The latest installment in our series of extracts from George Parker’s new book, ‘Confessions of a Mad Man.’ One of the few surviving ‘Mad Men,’ George Parker has lived through more than forty decadent years in the world’s second oldest profession. He’s seen it all and done it all. And a great deal of what he’s done would make the TV show, ‘Mad Men,’ look like Sesame Street. Unless Kermit is caught in flagrante with Miss Piggy on the PBS boardroom table. Ah, the good old days… Sex, drugs, rock & roll… It’s advertising as you always imagined it.
A year into my tenure as the “Agency Fireman” I was thrown at the agency’s most profitable account, McVitie’s Biscuits, which was about to exit, taking all those lovely fees somewhere else. Hence, managements decision to call in “The Agency Fireman!”
Now, you have to understand one essential fact about BDA management, they are shit scared of experiencing the single biggest calamity that can possibly happen: Losing “The Big Account.” If it’s an independent agency, the loss of a major client will see the killing of the cash cow that for years has paid for management’s perks, all of which have been hidden on the clients tab. Even worse, if the agency belongs to a holding company, then the wrath of God, i.e. a visit from Sir Martin Sorrell, will happen as soon as the Poisoned Dwarf can hop on the next Concorde. A short, sharp lecture on “doing whatever it takes” will be delivered. No overt threats, simply the obvious… “Gentlemen, we are running a business here, therefore, we must act in a businesslike manner. If we are looking at reduced income, because of your loss of this account, your bonuses be severely affected, and your overhead must be trimmed accordingly.” Meaning lots of layoffs, while management, apart from the bonus threat, will remain untouched by the austerity measures necessary to “make the numbers”.
Anyway, back to McVitie’s Biscuits. You should understand that though most people consider America the home of bad fast food, in England, we’ve been eating shitty food for years. When “The Agency Fireman” was called in, sales of McVitie’s were going down the tubes, and the agency was stumped. For years they’d been using a tagline… “McVitie’s bake a better biscuit”. Meanwhile, the advertising showed smiling mothers giving their snot nosed kids whatever McVitie’s were pushing that month. In reality, the Mums of Britain were using the biscuits as pacifiers to keep their kids quiet between meals of canned beans, or canned spaghetti on toast. It’s no wonder kids preferred the biscuits rather than the beans. Yet, research showed the Mums felt guilty about giving their kids all this crap to shut them the fuck up between meals.
In my inimitable wisdom, I came up with a campaign based on proving that McVitie’s really did bake a better biscuit, ‘cos they baked them with better ingredients. However, the agency suits, as usual, disagreed. Their point-of-view was that the Mums didn’t give a shit. But, being the “Agency Fireman,” I wasn’t buying it, so I insisted we should do Focus Groups. Yes, I suggested research, which I usually regard as a giant wank. But guess what? The concept… “With the best from the world… McVitie’s bake a better biscuit”, tested like gangbusters.
Isn’t advertising great?
Particularly when it lets you travel the globe at someone else’s expense, staying at luxury hotels in exotic locales, while drinking, eating, smoking dope and screwing your brains out.
The plan was to shoot everything that went into the biscuits, from wheat, to milk, to butter, to ginger, to chocolate, to cocoa. We could get everything we needed in the Caribbean and South America over a six weeks schedule, with one week in the UK to shoot a few scenes. It would cost 500,000 Pounds. The client signed off on it, and we were in business.
The plan was for me to go ahead and do all the “reccies”. I would be based in Trinidad, making sorties all over the Caribbean and South America, finding plantations, exotic beaches fringed by palm trees, smiling workers bringing in the harvest for two cents a day, schooners on azure oceans, etc.
However, one location was crucial, as it would represent flour, a core ingredient. We needed somewhere with fields of ripe, golden wheat. As it was winter, there was nowhere in Europe to do this. However, research showed that wheat grew in Venezuela, so off I went. I had to get to Merida, fifteen hundred miles inland; however, getting there was a saga. First I had to fly from Trinidad, to Caracas, Venezuela; from there I flew eleven hundred miles inland to Santa Maria, and then switched to a small plane full of Indian ladies wearing bowler hats carrying noisy, smelly chickens and pigs in wicker cages. After a two hour flight, I was deposited at a dirt runway in the small and scruffy town of Merida, to be met by a local government representative. This gentleman bundled me into a Land Cruiser and we set off through the jungle. After two hours of driving on primitive roads, we finally escaped from the canopy of never ending tropical forest and pulled up in front of a truly vast area of steaming swamps.
“What’s this?” I asked. He looked at me quizzically, “This is where the rice grows,” he answered. It took me a minute to comprehend. “Rice”, I shouted, “What bloody rice?” He looked at me as if I was an imbecile, “Mr. Parker, Merida is famous for its rice.” I attempted to sound less churlish. “But, I was told that wheat grew in Merida”. There was a pause, then a smile started to cross his face, followed by a grin, then an unsuccessful attempt to stifle laughter. “Oh dear,” he said, “I think there has been a misunderstanding. You are in the wrong Merida.” Not yet grasping how fucked up a situation I was in, I asked, “What do you mean, the wrong Merida?” “Well”, he explained, “There are two Merida’s in Venezuela, one grows rice, the other grows wheat. Unfortunately, you are in the one that grows rice!” Gritting my teeth, I asked the inevitable question, “Then tell me, where exactly is the Merida that grows wheat?” This was when he began to again go through the smile, grin, and guffaw sequence. “Ah”, he replied, “The Merida that grows wheat is in the Andes, near the Columbian border, which is two thousand miles north of here!”
Well, at least I’d only wasted a day, and if you throw in the day it will take to get back to Caracas, losing a couple of days is not a big deal. “OK, you’d better get me back to the airport so I can get the next flight out”. The smile on his face disappeared. “Ah, there is one small problem.” I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like what was coming next. “What would that be?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders. “The next flight out isn’t for three days!”
And so, for three days I was marooned in a place that made the town in the movie “The Wages of Fear,” look like The Palace of Versailles. How best to describe it? The crotch of the Orinoco would seem to be about right, as it was situated on the banks of South America’s second longest river. The town consisted of a single unpaved street full of beat to shit, pickup trucks, chickens, pigs, scrawny dogs, and even scrawnier people. On the street was a series of wooden shacks, the biggest of which, being two stories high, was the Hotel Prado, an establishment destined to be my home for the next three days. Now you have to understand, when I am traveling on someone else’s tab, I religiously stick to the advice of Joe, my first New York boss “Make the bastards pay.” So, you can understand my lack of enthusiasm when checking in to the Hotel Prado. It was certainly never destined to become part of the Ritz Carlton Empire.
The next three days passed in a haze of sweat and flies, bad food, and lots of Pisco, which is a Peruvian brandy made from diesel fuel. Thank God for Pisco. On the third day I boarded the same plane I had flown in on, to be greeted by the same ladies in bowler hats, the chickens and pigs, etc. For a moment, I thought they might live on the plane, flying around until someone took pity on them and let them off. Or maybe it was because the gallons of Pisco I’d imbibed over the last three days was turning this Odysseus like drama into a surrealistic dream. Anyway, I finally arrived back in Caracas, and checked into the Caracas Hilton, for a couple of days of sleep, hot showers and hedonistic pleasure with the gorgeous senoritas lounging around the rooftop pool. But, soon it was time to hit the road for “The Other Merida.”
To be continued!