AD NAUSEAM: a copywriter's life


My first client, my worst client

Posted in Uncategorized by CopyBlogger on the May 14th, 2013

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.

Ah, Ernie.

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.

Hayden
ERNIE OLDE’S DOPPELGANGER: STERLING HAYDEN IN DR. STRANGELOVE — CLICK IMAGE FOR VIDEO

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:

New York Times, April 1995:

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.