A Lesson From Al
Everyone has power.
A few years ago, a local Albany advertising agency celebrated its 40th anniversary. It had been started by a cigar-chomping, brash guy named Al. I went to work for him, right after I walked out of the radio station, back in 1964.
Perhaps you'll get a good idea of what he was like when I tell you that his was one of the first vanity license plates I'd ever seen. It read “ADMAN.”
I learned some positive lessons from Al, the best of which was how to service accounts. Every week, he would have me write a new radio or TV commercial for each one of his retail accounts, large or small. Every week!
How many different ways can you sell a car dealership, an optometrist, a garage-builder and a paint store? I learned that the answer is fifty-two ways a year.
But the biggest lesson I learned was a negative one. Besides having me write new spots every week for every client, Al visited each client every week. And he sometimes took me along. One client we visited together was the local Mary Carter Paint Store. It was a franchise operation, with several stores throughout the northeast. Every week when we dropped in, Al would burst in, finding the same clerk at the counter. The clerk would greet us warmly, but Al would not return the greeting in kind. Instead, he would brusquely order the clerk to tell the manager that he was there, and let the poor assistant know that the big adman didn't waste time on underlings.
It didn't take long; maybe a couple of months. The local manager was promoted to a bigger job in the operation, and of course, his assistant was, in turn, promoted to manager of the store Al was servicing. The former underling didn't waste anytime, either. His first official act was firing Al.
As I think about it now, that was the right thing to do. But an even meaner person would have let Al keep the account, and make life miserable for him. I guess since I thought of it, I might have done that. What would you do?
More Like Don Draper Than I Care to Admit
What Can You Do in the Back of a Beetle?
I chose the title of this entire opus, and even though there's a hyphen between Ad and Missions, the idea of admitting certain indiscretions here has been slowly creeping in – because it's part of the story, and because I might never have gotten to Madison Avenue if these things hadn't happened, as unfortunate as they are.
“Life is one damn thing after another,” according to Mark Twain, and this is one of those things. I wasn't the only one in Al the Adman's office – there was also a beautiful, young and voluptuous secretary named Karen.
I was 24, with a wife and two young children. Karen was probably eighteen, and I was the cliché – a still unformed young man, who married against his family's advice, to an attractive former high school classmate.
It's difficult to admit it now, but it was a case of overactive hormones. I was raised as a good, Roman Catholic boy who believed, even in 1960, that sex was only for married people.
They started the sexual revolution without me, but I caught up.
First child on the first anniversary of the marriage; second child just about a year later. I woke up and realized I hadn't planned any of this, wasn't ready for any of this, and didn't really want any of this, but I did my best throughout the sixties until... well, that's a later story.
But back to Karen. We flirted like high school kids, thinking we weren't harming anyone. Eventually, I lured her into the shiny new 1964 VW Beetle, and we'd neck and pet in the back seat. That's as far as it went, thanks to two facts: the cramped quarters, and my inability to get through the multi-layers of undergarments that even firm young women wore back then – girdle and all. And a third fact: maybe she knew better than me.
The job with Al only lasted a year, because finally, there was an opening at the ad agency that I had really wanted to work for since leaving the radio station. I applied, was hired as a junior copywriter, and began to add quality to the speed I had learned up to that point, from a copywriter only a few years older than me, who had come from that storied place I was aiming for: Madison Avenue.
The Glitch That Wasn't There
Sometimes, you just have to bluff.
It was early in my career, at the ad agency I had wanted to work for ever since I saw their work come into the radio station I started at. In those days of personality radio, the early sixties, ad agencies sent a lot of live copy for the DJ's to read. They wanted that personal touch, and the stations encouraged it.
One agency's copy was always better -- fresher, hipper, more to the point. And at one point, the agency brought an old movie star to the station to record commercials for Saratoga Vichy Water. It was a resident of Saratoga Springs, Monty Woolley, once known as “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” In the early sixties he had seen better days, for sure, and it appeared that there was considerably less of the mixer he was promoting than the stronger liquid it was mixed with. Nonetheless, I was impressed that a local ad agency could work with such talent, and I wanted to be part of that.
It took six or seven years, but I was hired there, as a copywriter and broadcast producer.
The two jobs were really one, since much of the broadcast copy didn't need to be produced. When it did need to be produced, we had to go to radio stations to produce it, because there weren't any commercial recording studios in Albany at that time.
The president of the hip agency was a gruff, ugly, imposing man who took no prisoners. He knew what he wanted, and he got what he wanted. You didn't mess with him. He could, and often did, top you when you were working on a project, for say, naming a restaurant or coming up with a theme line. He forced you to be your best, and that's why I wanted to be there -- to learn how good I could become.
But there was one instance where I knew he was just exercising his authority, and teaching me to obey orders. I can be a quiet rebel at times like that, and this time, I was.
I brought back a bank commercial I had recorded at a local radio station, one I was particularly proud of. Maybe he wanted to take me down a peg or two, but whatever the reason, after hearing the recording, he complained that there was a “glitch” about halfway through.
I played it again. I heard no glitch.
He said he heard it, and told me exactly where it was. He instructed me to go back and re-record it and eliminate the glitch. I listened a few more times in the privacy of my office. I still heard no glitch.
So I left the tape right where I could see it every day, on the corner of my desk, and tackled my other projects.
A week or so later, the boss came by and asked if I had redone the spot with the glitch. I said yes, put the tape in the tape player -- the very same one that he had complained about, that had been sitting on the corner of my desk since he heard it.
I played him the same, identical recording, and he went away satisfied, saying that was a lot better. I never tried to bluff him again. I didn't have to. But I knew when to.