These days, the news often carries a warning story about what people post on social media sites. Right now, there's a case of someone being fired for complaining about their boss.
It reminds me of an incident like that, back in the 1980's – when “social media” simply meant blabbing in public.
I believe it happened at the Oak Room Bar at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, the same place where Cary Grant, playing an ad executive, began his (mis)adventure in Hitchcock's “North By Northwest.”
Of course, it could have been any upscale watering hole. Here's what I remember.
If you don't have something good to say about someone, just shut up.
It's a lesson you learn early in the advertising business – don't name names in public. Whether you're talking about the place you work, the clients you have, the clients you lost or the clients you're pitching:
Don't. Name. Names.
It's a lesson you're supposed to learn early. But somebody didn't. Somebody with an MBA from the prestigious Wharton School of Business. Somebody who, I think, cut class.
There we were -- forty people who had survived the downsizing caused by merger mania in the advertising business. Kenyon & Eckhardt and Bozell, Jacobs, two fairly big agencies had just merged, and each had an airline, a restaurant and a motor oil account.
Chuck Peebler, who passed away in 2009, was the man from Bozell, and he had the upper hand in this merger, which meant that K&E's conflicting accounts had to go. Instead of setting them free, the combined management came up with a plan to keep the accounts in the fold by creating a brand new agency, and staffing it entirely with people who otherwise would have been out on the street. That's how USAdvertising was born: Forty people plucked out of K&E and plunked down in new offices, on 5th Avenue in the heart of Manhattan.
It would be our job to take those conflict accounts, and any others that Bozell couldn't handle. It was exciting to be part of something new. But excitement isn't always something to be desired.
The first week we were in business, we had a visit from one of the major officers of the merged company. He didn't look happy as he led all the titled people of USAdvertising into a private office. He told us a dark tale of an amazing, and almost disastrous incident that had occurred the night before.
Someone from USAdvertising -- someone in the very room we were sitting in -- had been having a conversation in the Oak Room Bar.
The culprit was talking about Chuck Peebler, and the things he was saying were far from nice. He accused Peebler of deceit and trickery.
This was the man whose approval was needed to save our jobs. Our man called him an asshole, among other, worse things. When the tirade finally wound down, our man felt a tap on his shoulder. The man sitting at the next table, right behind him, said to him, “Would you like to meet the asshole you've been talking about? I'm Chuck Peebler.”
That's the only part of the story we were told. Then we were warned never, never to talk in public about the agency, the clients, anything that related to our business, or the consequences would be disastrous. We all knew what that meant. Everyone soon learned just who had been mouthing off in that bar that night -- one of our Account Supervisors. To my amazement, he wasn't fired.
Not that day, anyway. If he had been replaced then, we might have survived longer. But it was that kind of flawed decision-making that doomed USAdvertising from the start. As you'll see in the next couple of weeks.
Next time: Loser #2