Excerpted from an essay about schizophrenic ad agency relationships

Theatrically removing his credit card from its very own paper-thin but solid gold case, boldly embossed with indecipherable symbols, the dark, barrel-chested man with the thick, slicked-back hair and the shiny two thousand-dollar business suit posed a rhetorical question. “This piece of plastic?” Backlit by the room’s rain-swept, two-story, floor-to-ceiling windows, the Mediterranean fireplug paused to register a smug tight-lipped smile before answering himself. “I can buy a Rolls-Royce with this card.”

We were sitting in the elegant, four-star American Restaurant in Kansas City—the olive-skinned pontificator, Bill-one of our agency’s senior partners, and me. Graciously offering to pay for dinner with his bionic credit card gave the swarthy fellow the opportunity to further impress us with his financial standing, a subject on which he had been holding forth for the past two hours, as he sipped Diet Cokes, picked at an Endive salad, and sized Bill and I up—both of us longing for a Dewar’s on the rocks and a bloody slab of Kansas City prime, but consciously mirroring our dinner partner’s penchant for more Spartan fare instead. We knew going into the dinner that this would be a difficult evening, given what we had previously read about this guy and his family…and, given that he was our newest client.

Nothing strains an ad agency more than a change of ownership at a key account. Not only does it mean you’re back to ground zero with the client relationship you’ve labored to develop, perhaps over a period of many years, but new owners generally mean new agencies. The first meeting is crucial, as you seek to establish professional confidence and personal rapport—objectives that are challenging enough when your new counterpart is a marketer per se, but whose level of difficulty ratchets up considerably when he’s a politically connected venture capitalist whose “family business” is organized in the southern European tradition; Greek, in the case of our Kansas City dinner partner. He, along with his brother and sister, ran a company whose base business involved converting apartments to condos and co-ops. They had just acquired our client, ERA Real Estate. Adding to the family’s credentials and putting valuable topspin on its image was the fact that the sister had recently married the Governor of New York.

After dinner, Bill and I walked our new, Spartan meal ticket downstairs to his waiting limo. Watching the big stretch pull away into the rain-soaked night, Bill, the best businessman I ever knew in the ad agency game, turned soggily to me and said, “We’re in trouble.” Eventually, we would be, but we managed to hold off the inevitable for a while, albeit a weird while. Weird, because one of the guys brought in to actually operate the ERA business was a D.C.-based smoothie whose day job was as a behind-the-scenes advisor to one of the power players in the Reagan White House. I didn’t have much more in common with Mr. D.C. than I did with the condo king, but for some odd reason, we got on pretty well.

I learned early on in my advertising career that building client relationships was hardly an exact science. Adaptability was important, and I was nothing if not a chameleon. That’s not great for your own sense of self, but it can be invaluable in a business where the prevailing winds don’t prevail very long. “Be a sponge, kid,” one of my early mentors once told me. “Then when they squeeze you, you’ll play back what they want to hear.” Thankfully, I didn’t take his advice literally—eventually realizing that the sponge part was right, but that client confidence had more to do with how you carried yourself and your message (even if it was contrary to what the client “wanted to hear”) than about being a yes man. Sometimes, you didn’t even need a message. I remember one time, back in the early days in New York, when the agency President stopped by my office to tell me that the senior marketing guy at S.C. Johnson had complimented me by saying that he “liked the cut of my jib.” I didn’t know what a jib was, but the President seemed happy about it so I figured it wasn’t anything lewd.

The meeting Bill and I had on that rainy night in Kansas City was the precursor of numerous “change of ownership” situations driven by private equity investors and venture capitalists that became all the rage in the ’80s. Commercial Credit and Klondike were just two others of our clients where we found ourselves sitting across from money men who tended to view advertising as a drain on ROI or, at best, chum for more and bigger M&A action. This new wave of ownership redefined the rubbery concept of “account management” to an ever more flexible model. The financial guru who bought Commercial Credit, Sandy Weill, did so en route to creating the behemoth, Citigroup; while the octogenarian who bought Klondike seemed intent to melt down the ice cream brand to support his base business supplying cheap plastic novelty merchandise to big box retailers. Alternately dealing with Sandy Weill’s posse of slick New York heavy hitters and the 80-year old’s south Florida-based staff of two, one of whom was his privilege-addled daughter and the other an aging Fredo-like character who was just a step above plastic himself, was enough to make anyone schizoid. Not that that was anything new for me!

The cast of client characters I met in the ad game often made me think I was back in Thompson 2’s dayroom; none more so than my opposite number at Sherwin-Williams.

My counterpart at the Cleveland-based paint company was just about an ounce short of a pound of nuts. But I must say that he did help me appreciate the outer bounds of the agency-client relationship. Richie was a rough-edged character in the mold of Joe Pesci’s psychopathic “Tommy” in Goodfellas. Seemingly bored by cordial meetings, Richie’s meter was aggressive arguing. Frankly, I liked it, and him. It made meetings fun and, at least for me, therapeutic. There was always the risk, of course, of taking the arguments too far, especially when you’re in the ever-vulnerable position of being the agency, but life is more interesting when it has a little edge.

My years in therapy had convinced me that the line between the sane and the not so sane, the institutionalized and the free, can be quite thin. We dance along that line, veering ever so slightly from one side to the other, as we meander from point “A” on through the rest of life’s alphabet. Some of us occasionally veer rather wildly off course, as I did; most manage to stay comfortably within the boundaries of normal; and a few consistently straddle the edge, threatening to teeter out of bounds at any moment. Richie was definitely an edge straddler.

Another client who merits mention in this context was one of the senior marketing guys at Hershey Foods. In the early ’80s, the agency won a plum development project with the chocolate maker. It was the second time around for the relationship; a few years earlier, a similar assignment had ended badly. The agency had been fired that first time around for serving up, to quote Hershey’s senior marketing guy, “crap creative.” Now, we were getting a second chance. The agency pulled out all the stops for the pitch—multiple campaigns, smart strategies, fresh ideas, high energy…it was a hell of a show. Wrapping up our presentation, we looked to “Mr. Crap Creative” for what we presumed would be some well-deserved attaboys. “I’ll tell you this,” he said, without a trace of emotion. “The worst of this stuff is better than the best stuff you presented a few years ago.” Huh? Here was a guy who loved to torture his agency. We came to believe that that was his real motivation in giving the agency a second chance. Personally, I thought the guy had a great santini complex. It would have been fun to share a few group therapy sessions with that asshole!

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