volume of ads placed in that week’s paper, and when we went daily, each issue was a battle for position among advertisers. Every one of them wanted to appear in the first four to five pages if possible. That competition reminded me of the jostling to get up front in cross-country races. If you were too far back by the time the first turn came around, it was easy to get stuck in the pack where you had to fight back through the crowd to make up lost time.
The people in charge of laying out the paper were merciless in their claim of objectivity toward one advertiser over another. But that’s where gamesmanship entered the picture. The layout people had their favorites among the salespeople, and working to preserve whatever status you maintained among them was key to keeping your own advertisers happy.
It could get to be an ugly scene at times with the layout people, especially if you were guilty of bringing in any “late ads,” or space placed near to or after the deadline. My struggle to keep the numbers up meant I was often out selling until the last minute. Then I’d race back to the office and start writing up work orders in quadruplicate with white, yellow, pink and blue sheets all shuttled to their respective pins. Each order had to have the right rate code, instructions for section placement ( a wish list in many ways) any Velux or printed ad material to submit, and sometimes a long list of pricing or other information critical to the content of the ad.
We lived in fear of inaccurate ads in the paper. My main horror show was the advertising for a Standard station that sold tires. The type of tire by size and its corresponding price had to be correct or the ad was deemed “wrong” by the station manager, a man named Stan that I really liked. But when his ad was misprinted, the disappointment was evident on his face. He’d carefully point out the error, write it out in clarity and ask for both a correction and a credit. Then I had to crawl back to the sales manager, explain what the error was, and ask permission to issue a credit, which went against my sales numbers for the day and the week, and try not to get angry at the typesetters if they’d blown it somehow.
The typesetters and layout people all worked in a dark space back by the printing plant. We’d come back to find them banging away with their faces lit by the computer screens. If an ad was late, it was a salesperson’s chore to convince the folks in charge of that day’s paper to allow an “extra” ad to be included. If the paper was already composed, that meant moving things around, and the editorial department did not like to be informed that they’d lost part of their “news hole” either.
So the rolling impact of trying to get our advertisers into good position and getting late ads posted was stressful business. With native anxiety always clawing at my soul and an unrecognized case of attention-deficit disorder affecting my attention to detail, I’d typically collapse intp my chair at the end of each sales day if everything finally got done and into the paper.
We’d sit around and chatter as salespeople do once the day’s deadline was passed. We’d also try not to breathe the thick smoke floating toward us from the editorial side of the office. At least half the writers were smokers, and cigarettes burned in their ashtrays from dawn to well-past dusk. As a runner, I worried about my lungs when breathing that smoke. The bad news about secondhand smoke as a health hazard to everyone was not yet public knowledge. We’d complain some days if the smoke got too thick, but the editorial department was “god” in those days, so nothing much was said.
But one day I got so frustrated by the whole scene that I basically “lost it.” I’d been called by the sales manager late that afternoon and told that it was my job to find an ad to fill a full page space on the back of one of our entertainment sections. Full-page ads didn’t just fall out of the sky. So I rushed to one of my bank clients and basically begged him to fill the space. He asked for a discount and I called in to get that approved, then rushed back with the ad copy to get it place. Traffic was heavy on the way back to the office and I missed the 5:00 deadline. When I walked back to the layout room with the ad in my hand, I was greeted by a bunch of suspicious, and not-too-kind eyes peering out at me from the dark room. At that moment, a woman named JoAnne that I did not like blurted, “What do you want?”
“Bob told me to get this ad in for Our Towns,” I explained.
“We’re running a house ad because you’re too late.”
“I have the full-page Velux,” I told her. “I’m sure Roger and Bob would prefer paid over unpaid space.”
That clearly ticked her off. She grumbled, snatched the plastic ad folder out of my hand, and blurted, “We’ll make no guarantees…”
I spun around to head back to the sales department. On my way I kicked at the swinging door and my foot went right straight through it. “CRACK!” the noise resounded through the room.
That set off a series of shouts and the next thing I knew I was in the Publisher’s being asked to apologize or be fired. First, I tried to explain why the ad was late. That didn’t matter. Then, I explained a basic reality. “That door is cheap,” I offered. “I was only kicking it open to get through.”
Those types of explanations don’t always (hardly ever) help a situation. The larger world has many such examples. I think back to when Lance Armstrong first using drugs in his cycling. His internal story probably went something like this, “Here I’m breaking down doors to do good things for you people, and all you do is criticize me and act suspicious.” On one hand, Lance was absolutely right. That whole Livestrong thing was amazing. So was winning multiple tours. He was genuinely “breaking down doors” in perception and reality.
But while he was doing great things, he was also breaking the rules. Those have to matter at some point. And it did catch up with him. He was also wrong in how he treated some people in his life.
These days, he admits that he was never perfect, and confesses that he certainly isn’t perfect today. Some life lessons only come with age.
It seems that for all of us, there are times in life when you feel truly alone. The day that I plunged my foot through that door was one of them. It shocked everyone. My fellow salespeople, both men and women, kept their distance because they didn’t know what was going on, or why I looked so dour. No one knew at first what that meeting in the Publisher’s office was about. So everyone stayed away.
Call it the Dead Meat syndrome. People are smart. They keep their distance when there’s blood in the water and fear in the air.
The managers warned me about having anger issues, and they were correct. I did have anger issues going on. They stemmed from a number of incidents growing up as a child and beyond. My brothers had long called me The Mink for my habit of engaging in angry outbursts. Most of those were in defense of what I considered justice in the moment. Sometimes I was right. Sometimes not.
But this time it almost cost me big time in the workplace. I apologized for my behavior on the spot, promised it wouldn’t happen again, and didn’t lose my job.
Yet I was still seething inside. Justice had not actually been served. I’d only followed the instructions of my direct boss to place that ad. The fact that it was late was not totally my fault. That didn’t turn out to be a solid piece of defense in my case. That incident reminded me that there isn’t always justice in the workplace. Things aren’t always fair. In fact, more often, they’re not.
Trying to get a leg up
Knowing that things aren’t always fair should have told me to be wiser when it came time to compete for one of the biggest prizes in the sales department. We were publishing the Progress Edition, a major revenue producer into which we sold as many advertisers as possible. There was a big fat commission check waiting for the top salesperson, so I set out hard and fast to earn it.
That’s how I often raced back in my high school days. Take out the pace fast and dare them to catch you. Sometimes it worked. Other times I got caught. But I was looking like the big leader going into the last week. I’d come back from a day of sales and post my ad counts (sold by column inches) that represented real dollars for the company. I thought I was earning the respect of my peers, too. Each week in the sales meeting my leadership was on full display, and the ad manager made a point out of holding me up as an example, even admitting, “He’s got one of the toughest territories, yet here he is, leading the pack.”
Then the last day of the sales content deadline came around. That day, one of my fellow salespeople dumped a huge stack of orders in the In Box and sat back down. He ran the biggest sales territory of all, and he was sandbagging all along. His numbers rolled past me that afternoon, and I was out of gas.
I knew from running that being the lead and losing it at the last minute is the worst feeling in the world. And again, I was angry at the sneaky tactic of saving all those ads for last-minute placement rather than honestly posting his total progress on the daily leaderboard. I considered it a cheap stunt. But he still took home the check and got the big kudos for being the highest-grossing salesperson
Because life’s not fair. Gamesmanship and sandbagging are part of the deal. Even the great cyclist Lance Armstrong once sandbagged during a Tour de France stage to make Jan Ulrich feel like he was going to win the day. Then Lance burst from behind the pack and roared to a stage win. Gamesmanship. Sandbagging.
And lessons learned all around.