In his tell-all memoir, author George Parker holds forth about what it’s really like to work in the steamy ad world, as popularized by AMC’s Mad Men. All it’s cracked up to be? Read to find out.
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.
Moving on from douchenozzles… Now, it’s time for a Prince.
His name is Joe Nacchio, he was the CEO of Qwest Communications, and he’s now serving a six year jail term in a federal prison camp!
But, let’s start at the beginning. From the mid eighties on, I had pursued my fortunes in the world’s most fucked up business strictly on a freelance basis. Prior to that, I had worked for far too many idiots running agencies, and the thought of holding down a permanent agency job, with its associated frustrations, boredom and non-stop arse kissing, held little appeal.
Then, at the height of the Internet, dot com boom, I was hired for a temporary gig at J. Walter Thompson, New York, to head up the creative on a pitch for the Qwest account. Qwest had been considered a bit of an upstart by the other telecom companies, then in 1997 they hired Joe Nacchio away from AT&T where he had been tipped at one stage to take over the helm. When this didn’t happen, Joe left and seized the chance to build his own company at Qwest.
Founded by reclusive, multi-billionaire, Philip Anschutz in 1996, the company got a very unusual start. Anschutz owned the Southern Pacific Railroad and even though he later sold it to Union Pacific for another few billion, he retained the right to lay fiber optic cables along the tracks. This was the beginning of what would eventually become the largest fiber optic network in the US. Qwest also grew by a number of major acquisitions, including a hostile takeover of Baby Bell, US West. At the time JWT pitched their account, Qwest was rapidly becoming a major player in telecommunications.
After going through the dog and pony show of getting on the agency “Long List,” which involves dozens of agencies, you then get on the short list of half a dozen agencies, which is when you start spending lots of money on market research, focus groups and “insights” from telecommunications experts. And, if you do well in the introductory meetings with the client’s middle management, you make the short list of three or four, and are then invited to make a final presentation to senior management… Which means you get to go mano-a-mano with the CEO, ‘cos if he, (it’s rarely a she,) likes you, then you’ve grasped the brass ring and snagged the account, ‘cos no one in the company is going to disagree with the CEO if he takes a shine to you.
On the day of the final presentation, we gathered in the boardroom of Qwest’s headquarters in Denver… A quick aside here, to demonstrate how truly fucked up American business is… At a later stage in our working relationship, Joe confided in me that the reason he did the hostile takeover of US West, was ‘cos his office looked out on the adjacent US West building, which was two floors higher than the Qwest building. Meaning that the CEO of US West, who naturally had his office on the top floor, looked down on Joe’s office… But not for long. Qwest took over US West. The CEO was ousted with the obligatory humungous golden parachute… And Joe moved into the highest office in Denver. Isn’t capitalism great?
On the day of the presentation, the agency and the client people assembled in the board room, minus Joe, who showed up after a suitable five minute waiting period, apologizing for the delay, because he had been on a conference call with Wall Street analysts. Which I learned later wasn’t bullshit, ‘cos Joe was the darling of the financial world, and could schmooze the shit out of them, so they always reported in a highly positive vein about Qwest. In the world’s oldest profession, this is known as pimping.
The meeting kicked off with the never changing BDA methodology of telling the client everything they already know about their own business. This is supposed to impress upon them that you are up to speed on their company and markets. The problem is that not only are you taking up valuable presentation time, but obviously, you wouldn’t be in the room if you hadn’t already demonstrated this knowledge to the client’s middle management. However, every BDA does it. They can’t help themselves. And obviously, every agency which makes it into the finals will be doing the same thing. i.e. boring the shit out of the prospective client. Seems counter-productive to me. But, what the fuck do I know?
So, following the first hour of bullshit, that’s where I came in. After all the market research, focus groups, datametrics and doucheametrics the suits can dream up and present via innumerable Power Point slides. Finally, it’s time for the creative! Which, to be honest, is going to be as useless as all the shit preceding it, because it’s still based on guesswork. After all, at this stage, the agency knows fuck all about the client and what might separate them from their competition. This can only happen after you’ve been appointed and been given access to get under the skin of the company and find the information and insights that will become part of the core messaging.
So, after the first hour of meaningless “suit” bullshit, we finally get to the show biz bullshit… The “Creative!” During the presentation, I was struck how Joe came across as an authority figure with a strong personality. He also said “fuck” a lot, which immediately endeared him to me. I walked to the top of the table, so I could stand directly opposite Joe. I then delivered my “killer” line, one I have flogged unmercifully over the years… ‘Cos it always works. I looked him straight in the eye and said… “There’s an old truism in the ad biz that’s been attributed to everyone from John Wannamaker, to Lord Leverhulme, to Hitler… I know that fifty percent of the money I spend on advertising is wasted. Unfortunately, I don’t know which fifty percent! That’s bullshit. ‘Cos it’s ninety fucking percent!” He laughed and slapped the table. And that’s when I knew I had him.
We won the account, and because Joe thought the sun shone out of my arse (who am I to contradict him?) J. Walter Thompson, via huge amounts of cash, diamond encrusted AmEx cards and unlimited hooker privileges (just kidding on the last one!) convinced me to go on staff for a couple of years. And so began my relationship with the “Prince” of clients. The great thing about Joe was that he wanted Qwest’s advertising to reflect the character of the company, standing out from the competition in terms of message content, execution and above all, what I call the “Whoa” factor. Yeah, that’s right; it’s homage to Keanu Reeves’s immortal line in The Matrix as he’s dodging liquid bullets and looking at Carrie-Anne-Moss’s leather covered tits. The advertising should pull a switch in your brain that makes you go “Whoa” as you get the message. And that’s what Qwest’s advertising did. You can see some of the TV on my Web site: www.parkerads.com Remember, these were made during the Internet/dot.com frenzy, when companies were blowing millions without explaining what this hoopla was about. So, because I believe the best advertising is logical advertising, we did spots explaining what the benefits of broadband were. The first had a travelling salesman checking into a motel, he asks about the room, food, and entertainment. The bored looking chick behind the desk replies: “We have every movie ever made, in every language, available at any time, day or night.” The guy looks amazed and asks: “How is that possible?” That’s when the voice over, Willam Defoe, comes in with… “What would you do with the bandwidth to change everything? Ride the light… Qwest.” Another spot has the same guy, Bill Bolender, who played the killer, Elmo Blatch, in The Shawshank Redemption, running a beat to shit newspaper kiosk when a young girl comes in and asks for Homer’s Odyssey in the original fifth century Greek. He asks what dialect she wants it in… She asks how is that possible. Bill replies, “I have every edition of every book, in every language, ever published.” A third spot has Bill in a diner that has a jukebox with every piece of music ever recorded, by every artist. In other words, that’s what unlimited bandwidth can do… It was a great campaign (he said modestly) and was written up in all the major media. The Economist described it as the single most easily understood explanation of what broadband communication was capable of delivering.
But, for the single most dramatic illustration of why Joe was a prince. Qwest had just completed the largest fiber optic network in the US. Obviously, they wanted a campaign to announce this. Problem was, there was an actor’s strike on in the US, and the unions representing the thespian community had barred their members from working until matters were settled. I assured Joe we could overcome this. I wrote a script of about thirty words extolling this momentous event. I read it to Joe in my best Laurence Olivier delivery… “Fucking great,” said Joe. “And what will be happening visually?” I allowed a suitable dramatic pause, and replied… “Wonderful things!” Joe looked at me and said… “Fucking great… Go do it!”
So, I went off to Iceland with my British director mate, Simon Taylor of Tomato, we rented helicopters, snow mobiles, yaks and walruses: Shot icebergs, mountains, Arctic seas and blonde Icelandic ladies (who surprisingly, never appeared in the final edit!) Spent tons of money, and ended up with quite a good commercial that was full of “Wonderful things.”
It all comes down to a simple thing called trust.
Which is something that rarely exists between agencies and their clients these days.