This Is Not My Beautiful Job…

I am a recovering mad man.

I managed the art and design studio of the Chicago office of the venerable ad agency J. Walter Thompson from 1996 until 1999. I was involved in every new-business pitch. And while the requests for each were ridiculous, rarely sublime, there is one in particular that stands out.

In 1997 we were in pursuit of a giant computer account (think cow spots) where the billings would be in the $150 million neighborhood. That would make it the largest account win in the agency’s history.

About 30 creatives and gobs of account managers, C-level executives, and support staff worked Saturday before the pitch. More employees  joined us on Sunday. The team grew larger still on Monday, and then again on Tuesday.

My boss pointed out that the studio was going to put in a lot of time during the week. She reminded me that there was a hotel in our building and that we should rent two rooms—one for the men, one for the women—which would allow for naps and showers.

Uh..the hotel was the Four Seasons.

My boss and I  went to look at the rooms—they were suites! Sweet!

They probably set the company back $5,000 for the week.  These were the type of room that the President of the United States might stay  in. Maybe even Robert De Niro.

Sad thing is, I napped about 10  hours there during the entire week, so I hardly remember the room. I don’t recollect if I got to lounge around in the monogrammed fluffy robe.

I do remember dozing off in my office a few times and then  momentarily slumbering on a conference room floor where  I sneezed myself awake after inhaling some pretzel crumb-size particle from the carpet.

We kept hearing that the presentation was going to be in a room that was the size of airplane hangar. And that all the visual materials had to be ”HUGE!”

I kept asking ”HOW HUGE?!?” I kept hearing ”REALLY, REALLY, HUGE!” Thus, when asked by studio techs and art directors for a scanning resolution, my response was ”HUGE!”

I chose to err on the side of caution and mandated that all materials would be scanned at 600 dpi.


Before I knew it we were scanning a gazillion images, and the file sizes were “HUGE!”  I heard groans from the studio techs as they tried make clipping paths, and unsharp masks on their Mac 7500″²s.

Somebody screamed ”the server’s full!!”

That was a slight exaggeration, it still had 700 Kilobytes (roughly a Word document) of storage left. There would be no room for these HUGE! scans.

One of my colleagues had a karaoke machine in her office (of course with a dance floor). I set it up in a centralized area so that to use it as  a public-address system. With microphone in hand, I implored, badgered, bullyragged these creatives to free up on space. It became something like a “Save the Server” telethon.

Somebody would clear off a few hundred megabytes, I’d breathe a sigh of relief. Then somebody else would add more HUGE scans, causing sweat to pour from my brow.

I spent the next two hours in my office archiving  files to tape, JAZ Drives, CD and any media I could get my hands on.

Our color printers were overwhelmed. In the months prior, I had put in several requests to upgrade these printers. However, I was told these weren’t capital-expenditure priority.

We had one that was so old that the processor actually had a green-LED screen. The other was  a bit faster, though barely able to chew through the massive volume of jobs that we pushed at it that week.

Well on Monday, the ”new” printer crapped out. It was after business hours so the chance of getting service was nil. I was told that I could do ”whatever it takes” to get a printer.

After six months of being told that upgrading the printer wasn’t a budget priority, suddenly it was.

I spent over an hour on Kodak Inc’s phone trees, pinching my American Express Card, ready to read off the number. I wasn’t able to buy a printer that night (none were in available in the supply-chain), but isn’t it  pretty to think so?

The printer service tech arrived the next morning and he began printing out hundreds of solid-color test pages: cyan,  magenta,  yellow, black. Somebody started taping them together and we laid them on the floor in Candy Land fashion.

The rest of the week is a blur of Pad Thai and sweaty, bellicose account executives. There was one event around 4:00 am, when a bombastic account manager from our Toronto office managed to parlay my then-lack of knowledge with PowerPoint into a jag against the computer I was working on.

I remember him screaming in my face at one point ”Apple is a dead company! When we get this Gateway business, we’ll get rid of these piece-of-shit Macs! Apple will be out of business within six months! You mark my word!”

He was so close  to me at this point, I could smell the Thai peanut sauce  on his breath and I swear I could feel his chin whiskers on my Adam’s apple.

I truly wish I had recorded that exchange, I would enjoy listening to that on my iPhone.

On Thursday that week, the new business team delivered the pitch at the Gateway offices in South Dakota. A few days later, the account was awarded to a different agency.

I logged about 115 hours that week and I wasn’t even close to being the agency’s top-biller . There were a couple of other folks that crossed the 120-hour mark.

During a new-business pitch you tend to have  an abundance of David Byrne  moments when you may ask yourself “How did I get here?”

In my quiet moments, I also had several “Eric Burdon” moments when I would catch myself singing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” in my office.

Eventually I did. In 1999, my wife and I moved to Michigan and I got out of the agency business. In strange sequence of events, the Chairman of Gateway became my governor, so I guess in a sense that I am his client now (for a few more weeks, anyway).

Occasionally, I look back on my “Mad Man” era, and grimace or clench my jaw.

But far more often, I laugh; sometimes a quiet giggle, sometimes a guffaw. There were mostly good times with good people.

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