15 Jan 98

Hard Times on Madison Avenue

I just fired Andrew. A bright, hard worker, utterly misdirected.

The first work from his word processor was brilliant--clients requested the "Lifferlicious" and "Time goes by with Rock-a-dry" writer for their own campaigns. I billed his time at double, tripled his quarterly bonus, talked with him about rising in the company. I invited him to a management dinner. He reminded me of myself in my twenties: a little full of shit, disdainful of the industry, rotten with talent and broad ambition. At his first evening at my home, with my wife and myself, he knew the china was Havilland, and spouted volumes about a painting of pears that hung on our wall. He charmed my wife until I felt jealous.

But we answer to our clients, not ourselves. And when the world's third largest prophylactic company asks for a presentation--

It was my fault. I placed too much trust, too much faith in a young man. I now see the trail leading up to that disaster. He saw himself as a whore when he wanted to be an artist. We paid him too well. That margin of safety let his wildness loose. He couldn't face the inner conflict between the advertiser and the artist, so he externalized it. I think, maybe I flatter myself, but I think that his love for me made it too hard to just walk away. So he resorted to sabotage.

He introduced himself to the five men and women from that huge company, each one representing at least a million dollars in profit. He smiled at me, winked. I'd been out of town and asked him to manage the entire pitch. I expected the best. He said:

"For your new brand of condom, positioned for Generation X, I propose the name 'Thrusting Love Knob'."

Twitters, confusion, but before the group could make sense of it, he continued, "And for a slogan, I've developed a prototype campaign: 'Choosy Moms choose Thrusting Love Knob'." He flipped the easel paper over. It was a picture of an older woman wearing only a smock, wrapping her lipstick-smeared mouth around the rubber-sheathed member of a much younger man. "I think we can open the incest market by running this in mass trade."

A communal gasp. The CEO said, "this is entirely inappropriate."

Andrew sneered, "well, who asked you?"

Like a machine, or a plane on autopilot, I went to the easel and covered the image. No one in the room recognized woman as my wife. The naked man appeared to be Andrew. Was this some digital trickery? A real photograph? I had no time for my own emotions; I needed to keep six million dollars from leaving the room.

"Andrew, will you please excuse us, immediately?" I asked, voice clenched. He smiled oddly and walked out.

Some days you must live up to your own myth. My wife, Andrew, the strange illicit photograph we'd just seen, I pushed from my mind. I sat down in the chair in front of that horseshoe of prophylactic manufacturers and let my eyes mist over.

"It's horrible. He's our most talented--our most brilliant copywriter. I don't know what happened." I began to lie, "His mother and father were killed a month ago--a car accident in Yorkton. He seemed fine, took a week off, reasonable on his return. We pushed him to take more time, but he chose to work. He just cracked."

I filled their uncomfortable silence, and met each face with my weepy eyes, saying, "Roger, Elaine, Sarah, Tom, Amir, I understand, believe me, I understand that you want to leave now, and put our agency out of your mind forever. What happened this morning was unforgiveable, and the campaigns we prepared for you--the real campaigns, not that horrible thing--I'm truly sorry you won't see them. They were our best work. We'll find another use for them. I just hope that some time in the future you'll give us another chance, and you can forgive this incredible failure." I could feel them, ashamed at my shame, already forgiving me.

As I spoke I twisted my tie and slumped my shoulders, and ran my fingers through my gray hair. By the end of my speech I looked like a mad composer, wrinkled and shopworn, beaten.

"Jesus, Marty, we've known you for years. This is just--"

I cut her off, "unacceptable, Elaine, and the worst moment I've had in thirty years. You're a valued client, our most valued client, and it gives me a horror that this happened with your team watching on."

"I don't think you can be blamed for an employee flipping out. It's just...."

I shook my head, hand pressed to forehead. "I don't know what to say," I said.

"And I don't think we need to cancel out of hand, Marty," said Amir. "This is unfortunate, but these things...I think we can see the rest of what you have to offer."

Amir understood that when I told them we'd "find another use for" the unseen campaign, I meant we'd pitch their competitor to cut our losses. We were the hottest agency in town; our campaigns were like printing money.

"I need some time to get myself together, and I need to make sure Andrew doesn't do anything else rash. Can you come back Wednesday? Or any time you can."

"We can come back," said Amir.

"Amir, you will see a campaign, on returning, that will quintuple your sales in its first week."

"I hope so, Marty." The tension in the room was a queer mix: everyone wanted to leave, no one sure what had just happened, everyone wanting to go somewhere to talk about what they'd witnessed. I would send flowers to all five tonight, in five vases, with a handwritten note of apology, reminding them of our Wednesday meeting. Insurance against their certain cold feet.

I led them to the lobby, then went to my office, and drank straight from a Scotch bottle for the first time in six years. I braced myself and went to find Andrew. He was in his office, weeping. He looked up as I entered.

"You have five minutes."

"Jesus, Marty, I'm so sorry, I fucked up, I don't know why I did it."

"You can't change this with excuses. I have never seen anything like what you did, in thirty years of presentations in that Goddamn conference room, I have never--"

"It's Photoshop, Marty, not your wife. It was like Tourette's syndrome, I just totally cracked, totally absolutely made an asshole..."

"Why? Why did you do this? Don't answer. Four minutes. Leave everything that you don't own or I'll send police to your apartment. Don't plan on another job in advertising, anywhere. Just get the fuck out."

He nodded, realizing I was telling the truth. He'd never heard me curse before. I turned my back and walked from his office.

"I'm sorry, Marty," he said.

It hurt not to turn around--I had loved him. His actions were more sick than malicious. But no sympathy emerged for the insult to my wife, to myself, and to the company, and I stayed my course back to my office.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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