Karma: The sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future
As my relative successes at Aspen Marketing piled up in 1997 and ’98, I allowed a bit of self-confidence to creep into the mix. Big mistake. Too often it is hubris that blinds a person to events taking place behind the scenes that add up to ill outcomes. Often our perceptions of what is required in life are often mistaken. In fact, you can do a really good job under absolutely shitty conditions and people will still tell you that it was you that did a shitty job.
That’s because people hate sticking their necks out for others if it means putting their own security, whatever way they perceive it, at some kind of risk. They’ll even compliment you to give you a sense of security if it helps them keep you under their control.
Compliments versus complements
Let’s talk about the meaning of compliments, or shall we say complements. I used the latter term “complements” in a bit of marketing copy that led to a prophetic incident. The man we called Mr. Big brought his wife Mary to work at the firm in some sort of quality control role. The real intention was never clear, it could have been in response to costly mistakes that were taking place because, as those of us in the creative department put it, “Always time to do it fast, never time to do it right.”
From what I can see from thirty years in the business, that’s how it always works. False urgency leads to crap results. All because agencies typically don’t respect their clients, even mocking them behind their backs yet still too scared to stand up for themselves for fear of losing the business.
So Mary the schoolteacher entered the fray. Her training and manner did not sit well with some people, because no one really likes a scold. Quite often it was the wrong people being blamed for the firm’s mistakes, which were derived from bad or partial information delivered by the client or the account rep. One day I spent time writing a clean set of copy only to receive it back with rewriting stating, “The word complements is incorrect. Only compliments is a word.”
My vocabulary is pretty decent, and I knew that the word complements was real. It means “a thing that completes or brings to perfection.” That’s how I’d used it in the content. I brought the copy back to her and explained the meaning. She was adamant and made me change it. It was clear she did not like being second-guessed.
Living under a bad sign
I seethed, yet quietly. Even I understood that it made no sense to make a scene with the boss’s wife, no matter what role she played. So I kept my mouth shut, and kept my head down with her. Yet something told me that from then on, my mild resistance meant living under a bad sign.
Plus bigger plans were afoot of which I was unaware. The company was being positioned for sale to a larger firm and numbers were being run to make the firm look good for sale. That meant cutting total costs by reducing payroll to show a better number against revenue. The old Cost Vs. Return Analysis.
Perhaps it was just the numbers that did me in as a middle manager type, seemingly a dispensable associate creative director at a firm that already held its creative staff in low regard. Never mind that I’d been the lead creative on an Ameritech account that grew by around 30% in a year. The thinking on middle managers typically goes, “There’s another one where he came from once we need them again.”
And thus, after two tumultuous years of loving the work but dreading the sometimes conflicted culture of the firm, I sensed my time might be up. I’d seen movies where the mob boss sends a warning signal to a “middle man” that was no longer needed or favored. One small mistake can cost a life. Then one day after a project meeting, Mary the Quality Keeper reached up and gave me a condescending pat on the face, as if to say goodbye after the conversation. I sat down that day in my office and shivered with dread. I tried talking with my two bosses, the VP of Business Development and the VP of Creative. The conversations were clipped and cold.
A week later, I came into my office and noticed that all the Zip disks on which I stored files for internal transfer were missing from my desk. I walked out of my office and looked at Andy, the production department head, and he looked away. Minutes later I received a call from Mr. Big summoning me to his office. I walked through the perimeter of the office sensing what was to come, stepped into his office heard the door unlatch from a remote click as it shut behind me. He had a button under his desk that allowed him to remotely open and close the door. A Power Move. That was his style, just like he once told me “I can beat you at any sport that involves a ball.” Who says shit like that?
But that day, he put both hands on his desk and said, “I suppose you know why you’re here.”
Where the Wild Things Are
I understood that I was being dismissed, but the reason why was never made clear. There were undoubtedly some challenges with projects that I’d been assigned. That’s how it is in the marketing business. I was the lead project manager on a collaboration with the Ameritech people, a big fundraiser to be held by the President of the company, Dick Notebaert, whose wife Peggy was big into the nature scene. A few years later she’d have a museum named after her in Chicago. My role was leading negotiations with the agency representing the work of Maurice Sendak, the famous children’s book illustrator and author of the book Where the Wild Things Are. His drawings were going to be used as the theme and backdrop for the fundraiser. It was my job to make sure things were done right.
I entered into discussions with the agency to work out details on how the images could be used. It took several weeks to determine proper usage and approve the rights. I checked those details with the Ameritech people and at one point was told, “You don’t need to let them know everything. Just get it done.”
That’s the problem with negotiations of that sort. The Sendak people were enormously focused on protecting his work and not allowing it to be compromised or used in inappropriate ways. Meanwhile, the Ameritech people had this big-picture thing going and didn’t want to slow down for anything.
I was stuck in between. As it worked out, the event came off wonderfully, but I’d made a negative impression on the Ameritech contact, and she was in charge of a ton of business for CMI…soon to be Aspen. I’m fairly sure there were discussions about my management ability even though, from the perspective of the third-party “client,” the Sendak people, I’d done a thoroughly great job.
But a few negative words from the top ranking Ameritech contact were all it took to unseat me from the lead creative work with that client.
After that, my star fell a bit. If you’ve ever worked at an ad or marketing agency of any kind, you likely know the feeling. Suddenly I was not working so much on Ameritech projects. My immediate boss who had been out of the office for several months with some physical illness, and right about the time that the Sendak project ended, he returned to work. At that point, most of the copywriting work on the account was redirected to him. He ignored the fact that I had done the heavy lifting for months on copywriting. Perhaps he was insecure about his job, and simply saw it as a competitive thing.
Once again, I was learning that it’s not just performance that counts in the working world. Unlike distance running, where results are largely empirical and the fastest runner is clear to see, the corporate world is a contest over power and control. As a person with native anxiety, my awareness of these situations was never the best. I either imagined the worst and lived in fear or lived in ignorance blindly hoping for the best.
The Frightful Thing
Worst of all, I trusted people to be true to that word. That’s probably the biggest mistake one can make in this world. The frightful thing about trusting people is that there are almost no rules to the game.
Adding to this confusing mix was the fact that the principal Vice President in charge of business development was a guy whose tactics for building relationships weren’t entirely ethical. He frequently bribed clients with gifts to build our business. As it happened, I was the guy assigned to lining up and purchasing those gifts, including a $4000 road bike for a client lead at Ameritech. I still recall his name but I won’t mention it here. Again, the frightful thing about telling the truth is that you can often be penalized or sued for sharing the facts, and people will often gaslight the hell out of anyone daring to question their integrity even if they have none.
But it wasn’t long after I left the firm that I heard Ameritech (now SBC, then AT&T) had done an internal review of some sort and banned the receipt of gifts from vendors of many kinds. There were other strange adventures with Ameritech personnel, including the account manager that insisted we deliver advertising proofs to her personal residence one afternoon. I traveled with an account executive named Erin to bring the material to the house, and we walked in to find the entire floor covered with the afterbirth of a German shepherd that had just delivered puppies. No padding or anything on the wood floors. Just liquid and blood clots. Erin hiked up the legs of her pantsuit and we walked across the slick floor. As we left, she turned to me and said, “We’re never doing this again.”
Over the years, I tried a couple times to get back into Aspen Marketing, which was purchased by Epsilon and later Publicis. Just recently I did a copywriting assignment for the MSL Group, also a Publicis company. But to this day I don’t know if I was dismissed for strictly financial reasons, which is harsh in its own respects, or for some aspect of performance about which I was never informed.
Karma is a bitch
I do know this, however. Eventually, Mr. Big got hungry for even more money, and hired a CMO with AT&T experience who basically took over running the company. They also fell into a romantic relationship, and that meant bye-bye to Former Mr. Big. The woman that insisted that “complements” was not a word got shown the door back home. I always wondered if he patted her on the face as the divorce took place, or if she patted him on the face for taking all the money she could out of his pockets in payments and alimony.
I recall a high-toned company Christmas Party out at Eagle Ridge Resort. Before the night was over, almost a dozen couples had devolved into fights, with some breaking up on the spot and others physical confronting each other in the stairwells and hallways. Surely there was alcohol involved in those conflagrations, but it was also probable that the conflicted nature of the company as a whole had an impact. I considered all that a trickle-down effect from the mixed-up personalities at the top. From what I’ve seen, if you dig even a little deeper at most companies, the truth behind how they are run is genuinely fucked up.
Those breakups and remarriages and selfish acts that turn sour are all evidence that condescension often leads to the type of karma one doesn’t really want to experience. Like the runner showboating by waving to the crowd on the homestretch of the track only to get passed by on the inside by another athlete, karma does have a way of delivering payback.
As noted in an earlier story in this series, one of the vendors at Aspen once stood toe-to-toe with Mr. Big and said “Fuck You!” to his face. I guess this is my long-delayed “Fuck you!” to the same guy. For all the corruption and sexual harassment, illegal dealings, and broken promises experienced at that firm, some people might tell me that I was lucky to leave. But the fact remains, I loved doing the work and appreciated many of the people working there. That project where we used company staff as models was evidence of how well some of us worked together. I made it work under budget and on time, which was far better than many projects at the company.
I regretted losing the job for those reasons. It hurt and the severance felt like just another slap in the face, along with the Letter of Recommendation Pat O’Rahilly wrote for me. The whole damned thing was absurd. I was bitter, for sure. Yet I eventually headed in a direction that proved beneficial in the long run. That’s all I knew how to do.
Amazing how much good can be found in really shitty situations. The creative process is intriguing, especially when it’s used to market goods and services.