AD NAUSEAM: a copywriter's life

My strangest project ever

Posted in Uncategorized by CopyBlogger on the February 27th, 2012

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.

Digital Brochure


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.”

Oh boy.

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.