Coming off a year of running my own business and a debacle job in which Paladin Interim Staffing hired me to open a suburban Chicago office but never followed through on their promises, I floated into the spring season looking for work and a more stable situation. One of the things I’ve always done when processing loss in life is going for long runs and trying to think it all through.
That is the salve that keeps me going during tough times. It was hard to reconcile my feelings of defeat as if I’d done nothing wrong, yet here I was out of work at 39 years old with a family to support. So I ran some miles, then focused my daily efforts on applying for jobs. That is always exhausting work, no matter how old you are.
The year was 1996. My son was in fourth grade and my daughter was in first. They shared a small bedroom in our 750-square-foot brick bungalow in Geneva. It was starting to get awkward for the two of them, and cramped in terms of space. So the pressure to move our family forward was getting greater as well.
It is depressing to send out resumes, write cover letters, go through interviews, and not land a job. Yet the discipline I’d learned from running helped me keep my head together. One day I called my former track and cross country coach Trent Richards to network and he told me, “Well, they’re hiring an associate creative director here at CMI. Do you want me to tell them about you?”
I almost jumped through the phone to tell him “Yes!” The next day I interviewed and was offered the job at $50,000 a year. I took it willingly. It was an exciting way to start the new year.
But the day that I started, the company President Pat O’Rahilly informed me that I’d be earning less than they’d originally promised. For what reason, I never had the courage to ask. I needed work, and they likely knew it. Why not cheap the guy down? Perhaps it was just some sort of power play. But by then, I’d already moved into the office in which I’d be working, met the creative staff and one of my bosses, Ken Konecnik. I was so damned excited to be working I figured it was best to suck it up and keep on moving.
I also met a guy that I’d call a friend for many years. Monte Wehrkamp was a creative director whose office was crammed with Car Guy stuff because he was a wizard of automotive direct mail copywriting, cranking out direct response mailers week after week for Cadillac, Chevy, Ford, Volvo, Chrysler and whoever else the sales team brought to the door. He seemed possessed of the right kind of snark to survive well in the agency world. I vowed to learn from him.
The sales team with whom we worked closely was composed mostly of former car salesmen that Pat brought with him when he sold off a number of the car dealerships he owned and started a marketing agency to leverage his car-selling expertise. It was a successful formula from the get-go. O’Rahilly barely earned an Associate Degree from the College of DuPage, yet he possessed a genius for the hard sell that drove the entire company. In his own inimitable fashion, he was a self-made man.
The car guys that served him were just what you might expect from expatriated used and new car salesman. They loved crude jokes and told rude (but true) stories. That included throwing customers’ car keys on the dealership roof to put pressure on themselves to sell them a new car. Sometimes they’d play a betting game to see which sales guy could get a customer to climb into the back end of a car “to show them the trunk space.” And so on.
Some of those guys were strikingly handsome and possessed a brand of self-confidence many people wish they had. One dated a gorgeous woman who worked at the firm in the administration department. She worked nights as a Luvabull dancer for the Chicago Bulls and wasn’t afraid to flaunt her legs in short skirts worn around the office. I happened to follow the two of them up the stairs one afternoon and nearly fell backward at the sight of her thong and ass cheeks peeking out from beneath her dress. The image seared into my brain so quickly I could see it even after I looked away. Was I any better than the rest of the hogs in that place? I didn’t really know in that moment.
Sexual harassment and more
There were beautiful women working in every corner of the office, but while their looks were favored, and it clearly helped them get a job with the firm, it wasn’t an easy situation for any of them. Sexual harassment was rampant due to a general atmosphere of office misogyny. There were rumors of legal settlements on behalf of several women working at the firm.
One day while sitting in the front seat with a work group on the way back from lunch, I listened to a young woman we’ll call Monica describing how her boss was treating her. She was a young, impressionably sweet Polish girl that had grown up on the west side of Chicago. She wasn’t entirely naive to the world, but she was certainly not accustomed to what her boss was saying to her on a daily basis. “He asks me what I’m wearing under my clothes,” she related. “And what I’m doing with my boyfriend in bed.”
We were almost back to the office, so I asked the driver to pull the car over to the side of the road. Turning around to face the back seat, I told her, “Monica, you don’t have to put up with that. It’s sexual harassment.”
She sat there looking scared, so I continued. “I have a close friend that specializes in labor law. Let me give him a call and we’ll see if you have a case here.” That evening, I reached my friend who referred me to a female attorney that specialized in harassment cases. I never learned the exact details of the settlement she received, but it was rumored to be in the range of $50,000. She left the firm soon after that exchange.
Then the company hired a new “secretary” for the man that had been harassing Monica. The new woman was tall, strong, and had a domineering personality. There was no more harassment after that.
Wealth and warped ideals
That same guy, who was quite married by the way, once told me that he was afraid to have children because, in his own words, “I don’t make enough money.” I knew from internal sources that he in fact earned a base salary and commissions totaling $250,000 per year. And there I was earning under $50K as a father of two children. His words might have made me reconsider my life choices if the guy wasn’t such an obvious asshole to begin with.
There were other problems within the organization as well. One of the top salesmen was a devoted racist and gun nut who once loudly proclaimed to the Creative Department that he was well-prepared with an arsenal of weapons in his home if ever “the n******s come to get me.”
He was the same guy that erupted in anger when one of our creative staff placed an image of a Black player on a March automotive mailer with a basketball theme. “Everyone of my customers knows that I’d never put a n***** on one of my mailers,” he announced.
We were all disgusted by such behavior, but there wasn’t much any of us could do about it. Even the President, who branded himself Mr. Big, was known to call the creative department the Design Fairies. Layers of false bravado, ugly machismo, and toxic masculinity were everywhere. A woman could not wear an outfit that showed traces of whatever she wore underneath without drawing some under-the-breath comments about her appearance. I worked directly with two classy female account managers that certainly heard that type of commentary, yet knew how to dispense with those making the comments in a most emphatic way.
And childish behavior
The behavior around the agency sank to an ultimate low when guys started faking crotch grabs on each other while walking the halls. That 7th-grade-level behavior was considered “funny” at the time. Forms of immaturity existed at every level of the organization. The President himself once challenged me by saying, “I can beat you at any sport that involves a ball.” That type of comment was not uncommon at all, especially because we were half-required to participate in agency-client basketball games on the President’s backyard court. I was a good player that could nearly dunk even into my late 30s. By contrast, the ball-hog style of O’Rahilly was mostly pass-and-grunt stuff that made him feel like more than a big deal than he ever was.
Despite all the distractions, I concentrated hard on the work at hand and got involved in top-tier projects with Ameritech, one of our biggest non-automotive clients that would become SBC before evolving back into AT&T.
One of those “big” projects was a muffed assignment by the Agency of Record, Ammirati/Purus/Linus. Our little direct response firm was given a crack at doing a national campaign for a new Ameritech product involving a complimentary CallerID offer. With only a couple days to craft the campaign, I came up with Two Big To Resist and the client loved it. When it went back to APL for production, they dumbed down the slogan to Too Big To Resist, which made no sense, but they did use the art idea I created with a tag to promote the offer. By then we’d been paid for our work, so Mr. Big was happy with the outcome. I’d made it happen on short order despite the inane over-processed interference of another Chris that had joined the organization and wanted to spend two whole days putting Post-It Notes on the wall to come up with the campaign. I hated the Post-It Notes technique because it wastes a shitload of time and seldom generates good work. So I retreated to my office, came up with the campaign, and brought it to Mr. Big. That’s what we used.
During that first year, I’d earned a reputation as a thinker within the organization. But it was a serendipitous encounter that earned me a new nickname. One day a salesman walked into the Creative Department and asked aloud, “How do you spell pterodactyl?” I immediately spelled it out for him as he wrote it down. Then he glanced up at me with an odd look on his face and asked, “What are you? Some kind of Professor?” That nickname stuck. From then on, I was The Professor.
So I was feeling confident overall and decided to press Mr. Big for a raise, telling him, “I’ve stepped up. I want a $10K raise.” He said, “You’re right,” and my salary was increased. Of course, that only raised my earnings to what was originally offered when I took the job. But I considered it a win anyway.
Meanwhile, one of my immediate bosses was the VP of Sales, Vince Marinelli. He was celebrating my contributions, giving me key assignments, and even told me, “You’re like #3 behind Mr. Big and Me.” My sorry admission is that I’d actually started to believe him. Some lessons can only be learned the hard way. The second year of my employment at CMI would prove to be filled with both success and harsh realizations.