Do you know why I went into advertising? Because I saw the movie “Crazy People.” In the film, Emory Leeson, played by the fabulous Dudley Moore, gets so stressed out by his job as an “advertising executive” (which, like in most ad movies, is actually a hybrid account executive/creative director/media planner role), that he gets sent to a mental hospital. (Not surprising. I mean, you try coming up with the strategies, and then writing, selling, and trafficking the ads! It’s like Tom Brady trying to f*cking throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time. ) There, he develops a crush on fellow patient Kathy Burgess (played by soft-voiced Daryl Hannah) and befriends various “crazy people” (this was an acceptable term in 1990). Eventually [spoiler alert], the crazy people help him make ads that perform better than any professional ads ever did, because the crazy people are crazy enough to tell the truth. For example, “Jaguar. For men who’d like hand jobs from beautiful women they hardly know.” Later, things go awry and they start making nonsensical ads like, “Sony, Bony,” but that’s not important.
That’s a long way of saying, I went into advertising because advertising seemed like a fun profession. You might think it’s foolish to base your entire career choice on one movie, but I’m not an idiot. My thesis was confirmed by both TV–Amanda on Melrose Place, both fun and sexy!–and a second movie, the Jennifer Aniston/Jay Mohr vehicle, “Picture Perfect,” where I learned balancing a career and a family is not only doable, but encouraged, in the advertising profession. (This, as it turns out, was a misrepresentation. Shame on you, Jen!)
But, however idiotic you think my reasons for going into advertising are, joke’s on you. Because you know what, guys? Turns out, advertising is fun!* Just recently, I got a shooting board diagramming how we were going to film an adorable dog named Betty getting sandwich-shamed. (Strangely enough, this was my second commercial that involved sandwich-shaming. Perhaps I have some unresolved sandwich shame issues?)
Best shooting board ever? Best shooting board ever.
There have been a lot of shenanigans, hijinks and tomfoolery during my long career in advertising, so I thought I’d share some of my favorite stories. So without further ado, here is Part 1 of Adventures in Advertising:
Burning Down the House
I started my career in advertising as an account executive at DMB&B in New York. Much like Dudley Moore in Crazy People, account execs wear many hats, but the primary job is client services. My very first job was on the Pampers account, working for an amazing, legendary man named Jacek. It’s hard to describe Jacek, but I’ll try: he’s a charming, bigger than life, brilliant, crazy-in-the-best-way, Polish man. Even though the last time I saw him in person was his wedding in Warsaw over a dozen years ago, he remains my good friend to this day.
Back in the day, you could smoke in your office, as long as you kept the door shut (!) and no one around you complained (they wouldn’t dare). At 5 pm every day, Jacek would invite me into his office for a beer from his mini fridge and he’d smoke a cigarette while we talked about the day. One particular night, we decided to grab a bite to eat. As we walked down Broadway, a group of firetrucks raced by us, sirens blaring. “Haha, the agency is on fire!” Jacek sang, laughing. We chuckled, and enjoyed dinner at our local haunt, the Russian Vodka Room. The next day, we walked into a big todo at work. The agency had indeed been on fire. Jacek’s cigarette had lit the wastebasket on fire and spread throughout his office, melting his laptop into a puddle. Firefighters had had to axe through his locked office door to put out the flames. I believe the smoking policy changed shortly after the incident.
The Prank War of 1998
In the late 90’s, we were a whole gang of young 20-something account execs. We were D&D Advertising, except we didn’t live in a sweet apartment complex in LA. We worked together, partied together, and scavenged for leftover conference room food together because we were being paid fake-walled-bedroom-in-a-Hell’s-Kitchen-apartment money, not Melrose Place money. All the girls were flirty friends with this guy, Adam; he was a stereotypical tall, dark and handsome type with dimples that emerged whenever he flirted with us, which was often. Adam was the type of guy who would run his foot up and down your leg under the conference room during a sexual harassment seminar. For reasons unknown, Adam and I got into a prank war. The pranks ranged from fake memos and hidden computer mouses to more advanced shenanigans, like rearranged office furniture or a ransom letter style note that said, “Go play in traffic.” (That was Adam’s, lame.) Eventually, I decided it was time to pull out the big guns. I remembered a Cosmo article my roommate Beth had shared with me in college. A scorned woman had left her cheating boyfriend, but before she left, she had sewn mini shrimp into the hems of his curtains. As the smell of rotting seafood took over the apartment, he called and begged her to tell him where it was coming from. I didn’t have a shrimp budget, so I took the essentials of the story: seafood + hiding + begging for mercy, and made them a reality. I bought a can of sardines. Then I hid some pieces of sardine within the walls of Adam’s cubicle. I left the (mainly full) tin of sardines in his desk drawer and then I waited. Prank War Champ, 1998.
The Sicily Boondoggle
For a number of years, I worked on the Fixodent account. At first glance, you might think working on a denture adhesive/cleanser brand would be the most boring thing, and mostly, it was. With two exceptions: the focus groups (sweet Jesus, the things we heard about what oldies do with their dentures out) and the Sicily boondoggle. (You learn what a boondoggle is fairly early in advertising; it’s “work that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value.”) Believe me when I say there was no greater boondoggle than this one. Somehow we finagled a weeklong shoot in Sicily (bookended with the weekends, natch) for a remake of an 80’s Fixodent commercial called “Say.” The commercial was literally just people talking to camera about how great Fixodent was. (This isn’t the exact one, but it was on the same historical reel.) The new commercial was called, no joke, “Say 2000.” We justified shooting in Sicily by our need for recording talent in multiple languages for international usage, a cut rate Italian director, and the savings on talent costs from shooting out of the country (sorry, SAG).
My client at the time, a fantastic, hilarious guy named Ian, was in his early 20’s like me, and it was basically like we were on our honeymoon. We stayed in this lovely hotel at the top of Mt. Etna, where a man we lovingly called “Maestro” played the piano in the lobby every evening. All the hotel employees took to calling me Principessa, which was as charming as it sounds. My job being “client services,” I took Ian out to dinner every night. Ian was a wine connoisseur and picked us out the best wines to accompany our delicious meals.
The shoot was terrible. The cut rate director turned out to be a diva who stormed off the set at some point. Ian and I rented Vespas one day and I almost drove off a cliff, because I’d neglected to learn how to turn a Vespa. Thankfully I figured it out (you have to lean!) about 5 feet before hurtling to my death. I got really bad food poisoning from eating a raw sea urchin, but none of these things spoiled the trip. “Say 2000” got produced and performed well in market. I learned how to drive a Vespa! When I was sick in my hotel room, they had soup delivered to my room, “Feel better, principessa! The Maestro sends his regards.” God, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat, except the raw sea urchin part.
The Reverse Matrix
Around 2000, I moved from DMB&B to an agency called FCB. There, I moved up the ranks in account management to VP, Account Director, before taking a huge pay cut to switch to the creative side. Best career move I ever made. Thank you, Tony Scopellito, for letting me go, and Chris Becker, for giving me a chance.
Coming up with ideas and crafting the words to make it great is a bajillion times more fun than “client services,” unless it involves a trip to Sicily, but keep in mind, the creative team was there too.
Even though creative and account are in the same building in the same fun industry, they’re worlds apart. It was, and is, such a gift to be surrounded by like-minded people who understand the unique business of “making stuff” and the process it requires: 1) come up with as many ideas, regardless of quality (“Sony, Bony”) on your own and with your partner, 2) give the ideas time to germinate, and 3) cull and craft the ideas. That middle stage is the reason ad agencies often have ping pong or foosball tables. You can’t just squeeze your brain really hard and come up with ideas, they need time when you’re not actively thinking about them. (They also need to be nourished, but that’s just an excuse to share this awesome spot my mentor Tim wrote.)
At FCB, we turned our brains off and let our ideas marinate on the foosball table. We played so often, people started having signature shots. There was the Wedding Night – a soft, slow and gentle front row entry shot, the 101st Airborne – hit so hard from the back row it actually lifted of the ground, the Braveheart – where the line holds until the last second, tricking your opponent into a futile attack, and the A Lot of Things Have To Go Right For This To Work which was a thrill to behold each time it occurred. There was also the Snakebite, Struggletown, the McDainty, and the Crosstown Bus. (Special thanks to the Herald Square Fantasy Football League who helped me remember a lot of these names.) My shot was the Reverse Matrix, which involved freezing time by trapping the ball against the side wall before abruptly dropping it and firing it into the goal.
Every few months we had a tournament, the Wheel of Death, and I think there might even have been trophies involved. I never took home the trophy, but getting paid to play foosball feels like a win to me.
One of my first brands I worked on as a copywriter was Fisher-Price. It wasn’t the most glamorous account, because, well, try to think of a really amazing Fisher-Price commercial. But there were two great aspects of it: getting to write the occasional jingle and shooting in Vancouver, or as my partner Karina and I lovingly called it, the ‘Couv.
Our creative director, the delightful Bob, had worked on the account for forever and he had the formula down pat. He would have me pick a basic children’s song like Row, Row, Row Your Boat and rewrite the words to be whatever toy we were advertising. Then, a music house would help us take the lyrics and compose actual music. So I’d write a song about Little Miss Spider’s tea party, sing it awkwardly in Bob’s office, “Bring a friend! Play along!” and Karina would come up with a fancy setting for a tea party and next thing you know, we’re eating the best sushi of our lives and flirting with Paul Walker in an elevator in the ‘Couv. Karina later told me I had spinach in my teeth.
And those were just the early days. But wait, there’s more! Coming up in Part 2: The Green Monkeys & Other Losing Teams, The Great NERF War of the Aughts, Consequences™, Dancehall and Set Life.
I’m sure there are many, many more. Please share yours.
*Most of the time. It is also often really stressful and infuriating for something that contributes so little to society. I once saw a cartoon that pictured a bunch of brain surgeons in the middle of surgery. One’s saying, “Relax, it’s not like we’re doing advertising.”