After surviving MPG-gate, life rolled on as I toiled in the Sales Promotion and Merchandising vineyards. The Chevrolet Merchandising and Sales Promotion Department was a Byzantine organization of small fiefdoms. My client for the Chevy Small Car Guide was a high-energy young fellow who would soon leave Chevrolet and become a successful car dealer. Others, like Mason Bell, handled projects for years because there was nobody at GM who could do it better. Chevrolet sponsored the Soap Box Derby from 1934 to 1972, Mason was in charge for most of those years. He was also my client for Chevy’s sponsorship of the AAU’s Junior Olympics. Then there were those who supervised a dog’s breakfast of projects. One of these clients decided to make the best of this situation. The Normandie was a great bar and restaurant across 2nd Ave. from the GM building. My client would call one of the Campbell-Ewald account men up around 11:30 and tell him that he was going to buy lunch “for the client” at the Normandie at noon. I learned not to answer my phone between 11:30 and noon. He usually held court in a corner booth with his girlfriend, who lived a few blocks away, near another GM watering hole called Bonaparte’s. One day, the Director of Merchandising and Sales Promotion had seen enough. It was now 2:00 and he knew that his employee was probably having a high time at the Normandie. “I’m going over there to fire him right now,” he said as he left for the Normandie. That’s when my client’s Early Warning System went into effect. As soon as the Director had left the area, a secretary speed-dialed the Normandie to a phone behind the bar. “Code Red, Code Red!” the bartender yelled across the room to my client. My client bolted up, kissed his mistress, and ran to the back of the restaurant, where a small door exited onto 2nd Ave. He could look up to the second floor of the GM Bldg. and see his office window and his secretary looking down on the street. As soon as she saw the Director charge through the front door, she gave him the signal to bolt across the street and into the 2nd Ave. entrance to the GM Bldg. The Director stopped in the middle of the restaurant and scanned the room. “Where is he?” he demanded. “Nobody’s seen him since last week,” the bartender said…not realizing that the Director had not mentioned a specific name. The Director ran back to his office, and found my client at his desk, talking on the phone with a Chevy dealer. This round went to my client.
Not all of the rounds went to him, however. I can deal with a great amount of crude behavior, but when it impacts my career, it’s time to act. This client lived with his wife and family in Farmington, MI. I don’t know if the wife knew about the “friend” he saw every day at work. On several occasions, when we were going out of town together, the client would ask me to drive him to the airport. I would drive from Royal Oak, out to Farmington, and back down to Detroit Metro. The trip would be repeated when we returned to Detroit. I thought this was client service. Due to my naiveté, I didn’t know that he was turning in his own expenses for mileage and airport parking to Chevy. We went to Florida to show some layouts to a sports marketing partner. The client had approved the layouts. The sports marketing partner went nuts when he saw them, saying, “This isn’t what we wanted! Where are the finished posters?” My client, climbing behind the wheel of the bus that was about to run me over, said, “Tom, I told you that this stuff wasn’t right.” I went back to Detroit alone to “fix” things. My client stayed behind to play a few more days of golf. That evening a call from one of the other Account Men. I was being taken off of the project, and he was being put on it. This client’s Waterloo came when he forced me to buy him lunch, then forced another Account Man to buy dinner for him. When both of our expense accounts hit management desks for approval, a flag went up. We were called into a meeting with my boss’s boss, and the Director of Merchandising and Sales Promotion. Apparently, Chevy had been building a case against this guy for a while. Still smarting from the bus tire tracks on my back, I turned state’s evidence. My client was transferred to Chevy’s Vladivostok Zone.
In spite of my turbulent times in Merchandising, management felt that my California time had deluded me enough to think that big cars weren’t coming back, and promoted me to National Small Car Advertising Account Executive. “Small Cars” included any vehicle with a 100″ wheelbase or less. This included the Vega, Chevette, Monza, and, surprisingly, the Corvette which had a wheelbase of 98″. Perhaps because they felt pity for me, I was also assigned the Camaro (108″) and the Nova (111″). The Big Car account executive handled Chevelle (Malibu and Laguna), Chevy Caprice, and Chevy Impala. Chevy trucks were handled by the strange guys down the hall.
Campbell-Ewald’s slogan at the time was “Advertising Well-Directed.” The logo featured a writing quill hitting the bull’s-eye of a target. Pretty succinct. Shortly after I assumed my new duties, I was given the chance to to do some well-directed advertising. I was being sent to New York City to supervise a Chevy Chevette commercial. I had no idea what an AE was supposed to do at a shoot, other than to look after the client’s interests. The Chevette’s new theme was “Chevy Chevette. It Will Drive You Happy.” Building on the popularity of David Naughton’s performance in the classic “I’m A Pepper Wouldn’t You Like To Be A Pepper Too?” Dr. Pepper spot, we developed a commercial for Naughton with him singing the Chevy Chevette theme (complete with singers and dancers) as he skipped around a Chevette while a giant matrix lightbox behind him flashed pictures of standard features. It was going to be done in one complete take. I arrived in NYC the day before the shoot and met with the agency creative people attending the shoot. The call was for 6 AM the next morning. The creative folk told me that I didn’t have to be there until 9 AM. The next morning, dressed in my best suit and carrying my new briefcase, I hailed a cab in front of the hotel. I read him the address of the sound stage. It was on 125th St. and 2nd Ave. “Nope,” the cabbie said. I ain’t going there.” This was my first trip to NYC,and unaccustomed to local folkways and mores, I got out and hailed another cab. This time the cabbie said, “Why do you want to go to Harlem?” I told him what I was doing. He said, “Whatevvuh, but I don’t think there’s any movie studios up there.” He dropped me at the corner and sped away. I found the address over a very heavy iron door. I knocked and was let in. Singers and dancers were practicing, David Naughton was going over the staging with our art director. A lot of people were just standing around, drinking coffee and and eating doughnuts. After an hour, the decision was made to start shooting. Surely they didn’t send me out here to do nothing. I wanted to make some type of contribution. The director shouted, “Action!” David and the chorus came out singing and dancing. The giant matrix was flashing. David approached the car. The camera began to back up. I realized that the camera was going to back up over a wayward cable on the floor. It would ruin the whole take!! I finally could be of some worth. I picked up the cable and moved it about three feet out of the way. The director got the take and said, “Cut!” I had been able to do something for the commercial and was feeling quite proud…until a very large hand grabbed my shoulder and turned me around. “Who are you and what the hell are you doing?” the hand asked. “Sir, I’m Tom Cavanagh, Campbell-Ewald’s National Account Executive and I’m here to represent Chevrolet’s interests.” The hand said, “Big whoop!” and walked over to our agency producer. After a brief conversation, he came back with a director’s chair. “Mr. Cavanagh, this chair is just for you. Why don’t you sit here, and if you see something that needs to be done, you tell me or Sal over there.” Then it hit me. Unions!!!!! I had broken a cardinal rule by doing something that someone else was getting paid to do…even though they hadn’t done it. I learned that on a shoot, the AE’s place was next to the Craft Services table.
Next: Adventures In Creativity