I’VE WORKED WITH HUNDREDS OF CLIENTS. But one stands out as a touchstone in my career — a North Star I could always look to for perspective. No matter how bad things might seem, at least I wasn’t working for Ernie Olde anymore.
My first client in advertising.
The man who permanently expanded my consciousness of just how bad things can get in this line of work.
Before you accuse me of exaggerating, let’s start with a thumbnail portrait by financial reporter William P. Barrett, writing in Forbes back in 2008:
“Ernest J. (Ernie) Olde made The Forbes 400 list four times during the 1990s from the fabulous profit margins of his Detroit-headquartered Olde Discount, then the nation’s fourth-largest cut-rate brokerage. Big factors in the firm’s prosperity: lying to clients and pressuring them to buy unsuitable stocks, regulators said in 1998. The secretive Ernie (who had lost a libel lawsuit he filed against this writer), two aides and the business paid $7 million in penalties. Yet in late 1999 H&R Block bought the whole show for $887 million. Ernie’s timing was perfect; stock markets soon swooned. That–plus, perhaps, the need to follow the law–helped the rebranded H&R Block Financial Advisors post close to $400 million in pretax losses over the next nine years. (Ernie gave up his U.S. citizenship for that of the Cayman Islands; he died of cancer in 2002 at age 64.) Last month H&R Block finally gave up, too, announcing the unit’s sale to Ameriprise Financial (nyse: AMP – news – people ). Price: $315 million, barely one-third what Ernie got.”
Most bad clients are not bad people. Some very nice people just don’t have the makeup to commission, oversee or inspire creative work from others. And others are just your usual, garden-variety jerk.
But nine months working for Ernie Olde, whose company fleeced retirees, families with handicapped kids and little old ladies with husbands battling Altzheimers, led me to conclude that he was the worst human being I had ever met.
And that still holds up, three decades later.
LACKING A POLICE SKETCH, WE START HERE.
Ernie was a “sue or settle” kind of guy, which seems to have kept his posthumous reputation fairly low-key. There isn’t an awful lot online about Ernie Olde. Not even a photo. But I think he merits a long overdue perp-walk across the Internet, so I’ll share a few memories.
Shortly after I joined Olde Discount Stockbrokers in February 1986, the company’s senior copywriter told me that he’d often tried in vain to get Ernie to pose for a photo in his ads. Which seemed odd. It wasn’t lack of ego — Ernie put his name in electric letters atop his building, for God’s sake. And it wasn’t cosmetic. In fact, he was a barrel-chested 6′3″ blond guy with craggy good looks, far more appealing than the nerdy Charles Schwab. Maybe it was fear of violence from outraged investors, but this ruggedly handsome man in his late 40s was more camera-shy than a mafia capo.
If you’re a Dr. Strangelove fan, the character of Gen. Jack T. Ripper offers a decent visual approximation.
Ernie wasn’t that intellectual, or that deadpan; he often worked up to a frothing, spittle-flecked rage screaming about dumbass writers and artsy-craftsy marketing guys who couldn’t sell the sizzle instead of the steak. But the intimidation was the same. Peter Sellers absolutely nails the trapped, barely concealed fear of an Olde manager who has no idea what sudden tangent his captor is going to ream him out for this time.
WHAT IT WAS LIKE.
I was 23 years old, feeling like a grownup as I rode the MDOT bus to my first downtown job. The OLDE Building, at 751 Griswold in Detroit, was a sooty four-story former bank with lots of granite columns.
First and second floors were packed with eager young college grads in their first shirt and tie, surgically attached to phones and Quotron machines as they pushed clients toward recommended stock purchases. Harassed middle managers yelled at them to work harder and cut more corners. Maalox was swilled, hours were long, and a steady stream of new employees came in the front door while fired employees left out the side door onto Lafayette Street.
I worked on the fourth floor, which functioned as an in-house ad agency. More than a dozen people worked to churn out Olde sales materials: mutual fund brochures, statement stuffers, quarterly direct-mail magazines, newspaper ads pinpointing Olde offices in dozens of cities, plus personalized materials for banks offering Olde brokerage services to customers.
My colleagues included two other writers, four or so designers, a typesetter, a production manager and a department manager. When any of them mentioned “Ernie,” it was with a strange, furtive tension: Ernie’s not gonna like that. As if just saying his name would summon demons.
I never saw the guy my first couple of months. He was staying at his ski lodge in Aspen, and held conference calls to review the new materials we sent him. Off the radar, I sat and listened to everybody else. Then I’d go back to my desk and write copy using the same buzz phrases he kept shouting over the phone.
One Monday morning, I came in to find everybody scrambling around.
“Ernie’s back,” someone said. “And he’s pissed.”
We were all to report to the conference room immediately. I came in with the senior copywriter and another entry-level writer hired the same time I was.
Ernie Olde, huge and scowling at the front of the room, was pointing furiously at the twenty-foot conference table. He spoke to a white-haired older man in shirt and tie. “Look at that goddamned table, Herb. It’s scratched!”
Herb looked at it nervously, but not close enough for Ernie’s satisfaction.
“Closer, goddammit! Get down there and look at it.”
Haggard and nearly trembling, the white-haired executive put his nose to the table. “Yes, I can definitely see it now, Ernie.”
By this time everyone had filed in, 15 or so of us, so Ernie turned to a new target: the Financial Marketing Services Department. He complained that nothing had gotten done in his absence, that his managers were stupid, stupid, stupid, and that the writers clearly knew nothing about the brokerage business or any other kind of business. At that point, he grabbed up a sheet of paper and held it before us.
“What fucking genius,” he demanded, “wrote this?” And he crumpled it up and dropped it on the desk.
Silence. And a 33% probability I was about to get blasted.
Ernie unfolded the paper and mockingly read the copy aloud. It wasn’t mine. It was the other new copywriter’s. And that guy was called up to the front of the room and publicly grilled for the next half-hour. He was:
- Forced to read copy aloud while Ernie made disparaging line-item remarks;
- Interrogated about the day’s Prime Rate, which he didn’t know;
- Questioned about the merit of his intellect, education and career choices.
Then he was sent back to his chair, and Ernie began exploring the themes I would come to know intimately over time:
- We were all artsy-craftsy types who thought it was beneath us to really sell;
- We should be paying Ernie for the education he was forced to give us;
- Anyone with brains would rather be a broker and make real money;
- We should spend time on the second floor reading the whiteboard tally of current interest rates, listening to how the reps sold product and boning up for the Series 7 exam that would let us become brokers and make money.
Like the sudden whoosh from a released balloon, Ernie calmed abruptly and brought up a few points for his executives to attend to. And just about the last thing he did was glance at my copy, which had been sent to him in Aspen.
“This looks okay,” he said. “Go ahead with it.”
At which point I started breathing again. But that was another characteristic of Ernie’s — the sudden change of direction, the calm after the storm. You never quite knew what to expect while working at 751 Griswold Street.
DAVID MAMET, MEET GORDON GEKKO.
I’ve often wondered if my advertising career would have been more distinguished if I had started at a cushy ad agency or corporate marcom department after college. Maybe I would have been more creative, less prone to cave on compromises and revisions. Maybe. But nine months at Olde gave me one heck of an education just the same.
The place was like “Glengarry Glen Ross,” complete with paranoid managers, backstabbing careerists, yes men, emasculated in-laws fearing for their jobs, primadonna sales guys, streetwise hustlers and hopeful young men enticed by the money-intoxicated zeitgeist of the 1980s.
Particularly revealing is this writeup about a sexual harassment lawsuit brought against Olde:
At a managers’ meeting last year, the women’s complaint contends, Mr. Olde “told the all-male audience words to the effect that they should not fall in love with a stock because ‘it is like falling in love with a woman. It falls and falls and all you’re left with is a big yeast infection.’ ” The complaint also says, “Finally, Ernest Olde directed the attendees to recruit ‘young, good-looking, studly males’ from college fairs and not to hire ‘broads.’ ”
Susan Bell, who joined Olde in 1989 as a broker at one of its Phoenix offices, said in a complaint filed with the National Association of Securities Dealers in February that Mr. Olde had harassed her publicly at meetings of brokers. “He asked her what sexual overtures or sexual activities she would engage in to close a sale with a reluctant securities purchaser,” stated the complaint, a copy of which was obtained by The Times ….
“Olde feels omnipotent and above the law,” said Julie Quintero, another former Olde manager. She joined Ms. Graff in filing the discrimination grievance with a third woman, who is still employed at Olde and declined to be interviewed. “We had a nonsmoking policy,” Ms. Quintero said, “but he would walk around the office and pull out a cigarette and light it up. He’d say, ‘It’s my company and I can fire you all if I want.’ “
That was Ernie’s golden rule: he had the gold, he made the rules. I had four different department managers in nine months, as they shuttled in and out to keep up with his demands.
Copy was the same way … ALWAYS subject to rejection, criticism and revision. Sometimes weeks after it had been originally approved.
We once went through more than 20 approval versions of a single direct-mail investing magazine. That’s more than 20 versions of a 24-page book, each complete with new copy, artwork, layout, typesetting and comping into dummy review books. It was intended to promote Ernie’s “financial planning” brainchild, which consisted of several full-load mutual fund bundles carefully selected so that customers could spend six figures and never reach a “break point” entitling them to a lower commission rate. After it was finally done, my colleagues and I had a barbecue that included a bonfire of all the old dummy books.
Even when he was genial, Ernie was kind of scary. Maybe more so. Once he talked about having some of us over for a beer at his house in Canada … after we picked up a new TV he wanted and ferried it across the Detroit River on a boat so he could avoid the import duties. Somehow I don’t think he would have bailed us out if Customs had boarded the boat. (On the other hand, maybe we’d have been promoted to VPs if we proved we could keep our mouths shut.)
I also remember how he purchased a stake in a Canadian auto dealership, then appropriated all the complimentary lease cars and used them as free perks for his best Olde salesmen. Or how he had us working on decorations for the lavish birthday party he threw himself every year, inviting the people in his Canadian neighborhood like a feudal lord sharing his bounty.
Plus there was the other stuff:
- Not one, but two suspensions by the Securities Exchange Commission;
- Inflating his company’s valuation so H&R Block paid way too much for it; and
- Cheating the IRS on his $887 million windfall by fleeing to the Cayman Islands.
All that would have just rolled off Ernie’s back. Hell, it was rumored that he displayed a framed letter of censure from the New York Stock Exchange on the wall of his office. The only thing Ernie might resent about this article is if I neglected to mention one thing: he got away with it. He got away with it all.
Cancer killed Ernie Olde in 2002 (assuming he didn’t fake his own death), but he died rich and free in the Caymans. His wife still lives there and is evidently much beloved, awarded the Order of the British Empire for her humanitarian efforts and philanthropy toward the Cayman people. The fact that it is funded with money of questionable origins was also a valuable point in my education. Look back far enough in any wealthy family, and you’ll find blood under the fingernails.
CATALOGS, PR SHEETS, EMAIL, WEB PAGES, SEO COPY … I did a little of everything at Brookstone as a freelancer and staff copywriter. Plus a lot of copy editing and troubleshooting for products that arrived from overseas with nearly incomprehensible text. Here’s a quick slideshow I’ve put together on Flickr, showing some of my work between 2011 and January 2013.
I EDIT MY COPY TOO MUCH. There, I’ve said it. It isn’t fashionable for a copywriter to admit, but I must unburden myself at long last.
Let others sweat the big stuff, feverishly seeking bolder and ballsier concepts as they pace around war rooms with a similarly engorged creative partner. Me, I agonize over widows and orphans and line breaks. I sneak my submitted copy off the traffic manager’s desk for another look. After a quarter-century I still try to find short sharp words that can evict longer, more passive ones.
Yet I am still amazed by how much fat can linger in a piece of obsessively edited text.
The other day I saw this echoed by Calvin Trillin, as he blogged about the challenges of working at Time Magazine:
It was largely because of the constant pressure to compress that Time prose struck me as more difficult to write than to parody …. At the end of the week (or “at week’s end,” as we would have put it, in order to save three words), the makeup people would invariably inform us that the story had to be shortened to fit into the section. Since words or passages cut for space were marked with a green pencil—changes that had to be made because of something like factual error were in red—the process was called greening. The instructions were expressed as how many lines had to be greened—“Green seven” or “Green twelve.” I loved greening. I don’t have any interest in word games—I don’t think I’ve ever done a crossword or played Scrabble—but I found greening a thoroughly enjoyable puzzle. I was surprised that what I had thought of as a tightly constructed seventy-line story—a story so tightly constructed that it had resisted the inclusion of that maddening leftover fact—was unharmed, or even improved, by greening ten per cent of it. The greening I did in Time Edit convinced me that just about any piece I write could be improved if, when it was supposedly ready to hand in, I looked in the mirror and said sternly to myself “Green fourteen” or “Green eight.” And one of these days I’m going to begin doing that.
Over the years I have tried to fight my windbag tendencies with a personal “25 percent rule.” It always seems like I write four sentences or four bullets, when experience and the great speeches of history show that three is a far better number. Hell, three is magic. In rhetoric, it’s called a tricolon. You know — of the people, by the people, for the people. So I often run a quick check of my copy for that fourth thing, sprouting up like crabgrass, then prune it away with a certain reluctance.
Sometimes the victory is pyrrhic. I look at the copy and lament the loss of flow, of spontaneity, of the sloppy creative abandon that is endearing in a lot of work these days. But there are always trade-offs … and they are unrelenting. Writing is like that.
Small wonder that Hemingway once took a long look at a blank page and gave it a warrior’s tribute. He called it The White Bull — paper that has no words on it. As for paper with too many words? I guess I’d call it The Black Hydra. You can never cut ‘em away very easily.
CITIZENS BANK OF NEW HAMPSHIRE – CEO SPEECH (January 1999)
I HAVEN’T DONE MUCH SPEECHWRITING, but here’s a rare departure from the written word, scripted at OGBE Communications (Manchester, NH) for Citizens Bank CEO Bob Gormley.
I had already written one speech on corporate leadership for Gormley, and this time he was scheduled to speak at Daniel Webster College. The brief was to expand the first speech to 20 minutes, with more emphasis on community values. I received a couple of newspaper articles about Gormley for biography and background, and the rest was digging up quotes and thoughts from my handy quotation almanac.
Bob was an easy guy to write for, and it proved to be a lot of fun. There are so many wonderful rhetorical devices available in speech, and you don’t need an art director to get them across. Here’s how it went:
Good evening! Earlier tonight, I had the great privilege of speaking to a class of students here at Daniel Webster College. It was a little daunting to find myself back in the classroom again after all these years, but it was also a real pleasure to exchange ideas with students of such a high caliber.
So before I begin in earnest, let me congratulate all of you here in Nashua. You support a truly first-class institution, and you have much to be proud of. I’d also like to thank President Hannah McCarthy and Dr. Doris Jafferian, two terrific individuals who were kind enough to invite me here. I only hope your students learned as much from my answers as I did from their questions!
What I want to do now is expand on the subject we covered in the classroom … leadership. Specifically, community leadership: what it means, why it’s so important, and how we can all be leaders where it counts most … in the places where we live and work.
Where do we start? Well, there is no shortage of great quotations about leadership — often from famous generals, legendary statesmen, big-name CEOs. And I intend to share some of their thoughts with you tonight. But first I want to do something a little different … and quote a grocery store manager.
A grocery store manager, by the way, who happened to be my father.
You see, my dad worked with people all his life. Long before there were consultants and management gurus, he said something that I have never forgotten:
“It is the customers,” he said, “who turn on the lights.”
That line always stayed with me. And it has served me well in my profession. Because, in the life of a bank, everyone is a customer. Every single one of us has economic needs. Financial challenges. Dreams and futures that depend on taking care of our money. Whether it is a young couple proudly opening an account for their newborn child, or a senior pondering investments for retirement, bankers are privileged to a wider view of their customers’ lives than all but a handful of professions.
So the people who turn on the lights in my bank are the very same people who turn on the lights in my community. In a word, everybody. At Citizens Bank, our success is only possible if we help individuals and businesses alike do well financially. That means reaching beyond the walls of the bank, into the community.
And what are the interests of that community? It must be vibrant. It must grow. It must have good schools and low crime. The community needs widespread citizen involvement. As the great French political observer Alexis de Tocqueville once said in his study of America, the health of a community can be measured by the public functions performed by private citizens.
You can argue, then, that a community leader is simply a private citizen working in the public interest. I would not argue very much with that definition. But I believe it has to be broadened a bit, by asking, “What is leadership?” And what is a leader?
Those are big questions, much in vogue among students of business and politics. Everywhere we turn, there are books on leadership … books by CEOs, consultants, ex military commandos, even a very successful book on the leadership secrets of Attila the Hun!
Go to a Barnes & Noble, and you’ll find that books on leadership not only fill shelves; they fill entire sections. Whole industries have grown up around leadership books and training.
If you’re interested, by the way, two books that offer a good starting point are Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders by Garry Wills, and Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership by Howard Gardner. Both books feature a series of portraits on famous leaders and the traits that made them effective.
Wills is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian who is interested not only by well known leaders like Napoleon, Churchill and Lincoln, but offbeat choices such as movie director John Ford and tightrope walker Karl Wallenda.
Gardner, in contrast, is a Harvard psychologist who uses his study in the workings of the mind to identify how leaders actually think and communicate. To him, leadership is a creative, even artistic act. It is either direct or indirect. Direct leaders are traditional, influencing by who they are — their drives, ethics, goals. Indirect leaders influence by what they do; solitary figures like Einstein or Newton.
Back to the subject at hand, what makes a good leader? I think the following characteristics hold true — not just for individuals leading businesses, but for businesses that hope to lead within their communities. A little later we will have a questions and answers session, so if you care to discuss these characteristics in greater detail, I’ll be happy to do so.
First, I believe effective leaders lead by example. They roll up their sleeves and get the job done. As Albert Einstein once said, “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others; it is the only means.” It also helps establish a sense among your people that “we’re all in it together.”
Second, I believe leadership is based on a consistent set of actions. Because leadership is a process of definition: defining values, norms, priorities within an organization or community. So when we talk about “company culture,” it’s not artwork hanging in the hallways or fancy coffee blends in the cafeteria; it’s a way of taking an abstract notion such as ethics or employee empowerment and making it a concrete, believable reality — not just a topic of conversation.
We live and work with those core values, and they always remain intact. Even in times of change, or when times are tough.
But even when times are tough, a true leader, in my opinion, does not rely on intimidation. As General Dwight Eisenhower once said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head — that’s assault, not leadership.”
Here’s another Eisenhower story: one day, the General placed a piece of string on a table. He began pulling it across a table, going in every direction. Then he looked at his audience with that famous smile and said, “Try and push it, though, and it won’t go anywhere. It’s just that way when it comes to leading people.”
That brings me to my third point: a true leader helps people believe. Whether it is belief in a cause, belief in a common purpose, belief in the good of a company.
In the same way, a community leader gives people faith in that community. Because, as Napoleon once said, ” A leader is a dealer in hope.”
Fourth, leaders help create more leaders. The growth and development of people, as Harvey Firestone said, is the highest calling of leadership.
That is why, for example, I empower my managers by delegating. Where others “micro manage,” I prefer to macro manage — focusing on the big picture, only stepping in when one of my people really needs my help.
For me, these are the attributes that guide my own work. Not only within Citizens Bank, but within a larger picture … as part of the community. And perhaps the best way to illustrate what community leadership really means is to tell you a little story.
So I’d like to take you back in time … three short years ago.
The year was 1996. It was January, just as it is now. But the time was a very different one.
You remember it, I’m sure: New Hampshire was coming off the worst banking decline since The Great Depression. Money was tight; the lack of it was choking many of the small businesses in our communities. Even as more banks merged and consolidated, and issued proud announcements of record profits, our industry was widely criticized. People saw us as being slow to support small business development and growth when it was needed most.
I had just arrived in New Hampshire, the new president and CEO of Citizens Bank. As our team came together and looked at the community around us, it was clear that someone had to take the first step — to think less about institutional risk, and more about community reward.
In retrospect, the decisions we made now seem deceptively simple. Our lending process? Streamline it. Our red tape and lengthy loan reviews? Eliminate them. Small businesses starving for capital? Reach out to them.
These decisions, however, were not so simple to carry out. Untold hours of work and study went into them. Yet we discovered a great source of strength: our 1200 employees and the community shared a common sense — that this was necessary, that it was a goal worth pursuing.
So we brought together virtually every segment of our community: small businesses, individuals with low or moderate incomes, first-time home buyers, municipalities across New Hampshire. Where there had been no leaders, there were now many leaders … all working together.
To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, our community couldn’t be a good place for any of us to live in, until we made it a good place for all of us to live in.
The result? A resurgence that has helped make New Hampshire communities some of the country’s most highly ranked areas for quality of life and commerce.
Today, Citizens Bank is not only the state’s #1 lender to small businesses, but the region’s #1 small-business lender. Individual citizens come to us each month for loans totalling 55-60 million dollars. We provide financial services to more than 60 percent of New Hampshire’s town and city governments. And to more than half of all school districts.
These are the statistics we’re proudest of. Other banks can publicize how large they’ve grown … how many hundreds or thousands of their branches dot the country, how cutting-edge their technology is. But at Citizens Bank? The difference we make walks through school doors. It protects and preserves city streets. It lives in thriving neighborhoods. It provides vital local jobs and services.
This same belief in our community guides us today. Our definition of success is based on the concept of a community banker — one who understands the unique needs around him or her. One who leads by helping others lead, who succeeds by helping everyone else succeed.
Emerson once said, “Make yourself necessary to someone.” At Citizens Bank, we try to make ourselves necessary to everyone.
You might ask, how does the bank measure its contributions to the community? Is it more customers? More favorable stories in the newspaper? Or something less tangible, what we might call “goodwill”?
Citizens’ approach is far more substantial than that. Our goal is to get involved with our schools and community groups … providing assistance and support in the towns and cities where we do business. And in the process, we have been fortunate enough to employ a great many people who volunteer their time, money, and hearts to the idea of making a difference.
You can now see this same trend in many businesses. Corporations are being asked to carry out social responsibilities, through charitable contributions and employee involvement.
And guess what? That expectation comes not just from the community, but also from employees.
- For instance, many of our 1200 employees freely volunteer their own time — raising over $75,000 this past year for communities statewide. At the risk of blowing our own horn, let me offer a few more examples:
- Our employees hold hundreds of offices and positions with civic, cultural and charitable groups statewide … including 38 chamber memberships;
- We’ve committed tens of thousands of dollars to revitalizing main streets in Berlin, Milford, Derry and Plymouth;
- You’ll find us in 8 housing programs statewide — providing education, underwriting low-income mortgages, even swinging a hammer as volunteers in Habitat for Humanity;
- Our $5 million loan fund for women-owned businesses was the first in the state;
- And our volunteers raise money, support underprivileged kids, help out in soup kitchens … for the likes of the Salvation Army, New Horizons, and French Hill Neighborhood Housing Services.
To me, the sheer energy of our people is their biggest contribution. I have seen it at work in our bank, and in our community. Theirs is the kind of leadership that really makes New Hampshire a better place to live.
So as you can see, Citizens Bank takes a leadership role in the community for two reasons: because we want to do our part as good corporate citizens … and because it simply makes good business sense. A stronger economy means greater prosperity for everyone, whether you own and operate a local sandwich shop or run a statewide company.
And what of the future, here in New Hampshire?
I believe it is a bright future. Economic development and community growth are really just symptoms of underlying leadership, vision and teamwork. Those qualities exist here in abundance.
Our state has proven that it can support business and help our communities prosper, while retaining the special qualities that make us the Granite State.
That is why Citizens Bank is committed to helping make New Hampshire a good place to live, work, and raise a family. For many generations to come.
Community leadership, then, is about making connections. Connections with a family that needs financial and emotional support. Connections with the individual struggling to get his life back on track. Connections with the people who are like us and not like us, throughout the community. Because we have a harder job to do than just choosing sides; we must bring sides together.
That, to me, is community leadership. It is a recognition, to borrow from John Le Carre, that the corner office is a dangerous place from which to view the world. Instead we must reach out … and recognize, as my father did, that the customers who turn the lights on in our businesses are the very same people who keep the lights from going out in our community.
Thank you very much.
TALES FROM THE COPY CRYPT is a look back at lesser-known projects from Dave Conley’s 25-year career as copywriter, editor and marketing strategist. To see other samples, visit daveconleyportfolio.com.
A ROSY RED VALENTINE’S DAY TO ALL, with warm hopes that your holiday is replete with cards and chocolates and a plump Cupid shooting arrows wherever they will do the most good. I haven’t written for a while, though a subject has been much on my mind these past few weeks. So this seems like a good opportunity to spread the love and provide an update.
Milestone: one month ago today, yours truly was laid off from Brookstone.
It was Monday, Jan. 14, and I was at my desk when a priority meeting invitation appeared on my email. I remember the time: 9:36 AM. In 24 minutes I was to meet with Brookstone merchandising VP Steven Schwartz, and punctuality was urgently requested.
I thought it might be a withering critique of the Spring catalog we had just put together the week before. But when I got to the conference room there were about 30 chairs in neat rows–way more than would be needed for the catalog team. So people filed in, the 10 o’clock hour came, and a few uneasy minutes later Schwartz came in with an HR woman I hadn’t seen before. He pulled out a letter and read aloud, informing us that we were being laid off as part of a corporate restructuring intended to increase Brookstone’s competitive something-or-other.
The usual BS followed. Very difficult decision, no reflection on our performance, gratitude for service rendered. Then he excused himself and left the HR person to handle questions and answers. The gist of it was, we were expected to leave the building immediately. Boxes would be provided, here’s your packet and severance info, call the number on the card if you need to return and get stuff off your computer.
I’m too obtuse or antisocial to keep up with workplace gossip, but it seemed that my surprise was shared by most. Creative director, lead art director, designers and writers and proofreaders … all gone with the wind. Only a skeleton crew survived the purge in Creative Services. If it was anything like other situations I’ve been in, they probably figured they could save money by scaling back print catalogs in favor of cheaper online marketing. At the very least, there’d be an impressive savings figure they could take credit for.
In the meantime, other letters were being read in other conference rooms. Seventy-one people were laid off, all told, and many were career Brookstone people of unquestioned value to the company. The layoff was so sudden and unannounced, the state unemployment office was unaware of it until reading it in the papers the following day.
Now I’m back on the job market, which is mightily depressing. And I can’t help but feel pessimistic, because this is the third straight job I’ve been laid off from.
Each time it gets worse.
At Stal-McLane, the aging owners simply didn’t have enough business to keep me on, and it pained them to give me my notice. Then at Deluxe, I survived four or five corporate reorganizations while most of the other writers lost their jobs or had positions eliminated. Eventually I lost my job too, but only after a very thorough process in which employees had a chance to “interview” for the reconfigured job descriptions. That was something of a charade, since it was obvious that management wanted to pull jobs back into the corporate HQ in Minnesota; but still, there was plenty of notice and I had a shot at justifying my existence.
Now? It seems layoffs are just a quick-fix tactic for investor relations, with no stigma or residue of public regret. And only the HR people seem to thrive. In this terrible economy, individuals have been under siege for a long time, and corporations seem far more confident–and far less tactful–about pressing their advantage. Even when it doesn’t have a fully thought-out benefit beyond momentarily impressing board members or investors.
It is a meaner time in Business America than any I can remember. I have a friend who just got laid off from Deluxe after 30 years, and he said business was booming there in the time since I left the company. He was busy all the time and the company’s financials were great, but that wasn’t enough. Another friend (also laid off) said that a colleague praised the layoffs for “getting rid of the lazy people”–unaware that she was talking to one.
It’s just business, not personal. That “Godfather” cliche is everywhere these days. But people often make a personal judgment about you after a layoff.
“Why were you terminated?” is the inevitable question, whether you’re talking to an interviewer or the unemployment office. The idea that it was done for no special reason always seems to arouse skepticism.
For example, New Hampshire’s online claim forms give you many options when explaining sudden unemployment: insubordination, absenteeism, poor performance and more. But there’s no option that says, “Management wanted to whitewash a bad quarter.” The onus is on the little guy. He must have done something wrong.
So my brief Prague Spring of fulltime employment at Brookstone is over. I must say it comes as a painful disappointment, just as I was starting to contribute something and solidify a place in the company. Hopefully there will be something new in the near future, but even if there is I don’t think I’ll be able to feel secure anymore. That luxury seems almost quaint nowadays, an irrational mental artifact from a time we won’t see again.
HR people are probably blackballing me as you read it.
LAST WEDNESDAY I WAS OFFERED A JOB AT BROOKSTONE. It was suspiciously similar to what I’d been doing there as a freelancer since last February, only for a little less money and a few more hours. So of course I snapped it up like a starving trout. Now I appear before you an employed man, a changed man:
Officially the title is a mouthful–”Copywriter – Home Products & SEO.” It sizes up about the same, I guess.
But having a full time job with a real commitment is so very different.
When I was just out of college in the 1980s, the world pretty much insisted that I acquire credit cards. Merchants and banks were oddly reassured by plastic, and wouldn’t accept my identity or my money without it. And that’s what the job thing reminds me of. People want to know whose corporate livery you’re wearing. Tell them you work for yourself sporadically tapping out website copy, and they’re so damned kind. Politely interested, a little hopeful for you, but sensitive that they might hurt your feelings. Like someone drawing attention to a handicap.
And loan officers, don’t get me started about loan officers. Or recruiters.
How many phone screenings have started out with some bubbleheaded HR newb asking, “Why did you leave your last job?” They never once tired of it, clumsily hoping to uncover the stolen silverware or grievous flaw that lets them cross you off an overcrowded candidate list. I got so sick of being a suspect, not a prospect.
Really, it’s surprising that only two-and-a-half years have gone by since Deluxe “eliminated my job.” Believe me, it seemed a lot longer. Pushing 50 in a terrible economy, I wondered if I would ever have a full time job again. Fear was a very real thing for me, with a wife and a kid and a house. So every day I kept coming to Brookstone with my contractor’s badge, trying to prove myself and wondering what the others had that I didn’t.
It was like a very long interview, and I held my breath every minute of it.
But hopefully some of that is behind me now, and a world of benefits and belonging and normalcy will be mine again … at least until ennui sets in and I become a bored wage slave once more. I can hardly wait.
A GLOOMY APRIL held little promise of gainful employment, but I’m pleased to report that I am once again earning money. Staff departures at Brookstone and a little networking with my old supervisor there resulted in some temporary work. Since May 1, I have been putting in about 30 hours a week on various copy projects.
And, true to the “When it rains, it pours” law of the universe … I’ve also filled the time with a little proofreading for School Specialty, a local division of Delta Education. They market educational materials and curricula to schools all over the country.
A full-time job would be great, but the cash flow is certainly welcome. No one needs me to detail just how bad the job market is these days. Hopefully this gig will last a while and I can keep the job search going. More anon.
MASTORS & SERVANT – VERTICAL NEWSLETTER PROGRAM (2003-2004)
NEWSLETTERS ARE CRIMINALLY UNDERRATED. Most people evaluating a portfolio don’t look twice at them, but to me they’re a writer’s decathlon. Can you do research? Digest complex issues and information? Conceptualize headline, graphic and content as an integrated message? Or do you just hold your nose and take the easy way out, flowing in whatever brain dump the client gives you? Here’s a successful but rarely-seen project I did at Stal-McLane (Manchester, NH) on behalf of Mastors & Servant, a Rhode Island insurance broker specializing in risk management for businesses.
The 11-issue run of this newsletter began with a deceptively simple brief: Mastors & Servant wanted to position itself not as a peddler of insurance policies, but as a risk management partner that helped general and construction clients anticipate problems that often cripple or ruin businesses. Mastors & Servant’s value-added expertise would be highlighted in a quarterly newsletter featuring a thoughtful, soft-sell approach.
That meant a lot of groundwork: coming up with a newsletter name, setting the grid and its standard elements, fleshing out the sparse client notes with Internet research and calls, laying out the articles, establishing a B2B tone of voice for general or construction audiences. Not to mention learning how to sound like an insurance expert.
I enjoy this kind of work, even the (often thankless) task of ghostwriting editorials for top managers who have nothing to say. In this case, I’d usually just get a topic from our contact at Mastors & Servant and write the editorial in a C-level tone of voice with a few of the company buzzwords sprinkled in. Once we had the general version of the newsletter worked out, Stephen and I would spin off a construction version for the contractor market, using a different color scheme and changing the sidebar elements to address specialized subjects such as performance bonding.
Everything was going along just fine with our little 4-page newsletter, printed double-sided on 11 x 17 paper, until the client requested an additional feature-length story. Rather than add an extra four-page signature, we created a double-sided insert on 8-1/2 x 11 paper:
The insert actually gave us very nice flexibility for mixing and matching handouts to different audiences. Now, a word about design.
When I was starting out as an editor for a Detroit trade association, I read everything I could by publication design experts like Jan V. White and a cranky old newsletter guru named Ed Arnold. So even today, I believe that the writer’s job is about communicating information … using techniques such as sidebars, pullout (lift) quotes, subheads and bold lead-ins.
What’s funny is that every few years some new buzz phrase comes along that re-packages this stuff. I remember when it was called “information mapping” at Whirlpool, a client of mine back in the late 1980s. Nowadays, everybody has an SEO or User Experience expert. But most of it is just fundamentals that people knew long ago.
Anyway, this newsletter proved to be a very practical sales tool for Mastors & Servant during its two-year run. Salespeople used the articles to sell insurance coverage in all its varieties, and electronic versions in PDF or online text were easily shared to enhance the agency’s image as a thought leader in risk management. It’s the kind of unsung, hard-working stuff I’m proud of.
TALES FROM THE COPY CRYPT is a look back at lesser-known projects from Dave Conley’s 25-year career as copywriter, editor and marketing strategist. To see other samples, visit daveconleyportfolio.com.
IF I WERE A PULP DETECTIVE, the story might start like this:
I was staring out at a blustery fall afternoon in Amsterdam, watching the yellow trams as they rolled by and occasionally belched grungy drug tourists out onto the Leidseplein. My phone rang and I picked up. “U sprecht met Dave Conley. Ja, Maartje?”
Our shapely receptionist laughed in my ear, her English as perfect as a Valley Girl’s. “Dave, you’re so funny when you try to talk Dutch! A lady on the line says you did a brochure they want updated.”
“When you know two sentences of Dutch and one of them is your address,” I said defensively, “opportunities to show off are limited. Put the lady on.”
That’s how it began. A simple patch job and a day trip to Geneva, billing a few shekels for the greater glory of Anderson & Lembke Europe. Little did I know I’d soon be caught in the middle of an international incident, pinned wriggling like a laboratory frog between an irate ex-husband and a lady in distress …
Okay, enough sepia tone.
When I was working at Anderson & Lembke’s New York office in 1992, we landed a division of Digital Equipment Corporation as a client. Part of the agency’s campaign proposal was a series of white papers on computer technology in the financial industry. So after the business was won, I and Steve Di Santis were dispatched on our first big international business trip — gathering input from Digital specialists in London, Zurich and Geneva.
It was pretty heady stuff for a late bloomer from Detroit who’d been writing washer manuals a couple years before. But white papers are the kind of detail-heavy, long-copy stuff I’m good at, so before too long we had three completed pieces. Including one about private banking for the Digital business center in Geneva. (Click the link to see a little more of it.)
Here’s a sample page — the very page, in fact, that would lead to a screaming scene in Geneva.
“ZIS IS DE GUY YOU’RE FOAKING?”
A couple years later, I was overseas at A&L’s European office when that telephone rang. My lady caller explained that she had worked at Digital with my colleague Robert Swartz, before DEC’s private banking group was purchased by another firm. She was based in Geneva and wanted to modify the Digital brochure for her new company.
As she described it, the job would be simple. Change the logo and replace all references to Digital in the copy, then insert a new testimonial case story involving one of her clients, a prestigious private bank in Geneva. It was a one-off — not a new account, just a quick cash job that attracted little interest within my office. Rather than setting up an account team, I would fly solo and get what was needed to revise copy, handle approvals and put it into production.
At Genève-Aéroport, I was greeted by a friendly woman in her late 20s who looked rather like my old girlfriend. She was originally from Pittsburgh, and we enjoyed the quick rapport sometimes experienced by expatriates who don’t get to talk American much. As she explained in the cab ride over, we would be talking with the bank’s chief executive and his IT leaders … a considerable honor, given that the guy was worth enough to buy our agency syndicate with no more than a couple of phone calls.
The meeting went okay. Old-money High Street location, traditional granite bank building like a Calvinist church, lots of marble and gleaming hardwood inside. The bank president and his staff were remarkably gracious with their time. I didn’t speak German or French, so my client handled translations when their English faltered.
I added nothing of value to the meeting, and felt like pork sausage dropped in a tin of caviar. But clients often want the writer to be on hand so they can capture that elusive something-or-other, so I took notes and came away with a hazy sense of the work ahead. We shook hands all around and said thanks, then I and the lady walked down the big granite steps to a taxi at the nearby cab stand.
Which is when all hell broke loose.
I noticed a dark-haired man in a business suit looking into our cab from the street side, opposite the cabbie’s seat on the right. My recollection is that I thought he must have gotten his parked car bumped by the cab, so he had an issue with the driver. Or maybe he just wanted to ask when the next cab would arrive.
But suddenly he was glaring at us in the back of the cab.
“Why didn’t you call me?” he shouted. “Is this your boyfriend?”
My client told the cabbie to go, in German. But the dumb son of a bitch just sat there. Meanwhile, this swarthy Italian man begins screaming at my client, demanding to know why she didn’t call. So it was up to me to ask the stupid question: “You know this guy?”
“He’s my ex-husband.”
Long story short, the next five minutes were at first unbearable and then infuriating. While they shouted back and forth, I tried playing the Voice of Reason … explaining that I wasn’t her boyfriend, holding up my notebook and pointing to the bank to demonstrate that we had just finished a business meeting. But if you’ve ever been in the middle of a domestic dispute, you know that trying to be reasonable just makes you a juicier target. So the guy starts getting really nasty, cussing at me in Chico Marxish English and accusing me of sexual predations I could only WISH I enjoyed during my bachelor years in Holland.
It was sort of flattering to a fat ugly guy like me, but it said more about just how irrationally jealous this jerk must have been as a husband. During a chivalrous moment I thought of getting out of the cab and settling things the old-fashioned way, but the lady asked me not to. And all the while, that blankety-blank cab driver just sat there ignoring every order to drive on. In English. In French. In German.
Eventually the ex-husband calmed a little, and she promised to see him at the airport’s car rental stand at 5 pm sharp. He kept repeating all sorts of dire threats if she wasn’t there, and she kept saying she would be there. Finally we drove off.
You might think there’d be a lot to talk about after something like that. But she discussed a few meeting details and then kind of shut down, and I didn’t do much more than ask if she was okay. Eventually we got to the airport, and I asked her if she wanted me to go along. I could take a later flight.
She said no. “I’m not meeting him. I’ve got my car in the parking structure. Sorry about all this. I’ll be in touch about the brochure.”
I got out and walked into the airport, checking over my shoulder at every step for outraged ex-husbands. But he wasn’t there, and I made my flight back to Amsterdam.
During the meeting my client had promised to send over some additional material for the brochure revisions, so I waited to hear from her. But the call never came.
It must have been a couple months later when my bookkeepers started nagging me to finish the job, so we could bill the travel costs. I called the company and asked for her. Another marketing guy came on the line, and said she didn’t work there anymore. So I asked if they still wanted the brochure, and he said sure.
I cobbled together a new case story, we changed the logos and company references, and I faxed over a revised layout. They approved it with only minor changes and asked us to send the electronic files with our bill. Done.
Since then I’ve often wondered about the lady in distress. Did she go back to America? Move somewhere else in Europe? Remarry the guy? There’s no telling. But I hope it worked out for her. Meanwhile, I’ve never been able to hear the phrases “Swiss bank” or “private banking” without recalling the craziness of that day.