June 26, 1971, started as any other day except for one thing. I was now an Ad Guy!! I had relocated from Lansing to my grandmother’s house in Detroit several days earlier to be close to work. I was to report to Personnel at 9:oo AM. As I entered the lobby of the GM Building and made my way to the elevators, I noticed that I was now part of a sea of suits that was about to infest every corner of the building, making heavy decisions, determining the course of the U.S. economy, and just generally being brilliant. After dropping my paperwork off, I was escorted to the main conference room. Soon, the other four chosen ones came in. My MSU college buddy, Ed Pietila, had made the cut. Tom Turner and Greg Stein, Vietnam vets, and Chuck Seibert, who had been a caddy at Oakland Hills C. C..
We had all been assigned to different departments to begin our instruction into the art, craft, science, and lifestyle choice that was advertising. I grabbed my briefcase, that had nothing in it, and was taken to the Media Department. The Media Department was not in the GM Building. It was behind it on the 11th floor of the Argonaut Building. To get there, you had to take a GM Bldg elevator to the 10th floor where a hallway led you to a skyway concourse that took you directly into the Media Department. To this day I haven’t been able to figure out how one gained a floor by crossing Milwaukee Avenue a hundred feet in the air.
Bill Kennedy, VP – Media Director, greeted me and took me around to meet the group. I’m sure that they had all been told to be nice to the “bag smasher” they were getting stuck with. I was to be assigned to the Broadcast Group. They were the ones who planned and bought the time for TV and radio commercials. I instantly learned about “glom.” Glom was the free tchotchkes you got from networks, stations, and reps. I was immediately given a Mutual Broadcasting coffee mug, a CBS Spot Radio Sales notepad, and an NBC Sports ballpoint pen. I was ready to start making a difference.
I was turned over to Mary George. Mary was the head of the Spot Buying Unit. A very petite lady, she gave meaning to the adage “Hell hath no fury like a spot buyer scorned.” On many occasions, I would hear Mary’s voice rise when a rep would tell her that he couldn’t deliver the ratings he had promised. The walls would shake as she told the rep was about to happen to his career. It was the only time in my career that I would see men run out of an office. I crunched rating numbers for her. One day I was standing behind her at her desk, going over a buy. I noticed that she had a milk crate under her desk, upon which she had placed her feet. I asked about it. Mary smiled. “Tom, I’m so short that my feet don’t touch the ground when I sit in my desk chair. If I didn’t have something to anchor my feet when I went to throw something at a rep, I would just spin in my chair. That’s not a good image for engendering fear.” That advice went into Tom’s Book of Advice to Never Forget.
A few weeks after I’d started, the FCC did something that almost caused me to reconsider my chosen vocation. They came out with PTAR…the Prime Time Access Rule. It wasn’t so much the rule that almost sank me, it was what the rule brought about. TV stations now were able to run their own local programming. The hour from 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM would no longer carry network programming. The race was on!!! Syndicators and advertisers went crazy coming up with shows to fill this vast wasteland…of time. Chevy was no different. The General Manager of Chevy was John Delorean. John Z. had many Hollywood connections. The agency was told that Chevy had purchased three barter syndication shows. Barter meant that Chevy would slug two commercials into the show, the station could run the program at no charge and sell the other two spots for their own profit. They were:
- The Tom Brookshier Sports Illustrated Show – Ahead of it’s time. Think of a kinder, gentler Bryant Gumbel’s Real Sports
- Johnny Mann’s Stand Up and Cheer – Wholesome, clean-cut, mostly young, singers and dancers who always seemed to be wearing red, white, and blue spandex. Notable about the show were two of the singers. Thurl Ravenscroft, who was 57 at the time. He gave voice to many of the animatronics at Disneyland, but was most famous as the voice of Tony the Tiger. The other was Ken Prymus. One of two African Americans in the group, Kennie is probably most famous for his role as PFC. Seidman in the movie version of MASH. During the “Last Supper” scene, he sings the now iconic theme “Suicide is Painless.” These were cool people to be around.
- Chevrolet Presents the Golddiggers – This was a dog’s breakfast of skits, unintentional bloopers, and going through the motions dance numbers. For those of you who weren’t around, the Golddiggers were a group of lovely young women who were featured on the Dean Martin Show in the 70’s. They would lounge around on couches, supporting Dean’s naughty boy image, while he delivered the opening monologue. Someone had the brilliant idea to package the routines that weren’t good enough to air on NBC, and sell them to Chevy as a syndicated show.
Either because everyone else was too busy, or nobody wanted to be connected with this deal and get career-ending schmutz on them, I was given the project. My instructions were simple:
- Clear the top 25 markets at all costs!
- There are no demo tapes, “so they’ll just have to trust you that these are great shows.”
- The MOST important thing was to clear a Detroit station. There would be a lot of televisions in Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham, and Grosse Pointe looking for them.
- All of this had to be done in two weeks.
Armed with a station directory and my NBC Sports pen, I started cold calling station managers. There were a few hurdles. They had never heard of the shows (except they could name all of the Goldiggers), they wanted to see a demo before they committed to a program, and, of course, they had no idea who I was. Within two weeks I had cleared 24 markets with at least one of the shows. I couldn’t crack Detroit. The folks in media told me to remind the local station managers that there was a huge Chevy Spot TV buy coming up. Wink, Wink. WWJ-TV, the Detroit NBC outlet relented. They signed up for The Golddiggers. The first show was to air the following Monday at 7:00 PM! I told my co-workers, I told the client. I also told my friends and my family. I wanted them all to see that I was now a powerful ad guy.
Monday arrived. It was 4:30 PM. My phone rang. It was the Channel 4 station manager. I couldn’t really tell what he was saying because of all the cursing and gagging. I finally got the gist of his call. They had just received the tape for that evening’s show. Not only was it a terribly edited piece of crap, the program, INCLUDING commercial slugs, was only seventeen minutes long. Oooops! I naively suggested that he pull the show and run a George Pierrott Travel Show repeat. Silence. Then he said, “Don’t worry , Tom. I’ll get even.” Hmmmmmm. Something was going to happen tonight that might delay my getting my free car.
7:00 PM. Judgement half-hour. The program came on. Everything seemed to be OK. Sure, the production values were crappy, the lip synch was off, and the lighting was bad. Big deal. The PTAR was bound to cause a few hiccups. Then, about ten minutes into the program, while the Golddiggers were singing “Let Me entertain You,” it happened. The tape slowly ground to a halt. …”let me make you smmmmm… The station then ran twelve minutes of the same Smokey the Bear commercial. No big deal for WWJ. They completed their monthly FCC mandated public service advertising duty in one night. As Smokey faded out, they started the tape back up. “…smmmmmile. Let me do a few tricks, some old and some new tricks…” My phone rang. It was the Media Director. “Tom, what happened? Three clients have already called me at home!” I told him what had happened. How the syndicator had sent a bad show. How sorry I was. He simply and calmly said, “See me first thing tomorrow morning.” I immediately showered and shaved. Put on my best suit, and sat in my car until the sun came up.
I walked into his office that morning looking like a whipped dog. I was surprised to see him smiling. “Thanks, Tom. You did us all a great favor. You’re going to go far in this business.” Huh? What was going on? He explained to me that the agency had fought tooth and nail to distance themselves from the Golddiggers. Since John Delorean had blessed the project, nobody could say No.” Only by broadcasting one of the shows on a Detroit station could the voices of reason be heard.
I guess I took one for the team. I learned that most good deeds never go unpunished.
Next: “Get Out! Get Out Now!