As a small boy growing up on the Detroit’s Westside, meaning West of Woodward, I knew nothing of the world of leveraged buy-outs, stock swaps, and conglomerates. My father had worked as the credit manager for Detroit Steel Products, makers of the Fenestra line of industrial windows and casements. Their office was at 2250 East Grand Boulevard. One day I went to work with my father. We passed a behemoth of a building on West Grand Boulevard. I was awe-struck by its size. “Tom,” he said, “that’s the General Motors Building. They’re the biggest company in the world.” While studying advertising at Michigan State, I knew that ad agencies were founded by people with a creative and business vision. The big ones were privately held, and had the founders’ names on the door. If you worked hard, someday you might become a partner and share in the profits. Imagine my surprise when we all got the memo that Campbell-Ewald had been purchased by something called the Interpublic Group. The memo told us all that “nothing would change except our ability to access the resources of our sister companies.” Also, we were all now urged to buy stock in Interpublic.
There was, however, one very visible change. We could all tell who had just become millionaires by the Cheshire cat grins on their faces. One EVP told me, “My stock split 4 to 1!” He felt compelled to tell me how many shares of Campbell-Ewald stock he was converting, knowing full well that I’d do the math in my head. Oh well, maybe now he could afford to buy better suits and get his teeth fixed. Our Chevrolet client was unfazed. Interpublic already owned McCann-Erickson, the Buick and GMC agency. The germ of a question was planted in my head. Privately held agencies lived to work for their clients, publicly held agencies lived to work for their stockholders. Would the creative product suffer? Yes, make the client successful, just do it with fewer people and less overhead. I’m all for fiscal responsibility, but there are times when responsibility takes a back seat to common sense. We all knew what our T&E budgets were. Near the end of the year we were told how much under or over budget we were. Being good financial stewards, most of us were under budget. The word got out to the Account Men that the “use it or lose it” rule was being applied by the new bean counters. If an Account Man didn’t use all of his T&E, then, obviously, his allocation was too high and needed to be cut for the next year. Our Chevy clients loved this rule. It meant that lunches and dinners would rain down on them during the last eight weeks of the year.
Every so often, a creative team hits a dry spell. It happens. The only problem comes when the dry spell comes during a spell of slow sales and client angst. Thus it was in the late Summer of 1977. The Evil Imports were gaining market share on the West Coast. Sadly, our direction was “We’ll know it when we see it.” In desperation, I prepared another Creative Planning Request (CPR) outlining the need for a “hard-hitting” Chevette magazine ad that had a ‘sense of urgency” to it. We were driving people happy…just not enough of them. The creative team and I had a heart to heart. We knew that the best plan was to improve the products. We, however, weren’t in control of that. So we pressed on. A week later, I was summoned to their office for the grand unveiling of the ad.
The art director and the writer both enjoyed seeing me gasp for breath as I clutched my chest. “I can’t present this!” I said. ” The client will go nuts.” After they knew that my paroxysm wasn’t going to be fatal, they pulled out another ad for me to present. We all hoped that this one would drive more people happy…and quickly.
Summer had evolved into Fall of 1997. It was October 20. On the previous day, the New York Giants had beaten the Lions 26-20 in overtime, with a 68 yard pass from Danny Kannel to Chris Calloway. Oh well, what else was new. I was staring out of my office window which now had a view of West Grand Boulevard…similar to the “ocean view” touted in Southern California real estate ads. “See that smudge of blue haze around that building and through those trees? That’s the ocean!” My phone rang. My secretary said that a Joan Baeder was on the phone. Realizing that it wasn’t an angry client, I took the call. “Hello, Tom, she began, “my name is Joan Baeder and I work for Judy Wald-West. Have you heard of us?” I lied and said yes. “Do you have a few minutes to talk?” she asked. This sounded like it could be one of those conversations where you needed the door closed. I got up and closed it. “Tom, we’ve been hired by an advertising agency in LA that handles a Japanese car account, I got your name from a friend (it’s always a “friend”) and was wondering if I could talk to you about the position?” The clouds were beginning to open. “Uh, sure,” I said. Foote, Cone & Belding/Honig was looking for an account supervisor to work on the Mazda account. We both decided it would be best to continue this conversation later after I got home. I would also be able to rewrite my resume to more closely match what they were seeking. Editorial note: Hey, you’ve all done it. FCB and Mazda had become famous for the rotary engines that went “hummmmmm” while piston engines went “boing, boing, boing.” Here’s an RX-3 spot that was definitely not politically or NHTSA correct.
Our conversation that evening went very well. It ended with the always scary, “We’ll get back to you.”
Well, they did. Joan told me that they wanted to meet me. Fortunately, I had some vacation left and took two days off to head to LA. FCB was then located on 6th Street, behind Lafayette Park in an area euphemistically “Lower Mid-Wilshire.” For those of you who know a little about LA geography, the office was a few blocks away from MacArthur Park. They put me up at the stately Sheraton Town House Hotel, next to Lafayette Park. I introduced myself in the FCB lobby and was called back to meet with Denny Remsing. Denny was the Management Supervisor on the account. The job I sought reported to him. He was an ex- Detroiter, and one of the nicest people in the ad business. We talked about college, he went to Western Michigan, and some of the mutual friends we had in Detroit. We went to meet with Paul Repetto, the EVP and General Manager of the agency. I met with Jack Foster, the Creative Director. He had taken the day off to paint his house, but came in to see me. Then I was taken to see Lou Scott, the President of FCB/H. The day passed very quickly, and seemed to go well. Everyone was very friendly, and the offices were bright and cheery. But, with my luck,, I knew that Mazda would fire FCB any second, and crush my dream.
The call came after dinner about three long weeks later. I got the job!! They wanted me out there right away. Interpublic had this rule on cashing out your profit-sharing account. When you resigned, the date was rolled back to either July1, if you resigned in the last half of the year, or January 1, if you resigned before July 1. If I was going to afford a house in LA, I couldn’t afford to pass up almost six months of profit-sharing. In any case, we were going into the Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation periods. There were only three weeks of actual work left. FCB agreed to have me start on 1/5/78. I would resign on the morning of 1/3/78, and race for my life for the door. I was going back to LA!!!!!!!!
Next: Becoming A Non-Person