Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Clown Show - Chapter 1

Clown Show

Part 1 - Enthusiasm

Chapter 1

May, 1989

For everyone else, this was supposed to be a banner day, a career-defining day, a zesty feature in Ad Age day. The entire National Package Delivery team at Leonetti & Washer, minus the creatives, was parading up to White Plains to present the media plan for the upcoming fiscal year, July to June, highlighted by a shiny new, fairly innovative sports promotion. Getting client approval on the cooler shit was invaluable to generate some new business interest, award potential, and to elevate morale, especially for the Media team. It was also Ian's turn to hold the check on the way back to the office at 200 Fifth Avenue - the monthly fees NPD owed the agency, a little more than $6 million. Count your lucky fucking stars.

Ian McManus was one of three planners on the agency's second biggest account and he didn't buy into the thrill of being the payment delivery boy. It only served to hammer home the indentured servant-like conditions of his employment. Most recently, it was six straight weeks of monkey work: pulling competitive ad spending data until 10 pm, all to support $70 million in Print, Radio, Newspaper, Out-of-Home, and TV ad buy recommendations. Yet guidance from said research would be trumped within about, oh 8 minutes, by the client, CMO Mitch O’Connor, and his unassailable business logic. So, a $23k salary over 2,500 hours a year meant Ian enjoyed the privilege of being told he was useless for about $9.20/hour. And here's the head-up, shoulders-back pinch of goodness: Ian's title was just bumped up to Planner from Assistant Planner. There wasn't any legitimate change in role or responsibility, just a loss of $5k in gross income because he would no longer get any overtime pay.

Justifiably, Ian was also the definition of hungover that morning. Once the presentations were put to bed, he went to a Rolling Stone magazine party at the new Ritz on 54th (where Studio 54 used to be) the previous night. The open bar was fully embraced. Ian brought his roommate, Steve Concord, who made the brilliant decision to bypass the main bar for a side bar on the 2nd floor. Shots of JD with Bud chasers went down way too easy, with no wait for subsequent rounds. Shit, they even introduced themselves twice to Axl Rose, the evening's special guest of honor. Much shorter in person - he was maybe 5' 6".

His attitude was made worse by the sycophantic cheerleading Ian endured after he was blessed with the duty of carrying the check. Matt Ellery, the effervescent toady on the account team, was actually envious of Ian. Bursting with Tennessee hickness, Matt constantly reminded Ian of this huge honor and insisted on high-fiving him about every 3 miles.

Ian wondered, "I should wipe my ass with this check, to see if Accounts Receivable would still deposit the money."

The only one in worse shape than Ian was Dennis Thurber - the agency's head of Network TV buying. While the Upfront negotiations were intense, they took 2 weeks to close. The window for big sports sponsorships was 3 days at most. Dennis had been up for 36 hours straight, juggling 4 possible deals for NPD. He locked up a $5 million Monday Night Football commitment just 45 minutes ago. But the package he had brewing with CBS was what had Dennis twitching. Pending verbal approval today of the $12 million buy, he could mellow to some state of equilibrium. Dennis inhaled his third coffee seconds before entering NPD headquarters. To the untrained eye, he was a nebish, soft-spoken and frail. But when negotiating, Dennis was brilliant, becoming possessed and taking the responsibility personally. He fed off the pompous swagger of the network sales VPs. The buys Dennis crafted were like his children.

During the drive up to Westchester County, Ian weighed the plusses of his job. There wasn't a concert or sporting event in the New York area he couldn't score tickets to, for free. Ian derived fleeting moments of pride when he could at least point to campaigns he worked on. He'd kill himself if he was working on a kitty litter or feminine hygiene account. The agency was one step removed from college, especially for the big magazine parties and co-ed softball games. There seemed to be a requirement that one out of three of the female employees under 30 had to range from really cute to hot. Office romances weren't just tolerated but borderline encouraged. And he didn't dread the effort of getting to work because he genuinely liked most of the people he toiled with.

No, Ian was struggling with the charade of the media planning and buying roles at an agency. Art directors and copy writers could dazzle narcissistic clients with clever imagery and frothy storytelling, and cling to negligible loss of integrity. Account guys slept soundly thinking they were an extension of the vision, just one layer removed from the client’s unquestioned genius. But media spend was the cornerstone of billings. Yet, in 1989, what differentiated L&W’s media strategy from what Ogilvy or Lintas would suggest for NPD? “You need to reach business decision makers – I’d go with Fortune, Forbes, Business Week and WSJ.” Just brilliant.