Novel Excerpt: Ad Asylum
Sometimes what's necessary is that the inmates take over
Pitch Minus 11 Days, Sunday
I'm watching my poor cell phone. I think it's become schizophrenic. I've programmed it with so many different ringtones for so many different things that it's lost its identity. One tone for my clients, one for my boss, one for my work friends, another for my creative director. Then there's the buzz for when I get emails, another buzz for text messages, and of course another one for incoming Tweets. Sometimes three different incoming transmissions hit at once, and the poor thing just kind of has a seizure. The most pathetic thing is when it's on vibrate and I've put it down on a table or something -- it sort of flails around like a bug on its back on a hot sidewalk. I think it may actually be trying to kill itself. I swear it's trying to get to the edge so it can jump off and put itself out of its misery.
I'm sitting inside my cubicle watching my phone's attempted suicide so I don't stare too hard at Rachel. I hate it when she catches me staring. But she's practically sitting on my lap at my desk and opening the files from the flash drive she just inserted into my computer. It's Sunday afternoon and the place is deserted, otherwise we wouldn't dare look at what she's about to show me right here in my cubicle. They're the initial ideas for the upcoming Leary pitch, which is completely hush-hush.
She opens the files and clicks around to show me the concepts. I'm dumbstruck by how bad they are. "Please tell me you're kidding. You're kidding, right? I'm getting punk'd, right?"
Rachel just shakes her head. "I know. I'm embarrassed to be working on this."
It is now, right here and now, that the conspiracy is formed. Our own secret plan to save the venerable 30-year-old agency that provides us with meager paychecks, emotional abuse, and 14-hour days. No words are exchanged, but we both know. We aren't going down without a fight.
Let me back up.
Our employer, Halliday and Vine, is in the midst of a major pitch for the mother lode of accounts -- one of the biggest pitches likely to come up in what has been a dismal year. We're talking over $150 million in global billings. More important, it is our chance to redeem ourselves after losing two big pitches in the last quarter, not to mention an airline client that went bankrupt and a banking client where the CEO and CFO were both recently indicted.
But this is all common knowledge. What is less known is that two other large accounts are teetering on the brink. Sir Owen Pembroke, our master at Integrated Marketing Holdings, or IMH, the holding company in England, is ready to unleash the hounds of hell upon us should we screw this one up.
And it is clearly ours to lose. Our CEO and half namesake, Jack Halliday, went to college with Mitchell Leary, the philandering founder of House of Leary, the multibillion-dollar 800-pound gorilla of the fashion world. When Mitchell sneezes, underfed models around the world catch cold. Boutiques on Rodeo Drive and factories in China hold their breath. And the bitchy editrex of the fashion magazines scramble to provide $200 handkerchiefs.
House of Leary has decided after decades with the same agency that it is time to take a "fresh look." Everything is, of course, all air kissy-kissy and "You're welcome to join the review," but the writing is on the wall for the incumbent agency. (Their office furniture is already for sale on eBay.) Sales are sliding and the once-impregnable brands of H of L are beginning to seem old and shabby against the popping-up-like-Whac-A-Mole designs of rappers, starlets, tattooed convicts, and American Idol winners.
And the reputation of H&V, until recently that is, has been that of brilliantly unconventional, creative approaches. So this pitch should have fallen right into our sweet spot. But that was before the untimely disappearance of Peter Vine, the other half of our letterhead, who delved deep into his own psychosis to create ads that truly stunned and amazed. He went off his medication, and suffice it to say that his dramatic and very public demise was not a pretty scene. He's been missing ever since.
We all figured that our current chief creative officer, Drew Reed, must have graphic videotapes of both Jack Halliday and Sir Owen in order to keep his job. Saying he is a dullard is an insult to dullards. But he defines the agency political operative. He can send you to agency purgatory with a single look, email, text message, im, or Tweet. He cares more about power than creative. And he is an absolute master at leaving others holding the bag. He even has fall guys lined up for his scapegoats. Worst of all, he has one of those little sorta-goatee things hanging under his lip, and he always dresses in black and talks with a fake British accent.
Which brings me back to what Rachel has just risked life and limb to show me -- the initial pitch's creative concepts. I truly hope that this is a joke, but the look on her face tells me it isn't.
We're down on my floor because it's too dangerous for me up on the creative floors, even on a Sunday. It's basically open season on account people up there. We're the enemy, plain and simple, despite all the efforts at integrated teams and information sharing. The silos are worse than ever, even after years and years of trying to break them down.
And now, on top of the age-old tensions between the Account, Creative, and Media departments, each agency has piled on Interactive, Experiential, Mobile, and something called Social Networks, each with a team of "experts" vying for client budget dollars, awards, prestige, power, resources, and hair gel.
And that brings me to yours truly. I'm the account exec, or AE, on the world's second-largest dandruff shampoo account. An AE is the lowest of the low -- worm food, pond scum, tooth fuzz, absolute dog crap. And best of all, we do all the work and take all the shit. The only ones who treat us worse than our clients do are our own colleagues. I spend the bulk of my day lying to my client, begging my fellow agency "teammates" for the stuff they owe me, and being yelled at by the media people and ridiculed by the creatives.
And I fought to get this job. At a sub-sub survival salary. I have three roommates, 2,587 if you count the roaches and mice. My subway commute to the outer reaches of Brooklyn takes me an hour each way.
I started in research. Spent two years trying to make sense of focus groups and consumer research reports so that our creative gods can base their ideas on actual consumer data. I'm not sure they even read it. The better ones do, but most of them get their ideas when they're drunk out of their minds or naked in the shower.
The fun part is then watching them fall in love with their ideas regardless of their merit. Better yet is when they die on a sword to defend them. This of course gives them an excuse for at least a week of pouting and hissy fits, not to mention an inability to get any other work done.
Which means that I'm coming up with yet more excuses for my client as to why their storyboards for yet another exciting dandruff shampoo commercial are late.
But back to the pitch ideas. Rachel has shared the ideas with me because I'm the only one out of 900 employees that she likes and trusts. As a peon graphic designer, it was totally random that she got onto the pitch team. She had been on the aforementioned banking account, and instead of getting fired, she was put on the new business team, since she can keep her mouth shut and do much of the scut work required.
Rachel closes the files on my desktop and takes out the flash drive. "Let's go get drunk."
Rachel lives in the complete opposite direction from me, way uptown on the West Side, so we go around the corner to the agency's favorite watering hole, affectionately called Ar, as the B in OLD TOWNE BAR has been broken for as long as we've been coming here. The Old Towne Bar is a fairly typical midtown bar-pub thing. The menu is the same as bar-pub things everywhere. The smell is somewhere between frat house, grease, and stale cigarette smoke that still lingers although smoking was banned years ago.
To those of us who work at H&V, Ar is as much a part of H&V as Halliday and Vine themselves. It's the place where agency victories are toasted and losses drowned. It's the first stop for those who get laid off -- a pink slip is worth a free drink -- and the lunch spot of choice to welcome new employees. Glance around the walls and you'll see the entire history of H&V's most famous campaigns in framed pictures dating back 30 years.
It's somewhat empty at 6 o'clock on a Sunday night. We check to make sure that no one from H&V is around.
"You realize that if we don't win this account, we're going down."
"You mean we can't survive on dandruff? I happen to be doing a phenomenal job. Just ask my client. She loves me."
"That's great, but it's only $3 million in billings."
"Yes, but imagine what the world would be like without it."
"Okay. Your life has meaning. Can we move on?"
"Sure. But only after I tell you another Bitch story."
"If you must."
My client, the Flake-Off dandruff shampoo brand manager, is known simply as "the Bitch." I didn't even start it. It was started by the creative director on the account five years ago and passed down like a sacred heirloom. By now she probably even knows about it. She probably likes it.
My biggest mistake was finally giving her my IM screen name. I'd managed to avoid it for months, but she persisted. And yes, I'm aware that I can make myself invisible. But if the client wants you on IM, you have to be on IM. And you can't be hiding. If she makes me follow her on Twitter, I will kill myself.
Now she just randomly IMs me to curse me out. Flaming emails no longer satisfy her need for verbal violence.
And how lucky am I that they're based in NYC so I can run over there all the time. She takes pleasure in calling meetings giving me thirty minutes notice when it's pouring, sleeting, or 95° and humid. And when she knows I don't have whatever deliverable it is she's screaming about, just so she can watch me squirm and make up lies.
She's in her mid-30s, and I swear she's probably never gotten laid. She's not ugly; she could actually be attractive if she didn't wear those stupid brand manager costumes. She never got the memo that said casual dress was okay.
It's more like she has zero sensuality. You must know what I'm talking about. There are women who might not be objectively beautiful, but they're so sexy. It's how they move, it's how they smell, it's how they talk, it's how they dress. You want to jump into bed with them for the weekend and never come out.
And not only does she verbally abuse me, she comes on to me at least once a month. Forces me to have dinner with her. I've even had to travel with her to make store visits or attend focus groups, which then leads to having to fight her off late at night in the hotel bar. I've told her I have a girlfriend. I've told her I have a 250-pound black boyfriend. I've told her I'm impotent. I've told her I have herpes. I've told her I'm married. I've told her I have mother issues. I make her drink until she falls asleep, and then we both pretend it never happened and she starts abusing me again.
"She IM'd me yesterday all excited that she met some guy on eDating. Ninety-six percent compatibility."
Rachel chokes on her margarita. "Pictures," she manages to blurt out. "We must have pictures."
Pitch Minus 10 Days, Monday
An ad agency on the brink exudes a tension that is palpable the moment you enter the building. You can smell it. You can feel it. You can even see it -- the tight faces of those who think they're about to get fired, the scurrying about by those who are desperately trying to look busy when they have absolutely nothing to do.
And elsewhere, there's the excitement of those select individuals who are on the pitch team. They are like a crazed band of zealots who are both energized and terrified at the same time. The rest of us view them with envy; at least they have a mission. Win or lose, they at least know which way is up.
I approach my cubical and boot up. I see Nate wandering out of the pantry with a cup of coffee. Nate and the rest of the tech guys are the only ones who drink the company coffee. The more burnt and nasty it is, the more they seem to like it. They watch the rest of us with our $4 Starbucks or Dean & Delucas and just kind of smirk.
"Hey, Nate. Question for ya."
Nate is wearing his uniform -- red baseball cap, black T-shirt with the faded graphics of an '80s metal band, ripped jeans, and old sneakers. He doesn't answer, just glances at me from under his cap with a look that says, Don't tell me you forgot your password.
"Think you could hack into eDating?"
I actually get a smile. "Need a date?"
"I want to find out who the Bitch's new boyfriend is." Now he's really smiling. I've never seen his teeth before. I don't think I ever want to see them again. "Pictures. We want pictures."
He wanders off muttering, "I'll see what I can do." Like everyone else, he's glad to have a mission.
I walk back to my cube. My phone message light is blinking. I've got 27 new emails, five marked urgent. All from the Bitch. My IM icon is blinking. The Bitch again.
For the next two hours, I lie to the Bitch three different ways using four different technologies as to why the dandruff guy shots have yet to be retouched. I sweet-talk Sally, the media planner, into giving me the online budget. I spend a half-hour on a conference call with the Web team trying to talk them out of creating a Catch the Dandruff game. I fail. Oh well. I'm sure 10 people will play it. There goes $45K down the drain.
Then my boss buzzes me. Can I come in for a minute?
I groan inwardly. My boss, Bruce, is a black hole of negative emotion. I feel like the essence of life is sucked right out of me every time I walk into his office.
"Hey, Bruce. What's up?"
He looks up from his desk and takes off his glasses like the weight of the world is resting on his shoulders. Poor Bruce handles all the crappy accounts that the agency has. A million here, three million there, two million over there. Small brands, small budgets, no glamour, no glitz, no awards. Funny, though, at this point in time, Bruce's $20 million in billings is more stable than the $40, $50, and $75 million accounts that come and go on a CMO's whim.
"I hear that the dandruff shoot went over budget?"
Oh man. I knew this was coming. Chas the ass wipe CD on the account insisted on having his supposed photographer girlfriend do the shoot. The whole day was a cluster F on top of a disaster. And, of course, the supposed photographer girlfriend insisted on using her supposed good-looking brother as the model. The guy had such bad skin that everyone assumed we were doing an acne shoot instead of one for dandruff. Of course, his hair was perfect. Not a flake in sight.
"Yeah, we went overtime. I'll handle it." I'll handle it by threatening Chas the ass wipe into threatening his girlfriend to take a lower fee. I'll steal the rest from another budget.
You better, Ryan. You've got to learn to keep your creative team in line, or they'll walk all over you. We've had this discussion before, haven't we?"
I turn to leave, but I'm not fast enough.
"Have a seat."
Shit. Here comes the lecture on how to work with a creative team. Another half-hour of my life shot to hell.
"Did I ever tell you about the time we had to do a shoot in the Mojave Desert?"
When i get back to my desk my phone is ringing. It's the ass wipe CD's extension. I let it ring, picking up on the fifth ring.
"How dare you send Amy's invoice back to me! You have a lot of nerve. Sign off on the whole amount, or I'll make your life a living hell."
"You already make my life a living hell. You'll have to do much better than that."
"You agreed to use Amy. And you agreed to her fee."
"That was before I knew she had no talent."
"I'm warning you-"
"No, Chas, I'm warning you. You broke about 10 company policies in insisting that your girlfriend get hired. I wouldn't have minded if she'd gotten the job done. But she didn't. We went over on the shoot, and now we're going over on airbrushing the goddamn zits off her stupid brother's face. So tell her to take what I'm willing to pay and send me a new invoice, or I'll just have to visit the trolls in finance and compliance."
He beats me to hanging up on him, but that's okay. He knows he's beat on this one. But I'll pay for it.
I'm already universally despised by the 11th floor. I'm not sure whether to be proud of it or upset about it. The creatives are the prima donnas of the advertising world, and we're an agency that became famous for its creative prowess. So getting hired as a creative here actually means something. Especially when Peter Vine was running the show.
Peter Vine was one of those rare gifts to the advertising world. A truly talented and nurturing soul who knew that the way to truly develop talent was to hire the best and protect them enough to come into their own.
There were much fewer turf battles and nary a hissy fit when he ran the show. Creatives of all types -- designers, animators, musicians, copywriters, illustrators -- they all flocked to H&V, and under Vine's guidance, they filled walls and walls with awards. More important, they drove their clients' businesses with ads that hit home or hit hard or made you laugh. And they got you to buy the product. Peter Vine knew that the awards didn't mean crap if the clients missed their sales goals.
He was one of the best. Most of his protégés have since left H&V for better opportunities.
Now we get creative directors like Chas. Petty, untalented, overpaid whiners. And those are their good qualities.
I can already imagine Chas sitting at his desk plotting ways to screw me over on our next dandruff adventure.
Adapted from the novel Ad Asylum by Dan Wald (available at danwald.com)